Tuesday, 30 September 2008
Monday, 29 September 2008
"Listen, there's nothing up with the audio quality. It's 2008, and that's how we make records... Of course, I've heard that there are a few people complaining. But I've been listening to it the last couple of days in my car, and it sounds fuckin' smokin'."
"The Internet gives everybody a voice, and the Internet has a tendency to give the complainers a louder voice. Listen, I can't keep up with this shit. Part of being in Metallica is that there's always somebody who's got a problem with something that you're doing: 'James Hetfield had something for breakfast that I don't like.' That's part of the ride."
"Somebody told me about [people complaining that the Guitar Hero version of Death Magnetic sounds better]. Listen, what are you going to do? A lot of people say [the CD] sounds great, and a few people say it doesn't, and that's OK."
"I will say that the overwhelming response to this new record has exceeded even our expectations as far as how positive it is. So I'm not gonna sit here and get caught up in whether [the sound] 'clips' or it doesn't 'clip.' I don't know what kind of stereos these people listen on. Me and James [Hetfield] made a deal that we would hang back a little and not get in the way of whatever Rick's vision was. That's not to put it on him - it's our record, I'll take the hit, but we wanted to roll with Rick's vision of how Metallica would sound."
Friday, 26 September 2008
"[The CD is] so raw that you cannot hear the nuances, the clarity, especially with James' amazing riffage""On this Guitar Hero version you can hear a lot of notes that Rob's playing that you can't hear on the standard album""to anyone's ears, it's pretty obvious"... "[the Guitar Hero version] just sounds incredibly comfortable, and if anything, normal""[The CD] kind of sounds as if a distortion pedal is over the whole band, instead of just the guitar""The band are striking, they're on fire, and the [CD] mix is letting down their ability""The band have not cut corners on the album, the sad thing is you can't hear the precision... of James' riffs, and even Rob's bass and a lot of Lars' tom work... these are really important elements""To my ears, [the CD] sounds way too overbearing""That's what I want hear - the precise riffs..." - "and on the album version it really doesn't show, it's doesn't pop out at you""We're just gonna go with the Guitar Hero mix, because honestly... (laughs) I think we prefer it"
"You're right it sounds so much better... I know nothing about Guitar Hero but I'm definitely going to pick up this one""I was shocked by the CD version, it sounded like my headphones had been transformed into a two-dollar set which had been broken by volume""I thought it was my sound system so I'm glad that it wasn't just me... what a shame such a great album came out like this, still a great CD in my opinion"
'98% of listeners are "overwhelmingly positive"... there's something exciting about the sound of this record that people are responding to.'
'I'm not sure I would have said quite the same thing if I was posting it to the bulletin board... [but] it's certainly the way I feel about it'
Thursday, 25 September 2008
Monday, 22 September 2008
Today the "Death Magnetic" saga took yet another strange twist, with the arrival of a "remix" of one of the tracks, allegedly by a "name" metal producer, according to the email which acompanied the file. This new mix of "Broken, Beat & Scarred" has been created by the mystery producer using "stems" extracted from the Playstation 3 game "Guitar Hero". The PS3 mixes in realtime to allow guitar parts to drop in and out as part of the gameplay, and this allowed the extraction of 3 stereo submixes - Guitars, Bass and Drums + Vox. Even with this limited palette, a new mix has been created, adding reverb, EQ and mix tweaks - even going so far as using a clever trick to add reverb to the snare.
- No distortion
- More bass - fuller & deeper.
- Richer guitars - reverb and EQ added. Maybe width enhancement ?
- Drums similar to GH but smoother and cleaner. The snare is lower level and has reverb - see below
- No stereo FX on the guitar solo - this will be a limitation of the stems
- Still too loud. This mix measures a long-term RMS of -7.7, whereas the CD has a punishing -5. However this mix is still mastered loud. Too loud ! It's clearly been limited hard, what was the point of shaving off those last few dBs ? Luckily:
- Comparatively speaking, it's clean as a whistle. (Bearing in mind I'm listening to an AAC file) Thankfully no trace of the huge distortion that masks the CD, bar remenants of the clipping already present in the GH version
- Overall impression is similar to the CD but cleaner, wider and fuller - more spacious. Maybe too polished.
