Metallica - Death Magnetic
Album Comparisons: Death Magnetic
So much has already been written about this album that there isn't a whole lot for me to add. Death Magnetic represented the long overdue return to form that put Metallica back on the map as a serious metal band after a string of progressively worsening, alternative music influenced titles drove their original core audience farther and farther away. And make no mistake about it, this is a good album of strong material, the best thing the band had released in a good seventeen years, and FAR better than the god awful St. Anger that led even the most diehard Metallica fans to turn up their noses. Unfortunately, it's marred by some of the most egregiously distorted mixing and mastering I've ever heard. This is an album so distorted that even the mastering engineer was embarrassed to be associated with it, an album notable for having brought awareness of the Loudness War into the mainstream consciousness. Along with albums such as Bob Dylan's Modern Times, The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication, and Rush's Vapor Trails, Death Magnetic is a poster child for the Loudness War, with levels on some tracks approaching Raw Power levels. Distortion and clipping are rampant throughout, in particular during the tom and double bass hits on "Broken, Beat & Scarred" and "Cyanide," and to a really extreme degree through the entirety of "The Day That Never Comes," the album's first single. Even without the painfully audible distortion, the compression and peak limiting of the instruments - the drums in particular - only dampen the explosive dynamism and excitement generated by an otherwise killer collection of material. While the bass sounds mostly okay, the distorted crunch of the massively overdriven guitars and dead, dry as a bone thump of the snare drum really weaken the vitality of these songs. I imagine this entire album kicks some major ass when played live, but the resulting studio interpretation of these tracks is just sad. It's really a bit surprising that a major label would actually release something like this, but here we have it.

Around the time of Death Magnetic's release, numerous Guitar Hero aficionados noticed that the game's soundtrack featured a set of early, unpolished mixes of the album's content, and, realizing this, a number of Metallica fans took it upon themselves to re-record and/or remix the entire album using stems obtained from the video game. I'm including two of those here: the first, a set of recordings made straight from a perfect playback of the Guitar Hero game, recorded direct out; the second, a "mystery mix" from around 2008 and also made from the stems, but with EQ applied and with an actual attempt having been made to remix a listenable version of the album. The "mystery mix" is included here for comparison purposes only and is not evaluated.

That Was Just Your Life

Official CD release

That Was Just Your Life

Unmastered Guitar Hero version

That Was Just Your Life

Fan Guitar Hero remix

That Was Just Your Life

The End of the Line

Official CD release

The End of the Line

Unmastered Guitar Hero version

The End of the Line

Fan Guitar Hero remix

The End of the Line

Broken, Beat & Scarred

Official CD release

Broken, Beat & Scarred

Unmastered Guitar Hero version

Broken, Beat & Scarred

Fan Guitar Hero remix

Broken, Beat & Scarred

The Day That Never Comes

Official CD release

The Day That Never Comes

Unmastered Guitar Hero version

The Day That Never Comes

Fan Guitar Hero remix

The Day That Never Comes

All Nightmare Long

Official CD release

All Nightmare Long

Unmastered Guitar Hero version

All Nightmare Long

Fan Guitar Hero remix

All Nightmare Long

Cyanide

Official CD release

Cyanide

Unmastered Guitar Hero version

Cyanide

Fan Guitar Hero remix

Cyanide

The Unforgiven III

Official CD release

The Unforgiven III

Unmastered Guitar Hero version

The Unforgiven III

Fan Guitar Hero remix

The Unforgiven III

The Judas Kiss

Official CD release

The Judas Kiss

Unmastered Guitar Hero version

The Judas Kiss

Fan Guitar Hero remix

The Judas Kiss

Suicide & Redemption

Official CD release

Suicide & Redemption

Unmastered Guitar Hero version

Suicide & Redemption

Fan Guitar Hero remix (Kirk Hammet solo)

Suicide & Redemption

My Apocalypse

Official CD release

My Apocalypse

Unmastered Guitar Hero version

My Apocalypse

Fan Guitar Hero remix

My Apocalypse
And the winner is: Unmastered Guitar Hero recording. There's really no winning with this one. High frequency response is vastly inferior in the Guitar Hero mix. There is still distortion, the bass sounds muddy, the hyper limiting and compression on the drums is still present, and the drumming sounds a lot like someone beating on a cardboard box. Overall, the Guitar Hero version lacks all the polish and finish of the final retail album. On the other hand, the extreme clipping distortion of the official CD cannot be ignored. It's so bad, in fact, that I'm going with the video game mix despite its many obvious shortcomings. My recommendation is to try to compensate for these shortcomings with EQ.