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Sorry Metallica, We Would Rather Play Guitar Hero

Recently Sterling Sound’s head engineer Ted Jensen has come under fire for mastering Metallica’s latest album. Naturally, he refuses to take the blame for the intense clipping distortion, claiming that the mixes were already finalized before reaching his studio. "Suffice it to say I would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here," he said in a response posted on this forum. "Believe me I’m not proud to be associated with this one, and we can only hope that some good will come from this in some form of backlash against volume above all else."

Within the last decade, perhaps even longer, music-publishing companies such as Sony Music and EMI have pushed to maximize the output of each track without distorting the overall volume. Called the Loudness Wars, these companies strive to not only stand out against their competitors, but to stand out in volume over the previous year. Usually this is accomplished by reducing the overall dynamic range, pushing the lower-level material higher and diminishing the loudest peaks sounds. Some compression filters can also help increase the loudness as well.

In the case of Metallica’s recently released Death Magnetic album, the lower levels were heightened, but the peaks were not reduced, causing the much-debated distortion. Some analysts say that the recording is just too loud, ranging from -2,93 dB RMS to -7 dB RMS. There’s also speculation that there are many different levels of distortion that could have occurred during the actual recording, the mixing, or perhaps introduced during the mastering portion.

So why does Death Magnetic sound so clean in Guitar Hero? It’s quite possible that Neversoft received the raw tracks before final mixing, and adjusted the levels to better suit a general audience, and not just Metallica fans. And because Death Magnetic is downloadable content, PlayStation 3 (or Xbox 360) owners are already scheming to rip the files off the console’s hard drive and create their own distributable CD (over BitTorrent, newsgroups, etc).

It’s unfortunate that consumers end up as victims when it comes to corporate competitiveness as shown with Metallica’s latest release. Disgruntled artists in the music business breathe a sigh of collective of grief when it comes to the ongoing "loudness wars." Yet somehow, gamers seem to have come out on top with Guitar Hero. It wouldn’t be surprising if sales of the game start rising dramatically simply because of its version of Death Magnetic.