The so-called “loudness war,” the modern music phenomenon that’s a result of everyone in the industry trying to be louder and more noticeable than everyone else, was won by none other than mixing engineer and producer Andrew Scheps. Well, at least that’s what he claimed — jokingly, of course — in a recent interview with Music Radar. And the record in question that he mixed and that supposedly ended this decades-long music industry conflict, was Metallica’s “Death Magnetic.”
During the chat, Andrew was asked about “the loudness war” and what he thinks of it now, to which he replied:
“I have absolutely no idea. I mean, I was the poster child for ‘loud’ because of that ‘Death Magnetic‘ record. You know, everybody hated that Metallica record that was ‘the loudest thing.’ My line is that the loudness war is over because I won. And that’s it. And that was the record that did it.“
“I think, in pop radio, there really was a loudness war. You had to be loud. But radio stations compress the crap out of everything. Everything that plays on Radio 1 is exactly the same level, it doesn’t matter what level the mix was. So I think it was all a little bit inflated, and it was *a lot* just completely outside of my awareness… I never did anything because it had to be louder. Ever. Everything I did was always because ‘it’s not feeling right.’“
“There are people who will say ‘well just make it a quieter mix, and we can turn the volume up,’ but it’s just not as simple as that. Forcing all that audio energy through a smaller hole because it’s bigger? It just sounds different. It really does.“
“And it’s something I’m actually working on. I work on doing quieter mixes because there are artefacts to it that I don’t look like and certainly over the last five to 10 years, my mixes have gotten a lot quieter. But every once in a while, there’s a record where the mixes are crazy loud because that’s what works.”
When asked how Metallica builds “that enormous, huge block of sound,” Andrew said that it’s his colleague engineer Greg Fidelman who’s responsible for that. To those who may not know, Fieldman worked with Metallica on “Death Magnetic” and also had a part in the record’s mixing process. He commented:
“Well, Greg Fidelman recorded that. But no, there aren’t a ton of guitars. I think sometimes people just forget that everybody in Metallica is really, really good at what they do.“
“I mean, James’s rhythm parts are insane. His right-hand looks like it’s not even moving. And it’s one of the most aggressive, precise things you’ve ever heard in your life. So two of those?”
“That’s a big machine. If you put more on there, it would actually end up getting smaller because they would just start collapsing together. So it really is just the band. Like Chili Peppers – it’s the band.“
“You’re so lucky to work on projects like that. It’s not like they aren’t still hard work. And it’s not like you don’t have to do anything. It’s really hard work and there’s a lot to do. Those mixes took a long time to get right. Songs are very long, and you have to keep people engaged the whole time, but to have that raw material? You know, it’s a pretty good start.”
Pressed on further on the matter, Andrew was reminded of his work with pop stars and asked whether he used completely different plugins for artists like Lana Del Rey and Adele. He replied:
“No, no, like I said before, the genre doesn’t really even occur to me. Because it’s in the tracks. While you’re mixing, you already have that raw material. It is the genre it is. So I’m just always trying to make a version that is the one that I think will connect to the most people and it’s the one that I really, really connect with emotionally and want to listen to.”
Ever since its release in 2008, Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” was criticized for overly compressed sound. In fact, there’s even noticeable distortion and that’s something that even the most die-hard fans couldn’t get over.
But even after all these years, there seems to be no clear consensus on who’s to blame for this. Some will claim that the producer Rick Rubin oversaw the mixing process and forced everyone to just brick-wall everything. Then some also blamed engineer Ted Jensen who was in charge of mastering the album but he claimed that the tracks were already pushed to their limits when he got them.
Some years later, the album was released for iTunes. This version came with a different sound. Apart from the lack of noticeable distortion, this remaster even had an improved and, objectively, more pleasant dynamic range. There was also a version for the popular game “Guitar Hero” which fans turned out to like more than the original.
Sometime after the album’s release, Lars Ulrich addressed the critique’s that “Death Magnetic” got. He said:
“I’m not gonna sit here and get caught up in whether [the sound] ‘clips’ or it doesn’t ‘clip.’ I don’t know what kind of stereos these people listen on. Me and James [Hetfield] made a deal that we would hang back a little and not get in the way of whatever Rick’s vision was. That’s not to put it on him — it’s our record, I’ll take the hit, but we wanted to roll with Rick’s vision of how Metallica would sound.”