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Metallica - A Silver Lining on the Loudness Cloud?

With the release of Metallica’s new album, “Death Magenetic,” an unprecedented backlash from fans and listeners have cast a new spotlight on the “Loudness Wars.” And this might be just what the industry needs...

I was a tracking & mixing engineer when Metallica’s “The Black Album” as it’s known, came out. For some Metallica fans, it was their supreme achievement. For others, it was their “jump the shark” record. It’s where “old Metallica” met “new Metallica.” But for any metal aficionado, it was almost unarguably a prime example of how sonically excellent a metal album could sound. To this day, metal bands bring it in to mastering sessions as a reference. Enter Sandman: Those jangly electric guitars leading into those thundering toms and kicks, blasting into a tumultuous crescendo leading into one of the most famous three-note riffs of all time. Dynamic - explosive - and a very loud CD... for the time...

But those times are gone. “Death Magnetic” has recently hit the shelves. The uproar started when pre-release MP3 files were made available online. “It sounds horrible!” -- “I can’t believe how bad it sounds.” -- “Unlistenable.” On and on and on. The uproar was about the sound quality. “Crushed” is putting it nicely -- “Death Magnetic” almost gives a new meaning to “Loudness War Casualty.” No dynamic-explosiveness. Gone is the contrast between loud and quiet. Wrecked.

I had some rather reliable “inside knowledge” about DM before it was mastered. Allegedly, it was crushed long before it wound up in the hands of Ted Jensen (who - some say unfortunately, has the mastering credits on this record). And there’s no doubt that plenty of projects come in the door here that are “pre-crushed” by the mix engineer. Usually at the behest of the band, the producer, the label, or a combination of the bunch.

It’s not like “way too f**kin’ loud” isn’t part of the current trend on popular albums -- Look at (listen to) Wolfmother... Catchy tunes, but smacked beyond smacked. I love a few of the songs, but it’s painful to listen to. What I’d give to hear those tunes at a more reasonable level...

But this... This is Metallica. This is the band that came out with the de-facto standard metal recording back in the early 90’s. They don’t need to follow the herd and the loudness lemmings. But they did anyway. And the fans - even the hard-core “I even liked Re-Load” fans, are pissed.

It’s a dark, dark day for audio quality. But this cloud may have a silver lining after all...

Loudness aside, I know of no other backlash like this from such a high-profile act. And the backlash is well-deserved in my opinion. And this backlash is all over music news on the internet, the forums (including the band’s official forum), the industry rags -- It’s talked about among employees on lunch breaks, high-school kids in study hall and audio engineers phone calls. At no other time has the “loudness war” been pushed into the public eye (ear) as with the release of “Death Magnetic.” And personally, I hope the backlash grows and grows. I’ve seen online petitions to have the record remixed. I’ve seen excited fans wrangling about how a few songs on a video game “aren’t nearly as sh*tty sounding as they are on the CD.”

Could this be where the listening public finally says “ENOUGH ALREADY!!!” Were we waiting for the straw that would break the camel’s ears? Is “Death Magnetic” that straw?

As a mastering engineer, it already gives me a nasty feeling in the pit of my gut when people think that “mastering is making it loud.” While mastering might be the phase where a recording becomes loud, it’s certainly not the point of the process. Every mastering engineer I know would love to go back to “making records sound good” instead of making them much louder than they want to be. Will “Death Magnetic” be the record that whacks bands & labels over the head? Will there be an outcry from the public for reasonable levels?

Or will it be a new standard? Will DM be the new “Black Album” for the bands?

We (the recording industry) can only hope that the “pissing contest” between bands and labels that is “the loudness war” takes a turn... It’s just what the industry needs.