Metallica's ninth studio album, Death Magnetic, hasn't even been in the shops for a week and it's already raising critics' ire. The band is no stranger to controversy, from Napster-baiting to Some Kind of Monster's hippie psychologist, Metallica seemingly revel in defying not just its fans' expectations but the fans themselves.
But this time it's a little different: while the record itself is one of the band's strongest in years, it appears to have fallen victim to an insidious trend: audio "dumbing down". In short, it sounds crap.
As pointed out by mastering engineer Ian Shepherd, the album's been compressed to within an inch of its life -- so badly that it's become distorted. But what is interesting, is that he points out that the version the band simultaneously released on doesn't have this problem.
It's ironic that a band originally so opposed to MP3 formats (and the associated piracy) would release a higher quality version of its new album in a computer game.
Unfortunately, it seems that Metallica has self-sacrificed its album to appeal to the very listeners they railed so hard against years ago: iPod users. Oh, the delicious irony.
There was an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal recently about how engineers are now tailoring albums to be heard on iPods. Of course, this isn't the fault of Apple -- who also invented the Apple Lossless format to appeal to audiophiles -- but instead the users who are happy with their poor quality MP3 rips.
As an audio enthusiast I find trying to appeal to the "lowest common denominator" to make more money disheartening. But it's not a new trend, and something that has happened for as long as commercial radio has been around. Yet, I would have thought such heavy-handed compression would only apply to bland pop. I was wrong. But you would think that a producer of Rick Rubin's stature would know what he's doing.
Compression, no matter how bland it makes a recording, shouldn't end in distortion -- as it has in the case of Death Magnetic. This is a mistake. It's not deliberate. Why the parties involved spent so much time on the album to compress it so poorly is mystifying.
The people who mastered the album have denied responsibility and say it's entirely the fault of the band: "They are not rookies... Both parties are 800-pound gorillas in the music industry. These guys are smart and in control... [But] only Metallica and Rick know why it sounds like it does."
How could this have happened? Why is Guitar Hero III's version so different? As the Sex Pistols found out when they had to re-record Anarchy in The UK for the game because they had lost the tapes, the developers require the original recordings. So, somehow the problem has occurred somewhere in between giving the recordings to the makers of Guitar Hero (who would have mastered it themselves) and in the subsequent handover to the CD mastering engineers.
Years ago, an audio engineer friend of mine told me about a special device he used in the studio &mdash as a joke &mdash to please indecisive musicians. He called it a "hit meter". It was essentially a red light with "Hit" written underneath it, and it would get triggered when the music reached a certain level. He would turn it on, then point to it excitedly and say, "look, this song's a hit!". I suspect Rick Rubin used a hit meter.
Metallica fans are naturally unhappy about the CD's audio problems and have formed a petition to have the problems corrected, which, at the time of writing, was up to 4,613 names.
I initially heard a 320Kbps rip of the Metallica album and thought that this distortion was due to either a poor encode or the new pair of Sennheiser PX100s. I am somehow more disappointed to learn that it's the source itself that is to blame. I'm not going to make any dramatic stand here, but I'll wait till they re-release the album before I consider buying it.
Compression is the enemy of good music. Audiophiles like producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Songs: Ohia) openly despise compressed formats -- compact disks included -- and despite experimenting with digital downloads will tell you that vinyl is the only way to go.
Of course, audio quality is not the be-all-and-end-all, two of my favourite bands -- Sebadoh and Guided By Voices -- used to record their albums on cassette (!), but this was initially out of necessity. At no point were commercial concerns the determining factor -- in fact, it was quite the opposite.
Choosing to compress your music so it sounds great on iPods may not be killing music per se, but it does dull people's taste for dynamics and sound quality, and perhaps, ultimately, the thirst for the rawness of a live performance.
Death magnetic indeed.