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Guitar Hero Reignites Loudness Wars

Master of Mastering Ian Shepherd takes a look at Metallica's latest album on CD and in Guitar Hero and finds that the video game version sounds "better."

In this shot, he's all "HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYYY!"
Though my ears aren't tuned enough to always tell the difference, I've never been a fan of audio compression--it's technology that mashes the dynamic range of a recording down, reducing the highness of the highs and the lowness of the lows, spitting out audio that fits in the middle of the spectrum and doesn't have huge peaks. The benefit is that these tighter waveforms can be made a whole lot louder.

That brings us to the "loudness wars," where you have people who prefer the full dynamic range of a recording versus a group who just wants it to be loud as hell. I don't really understand the argument in favor of loudness, as that's why most equipment has a fat volume knob on it. But this process is something that we struggle with a bit here at Giant Bomb--if you ever wondered why our podcast used to be quieter, it's because we were still figuring out how to properly compress it.

OK, I think I got all that right. Now, here's where it ties into games. There's been a raging fire out there on the Internet concerning Metallica's recent release, Death Magnetic. As I'm not in junior high anymore, I haven't heard the new album, but apparently it's loud as hell. And it's been completely smooshed down to a tight and not-very-dynamic range in the process. Audio nerds went bananas, online petitions were started.

But the album was also released as a download for Guitar Hero III and will also be available for Guitar Hero: World Tour. And apparently the version released there doesn't "feature" any of the harsh digital clipping and problems that the CD release has.

This makes sense, as Guitar Hero and Rock Band get access to the masters and are able to manipulate the tracks in different ways. For example, you've probably noticed that the guitar parts in Guitar Hero are usually louder than the rest of the song so you can better hear the parts you're playing.

Mastering Engineer Ian Shepherd takes a look at audio from both sources on his blog, with interesting results. He's also been tracking the uproar about the quality of the released album, complete with quotes from someone involved with the mastering of the album who shifts the blame off to the band and producer, Rick Rubin.

As a result of all this, illegal copies of the Metallica album, recorded off of a game console, are now swimming around the darker portions of the Internet.

Loudness wars aside, do you feel that we're heading for a future where a game console is going to be one of the best places to listen to (and interact with) music? Or are you too busy listening to 112kbps MP3s through the crappy headphones that come with an iPod to even care about things like "sound quality" and "dynamic range?"
Jeff Gerstmann on Google+
50 Comments
Posted by Jeff
In this shot, he's all "HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYYY!"
Though my ears aren't tuned enough to always tell the difference, I've never been a fan of audio compression--it's technology that mashes the dynamic range of a recording down, reducing the highness of the highs and the lowness of the lows, spitting out audio that fits in the middle of the spectrum and doesn't have huge peaks. The benefit is that these tighter waveforms can be made a whole lot louder.

That brings us to the "loudness wars," where you have people who prefer the full dynamic range of a recording versus a group who just wants it to be loud as hell. I don't really understand the argument in favor of loudness, as that's why most equipment has a fat volume knob on it. But this process is something that we struggle with a bit here at Giant Bomb--if you ever wondered why our podcast used to be quieter, it's because we were still figuring out how to properly compress it.

OK, I think I got all that right. Now, here's where it ties into games. There's been a raging fire out there on the Internet concerning Metallica's recent release, Death Magnetic. As I'm not in junior high anymore, I haven't heard the new album, but apparently it's loud as hell. And it's been completely smooshed down to a tight and not-very-dynamic range in the process. Audio nerds went bananas, online petitions were started.

But the album was also released as a download for Guitar Hero III and will also be available for Guitar Hero: World Tour. And apparently the version released there doesn't "feature" any of the harsh digital clipping and problems that the CD release has.

This makes sense, as Guitar Hero and Rock Band get access to the masters and are able to manipulate the tracks in different ways. For example, you've probably noticed that the guitar parts in Guitar Hero are usually louder than the rest of the song so you can better hear the parts you're playing.

Mastering Engineer Ian Shepherd takes a look at audio from both sources on his blog, with interesting results. He's also been tracking the uproar about the quality of the released album, complete with quotes from someone involved with the mastering of the album who shifts the blame off to the band and producer, Rick Rubin.

As a result of all this, illegal copies of the Metallica album, recorded off of a game console, are now swimming around the darker portions of the Internet.

Loudness wars aside, do you feel that we're heading for a future where a game console is going to be one of the best places to listen to (and interact with) music? Or are you too busy listening to 112kbps MP3s through the crappy headphones that come with an iPod to even care about things like "sound quality" and "dynamic range?"
Staff
Posted by Milkman

I'll stick with iTunes and music that is not Metallica. Thank you very much.

Online
Posted by marbig

I thought that it would be the other way around, and GHIII would have the smooshed down version.

