By Jye Smith Nov.13.2008
In: Album Reviews, Production
8 comments

Metallica: Lars Ulrich - "..to get it sound loud"

A colleague at worked passed this over – “Lars Ulrich Defends Sound Quality Of Metallica’s Death Magnetic“.  Sure, everyone can have a whinge about the quality of an album’s sound – that’s not new – but what astounded me was the shear lack of audio knowledge that Ulrich has. It was this next line that got me:

“But I’ve been listening to it the last couple of days in my car, and it sounds … smokin’.”

When I was about 14 I learnt a very valuable lesson from a man named Tom Gibson — a biomechanical engineer with a masters in acoustics. He explained to me that I should not pour money into a sound system that sounds crystal clear in a shop with a custom built room.  There are some really major reasons why:

  • Your car has an engine.  This engine makes a lot of noise and squashes any clarity from those particular frequency.
  • There are other cars and noise creators on the road.  Always remember you do not drive in a sound proof box.

I expect a member of a recording outfit of over 20 years to be aware of the same facts. Guess not.  Ulrich’s second piece of gold was:

“[Producer] Rick Rubin’s whole thing is to try and get it to sound lively, to get it sound loud, to get it to sound exciting, to get it to jump out of the speakers.”

This is bullshit.  Fucking bullshit.  Loud albums are ridiculously unmoving and un-dynamic because they’re never quiet — so the listener simply hears the one volume the whole way through.

Just like some of the most beautiful pictures in the world — it’s the negative space that is sometimes the most important.  The notes you don’t play.  The lines you don’t draw.  You need comparison to get perspective.

The Wall Street Journal had a fantastic piece on the album including quotes from many professional engineers.

Ted Jensen (the album’s mastering engineer) said that the sound of the Guitar Hero version of the album is far superior to the CD.

Can a Metallica album be too loud?

Responding to a Metallica fan’s email about loudness, Mr. Jensen sent a sympathetic reply that concluded: “Believe me, I’m not proud to be associated with this one.

“When there’s no quiet, there can be no loud,” said Matt Mayfield

I think the commentary on digital was very interesting:

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.

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.

…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.