- For me, listening on speakers, (this stuff is hard to judge on cans) the snare is now too low in the mix, and doesn't have enough weight - it's too tasteful. A compromise between this and the GH version would be better. Interestingly, lots of fans have commented that there is too much reverb added to the snare, but the reverb itself is quite subtle IMO - the big difference is you can hear the drum's "ring" much more clearly now - there is a lot of extra high frequency EQ on the drums. This is audible in the GH3 version too, but not in the same way.
- Overall it's a little too bassy, in my opinion
- It is unnecessarily loud - I wish it were a few dBs quieter. This may not sound like much, but when you're pushing stuff this hard, every little helps.
Finally to return to one of my points above - apart from the issues I've raised, this would still be my choice of mixes to listen to so far. BUT I can't "commit" to enjoying it in the same way as I could to a proper remix from the band. It doesn't feel authentic, because the band aren't involved. I think we as listeners look for statements from artists, and this isn't it... an official remix is still needed.
If the Guitar Hero version feels louder to you, it is because it is more dynamic. It has more variety in the average level, and more contrast between the loud and soft sounds, so it sounds more lively, more energetic and more exciting than the overly crushed CD version. (It doesn't sound as good, in some other ways, though - see "Point Four" in this post.)
How do I know the two are level-matched ? Partly because I've listened to them and can hear they match - balancing levels is a crucial skill for a mastering engineer. But also because measurements back this up, as can be seen in the graphics of the videos.
The two screengrabs here show the same point in the song from the video. look at the level display, highlighted by the red arrows. First look at the Guitar Hero version (GH). The pale blue bit shows the peak level of the music, and the darker blue shows the average level. So we can see that the peak level at this point is almost up to the maximum, whereas the average level is about 10 dB below that. (Click on the image to see a larger version)
Now look at the CD graphics from the same point in the song. The average level is the same - about 10 dB down. But the peak level is barely any higher - about -7 dB or so, instead of right up at the top.
This fact that the average level measurements are equal confirms that the clips are level-matched as I'm claiming. Our ears judge loudness by the average level, NOT the peak level, so they are matched in loudness at the same point in the song.
(Actually it's quite a bit more complicated than that, but this explanation is close enough for the point I want to make in this post. There's more about measuring loudness in this post.)
So why do some people feel the Guitar Hero version is actually louder ?
Try watching the video again, concentrating on the meters. Probably the first thing you'll notice is that both the pale and dark blue meters jump up lower and higher on the GH version, just as the overall graph goes higher and is more spiky. Doesn't this mean it's louder ? No. The dark blue meter is centred around the same point on both versions - roughly 10 dB down from the maximum - so the average level is the same, and over the course of the whole track or album, the ear judges it's level to be the same.
However it feels louder, because it has more highs and lows, more contrast - it's more dynamic. The contrast between the loudest and softest parts of the sound - in this case the drums - is much greater, so it sounds harder and punchier. And crucially because it's overall level hasn't been pushed so hard, it hasn't been over-compressed and crushed, so it doesn't have the ugly distortion of the CD version.
As I've said before, the Guitar Hero version isn't perfect - far from it. In actual fact, it's a bit too dynamic for this style of music - rock requires a "wall of sound" effect, to some degree, and the Guitar Hero version doesn't go far enough in the direction. But the CD is so crushed and so distorted, that out of the two it comes off by far the worst, for me.
As examples of what a great, dynamic rock recording can sound like, check out the Machine Head album "The Blackening" on iTunes or Amazon, or even this BBC live recording of Metallica themselves from last week:
(This one has a bit too much compressor-pumping in my opinion, but still beats the CD by a long shot.)
Saturday, 20 September 2008
Luckily, there's something we can do about this:
If enough of us do this, hopefully people will take notice of the story and we can really make this a mainstream issue.