Posted by LethalKi11ler

lol ur not first emandudeguyperson
Whens the Rock Band: Name group   coming out?

Posted by j_meyer_13

I don't think consoles will be the best for listening to music, unless you're setting up custom soundtracks for Madden or something.  People like their mobile music.  And I would definitely pick sound quality over file size/loudness...as I sit here typing this listening to the Giant Bombcast on my crappy mp3 player with $10 headphones.

Posted by RBecho

I can't stand the reduced dynamic range that modern recordings seem to favor. I would much rather they provide us with a slightly softer recording with better dynamic range that I can just boost on my amp.

Posted by Zuul

I dont think that my ears even work well enough to tell any sort of dynamic range anymore.

Posted by Spencer

Game consoles will always be the best place to actually interact with music, but for just listening to the music I would say the best place for that is just a standard PC with some great speakers.

Posted by PLWolf

I'm not much of an audiophile, as apparent by my mp3/podcast listening on my PSP. lol
Yes, Jeff, we do exist. ;-)
But if the sound quality of an album is going to be better via Guitar Hero/Rock Band, that's all right by me.
I think the games are the one place I want the sound to be really good. MP3's, and what not, not so much. weird, I know.

Posted by Aas

"As I'm not in junior high anymore, I haven't heard the new album."

Tschji, burn!

Posted by glasswall52

I am in total favor of full range over compression, I was really disappointed when Radiohead's "In Rainbows" came out for download but it ended up only being 192kbps. But I also am a digital guy and understand the necessity of compression. The same issue is applied with digital photography, a raw photograph contains too much information for modern monitors to display, they are also very large files, so they need to be compressed. When compression is done correctly, you can't tell the difference because it's only getting rid of information you wouldn't be able to see/hear anyway. To compress correctly, you need to have a target audience in mind, 192kbps might sound fine for the person with the stock iPod head phones, but total ass to someone with $90 headphones. I think it would be great if digital music download services like iTunes would offer the highest quality product possible then offer compression options for you to choose yourself. I want the maximum sound quality I cant possibly get out of my zune (yeah I have one and I love it), but I wouldn't be able to handle the raw format of each song I listened to because they would all be 10x the file size of a normally compressed mp3.

Anyway, the point is that people are still excited about Metallica, which is crazy. But what's even more crazy is that it's the same demographic of people it's been for the last 20 years, is it a requirement that you like Metallica in middle and high school and then forget about them after that stage in life?

Posted by Reynolds

I'm currently listening to a 7 inch on my turntable.  Extrapalate from that whath you will.

Posted by TheVilrak

I check out both versions and its true, the cd version (which i purchsed) is alot louder but  worse quality. If you crank the guitar hero 3 version up to the same volume it sounds amazing in comparison. 

Posted by Oni

Right, I care about sound quality, in that I will invest in quality headphones and mess with equalizers, but am not a complete audiophile, and even I can hear that Death Magnetic sounds pretty smoshed, and I haven't even listened to it much (also not in Junior high anymore, when I was actually way into Metallica). Especially the drum stuff just sounds clipped, at least I think that's the clipping I'm hearing. Pretty dumb, especially because, as said, you can use volume knows to make stuff louder.

Posted by Terrell

I think people take this sound quality thing TOO far. As long as it sounds good and doesn't hurt my ears or anything when I hear it, then thats good enough for me.

Posted by AngeTheDude

I can't believe how musically snobby some of you are, GROW UP!

Anyway, I have the album, and I love it. It's like Metallica is finally back. The audio mastering is REALLY poor though. There is serious audio clipping and noise on some songs. Hopefully they fix it somehow.

Posted by DualReaver

You're right, to hell with good sound quality. I want all my CDs to be made up of 96ks.

Posted by killawogg

 i think its a consoles games or just the console it self is a viable means to listen to music but as far as im concerned with all the consoles drm it never feels like i own the music like i do witha a cd.

.always quality over loudness like you said turn the volume up on the machine, i can hear it clipping in certain songs but not in others , probably cause im getting old and been to many concerts in my time that its killed my ears but its still not enough to detract me from the  album, also  really the only thing that i noticed was the the snare drum although not as loud as st anger  its still noticeable.
 i enjoy the cd and the gh3 version too  if you like metallica im sure your not going to notice it but yes its there ,  to bad cause its really not that bad of an album with all things considered for metallica .  

 to my ears the best recorded metallica album was an justice for all  i love the way that sounds
Posted by Everyones_A_Critic

I downloaded through "alternate means" like three weeks ago and I think it sounds fine. I didn't really notice a difference in sound.

I'm not going to outright defend the band as if it were my child, so whatever. If there was sound issues on the disc then shame on them. I play the game version through a shitty TV anyway but I didn't notice a difference.

