Two weeks ago, Metallica released Death Magnetic -- their best work since 1991's Black Album or 1986's Master Of Puppets. But I can barely bring myself to listen to it.
The band has taken the 'loudness war' to such an extreme that Death Magnetic has been crippled by cataclysmic distortion, as a result of the insane volume the album has been cranked up to.
The loudness war has been getting gradually worse since the 1990s. Record producers have been forced to make their recordings consistently louder to compete with other labels' releases, in order to better ensnare a listener's attention.
Now it has got so intense the only way to get music even louder is to squish the recording into one equally loud block of sound and make the whole lot louder. It's a technique that uses 'dynamic range compression', but to the average listener of Death Magnetic it sounds more like their hi-fi is broken.
At first I thought there must have been a problem when I ripped the CD to my computer. But I tried it on a stand-alone hi-fi and heard the same: distorted drums, horrendous definition, absolutely no dynamic range; just a hideous, relentless destruction of Metallica's talent.
Then I heard the Guitar Hero version of the album. "What the hell?" I exclaimed to the empty room in which I was standing. "This sounds perfect," I continued. "Great dynamics, gorgeous recording, no distortion, no insane volume. Am I going mad?"
Only by talking to myself. You see, it transpires there are two different version of Death Magnetic: one for Guitar Hero, one for the CD. And the difference is outrageous.
Mastered by muppets?
Being an audio nerd, I immediately fired up Audacity to analyse the waveforms of both albums, seen below. The top waveform is taken from the CD version of the track The Day That Never Comes. The waveform below is the same song, but taken from the Guitar Hero release.
The height of the waveform correlates to loudness, and the clearly defined peaks within the Guitar Hero version -- the ones not even present on the CD version due to the intense volume -- are the dynamics that have been stripped away by dynamic compression and loudness.
This problem has been well documented and explained in this YouTube comparison video, too.
The loudness war has to stop. We, the listeners, control the volume of our music, and we control who gets our money. The war on audio quality reached apocalyptic proportions with this release, and if there is any Justice For All, we'll stop letting our albums be Mastered By Muppets.