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Q&A: Why is most heavy metal so poorly recorded?


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Q: All styles of music benefit from being properly recorded, including metal, so why is most heavy metal music so poorly recorded & mixed compared to other genres? "Audiophile heavy metal" is an oxymoron comparable to "fresh frozen" or "honest politician", but it does not have to be so.

 

 

A: I asked this question to a mastering engineer with more than 30 years of experience, and he had the following reply:

 

"Poor engineering by people who never learned, and others who learned from those who didn't know. That's the best answer I have."

 

That was the short explanation, here is the long:

 

Most so-called recording engineers who specialize in this genre, especially today among the younger generation, are just your average 'guitar player turned recording engineer' types. Many of them have no formal training in audio engineering. Another reason is to be found in the target audience this music is meant for and the listening equipment used. Good recording quality is a priority for listeners of jazz and classical for example, so titles in these genres are engineered accordingly. On the other hand, "sound quality" has traditionally been something metal fans crap on and wipe a certain body part with. In fact, in most heavy metal communities, whether online or in the real world, anyone who criticizes or even talks about sound quality, is ridiculed. This ugly habit is dishonest, since even a little open-minded listening (preferably on good equipment!) will reveal that most heavy metal is very poorly produced and recorded, often with large amounts of high-frequency distortion (not that the average hearing-damaged tone-deaf metal head would notice), excessive treble energy and a muddy mix with lack of separation, made worse by excessive editing, overdubbing and processing.

 

There is a concept of audio engineering in which one attempts to accurately, and pristinely capture the sound of an instrument. You listen to a piano, guitar, bass, drum or vocal, and try to record it with good microphones in a room with good acoustical properties, in an attempt to reproduce a sound that is as close to the original source as possible. Judging by the way most metal music is recorded, this concept apparently rarely, if ever, enters the minds of the recording engineers who work with this music.

 

Again, whereas fans of classical and jazz usually do most of their listening on high-end home stereo systems, most metal music is typically played back on cheap low quality equipment such as portable music players, car stereos, computer speakers or ghetto-blasters. If fans of metal were in possession of good playback equipment, it would only serve to painfully display the limitations of the source material.

 

There is also another reason for why the sound of most metal has so drastically declined in the past 15 or 20 years, and it is not just related to the switch from analog to digital recording. In the 1980s and up to a certain point in the 1990s, the recording and mixing process was left entirely in the hands of the recording and mixing engineers. They had full control of the studio process. At some point the bands and musicians themselves decided to get involved in the recording process, bands and musicians who after sitting in the studio next to the engineers during the mixing process for a couple of albums, now thought they were fully qualified to do everything themselves. The result? Worsening sound.

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Good Read.

 

Artists don't trust the engineers as much because there are so many hack "so called PRO" engineers flooding the market.

 

Its our job as engineers to educate our clients/artists on quality and why it matters... so that they can realize the difference.

 

Thanks for posting that,

 

Kyle D

 

EDIT: I want to add that...there are some AMAZING sounding Metal Albums and some really POOR sounding Pop, Hip Hop and etc.etc. So its not just Metal. This issue occurs across the board.

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Maybe I am missing something here but most of the heavy metal I listen to is well recorded, in my opinion. Sometimes when the band first start out they have not particularly good recordings but I don't think this is particular to heavy metal.

 

Edguy, Iced Earth, Kamelot, Dream Theater and Nightwish are just a few names I can think of with great sounding recordings.

 

Even some of the more extreme metal like Dimmu Borguir and Napalm Death have very good sounding recent recordings.

 

A lot of the metalcore and modern thrash is made to sound more agressive than the songs otherwise be, by having a really loud snare and usually more sample replacement style sound. I don't think it is right to say this is 'bad' production. It is largely down to personal taste.

 

Iron Maiden have tried to recreate their late 70s/early 80s sound on practically all their albums but this go for the musicality as well as the production.

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I dont know how true the statement is or weather the person stating it just has a long nose theyre looking down. Most serious engineers are tolerant and understanding as to the why's or why nots in all music. This particular guy might just have a problem with body piercing, Tatoos, and skin heads or pink hair do's or something.

