Compact discs and modern digital mastering techniques have been a sore spot with us for a while1, and the obnoxious density of sound has only gotten worse. I’m long since past the age of being part of Metallica’s demographic2, but perhaps they will listen to their fans. Do they really want to be like those annoying television commercials that blare you out of your seat when the show breaks? Similar principle: remove all silence from the audio spectrum, and the sound gets louder, and more annoying.
“Death Magnetic”” is a flashpoint in a long-running music-industry fight. Over the years, rock and pop artists have increasingly sought to make their recordings sound louder to stand out on the radio, jukeboxes and, especially, iPods.
But audiophiles, recording professionals and some ordinary fans say the extra sonic wallop comes at a steep price. To make recorded music seem louder, engineers must reduce the “dynamic range,” minimizing the difference between the soft and loud parts and creating a tidal wave of aural blandness.
“When there’s no quiet, there can be no loud,” said Matt Mayfield, a Minnesota electronic-music teacher, in a YouTube video that sketched out the battle lines of the loudness war. A recording’s dynamic range can be measured by calculating the variation between its average sound level and its maximum, and can be visually expressed through wave forms. Louder recordings, with higher average sound levels, leave less room for such variation than quieter ones.
Some fans are complaining that “Death Magnetic” has a thin, brittle sound that’s the result of the band’s attempts in the studio to make it as loud as possible. “Sonically it is barely listenable,” reads one fan’s online critique. Thousands have signed an online petition urging the band to re-mix the album and release it again.
Ted Jensen, the album’s mastering engineer, got quoted as saying he wasn’t too proud of being associated with this release. What’s more telling, is there was another version released for a video game console, and it sounds much better ((allegedly: I haven’t listened to either version, though this dude listened to the studio verison)
The battle has roots in the era before compact discs. With vinyl records, “it was impossible to make loud past a certain point,” says Bob Ludwig, a veteran mastering engineer. But digital technology made it possible to squeeze all of the sound into a narrow, high-volume range. In addition, music now is often optimized for play on the relatively low-fidelity earbuds for iPods, reducing incentives to offer a broad dynamic range.
The loudness war began heating up around the time CDs gained popularity, in the early 1980s. Guns N’ Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction” upped the ante in 1987, as did Metallica’s 1991 “Black Album” and then the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” in 1999.
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. Many who’ve followed the controversy say “Death Magnetic” has one of the narrowest dynamic ranges ever on an album.
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.