Metallica's Death Magnetic Questioned Over Sound Quality

Metallica's <i>Death Magnetic</i> Questioned Over Sound Quality
Whether you’ve noticed or not, right now there is a war going on in audio. It involves the labels, the bands, the radio stations and especially those pasty lab-coated audio engineers, all of whom are playing god with the way we listeners hear our modern music. It’s what’s being called the "loudness war,” a battle in the music industry where, simply put, everyone is trying to be louder than everyone else, and at the expense of audio clarity and dynamics (the difference between loud and softer sounds). And according to some audio experts, this is exactly what Metallica are guilty of on their new Death Magnetic album.

To break down this "loudness war,” music is being compressed (in the audio sense, not with file size) to make it sound as loud as possible. By compressed we’re talking about the technique where the loudest parts of the tracks are made quieter, meaning you can turn up the overall level without getting distortion, so in the end the songs sound louder. It’s the type of thing TV advertisers are champions at, where they heavily compress their soundtracks so the ads are way louder than the television programs and, in turn, grab your attention that much easier.

Now, as Wired has pointed out, the guitar editor at MusicRadar, Chris Vinnecombe, has said, on the audio front, Metallica’s latest offering is a seriously flawed piece of work, with the album being compressed almost as much as technically possible. Also, he says that some of the record is actually distorted due to digital clipping, explaining, "the kick and snare drum seemed to be audibly clipping, along with some of the palm-muted guitar parts."

Vinnicombe used the open-source audio editing program Audacity to graphically demonstrate in his article the massive amounts of audio compression being used by Metallica and their engineers for the CD version of the album and the version of Death Magnetic available for Guitar Hero. And the results show that, if you are a true audio lover, you would be way better off buying the Guitar Hero version than the ultra-compressed one, which has vastly inferior audio dynamics by comparison.

Vinnicombe commented on a Metallica forum about what he found and the head Death Magnetic engineer Ted Jensen of Sterling Sound responded by saying: "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 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."

And it seems a backlash is exactly what Metallica are getting. So far 2,730 fans have already signed a petition asking that Death Magnetic be remixed and/or remastered. In fact, some fans have gone as far as warning that they may just redo the record themselves and post a superior version online for free — something Metallica wouldn’t likely be happy with in the least.

To read more about the "loudness war” and why all bands now sound the same, check out this stellar article published on the topic in The Word.

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