A short-short recap on how making albums work. In the recording studio, the artists will assemble and record their songs. Then the songs are mixed into a final mix. Finally, the album is sent to the mastering engineer for final mastering. There's a lot more involved in making commercial albums, but that's the quickie explanation.
The mastering engineer for the CD version of D-Mag was Ted Jensen of Sterling Sound. He wrote an email to a concerned fan, who then posted it to the Metallica forums:
I’m certainly sympathetic to your reaction, I get to slam my head against that brick wall every day. In this case the mixes were already brick walled before they arrived at my place. Suffice it to say I would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here. 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.
Death Magnetic appears to have been ruined in the final mixing stage. It's here that all the songs were heavily compressed, peak limited, and otherwise turned into static mush. That's where all the problems lie.
That would normally be the end of the saga, aside from our grumbling of the lastest casualty of the music industry's insipid loudness wars. But suddenly a new wrinkle appeared from an unlikely source: the video game Guitar Hero.
Metallica made its new album available for play on Guitar Hero the same day as the commercial album's release. Because of the game's development time, Neversoft, GH's creators, were given tapes that preceeded the final mix. Put simply, they have a second mix of the album.
This is a stunning surprise, one that will in all likelihood save this album. The GH mix contains none of the heavy compression of the CD or LP versions. None of the squashing, none of the squeezing of the sounds. None of the painful jabs into your ears. Dynamic range is present in the songs. Quiet moments in songs like Unforgiven III and The Day That Never Comes are quiet, and the loud parts are loud. This is a completely different album than the version the mixing engineer destroyed.
The next question is rather obvious. When will somebody rip the GH mix so we can listen on our iPods? It's really only a matter of time. We'll have to troll through the internet for the fan mixes. Even better lies the possibility of fan-made mixes of D-Mag. This is possible because Neversoft was given the seperate tracks for their game. When you miss notes in the game, the guitar cuts out, but the rest of the band continues. This means Neversoft managed to create an album mix of their own, while also retaining the seperate channels.
I don't know about you, but I would love to tinker around and create my own D-Mag mix. Even this idea isn't a new one; Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor recently made his latest raw tracks available to the fans, so they could create their own custom mixes. In our internet age, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see more of this in the future. Games like Guitar Hero point to the future of pop music interacting with fans in new ways.
All of which points back to Metallica. In a perfect world, the band would deal directly with the terrible mixes on their new album. It really is terrible, and I remain speechless that such shoddy work would be released to the general public. If we are correct, that all the problems lie in that final mix, then this is a problem we can easily solve. I would prefer that Metallica themselves handle this. After all, it's their album.
But if that doesn't happen, we the fans are more than ready to step in. If that happens, expect "the Guitar Hero mix" to become the stuff of rock legend, like that original mono mix of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I'll post some YouTube videos so you can judge for yourselves.