 

I am not into heavy metal but recording it, mixing and mastering can be just as challanging as any other music. As far as dealing with those who play it or listen to it shouldnt influence the mix, but people tend to be influenced by those they hang with.

 

If I was to interpit what this guy said from his experience he finds musicians who play jazz more artistic. I can understand that. You got to have taken lessons and actually read music to play decent jazz. Same goes for that kind of acoustic recording. It does require experience to get decent tracking or a well mixed sound. An engineer may actually have to use his experience in artistic ways which can be a pleasureable challange.

 

As far as listening to metal for any extended period I would need to be sedated which may be part of the problem with those playing, listening or recording it making it the unsaid part of the message by Ma Sunk's mentor.

 

I think its something alot of kids latch onto in music that mimicks you screaming back at your parents or getting pissed at some other guy for stealing your chick and taking your emotions out in your music by chain sawing the guy up or something equally drastic or rebelious as expressed in many of the lyrics.

 

As far as recording Technique goes, theres not alot of dynamic headroom with all the instruments trying to be top dog in the mix, and limiting the life out of it usually gives the listener what they want so Its not the kind of music I would be able to incorporate any artistic recording techniques into.

 

When you consider it though, Its not alot different than the Who screaming Teenage Wasteland or Hendrix plowing major feedback. They were also hell for recording engineers in the day because of equipment and DB levels, but someone liked doing it and got fairly decent results.

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A lot of the metal production tricks of the past just sound stupid and dated now. Clicky kick drums and scooped guitars sound bad to me regardless of the media they were recorded on.

 

There is still good sounding metal out there, both digital and on tape. I heard a track from the upcoming Mastodon album the other day, and it sounded great. Kick drum was full and fat, the bass was clearly audible without hyped top end, and the guitars didn't sound scooped. That one is produced by Brendan O

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Also check out some newer Opeth for a great sounding metal record. Blackwater Park, Damnation, and Deliverance were produced by Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree fame (though Damnation is basically a straight up 70's prog album). Their newer albums Ghost Reveries and Watershed have Mikael Akerfeldt taking up much of the production.

 

I don't really consider Tool metal, but you can't forget Lateralus either.

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I would implore the OP to give examples instead of just throwing out blanket statements. Production styles have changed a lot in this genre but there are definitely some gems out there from as far back as the mid-90's... Carcass' "Heartwork" and At The Gates' "Slaughter of the Soul" come to mind. In the modern day, I think of studios like Planet Z and Zing being the big powerhouses out here on the east coast, as well as Florida's Audiohammer, and they all consistently turn out great mixes and have the same elements you would expect from any other pro studio... great gear, great live rooms, etc.

 

Honestly, without knowing what recordings gave the OP such an axe to grind, I'm not even sure if I should waste any more breath. I've been mixing heavy music for years now. It is a challenge and just like any other genre, it has its go-to recordings that exemplify it. It's certainly not something I'd want to do exclusively, but it definitely requires quite an ear for frequency balance. And when you're mixing aggressive music, you can't meet anything halfway - the mix has to be aggressive to match! It's a fun exercise in excess. A lot of great metal mixes just strike me as rock mixes that are just a bit more over-the-top. When heavy stuff is mixed poorly, it's usually mixed VERY poorly, so it's easy to get led astray into thinking that it's something "real engineers" scoff at... but that attitude goes against the spirit of engineering to me.

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Density. Metal is one genre, I personally don't play that much. But I would think for me Metal would be very difficult to mix. I'm used to music with more sonic space which allows more freedom in the mixing process.

 

 

Excellent point.

 

A lot of Metal is a cast iron PITB to mix IMO, and the reasons for that, at least in part, are not really addressed in the OP.

 

One of the big problems is due to the sound of the instruments themselves, and player / stylistic preferences in tones, as well as a few other "musician and producer driven" preferences and decisions.