Friday, 19 September 2008
Since my first post about "Death Magnetic" on Tuesday, it's been quoted by, and linked from - amongst others - Rolling Stone, the Guardian, Wired, MusicRadar and literally hundreds of others. The petition has leapt to 7000 signatures, there is a video on YouTube which has been viewed over 25,000 times since yesterday, and I've seen an extra 40,000 hits on this blog alone. (Thank-you for all the positive comments !)
This is fantastic news - as a mastering engineer I am delighted to see the "Loudness Wars" getting some mainstream press attention at last - if more people listen critically to what they buy as a result, and maybe start returning (or not buying) a few of the worst offenders, perhaps the tide will start to turn. (I always was an optimist !)
After reading lots of discussion and comment about this over the last few days, I keep seeing some common misconceptions and misunderstandings repeated over and over. Rather than reply to them all individually, I decided to write this post to set a few things straight, "just for the record". Then I can link back to it when necessary. So here goes.
POINT ONE: I'm not saying "Death Magnetic" shouldn't be loud.
It's rock music, it should be loud ! In fact, it should be brutal, and pin you to the wall. Currently it couldn't pin up a post-it note. That's because loudness comes from contrast. "Death Magnetic" starts with clean picked-guitar intro, and then is supposed to hit you like a ton of bricks. It doesn't - it's so squashed, the intro is almost loud as what comes after it. There's no contrast, there's no impression of loudness. Now if the CD overall was at a lower level, there would be more scope for contrast. People would put it on, adjust the volume for the guitar intro, settle back and... wallop.
It's ironic, the very tools needed to make it sound loud and punchy have been sacrificed in the quest for a high-level CD. To quote user onesecondglance on the (great) Sound On Sound forum thread about this album:
power is nothing without control. light is nothing without shade
POINT TWO: Compression is GREAT
Dynamic compression (NOT data compression like mp3 encoding) is an essential tool of a recording or mastering engineer, in most genres. The Beatles discovered it when they were recording Paperback Writer and used it on Paul's bass, and never looked back. Used well, it can pull a mix together, add punch and impact or "bounce", make things warmer and fuller, more exciting and more immediate. I use it all the time, I couldn't work without it.
But excessive or clumsy compression flattens music. It squashes it, crushes it, and sucks the life out of it. You're left with something dull and blunt that gives you a headache.
Limiting or clipping, of either the analogue or digital variety, are both extreme forms of compression, where the compressor has an infinite ratio. Used in moderation, they can be the most transparent, inaudible kind of compression, and can achieve additional level boosts without many negative effects. Overused, they just smash the hell out of things, and result in a distorted, fatiguing mess.
Sound familiar ?
POINT THREE: Distortion is GREAT
Distortion is another essential part of modern music. Without distortion there would be no electric guitar, no hammond organ, no valve EQ, no tape compression, no soft-clipping, no Roland 303, no "Back in the USSR"... the list goes on and on. Distortion as a creative tool takes real talent, and when it works it's an amazing thing.
Unnecessary distortion because of over-compression, over-limiting, bad gain staging, excessive clipping and the rest just sounds nasty, makes you think your speakers are broken, and makes my teeth hurt.
POINT FOUR: I'm NOT saying the "Guitar Hero" version sounds better.
At least, I'm not saying it sounds better in every way. The key way in which it IS better is that it doesn't feature the extreme distortion of the CD. But in other ways, it isn't as good as the CD:
- It's less exciting - the mixes aren't quite right, and don't match the CD exactly. Also:
- It would benefit from a little compression (dynamic, not data)
- It lacks bass and low mid, it needs to sound warmer and fuller
- It's a bit to "toppy" and so sounds a little thin and slightly harsh
- It is stored on the PS3 as data-compressed files, so it contains mp3-like compression artefacts, which I hate
Overall - the GH version needs mastering.
Actually, even that isn't true - mastering from a data-compressed file is usually a waste of time.
