Metallica Hurts My Ears (And I Like “Death Magnetic”!)

Sep 25th, 2008 // 25 Comments

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.

Even Heavy-Metal Fans Complain
That Today’s Music Is Too Loud!!!
[WSJ]

  1. bg5000

    Man, I didn’t know you were now a regular contributor to the Idolator front page, Lucas. Where have i been? Well, keep up the good work.

  2. Lax Danja House

    The record is definitely too loud- even on good speakers the loudest parts are annoyingly distorted- but I don’t think it’s the big deal people are making it out to be. I’m no audiophile, which is why I get suspicious when every music fan and his mother is suddenly trotting out suspiciously jargon-ridden opinions about loudness wars and whatnot.

  3. Lucas Jensen

    @Lax Danja House: Haha. Me, too, but I definitely heard it almost right away. It reminded me of the new Indiana Jones, all of the old pieces were there, but it felt off-rhythm, not quite right.

  4. Anonymous

    As a Manhattan resident most (if not all) of my music listening is done through crappy ipod headphones and my laptop via Dell speakers (yep, not cool enough for Apple yet). Listening to the magnetic of death yesterday from four old grumpy dudes, it hurt my ears (and I enjoy the songs). If you turn it up, it’s like you get this hiss.

  5. Al Shipley

    Don’t remember if this got mentioned on Idolator at all, but the Guitar Hero version of Death Magnetic is apparently a completely different mix with much more dynamic range and is being heavily bootlegged online:

    [www.joystiq.com]

  6. On the Spot

    But wasn’t And Justice for All widely criticized as a tinny, boxy piece of crap, soundwise? Isn’t that how Bob Rock got involved in this mess? I haven’t heard the new album except on the radio, so I’m not saying it’s not earsplittingly loud, but is Justice really a useful touchstone?

  7. Anonymous

    @On the Spot: Justice was noted for having a real “muddy” sound. There is almost no bass to be heard on the record and it just sounds kinda flat.

  8. Anonymous

    Everyone who hasn’t should read this article:

    [www.stylusmagazine.com]

    As a musician myself, I cannot understate how important it is to be aware of the issues presented therein, that is if you want to cut records that won’t sound like shit when they get turned up.

  9. Captain Wrong

    @On the Spot: Yeah, Justice sounds like shit. Death Magnetic must be realy dooky if Justice is being held up as a template of good.

  10. spankyjoe

    @2ironic4u:
    @Al Shipley:

    Justice is the Metallica album that sounds remarkably bad when you try to crank it on a car stereo.

    (Warning: related, but slightly off-topic, but I have a point, so bear with me for a bit.)

    I remember reading once about U2 while they were traveling across America during the Rattle & Hum tour. The band was hitchhiking and got picked up by a kid with a bunch of rap cassettes in his car, and they were amazed at how live the sound was. Once the kid figured out that he had U2 in his car, he fumbled to put on the Joshua Tree, the sound of which paled in comparison. The next U2 album, Achtung Baby was specifically mastered to sound phenomenal on a car with giant woofers. I’ve also heard that Aerosmith does something similar in their mastering process.

    So, the point of all of this is that I wouldn’t say the iPod generation is responsible for current trends in audio mastering. The loudness wars got started back in the 60s, after all, back in the days of AM radio. Prior to moving to a big East Coast city, I did the majority of my music listening in my truck, and I’d be willing to bet that this is true for a giant population of folks across the country. Cars are terrible environments for audio, so a mix that is apparently louder will sound better, hence, gigantic and nasty compression of dynamic ranges.

    Here’s my point – Metallica is a big-label band, so they’re going where all the listeners are – iPods and car stereos. Not many folks can afford/are interested in the type of specialized listening room like the folks at forums like Audiogon slaver over, though. Thus, the mass-market version of Death Magnetic will be mastered to sound good on the majority of speakers.

    What really gets my goat, though, is that Metallica offered a 5-LP set mastered at 45RPM for maximum audio fidelity, and still used their brick-walled mix that sounds horrible to do so. If I’m going to shell out almost two bills for that box set, I want to get my dollar’s worth.

    (For the record, Ian Shepherd has a great series of posts covering this subject in great depth. Worth a read.)

  11. Ned Raggett

    @spankyjoe: I remember reading once about U2 while they were traveling across America during the Rattle & Hum tour. The band was hitchhiking

    Um…if this was their FIRST tour I could see that.

  12. Anonymous

    @spankyjoe:

    Why the fuck would U2 be hitchhiking during the Rattle & Hum tour? Come on now.

  13. Anonymous

    Sonically, the Black album is the best thing Metallica has done. Still sounds good on the radio, jukeboxes, etc. Great mixed and mastered album.

  14. spankyjoe

    @juiceandgin: @Ned Raggett:

    Don’t shoot the messenger – if you want to read about it, my source is a book called U2: At the End of the World, by Bill Flanagan. As I understand it, a big bit of the Rattle & Hum tour was for U2 to get back to the roots of rock & roll and to really “understand America,” etc. They recorded “Angels of Harlem” at Sun Studios, for example. Apparently, hitchhiking around on days off from the tour was part of the exercise. I make no claims as to whether or not the story is apocryphal, I’m just reporting the source.

  15. Captain Wrong

    Also @MtHeartAttack: my band (Yuki) just had an EP mastered and we had to specifically tell the guy we didn’t want brickwall mastering. He said it was a good thing we mentioned it as so many people want that, he just does it without asking. Sad.

  16. OingoBobo

    …and here we have an online poll you can fill out!
    [www.gopetition.com]
    Together, we can get Metallica to remaster the album, and we can hear it when it hits Pirate Bay!
    Yes we can.

  17. janine

    @Lax Danja House: Right on, if you don’t hear something, no one can!

  18. Lax Danja House

    @janine: Yeah…

  19. metalkate

    wow, so the music sucks and the dynamic range is really limited? double ouch!

  20. BenRad

    I know this has probably been mentioned on other related posts, but the latest record from Elbow was mastered with more dynamic range at the band’s request. They have a site for an org called “Turn Me Up!” on the CD booklet: [www.turnmeup.org]

    Good for them, I say. The record is a lot more nuanced and texturally rich.

    As for Death Magnetic, while I do enjoy the record, it’s painful to listen to after about 15 minutes and I’m using good quality headphones (Grado SR-60s). The snare is noticeably distorted, and not in a “St. Anger” kind of way. I had a frightening moment last week when I was running for a train…my headphone amp turned itself all the way up and I was carrying two bags (couldn’t yank my headphones off) and “My Apocalypse” was playing so loud I thought my head was going to implode, and not in a good way.

  21. revmatty

    Yea, I agree this isn’t new. It hit live albums the hardest, I think. Listen to a live album from the 90′s on good quality headphones (not earbuds, even the best of those are garbage), then listen to one from the 60′s. Almost without exception the 90′s ones sound noticeably worse than the 60′s ones.

  22. Anonymous

    Unfortunately, squashing in the mix in mastering is only part of the problem. The mixes that the mastering engineer gets are usually squashed by the mix engineer. The tracks that the mix engineer gets are often over compressed by the tracking engineer. And the tracking engineer is often recording musicians who no longer understand dynamics.

  23. Lucas Jensen

  24. bburl

    It’s a sad fact that a whole generation of music is being damaged by mastering. Death Magnetic isn’t just loud, it’s distorted and clipped, things mastering engineers used to be taught to avoid. If you can play the guitar hero III tracks with the volumes equalized against the commercial cd release. Even on mid grade equipment, you should notice a large difference, and if this doesn’t make you sad as a music fan…

    Also you can join [www.turnmeup.org]

  25. D.R. Mosby

    The graphic that accompanies the WSJ article is shocking. Rick Rubin’s beard is heavily clipped, and you don’t get to see the full dynamic range of his facial hair. I demand that the article be pulled, fixed and reissued so readers can see an accurate portrayal of Mr. Rubin!

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