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August 12, 2015

Death Magnetic - Metallica

Let’s talk about perception. Shall we?

Death Magnetic CD CoverI hear a lot of comments in the style of ‘Records don’t sound the way they used to’, ‘Modern recording tools are horrible’, ‘Dark Side of the moon is the best sounding record EVER, dude’, ‘I wish I had a ‘insert expensive german piece of gear name here’ so I could get that magical sound, I can’t do it without’, ‘I can’t find any new exciting references to inspire me’ etc, etc… That’s how it feels to a lot of people, but is it real? Ever the question in relationships, innit?

Obviously since the sound of a record is a matter of taste, it’s hard to quantify. Yet there are signs that can be considered concrete like, for example, when you have a tendency to squint your eyes from pain when listening to a particular record then, maybe, it’s safe to say that someone failed at their job somewhere along the line (unless the intent was to inflict pain on the listener). Same if you can’t hear the lyrics of a song from vocals being buried or getting a nose bleed from every time cymbals get hit.

And then there are production choices. Color. Direction. Crazy or cool artistic decisions. Someone in the 80s decided it’d be fun to drown the most important elements of every song in 8 bit digital reverb. Go listen to George Michael’s Careless Whisper or anything by Enya for a good refresher. Some people love it and are bringing that sound back, some people think it’s just plain funny. So what’s GOOD and what’s BAD?

When I hear absolute and unequivocal statements from people saying things like ‘Death Magnetic’ by Metallica sounds horrible but ‘Enter the Sandman’ sounds perfect. I’m always dubious. It warrants a careful listen. What’s real and what’s not?

Listen here:

First let’s be very clear that Death Magnetic made Metallica fans very happy because the band went back to their roots, wrote Metallica-like songs and brought their older feel back. Very few people had any complaints about how it sounded until someone in the press complained about how loud it is and reported hearing distortion. So is it distorting? Well I hear a lot of Mesa-Boogie and Marshall amps distortion on guitars, but I’m assuming that was intended.

Otherwise it sounds like a loud rock record with analog colors to me. My suspicion is that a lot of the (non-guitar related) distortion that people may hear is due to the fact that their playback system’s D to A converter cannot handle the level that the record is mastered at, and that whatever artifacts people hear are not on the record but created at the moment of playback by underperforming electronics. Should that record have been mastered that loud? Maybe not, it’s hard to say. My system plays it fine. How’s yours? Good question, so go to Spotify and listen again to ‘The Day That Never Comes’ from Death Magnetic.


Do you hear distortion that’s not supposed to be there? (Keyword: not supposed to be there) Now look at your meter (You have a meter connected so you can analyse the level of the music you are referencing, right?). You may notice that the average playback level hovers between 0 VU and +3 VU (Listening thru Dangerous Music Convert 2 reference D/A, aligned at -18dBfs= +0dBVU, Dangerous Monitor St and Focal SM9s in direct mode). No matter what your interface is aligned at, that’s a lot lower a level than it should be, considering this is one of the loudest mastered records in the history of the universe? What gives?

Well Spotify, besides being the Devil’s subordinate and its premier salesperson, has the good taste of leveling tracks by RMS level instead of Peak level. Which means that they attempt to provide a better experience for their listeners by making sure that all music on their platform FEELS the same volume wise. So, when you listen to a Beethoven quartet by Deutsche Grammophon and then Spotify shuffles to Death Magnetic you don’t get beheaded by the jump in level. Peachy.

Now, still on Spotify, listen to Enter Sandman from the Black album (at the same volume please), here:

Oh... Not what you expected/remembered/imagined? Let’s focus on the first few minutes of both tracks and let’s take a look at drums, bass and heavy guitar sounds.


Sandman is a monument to another era. Drums were reportedly double and triple miked, they supposedly used up to 11 guitar cabinets to get ‘that’ sound, spent months in the studio recording the songs section by section, instrument by instrument, sometimes beat by beat. It should for all intents and purposes be ‘perfect’ since they scrutinized every beat of every track independently. How does it sound to you? Listen to a few bars of bass and drums after the intro, then switch to The Day That Never Comes and do the same thing.

Wow, right? The more recent record sound fatter. That’s counter intuitive, and not what our resident nostalgic anchorheads tell us. On The Day That Never Comes, you can hear the bass (instrument not frequencies) a lot more and the bass drum and snare drum sound like a bass drum and snare drum. On Sandman, there is a hole in the middle, the bass drum is way back sounds like a smaller drum with a bright beater, the snare is hi-passed, all the energy is on the sides. Sandman kinda feels like the Delta Airlines logo with deep reaching sides and the sound in the center lifted up from absence of real bottom, whereas The Day That Never Comes feels more like the Red Cross logo with a deeper reaching center and lighter sides. Check it out, I’ll wait.


You know what I mean? Which do you like best? One was mixed on an SSL 4000G, one was probably mixed on a Neve 80 series. Which is which? Do you think it matters?