Posted by chris43234

I think that 320kbps is about the max quality for someone who is not an audiophile, it really comes down to the cost vs. benefit situation (the cost being file size). Sure you could play your huge uncompressed files with terrible speakers, but does it really make sense? People need to figure out what makes the most sense for their setup, and go with that. Therefore, retailers such as iTunes do need to offer tracks in a variety of sound qualities, so that people can get what they really want/need.

As far as interaction with music, for pure listening purposes, game consoles probably don't make the most sense unless you have the console hooked up to a nice speaker system, or else you will still not be hearing the music at a great quality regardless. For music games, of course consoles will be the best since they were designed with games in mind.

Posted by DavidSnakes

Metallica, I didn't know anyone still cared.

Posted by ThePelinal

I'm too busy listening to mp3s on my crappy ipod headphones.  As long as it's at least 128 kbps, I'm good.

Posted by tmontana1004
Posted by Mawryk

I'm halfway in between.  I don't mind a little compression, but one of the first things I did with my iPod was upgrade the headphones.    But I'm still not rocking the 100.00 headphones either. 

Posted by wafflestomp

Mastering will ultimately make or break a recording. For some reason people think louder is better, in some instances they are right. Unfortunately for Metallica they got screwed by the mastering engineer, the record sounds really good in guitar hero. You hear Robert Trujillo perfectly, on the actual cd he is gone. In case you didn't know, Robert is amazing, so it is a shame that it happened. Metallica was also screwed on ..and Justice for All. No bass guitar at all on that record. I guess lighting does strike twice.

I would bet that in a few months they will release the album for free, totally remastered to where it should be.

Moderator
Posted by HTTenrai

I'll take 192kbps, but I prefer 320. I remember when 128 was the "high" end for MP3s because of bandwidth issues, but now it sound like someone is using an aerosol can to spray the music into my ears.

Posted by heavymtlhead

In true James Hetfield fasion, it would be more like "HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYYY YAAA!"

Posted by JimmyJackJones

I have no opinion on this loudness thing.  I do have an opinion on online petitions, though.  They need to stop.  Now.

Seriously, a petition about a Metallica album?  That's almost worse than the Diablo III crap.  Look, if you're gonna make a petition to stop genocide in Darfur or something like that, then I'm all for it.  But someone needs to make a virus that will hunt down these entertainment related petitions and replace all the signatures with the word "penis". 

Posted by CodeMunki

I'm not sure any amount of re-mastering can make this album not suck.  At least it was easy for them to put the tabs into GHIII.  They can just copy & paste the same chord 4000 times per song.

Posted by VegaDemonLord

I'm with AngeTheDude.

Posted by Destroyeron

Seems rather disappointing that a band with Metallica's legacy can have such a problem at all...

Posted by duxup

I'm not in the world of audio.  I work in the land of computer networks.  What I've never understood is why when it comes to audio people don't use, or maybe there isn't any lossless compression?  I work with compression all the time when it comes to data and you can't afford any loss, but there are solutions such as using lossless compression.  Are there no for  such solutions for audio? 

I work with compression all the time and nobody in the network world seems as anti compression as when I see people talk about it when it comes to music.  I don't get it.

Posted by Abomstar

320kbps are fine for me, but anything lower than that and it gets really distracting. I used to not notice it, but now I definitely can.

All I know is Death Magnetic must have a REALLY bad production job, since Guitar Hero III sounds like listening to the songs underwater compared to Rock Band, although I hear the filesize of the DLC is exceptionally huge, so that may explain it.

Posted by elektrixx

Wow, I didn't think you'd pick up on this story Jeff.

I got the original CD as well as the GHIII version, and I can definitely confirm that the GHIII version is a way better release.

Posted by DualReaver

I like my uncompressed CDs and FLAC files.

Posted by Johanz

If more games are created in the vein of Vib Ribbon and custom Guitar Hero/Rock Band tracks (like Frets on Fire, but on a console) I think that interaction in music will rise, if the consumer wants to play around with it.

Posted by StaticFalconar

While I care about audio quality a little bit (cannot be too compressed), I rather pay attention to really good speakers.

Posted by elektrixx

I should also note that there are two version of the GHIII version floating around. A newer one came out yesterday which has a number of fixes.

Posted by MrKlorox

Having recently been drawn into the world of tactile transducers (bass shakers for the layman) I find myself appalled by the quality of CDs nowadays. This "Loudness War" thing has to stop. Either that or we need to develop better lossless compression. FLAC and APE are still a little inflated ind very widely unsupported (in devices). For someone with about $500 worth of headphone listening equipment (includes cans, soundcard, and two buttkicker gamers for my chair), range compression is an insult.