But if Ted Jensen were given a decent, clean copy to work with, he could make a new master which would blow the current CD out of the water.
And if he could be given a completely new mix, with the same goals as the CD in mind but without the ridiculous distortion, this album could really live up to it's hype.
Listen critically to your new purchases. If they sound poor, take them back, or at the very least email the record company to complain. And in the meantime, send a message to the music business - sign the petition.
Thursday, 18 September 2008
I have read people deny that the CD is clipped. Here are closeups of waveforms from the UK release of the CD (top) and the GH sample I was sent (bottom).
As you can see, the CD is clipped (the tops of the waveforms are "squared off" ) whereas the Guitar Hero version on the bottom is not. This is the cause of a least some if the distortion people are hearing.
However as I mentioned in a previous post, digital clipping alone isn't enough to make the album sound as distorted as it does. So yes, the album is clipped, but in my opinion the distortion probably results at least partially from an earlier stage in the process as well - presumably the mix.
The onscreen text shows when you are hearing the CD and the Guitar Hero (GH) versions. Take a listen & a look, and make up your own mind. The problem is especially bad at the end of the sample, where the video loops a few times. Which is better ?
If you think the distortion on the CD release sounds bad, please go and sign the petition, even if you're not a Metallica fan - this is our chance to send a message to the music industry that enough is enough, and we want decent-sounding records again !
Tuesday, 16 September 2008
JH: I think things came out really good. They’re going to be mixing it while we’re away in Europe. Yeah, and that will be…well,we haven’t done that in awhile. We’ve usually been around for the mixes. I think it will be good for us to step away from it for a while. Let Greg Fidelman do his magic, you know that he is the engineer, he’s going to be mixing it. He is very tuned into what we like and need. He’s very tuned into what Rick likes and needs. So, he’s kind of the point man, which will be really great. We don’t have to worry about what Rick is going to think about this, or Rick isn’t going to have to worry about us battling him on some thing. You know, [Greg], he’s going to be doing the mixing, he’s a guitar player, he gets some great sounds and that’s really helpful.
the record, more than two years in the making, still isn’t finished. Rubin is overseeing mixes in Los Angeles while the band is in Europe, headlining shows...
This post focuses on Metallica's new album "Death Magnetic" as an example, because it's distorted sound has caused an outcry amongst fans of the band this week, and even a petition calling for a remix - but sadly there are many other examples I could have picked from recent years - from any genre - even country, folk and jazz are feeling the collateral damage of the "conflict".
My colleague Simon Murphy is a Metallica fan - in fact, he went to see them at the O2 last night, where he said they were excellent - sound included. Like everyone else though he was appalled by the way the album sounded. This morning he brought his copy of "Death Magnetic" into Studio 1 at SRT and we loaded it up into SADiE to compare with the samples I discussed in my last post - Metallica "Death Magnetic" sounds better in PS3 game Guitar Hero.
The first important thing to say is that although the mp3 example of the CD release sounds different to the actual CD, the overall degree of distortion is the same. Which means that, although it would be better to have an uncompressed example of the "Guitar Hero" version to compare with, we can still draw sensible conclusions from it - namely, the CD release is much more distorted, as fans have been complaining.
So, how loud is the CD version ? We turned it down to a level we might recommend if mastering it at SRT - for this kind of material, on a loud passage like this, an RMS of around -10dB. The difference between the CD and our choice was 6dB. In loudness terms, this is roughly a 25% difference.
Comparing the two versions with this adjustment made, the CD still sounded louder, and in fact we would need to boost the Guitar Hero version by a further 4dB to make them match. Which means the CD release is roughly 10dB louder than the "Guitar Hero" version - almost twice as loud, on average.
Listening with the levels roughly matched, the Guitar Hero version is much cleaner, as we already know. It's still not pristine, though - there is a mild, gritty distortion in the mix overall and the snare still "crunches" to a degree, but it's nothing like the beleagured CD release. There are EQ differences between the two, as well - this is one area where the CD release is better, in our opinion. It sounds fuller, with more weight in the rhythm guitars and bass. However this may well be partly due to differences in the mix, given that Guitar Hero versions are tweaked to some extent for gameplay purposes. I've written more about this here.
