The first thing I thought when I heard Metallica’s Death Magnetic was, “All right! This is more like it! This sounds pretty freaking great!” The next thing I thought was, “Boy, does this sound shrill!” Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought so, as the Internet is abuzz with talk that Metallica’s Death Magnetic is a well-produced record that still sounds crappy. The band has been fighting back via its manager, who assures us that 98% of listener response to the album has been “overwhelmingly positive,” based on what is probably very scientific research. Count me among the 2% that has a problem with the album’s dynamic range, or lack thereof.
The whole thing feels loud but narrow to me. I’ve noticed this with a lot of records these days. They sound pretty great pumping out of a stereo at full blast, or at ear-splitting volumes through iPod headphones, but they sound like garbage at normal volumes and completely terrible at low volumes. Things are mixed and mastered for one volume: THIS ONE!! I’m not an expert on the subject, but even I don’t hear the dynamic range that I used to in albums, even the kinda bad mid- to late-80s CDs. Either things are jacked on the treble and the bass with no midrange, or the exact opposite; even the quiet parts feel unusually loud. I recently worked on a live record, and when the producer/engineer took it to the mastering guy, the mastering guy said something to the effect of “You just don’t really hear dynamic records like this anymore.” It wasn’t a compliment, per se, because there are problems with heavy-duty dynamic shifts, too, but his observation confirms my suspicions that a lot of records (particularly the big-time ones) are hanging out in this one loud zone.
The Wall Street Journal has a nice piece up about the Metallica controversy, and it’s embedded back-to-back comparisons of the sound waves from samples of Death Magnetic and …And Justice For All. It’s pretty frightening to look at them. They’ve also got key quotes from Ted Jensen, the album’s mastering engineer, who stated on a message board, “Believe me, I’m not proud to be associated with this one” before slightly amending with “”I’m not sure I would have said quite the same thing if I was posting it to the bulletin board… it’s certainly the way I feel about it.”
What’s the problem here? Well, for one, digital media like CDs and MP3s and such offer more dynamic range than vinyl, and crappy iPod earbud quality (and though it’s not mentioned here, poor car stereo quality, I’d hazard a guess) means people feel they need to turn stuff up to make it sound better:
Music released today typically has a dynamic range only a fourth to an eighth as wide as that of the 1990s. That means if you play a newly released CD right after one that’s 15 years old, leaving the volume knob untouched, the new one is likely to sound four to eight times as loud.
Sound engineers say artists who insist on loudness paradoxically give people less to hear, because they end up wiping away nuances and details. Everything from a gently strummed guitar to a pounding snare drum is equally loud, leading to what some call “ear fatigue.” If the listener turns down the volume knob, the music loses even more of its punch.
I remember being in a session where the engineer said that the first person who asked for the hi-hats to be turned up had to leave immediately because their ears were showing signs of high frequency fatigue. So either we’re raising a generation of music lovers who want to turn up the hi-hats at all cost–or I’m the crotchety guy waving my cane at the kids.