Used to be, one would download a few tracks off an album in highly compressed MP3 format; then if they liked them, they'd purchase it in it's supposed higher resolution, more detailed CD quality version. Now with is "loudness war" BS, that seems to be completely pointless. I blame the MP3 revolution standardizing crappy compression as the norm to be expected. If I want to dynamically range compress my CD audio, I'd use a plugin like VolumeLogic.

I'm getting less and less interested in metal lately because most albums go for volume. I find most synthesized music doesn't suffer the same fate. And to be fair, in that shot he's most likely all "YEEEEEAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!"

Posted by Stokes

Well, my crappy iPod headphones sound perfect to me so I really don't care.

Posted by DiGiTaL_SiN

I've been looking for some decent headphones for the last month, I've bought 3 pairs in the process and tossed out 2 of them. I guess you can call me an obsessive audiophile.

Posted by MagusMaleficus

Christ, Jeff, that line about junior high was incredibly immature and condescending...

Posted by HitNRun

The funniest part about this is that's happening to Metallica, a band that's so last-century in terms of computer engagement that they oppose DRM on the grounds that it implicitly permits their products to be downloaded at all. They were probably angry when someone explained to them that their CDs had digital files on them all this time.

When you figure how little it will take to drive people to download the "better" version off torrents...the fireworks should be good.

Posted by ChrisTilton

I HATE the loudness wars. LONG LIVE DYNAMIC RANGE!!!

Posted by RHCPfan24

With my iPod, I use the crappy headphones that come with it and I listened to mostly 128kbps files.  However, on my computer, I have excellent speakers and I love to listen to it as loud or as good as I can.  Now, this sort of convinces me to buy the GH album.

Posted by Metamorphic

"As I'm not in junior high anymore, I haven't heard the new album"

Fuck you Jeff and your 2 note hitting, whining, metro sexual, butt hurt, The Killers music etc...

I'm just messing around, but from what I've seen you guys listening to in your blogs (I stalk?) the music is not that good (imo). Something that a high school girl that says she likes/knows about music, would listen to. Or the dudes that want to be different and force convince themselves that the underground hip hop or rock music that they listen to is the best. Nor mainstream nor  underground.... just music

LISTEN!

Posted by broqz

this kinda reminds me of the arguments we all see about how many FPS is the best/acceptable/not noticable or whatever.  some people may be able to notice the compression while some would never hear it.  though i can empathize with those that want their audio to be as pure and untampered with as possible or those that want their game to run at 120 FPS with all setting high at insane resolutions, i don't think the rest of us really care that much.  i mean if it was so bad people wouldn't being buying it right?  i've listened to low bit rate music and i still enjoyed it, i've played games that ran at less then optimal FPS (imo below 30).  atleast this thing in Guitar Hero gives fans the means to listen to a better version, if they are so inclined.

Posted by Dryker

I was getting so frustrated with crappy Metallica albums I, not too long ago, bought the Black Album (Metallica) again to see how much I really liked it. It's pretty good. The main problem being that I've heard most of it way too much. I heard a couple songs from Death Magnetic on their website before its release and though not totally blown away, thought, "Hey, not bad, maybe they get the other songs right and bring back some of that metallica build and face-melting guitar solos." So I bought the album on day one. Listened to it over a game of pool with some buddies and said, "After Load and Reload of crap, literally, and the messy St. Anger, this is pretty damn cool." I've listened to it a bunch now, and I can say I really dig this album. I hear it in my head when I'm not listening to it... and that sounds good too. Which is always a good sign. Now this? There is, potentially, a better sounding version of the album out there? Damn, I really want that. My Metallica is back.

Wait, what am I doing still writing this... I need to go find that version. Oh, yeah, and order the new 'In this Moment' and 'Trivium' albums.

30 minutes later: Damn, can't find the Guitar Hero version on CD anywhere.

Posted by sociald1077

I have always disliked the sound quality of MP3's. I like the portable nature of them, but I will never stop buying CD's until an MP3 or one of its compression cousins can match the quality I get from CD's.

As for games, I really enjoy the sound quality from RB and GH. But to enjoy them in the passive nature we enjoy other audio, we need our Jukebox feature (I'm looking at you RB2)

Posted by akka

You guys didn't understoon ANYTHING!!!!!!
DYNAMIC COMPRESSION IS NOT THE SAME THING WITH FILE COMPRESSION!!!!
It doesn't matter if you use cd or flac/ape/wav (or any other uncompressed of lossless compressed audio file), this can be dynamically compressed in the mastering / mixed-down process. Also, you can have an mp3,on a reasonable bitrate, that is made from a sound with full dynamic range (most old albums albums (ot remixed!) and very little from the music of today) and will sound better than any original cd  played on a hi-fi stereo if the album is from 2000 - 2009

Please search "loudness war" on wikipedia or google.