Can a Metallica album be too loud?
The very thought might seem heretical to fans of the metal band, which has been splitting eardrums since the early 1980s.
But even though Metallica's ninth studio release, “Death Magnetic,” is No. 1 on the album chart, with 827,000 copies sold in two weeks, some fans are bitterly disappointed: not by the songs or the performance, but the volume. It's so loud, they say, you can't hear details of the music.
“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 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. Thousands have signed an online petition urging the band to re-mix the album and release it again.
Metallica and the album's producer, Rick Rubin, declined to comment. Cliff Burnstein, Metallica's co-manager, says 98 percent of listeners are “overwhelmingly positive.”
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 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.
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.”
But many musicians, producers and record-company executives “think that having a louder record is going to translate into greater sales,” says engineer Chris Athens.
Mastering engineers are caught in the crossfire.
“I've had lots of people – I mean lots and lots of people – try and push a record to a place I thought it didn't belong,” Athens says. “We try to deliver something that mitigates the damage the client wants. I drag my feet and give them something a little louder and a little louder.”