Metallica has a new album out. I've heard from a lot of people that it's the best album they've done since pre-Black Album days. I've also heard about some serious audio quality problems with the new album. Over the past several years, there has been what is known as a race for sound volume. Mastering engineers are being instructed by the industry to make their audio projects sound louder than competing albums so they stand out on the radio, internet play, people's iPods and so on. This race has a hard ceiling when it comes to audio quality.
I've spent a great deal of time learning about and experimenting with mixing and mastering audio. For those of you who don't know the difference, mixing is the process of taking multiple tracks of separately recorded instruments (bass, guitars, vocals, keyboards, drums, etc) and bringing them together into a two-track stereo file where all of the instruments are carefully balanced with one another. Mastering is the process of taking stereo mixes and making them sound good together as a unit such as an album.
During the mastering process, a bit of EQ, compression, limiting, and other effects are applied to give the track its final "polish" and to adjust its volume level so the song sits properly together with the other tracks it will be played with. For example, For The Song Of The Day albums, I spent several weeks re-mastering all 365 songs so they sound balanced with one another - even if you are listening to a track from January and then skipping to one from December.
Here's where the race for volume within Music Industry 1.0 comes into play: adjusting volume during mixing and mastering is not just a matter of turning the volume up as high as you want it. You have to compress the signal (eliminating dynamic range) and limit the peaks (further killing dynamic range) in order to push the volume level up. A little bit of this applied judiciously is a good thing. You want to bring the volume up a bit and can even make a song sound punchier. Too much will make everything sound absolutely flat (volume-wise) and will kill all the peaks, distorting the hell out of the sound. You will even end up causing ear fatigue when listening to such a recording, making it uncomfortable to listen to for very long.
Here's where the Metallica situation enters: they have hit a new low (high?) in the race for volume. Sure - the album is "loud" as a good Metallica album should be, BUT wow - everything is distorted all to hell. The drums sound like Lars was using a hammer instead of sticks (and not in a good way). The guitars are super distorted (and not in the right way from properly driven amps and effects). And there's this incessant static from the peaks hitting the digital volume ceiling constantly. It's headache inducing.
Many in fan community are speaking out. They've discovered that the Guitar Hero edition of the album does not suffer the problem. It supposedly came from an earlier mix/master to make the deadline for the game. I heard a rumor that one fan practiced and played through the game without making mistakes just to get a good recording of the album. I've also heard that those files have been shared "out there somewhere." A friend played for me the Guitar Hero and the release album versions of the files and now that I've personally heard the difference, it is incredibly striking. The release version of the songs ARE very hard to listen to while the Guitar Hero versions sound just about right.
The lesson for us do-it-yourself music pros? If you are mixing and mastering your own material, don't push the volume too far. Listen carefully and make it sound good. If you are working with pro engineers, don't let them push it too far. Let's not get into an internet music volume war - it'll only hurt what we independent musicians really care about in the end. The music.