 

"There is a concept of audio engineering in which one attempts to accurately, and pristinely capture the sound of an instrument. You listen to a piano, guitar, bass, drum or vocal, and try to record it with good microphones in a room with good acoustical properties, in an attempt to reproduce a sound that is as close to the original source as possible."

 

I'm largely from that school of engineering. I reach for a microphone, and try different mikes and placements before going for a plugin. I try to get the drum sounds we want via the recording process before trying drum replacement, and unless we're going for a intentionally "processed" sound, I try to start by accurately capturing what's happening at the source. If it sux in the room, or at the source, you're usually just playing chase your tail in trying to improve or fix it later.

 

However, unless you're the producer, and can have a discussion where you can come to some mutual understandings, and explain the potential pitfalls, you're going to be swimming upstream when recording many metal bands - especially younger, inexperienced bands - which many metal bands are. A large part of that is due to the preferences and sounds that are intrinsic to that particular genre.

 

Performance issues can definitely come into play with metal recordings, especially with the drums, and I think this is a big part of the reason for the popularity with drum replacement and augmentation with that genre. I find that a lot of drummers can't quite pull off the rapid fire double kick parts and do them cleanly and consistently. There is also a tendency on the part of some younger / less experienced metal drummers to beat the crud out of their brass. This is probably from having to do so in a live situation in order to cut through the thick wall of distorted guitars, but it can be way too much in the studio.

 

Also, since there is such emphasis on "shredding" in metal, there tends to be more emphasis on playing really fast, and the temptation for players to reach too far beyond their technical capabilities is pretty big. And metal, in order to be done well, requires exceptional precision and tightness from the band. If it's at all sloppy, the mud issues and problems with detail and distinction are going to be even worse.

 

If you have drop or down tuned guitars and bass, chances are, those frequencies are going to conflict - with each other, as well as the other "bottom of the frequency spectrum" elements such as kick drums and floor toms. Drop the pitch, and the fundamental frequencies get dropped too, and the lower you go in the frequency spectrum, the harder it is for our ears to distinguish detail and definition. To counter this, high frequencies are commonly boosted in metal recordings, which can result in harshness - remember, the higher overtones of the sound are also dropped when you downtune an instrument, which means bringing out "detail" via HF EQ may require a lower frequency than you might normally use on a non-drop tuned instrument, but I think that fact sometimes gets overlooked by some engineers; not to mention that those higher frequencies get moved right into the vocal range. Highly distorted guitars, and to a lesser extent, distorted vocals, can take up HUGE amounts of the frequency bandwidth. It's that "density" issue that Jimbroni mentioned. If the guitarist is looking for "huge low frequencies of doom", it's hard to avoid having it step on other elements of the mix.

 

These issues are further exacerbated by a misguided desire on the part of many metal bands to have "a loud CD", and massive overcompression in mastering. I get far more requests for a "really LOUD CD" from hard rock / metal bands than from bands of any other genre.

 

Good metal recordings CAN be done, but there are some significant issues, and doing a great one requires a lot of good communication between the musicians and engineers / producer, as well as extra attention to carving out individual frequencies for all the parts, and extra attention to the musical arrangements.

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Advice to the forum: glance over other threads started by this poster (see
http://acapella.harmony-central.com/search.php?searchid=5619753
), then decide if you want to take him seriously or not. I remember
this thread
in particular from a few months ago.

 

I thought I smelled a troll albie! That's why I caught myself mid-post and held my breath.

 

Phil, good points all around. You clearly have worked with the genre, unlike the OP. On the cymbals thing - most session players I've seen hit the drums astoundingly hard but maintain a light touch on the cymbals. I try to do the same.

 

ALL of the metal engineers I've seen snag a direct track from the guitars, no exceptions. Usually the guitarist is playing through an amp sim during the tracking stage, with reamping done later. Other times I've seen great sounding mixes done with ALL amp sims... the software has really come a long way when it comes to high-gain stuff. No matter how you do it, I think the point is that YOU, the engineer, are making the calls when it comes to guitar tone, because as we all know, most of the bottom end in the guitars will be pulled out anyway.