Next we tried boosting the level of the Guitar Hero version up to match the CD release. Sure enough, a boost of 11dB or so did the trick. What was immediately obvious though was that even at the same level, the Guitar Hero version still sounded cleaner. This is even though we were simply clipping the signal - in theory, one of the most destructive ways of boosting the level.
This is important for fans who don't like the sound of the CD, because it backs up Ted Jensen's statement that the album came to him sounding the way it does, before mastering. If he had simply boosted the level to the extreme heights the band asked for, it would have sounded cleaner than it does.
Does any of this matter, though ? The album sounds the way the band wanted it - who are we to disagree ? I have no problem with loud masters in themselves, if they still sound good - I've made many myself. Does "Death Magnetic" sound good, by the standards of Metallica themselves ?
The final test we did was to audition two other Metallica albums - "Load" (1996) and "Garage, Inc" (1998). Both of these were a similar level, in the same ballpark that we chose for turning the CD down to. Comparing them with Death Magnetic at a similar volume, we were interested to hear differences other than the distortion - the band were going for ultimate power and impact, presumably, at the expense of a clean result - were the results a success ?
Both "Load" and "Garage Inc." blew "Death Magnetic" away sonically, with the volumes matched, in every respect. They had more bass, more impact, more punch, more depth, more space, more edge, more everything. And no bludgeoning, fatiguing distortion. Even though "Garage Inc.", a collection of covers, was recorded and mixed in only a month. As Simon said - why can't they always do it like that ?!
BUT "Death Magnetic" was louder. Much louder - punishingly so. And, I hear you ask, isn't that the point ? Isn't that what the band want ? Won't this make "Death Magnetic" stand head and shoulders above the crowd ?
The first thing most listeners do when they put on a CD is adjust the volume to their normal preferred listening level. This instantly cancels out any of the effects of boosting the RMS level on the CD. Here's a great video from TurnMeUp.org to illustrate this far better than I can with words:
This is exactly what has happened with "Death Magnetic" - but to such an extent that as well as all the negative effects of puny "loud" sound, that we have ridiculous, splattering distortion, as well.
It's at this point that the three headless horsemen of the Loud Apocalypse tend to get wheeled out - radio play, iPods and jukeboxes. All three are regularly used as examples of why it's desirable to have your album louder than the next.
They're all nonsense.
(Nb. Simon suggested that I should think of another one so there are four horsemen, to match the song... :-)
- Radio play. Radio stations already use sophisticated processing to ensure the output is consistent - and loud, to improve reception in areas of low signal strength. Which means that everything gets levelled out anyway, and something like Death Magnetic will at best have no extra impact, or at worst be pulverised - obliterated by the Optimods and their ilk.
- iPods and other portable music players. Consumers are already complaining about the huge differences between CDs recorded in the 80s, 90s and today - listening on shuffle, it's a huge annoyance. Most people either put up with it, or use a plugin to equalise the volumes - again, the volume on the CD becomes irrelevant.
- CD jukeboxes. Does anyone use these, anymore, or just plug their iPod into a dock ? OK, fair enough - in a casual listening situation like a pub, shop or 'phone on-hold music, having a louder CD will help your product stand out. Is that important enough to wreak the kind of destruction we're hearing on Death Magnetic and other CDs ? Not for me.
We need to stop the loudness wars, before every CD we listen to gives us a headache in the first 3 minutes. Please sign the Metallica petition, return the CD if you bought it, email the band, post complaints on their forum, tell your friends - whatever is necessary to stop the pointless massacre of our music. Send out the message - we want our music back.
Louder is Better - but Too Loud is worse.
I will be posting updates on this issue as I recieve interesting information, check back regularly, or subscribe using the link on the right.
