Some Experts Weigh In On Metallica And Too-Loud Mastering

Lucas Jensen | October 2, 2008 10:00 am

The controversy over Metallica’s Death Magnetic and its supposedly ear-fatiguing lack of dynamic range is still-simmering , so we decided to ask some industry professionals about the row and, more importantly, the trend in mastering toward making records louder, brighter, and less dynamic. I talked to three professionals–two well-known engineer/producers and one very well-respected mastering engineer–about the Metallica Mastering Mess. After the jump we find out if all that Internet arguing is over a real problem, or if it just adds up to so much noise.

Glenn Schick* has mastered recordings by artists like Circulatory System and Lil’ Jon. When I asked him to address the controversy, he noted that he had just talked to a client about it that morning:

I think that consumers are finally getting the correlation between dynamic range and having something that doesn’t evoke pleasure when listening. For the last 17 years, its been “louder, brighter” requests. As a snapshot, almost everyone will prefer a louder and brighter track, but as a music listening experience, it wears on your ears, sometimes painfully so.

The Metallica release was an eye-opener, along with a few other big-name artists that also followed that path, and have now found out that the short term gains of volume and brightness leads to consumers not being happy with the lack of dynamics and generally unpleasant sound quality.

The music is one issue, and the production is totally another. It can be something that makes great music almost unlistenable.

I really like the music on the Metallica, as well as some of the other CDs mentioned in the WSJ article, but, dude, I can’t listen to any of it!

I am optimistic about the future as clients and consumers get more knowledge to empower us to make great music again.

Coming from a mastering engineer, this seems pretty illuminating. Schick works with some pretty high-end clients, so it stands to reason that he is not immune to the “louder, brighter” requests himself. And 17 years of them? Yowza!

I asked him specifically about these requests:

…a good part of my job as a mastering engineer is to be the quality control at the end of the process. When I get those requests, even from big, impressive clients (I’ve had a couple!), I will try and educate them to why it is not a good idea. As of yet, when someone hears something that sounds better put up to the same volume, I haven’t gotten anyone yet to choose the “slammed” version. I do get clients that like a bit of distortion in their master, but its more about the fuzzy sound, than the volume. At best, I will try to make it as loud and bright as I can personally tolerate. No further.

[O]ne of the best items in their engineers tool kit is the word “no”. If used properly, it’s directly attached to your integrity, and without that, what else do people come to you for?

Larry Crane, founder and editor of the venerable recording zine Tape Op, is also the owner of Jackpot! Studios in Portland. He’s recorded with Sleater-Kinney, Stephen Malkmus, and Jenny Lewis, and is the official archivist of Elliott Smith’s estate. He hasn’t heard the disc, but he knows the trend:

It’s obvious that anyone that mixes this way or forces a mastering engineer to basically remove the difference between average and peak volumes isn’t really listening to the music and considering it art–instead they are looking at it as simply a product and are going for the quick sale, and not the long term enjoyment factor. All this is based on fear. Fear is the wrong emotion to let in the door when making art. I imagine some day that mastering engineers will make a fine living undoing the work of this age.

Furthermore, Crane hates on Metallica, gives props to Metallica, and weighs on The Boss’ newest one, which also got complaints about its production:

I was hoping that artists, managers, mixers, producers and mastering engineers were pulling away from this bullshit. It looks like it takes a band as retarded as Metallica to push the limits of stupidity. My hat’s off to Ted Jensen for standing behind his comments. He’s a pro.

I sold my copy of Bruce Springsteen’s “Magic” and have been enjoying “The River”.


Finally, I spoke with Scott Solter**, an experimentally minded engineer of such artists as John Vanderslice, Pattern is Movement, and the Mountain Goats. Solter notes that lately he’s “been listening to a lot of art music produced in the ’80s… and the dynamic range and balances are much more comfortable to listen to.” He sees the whole affair as symptomatic of our society in general: “This seems like another reminder of how our culture continues to get louder and faster.”

Back to you, Lars.

*Full Disclosure: Glenn Schick has mastered three of my bands’ albums. **Full Disclosure, part deux: I have worked with Scott Solter in a recording capacity and as a publicist.