 

In general this speaks to a trend that I've seen in metal production anytime I've gotten the chance to see a mix broken down: there are surprising amounts of low end pulled out of nearly everything in the mix. This includes the usual suspects such as overheads and guitars, but even bass and kick strike me as being a bit thinner than your average big rock sounds. With the amount of notes that are being played, it's your first line of defense against a mushy mix that's lacking in definition.

 

As for the urge for players to overstep their bounds, I think it's just a result of what players do in any genre - trying to sound like their idols. If your model is a quantized, sound replaced performance at 250 bpm, well :wave: time to get practicin'! A lot of younger players don't have the discipline to develop the sheer athleticism this stuff calls for.

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I think it's all a matter of personal taste - where as a seasoned listener of classical would listen to a metal album and hate the sound of it (not whats played, but how it's mixed/recorded) and vice-versa.

 

I think (personally) that metal albums have only become better as far as quality goes - listen to the latest offerings from "The Faceless" "Veil Of Maya" and "Born Of Osiris" - All recorded (I think they were anyway) at the same studio with the same engineer/mixer (Michael Keene - guitarist/engineer for the faceless... I guess that proves a point from the O.P. about guitarists turned engineers) but I think the mastering was done at different places. IMHO all fantastic recordings - although they are all very close as far as the sub-genre of technical/progressive metal goes and myself being an avid fan of said genre makes me somewhat biased.

 

Compared to a metal album recorded in the 90's or even the 80's for that matter, the recordings these days are generally much clearer, especially from a drum point, much crisper sounding drums - vocally, HEAPS, I means buckets more clarity... Listen to a death metal album from that time frame and EVERYTHING sounds muddy (to me anyway), newer DM is much clearer than it was, especially vocally... now cookie monster vocals are much more audibly legible than they used to be.

 

But again, it all comes down to taste and opinion

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In general this speaks to a trend that I've seen in metal production anytime I've gotten the chance to see a mix broken down: there are surprising amounts of low end pulled out of nearly everything in the mix. This includes the usual suspects such as overheads and guitars, but even bass and kick strike me as being a bit thinner than your average big rock sounds. With the amount of notes that are being played, it's your first line of defense against a mushy mix that's lacking in definition.

 

 

It has to, as you know. It's pure physics. You can't have tons of bottom end when people are playing double-kicks and 32nd notes on bass and playing chugging rhythms on baritone guitars. Speakers cannot snap back fast enough when you are playing this fast with a lot of bottom end; it results on distortion.

 

So you have this to contend with, and of course a seriously clogged midrange.

 

So in my opinion, things like this often take a good engineer for it to sound good. I have a lot of respect for engineers who can do this. I've recorded hardcore, and although a lot of it was slowcore (not always, though), so I've encountered much of the same thing.

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I think (personally) that metal albums have only become better as far as quality goes - listen to the latest offerings from "The Faceless" "Veil Of Maya" and "Born Of Osiris" - All recorded (I think they were anyway) at the same studio with the same engineer/mixer (Michael Keene - guitarist/engineer for the faceless... I guess that proves a point from the O.P. about guitarists turned engineers)

 

 

I actually am not too keen (sorry, I had to go there) on Michael Keene's production work... he's pretty heavy handed with his sound replacement on the drums... which is ok in this genre, except that it leaves absolutely no excuse to not have great drum sounds, and many of his kick and snare sounds fall into the "what were you thinking?!" catergory. In fact, come to think of it, the guitars are the only thing that sound good on most of his recordings IMO. He's also not a very transparent producer... if you know what his guitar playing sounds like, you can clearly hear his hand in writing parts for the bands he produces. I've seen a lot of metal producers do this but it's particularly blatant with him.

 

I would reccomend checking out recent work by Zeuss or Jason Suecof before I would reccomend Michael Keene... they're far better examples of balanced mixes in this genre. Jason's work on the newer Bury Your Dead stuff is really impressive - no sound replacement on the drums and they sound HUGE.