Monday, 15 September 2008
As you can easily see, the CD version on the bottom has been heavily compressed, limited and/or clipped, and sounds massively distorted as a result. In fact, despite the appearance of the waveforms, the CD version still sounds louder, even though it's level has obviously been reduced in the sample I was sent - presumably to match the levels for comparison purposes.
To be completely open and up-front about everything, the files were mp3s - not the best sources - and I haven't yet heard the album myself(*) to confirm the sample is a truly accurate representation, but the samples clips on iTunes are enough for me to be very confident. No mp3 encoder would do this to a file.
(*) Since posting this I've had a chance to make the comparisons, and can confirm that the mp3s accurately represent the released CD in terms of the overall sound, degree of distortion etc. Details here.
I have removed the link in the comments from my last post to the samples which were uploaded (not by me!) to avoid any possible legal issues, but if you are curious to hear the difference for yourself there is a video on YouTube which I link to in this post which demonstrates it pretty clearly.
And of course, this doesn't answer the questions about how, why and where this amazing feat of sonic demolition was achieved - however Ted Jensen says it wasn't him, and I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt - and his colleague, Chris Athens, says on the Gearslutz Mastering Forum thread:
Rick Rubin and Metallica are solely responsible for the end product. They gave the directions, they approved it. They are not rookies and no one at the label can ever bully these guys into anything. Both parties are 800 pound gorillas in the music industry. These guys are smart and in control. You and I may not like their taste, but it's not a Chris Athens record. It's a metallica record and this is what they want to give the record buying public. Only Metallica and Rick know why it sounds like it does.
- which would seem pretty conclusive. Given Ted's original comments, it seems hard to believe that the album was presented to him as it sounds on the Guitar Hero version, so it will be interesting to see if the band or producer Rick Rubin decide to speak out.
Personally, I don't know whether I should laugh or cry. I'm not a big Metallica fan, but to hear this much pure damage done to what was obviously originally a decent recording, in the mistaken belief that it sounds good, is hard to stomach. I'm no audio purist, but the end result on the samples I've heard is genuinely un-listenable.
As I write this, the online petition to have the album re-mixed and re-mastered stands at 2252 votes - I'll be adding one more.
(Edit to add - sadly this album is just one more example of the so-called "Loudness Wars" in the music industry at the moment - I have written a post illustrating why "Louder is Better but Too Loud is worse" and how this affects "Death Magnetic" here.)
Sunday, 14 September 2008
In an interesting turn of events, however, user "oneway23" has posted what he claims is a reply from Ted, stating that the album was supplied to him with the clipping already in the mix:
I’m certainly sympathetic to your reaction, I get to slam my head against that brick wall every day. In this case the mixes were already brick walled before they arrived at my place. Suffice it to say I would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here. Believe me I’m not proud to be associated with this one, and we can only hope that some good will come from this in some form of backlash against volume above all else.
I GOT A RESPONSE FROM TED, JENSEN wrote back...He's not happy
Assuming this is genuine, props are due to Ted for sticking his neck out and saying what he believes. However things may not be quite that simple. A version of the album was leaked via BitTorrent in the weeks before release, with people already complaining about the way that it sounds. Analysis of the waveforms shows that the released version is even louder than the leaked version:
I just skipped through 3 random songs and the highest I saw on the meter was -4,3 dB RMS (-1,3 RMS in AES17 norm), looking at the realtime RMS meter with Wavelab's default time constants.
Wavelab's global analysis (with its default time constants) reports -2,93 RMS [+0,07 in AES17] RMS in one of those tracks.
Most of the album (looking at the meters) sits between -7 and -5 (between -4 and -2 in AES17).
You remember that popular myth that mastering will "make your record sound the same across different systems"? I now get the point. Death Magnetic (although apparently not introduced through mastering) sounds thin and distorted on my laptop speakers. And it sounds thin and distorted in my mastering studio. There's always a silver lining
Thursday, 11 September 2008
Something a little different. You may have noticed the link on the right-hand side of this blog saying Follow Me On Twitter. If you already use Twitter that will make perfect sense to you, but if not here's a great article on what Twitter is, and why you might want to use it: