Almost immediately after Metallica released its much anticipated ninth studio album, Death Magnetic a couple weeks back, complaints began popping up all over fan forums that it was too loud, too compressed, too tinny—too lacking in dynamic range. The kids even scored a sympathetic ear from the album’s own mastering engineer, Ted Jensen. “Suffice it to say I would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here,” he wrote on a message board. “Believe me I’m not proud to be associated with this one…”
Even more embarrassing for Metallica was the revelation that the Guitar Hero version of the No. 1 album—released in conjunction with the standard Death Magnetic—sounded better than the original; that you were better off burning a CD of the music from the video game rather than listening to the record you bought from Virgin. By comparing the waveforms from each version of the record, mastering engineer Ian Shepard easily showed that Metallica’s efforts to make the record as loud as possible had squashed its dynamic range.
Now, somewhat belatedly, The Wall Street Journal has jumped into the game with its own article on Death Magnetic’s suckitude and what it says about the “loudness wars” heating up throughout the industry. Metallica’s record, it seems, is only the latest and most extreme iteration of a trend that has been growing in the biz since the ’90s. Forced to push their tunes through measly little iPod buds, mastering engineers and their employers have increasingly sought to make records loud above all other concerns, principally the music’s dynamic range—a fact that makes vinyl geeks’ arguments about the compact disc’s inherent inferiority all the more relevant. A record bought today can sound up to eight times louder than one purchased 15 years ago. Consequently, it has an eighth of the older disc’s dynamic range. “Death Magnetic has one of the narrowest dynamic ranges ever on an album,” quoth The Journal.
In a final embarrassment for Metallica, The Journal article unfavorably compares the waveform of a tune from Death Magnetic with the waveform of “Blackened,” a song from the quartet’s classic 1988 album …And Justice for All—the same album that served as a template for the band’s latest recording. In order to get the band’s creative juices flowing, Magnetic producer Rick Rubin reportedly told the band to imagine they were writing the follow-up to his favorite Metalllica album, Master of Puppets. In reality, of course, that record was Justice for All. So now we know—we’re better off with the original. Science proves aesthetics.