Metallica and The Loudness Wars

By Beacon Staff

Love controversy but feeling weary of politics? Me too, which is why I am fascinated this week by a story in this week’s Wall Street Journal about a small but growing backlash in the music community by Metallica fans who say the super-group’s new album, “Death Magnetic,” sounds awful. It’s not that the music’s bad – it’s that it was recorded poorly. Why? Because it was recorded for iPods, not stereos, an increasingly common practice among professional audio engineers.

Who is backing up this accusation of shoddy recording? None other than Ted Jensen, the album’s “mastering engineer.” Responding to a fan’s complaint about how the new Metallica album sounds, Jensen reportedly replied, “Believe me, I’m not proud to be associated with this one.” Predictably, that comment caused a furor when it hit Metallica fan blogs.

The article goes on to describe an increasingly common practice by recording studios to make music sound louder, so it sounds better on low fidelity speakers like radios and iPod earbuds. As recordings evolved from vinyl to digital recordings, the dynamic range of the sound decreased as fewer and fewer studios bothered with quieter, softer sounds. But these sounds, when contrasted with the louder instruments, are part of what give music its rich depth.

You can hear it if you’re sitting in your living room listening to “Déjà Vu” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on a decent stereo – but you sure can’t tell when you’re on the treadmill at the gym listening to it on your iPod.

This push for loudness, underway from some of the first CDs, including “Appetite for Destruction,” by Guns and Roses has a predictable effect on the listener, according to the writer, Ethan Smith:

“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.”

The article goes on to quote sound engineers who say they often have to argue with producers and artists who want the album to be loud at the expense of a narrow musical range. The new Metallica album is, apparently, what happens when that practice is carried to its extreme. Now fans want a re-engineered version of “Death Magnetic,” re-released, which doesn’t sound likely.

I don’t pretend to be an audiophile, so if I’m wrong about any of these assertions, feel free to set me straight. None of these changes in music production are earth shattering, but I can’t say it isn’t slightly dismaying to feel like, as a music consumer, we’re getting less – while the industry’s top audio engineers aren’t able to put all their talent into musical recording for our benefit.

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