Let’s approach the subject from a different angle: let’s discuss the production, because I think that is where the most interesting part of this study lies. The production choices on Death Magnetic are so different from anything Metallica had done before then, that I think that a lot of people don’t realize those choices are what took them by surprise, more so than the amount of bus compression on the whole mix (which no one outside our super geeky community cares about at all. Ask your girlfriend/boyfriend about bus compression and send me a postcard).

Metallica with Rick Rubin

My gut feeling is that Rick Rubin came in and decided to capture the raw Metallica. After the much panned St Anger, which if you care to listen to it even for a few bars, is one awful sounding record (Listen to St Anger, the song, for a quick refresher on bizarre sounding drums), it was time to get back to a fatter, creamier tone and more in your face color. Something that does not hurt your teeth when you listen to it loud. Rick Rubin does not really do things halfway. His legacy is such that he can take risks, even on the most awaited Metallica record in their career, and still keep his reputation intact no matter what happens.

So I think Rick went for it and made a true rock record. No smoke no mirrors. Great players rocking complicated heavy music without production tricks. And no distance between the band and the listener. One can get that ‘band is sitting on your lap’ tone by close miking everything and by not using much reverb to fill the holes. If you listen to The Day That Never Comes carefully, you’ll notice that everything sounds very real, very raw and very unhyped. I think that’s a conscious choice and I imagine that those were Rick Rubin’s marching orders for Andrew Scheps who mixed the record. I hear little obvious processing beyond what gives the instruments their tone. It’s a Polaroid snapshot of Metallica, not a Hollywood production of Metallica.

Metallica with Rick Rubin

Sandman in comparison sounds like everything is going through a box of some kind, everything sounds supernatural, doubled, tripled, or augmented in some way. It’s as much Bob Rock’s and Randy Staub’s record’s as it is Metallica’s. It also reflects the tone of an era. Less bottom, brighter instruments, lots of reverb and lots and lots individual dynamic processing on instruments everywhere. I bet if you could go listen to Metallica jam to the song Enter The Sandman live in their rehearsal space today, it would probably sound quite like The Day That Never Comes sounds like on the Death Magnetic record.

So which is the real Metallica sound? The ‘we change the snare head 10 times a day, put three mics on every drum, use all guitar cabinets in the tristate area to get to this sound’ Metallica, or the ‘this is it’ Metallica? Is one good and one bad? How about we rephrase the question: which do you like best? And more importantly, why?

And so ladies and gentlemen, things ain’t what they used to be for...


Wait. Wait. Waiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. I think I hear someone who just took off their expensive headphones, and has red marks around their ears from pressing the cans on very very hard to really really really listen for distortion on The Day That Never Comes, scream at me: ‘Are you deaf or something???? Can’t you hear the bass and guitars flutter on the downbeat around 3.18 or the snare drum crest and crust in the middle of the fill at 3.42?????????? That’s wrong, very very wrong. Bad bad bad engineer, go to your room!’

Yes I can. And in plenty other places too. But I don’t think it’s the distortion people were up in arms about on the interwebs (The one with email, you know?), and I don’t think it has anything to do with brickwall limiting or digital distortion or the loudness wars or any of the supposed reasons I have read about at all. And I don’t think it’s an oversight either. Reflect on who the team is on this record is for a second (Don’t forget to tip wikipedia in the process). Right. Badass people who know their stuff. Whether you like the artistic decision or not is totally fine and great but underestimating the vision of a record making crew at that level is silly.

Metallica recording in studio

Of the top of my head, I think that the sound of that grit is in good parts the sound of the output stage of a Neve 80 series console, or some transformer output stage of a box in the chain freaking out from being pushed hard, and thus glowing and being naughty. And I think that the team liked that sound. It’s a raw and heavy rock record with guitar amps on 11.5 and everything being hit very hard. Why is it a problem to hit the console hard too, if it helps with creating tension that works for the song? Would it feel the same if it were clean and proper? Especially being this dry and present? This is not Matchbox 20 we are talking about, here.

And so ladies and gentlemen, things ain’t what they used to be for vintage Bordeaux, I can vouch for that, but as far as the sound of music recordings goes, it’s always a good idea to go back and listen on your reference system before you let your brain distort your perception of a given piece, or before you succumb to the ever present, and lethal, threat of unvetted second hand information.

Fab Dupont.


Pianist and Resident Engineer of Fuseroom Recording Studio in Berlin, Hollywood's Musicians Institute Scholarship winner and Outstanding Student Award 2005, ee's worked in productions for Italian pop stars like Anna Oxa, Marco Masini and RAF, Stefano 'Cocco' Cantini and Riccardo Galardini, side by side with world-class musicians and mentors like Roger Burn and since 2013 is part of the team at Alberto has worked with David White, Niels Kurvin, Jenny Wu, Apple and Apple Music, Microsoft, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Virgin Airlines, Cane, Morgan Heritage, Riot Games, Dangerous Music, Focal, Universal Audio and more.