Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Your Metallica Sound Quality Questions Answered

I've been busy reading the Metallica forums regarding the whole sound quality issue with the Death Magnetic sound clips and full song releases. There's so much misinformation out there that I feel it's necessary to take the most common questions regarding this topic, Metallica's producer Rick Rubin, record production, mixing and mastering, plus the Loudness War, and answer them here.

The new Metallica songs rock! I don't hear any problems at all!
Until one knows what to listen for, issues of this sort often aren't recognizable. Listen with a good set of headphones to the loudest part of the song. You'll often notice how the instruments aren't very well defined (they tend to mush together), the drums tend to slip in volume, and in worst cases, fuzzy noise and pops occur.

St. Anger sounded terrible! How can you say these new songs are worse than that?!?!
The majority of St. Anger's problems are due to production choices. For that record, a conscious decision was made by producer Bob Rock and Metallica for the music to sound like it was made by a garage band, which is why the drums are clanky and the guitars are tinny. Granted this album also suffers from being too loud, but the main sound "problem" with St. Anger is a deliberate one. I assure you that the issues heard on the Death Magnetic tracks are not something the band chose to occur.

Production? Mixing? Mastering? What's the difference and who cares?
As implied above, production work is done by someone hired by the band, and his job is to point the musicians in a certain direction with regards to songwriting. It's also the producer's job to make suggestions with regards to recording technique and soundscaping. For example, he might recommend effects such as reverb or echo be placed on a singer's voice or certain guitar passages.

Mixing engineers are responsible for taking the separate tracks (at its simplest there are four: vocals, guitar, bass, and drums), and putting them together to deliver a (nearly) final song. The mastering engineer takes this output and performs certain processing to enhance the sound quality. It is at this point that certain tools, such as compression, are added (compression delivers punch to rock oriented music) to accomplish this task. Misuse of the tools at the mixing and mastering stages has led to what is known as the Loudness War.

WTF is the Loudness War? Is this bad? Hell, I want my heavy metal loud!
The Loudness War took off in the early 90s as a way for record companies to get their bands' albums noticed rather than relying on the listener to turn his own volume knob. Psychologically, a louder piece of music is often determined to be "better" by the average listener when compared to a quieter piece of music. So engineers started making the final mixes of the records they were working on louder and louder, and this is what was transferred to CD. Unfortunately, this process, if applied improperly, can lead to a loss in sound fidelity, which makes the music grating to the ears. At first the effects of this could only be heard by people who knew what they were listening for, but the problem has gotten so bad lately that many "normal" people can hear problems with certain current releases. For more information see this Wikipedia article and this YouTube video.

Rick Rubin is a well respected member of the music community and highly sought after by big-name bands. His stuff can't possibly be affected by this!
Sadly, this is not the case. While his older records, such as The Cult's Electric, Danzig's self-titled debut, and Slayer's South of Heaven and Seasons In the Abyss are landmarks in album sound quality, his recent releases are notorious for being too loud. The problem cropped up with Red Hot Chili Peppers One Hot Minute, and reached peak awfulness for their Californication. The production of Rubin's albums still appear to be quite good, but the final result on CD has gotten worse with time.

Well, even if Rubin doesn't care, Metallica must. Those guys are musicians; they won't let this happen!
Alas, Metallica's track record is not so good when it comes to sound quality. Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets are not exactly hallmarks of great recording due to limited dynamics. Justice suffers from very tinny sounding drums, and we already discussed the issues with St. Anger. So when it comes to an issue like engineering of the final product, which even famed music nerds Rush messed up on Vapor Trails, it's quite likely Metallica will be ignorant of the matter.

I still don't buy it! Those clips must be demos. After all, they're not polished. There's not even any reverb anywhere! Either that or they're purposefully bad because they're free!
It's unlikely the songs are demos or the outcome is deliberate since iTunes is selling them and they're not listed as demos. The "dry" sound quality is most definitely a decision the band and Rick Rubin made, since Rubin is lauded for his "stripped down" approach to recording. Also note that Justice sounded pretty similar, so Metallica is undoubtedly trying to recreate the feel of that record to some extent. We won't know until release date, but if it really was simply an issue with the ripping and encoding of the mp3 files, why does "My Apocalypse" still have issues? Metallica's staff said that any single released after "The Day That Never Comes" would be free from sound problems, but clearly this has not yet come to pass.


Any other questions or concerns? H-Man will be happy to answer, so comment away.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The mastering of this CD destroyed what would be a great Album :@

5:10 PM  

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