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Phil said a ton of great things.

 

 

Performance issues can definitely come into play with metal recordings, especially with the drums, and I think this is a big part of the reason for the popularity with drum replacement and augmentation with that genre. I find that a lot of drummers can't quite pull off the rapid fire double kick parts and do them cleanly and consistently. There is also a tendency on the part of some younger / less experienced metal drummers to beat the crud out of their brass. This is probably from having to do so in a live situation in order to cut through the thick wall of distorted guitars, but it can be way too much in the studio.


Also, since there is such emphasis on "shredding" in metal, there tends to be more emphasis on playing really fast, and the temptation for players to reach too far beyond their technical capabilities is pretty big. And metal, in order to be done well, requires exceptional precision and tightness from the band. If it's at all sloppy, the mud issues and problems with detail and distinction are going to be even worse.


If you have drop or down tuned guitars and bass, chances are, those frequencies are going to conflict - with each other, as well as the other "bottom of the frequency spectrum" elements such as kick drums and floor toms. Drop the pitch, and the fundamental frequencies get dropped too, and the lower you go in the frequency spectrum, the harder it is for our ears to distinguish detail and definition. To counter this, high frequencies are commonly boosted in metal recordings, which can result in harshness - remember, the higher overtones of the sound are also dropped when you downtune an instrument, which means bringing out "detail" via HF EQ may require a lower frequency than you might normally use on a non-drop tuned instrument, but I think that fact sometimes gets overlooked by some engineers; not to mention that those higher frequencies get moved right into the vocal range. Highly distorted guitars, and to a lesser extent, distorted vocals, can take up HUGE amounts of the frequency bandwidth. It's that "density" issue that Jimbroni mentioned. If the guitarist is looking for "huge low frequencies of doom", it's hard to avoid having it step on other elements of the mix.

 

 

All agreed. And I know what you mean about eating up the bandwidth, because I usually put down several layers of rhythm guitars that are fuzzed out and sort of pushing and pulling, and what i've noticed is that when everything's heavy, it's hard to get alot of intelligibility in mixes if you want maximum density in the guitars. Mixing is alot about illusion--something isn't always as loud as much as everything else is quieter in comparison....and vice versa. You can't always just bring everything up anyways, something usually suffers, because snare drums and vocals and guitars compete for alot of the same frequencies, and those are all going full throttle in metal, usually.

 

This is something that people haven't addressed--alot of the modern production techniques of metal are not the greatest....they make every band sound the same. Triggering is a big thing--it's where you trigger a sample and basically replace the original sound. Alot of that is done in metal, so it has an unnatural consistency to it. Some of it is meant to compensate for drumming deficiencies; some of it is due to poor kit balance; some of it is due to the fact that the clarity of a snare gets lost in the blur of drum hits and all you're getting a lot of times, is the attack sound--think of blastbeats and death metal. They're playing so fast that you're really only hearing the initial attack transient of the sound, so there's not much value in sustain and decay in the soundwave.

 

My complaint is that the guitars are dialed in with way too much distortion and compression.....it kills the tone. It's great for palm mutes and super fast, responsive guitar lines, but at the expense of the guitar's natural tone. Most of the heavy guitarists in the 60's/ 70's (Hendrix, Page, Beck, Leslie West, etc) weren't playing super compressed guitar sounds, those guitar sounds were often very distorted, but they had some dynamics to them. If you listen to prime era Judas Priest, their guitars aren't squashed and distorted and mid ranged to hell.....they are certainly a good portion of the way there, but they have some headroom in their sound and playing.

 

The first example that I can think of where the tone was killed dead with super distorted and compressed sounds, was Randy Rhoades. Great player, terrible tone.....just squashed and lifeless, it's almost all super boosted midrange to where it sounds like he's using a solid state amp, but he's not. I know many other people who think the same thing. I liked metal guitar sounds more when they were using the amp's overdrive, it has a naturalness to it that distortion usually kills.

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I actually am not too keen (sorry, I had to go there) on Michael Keene's production work... he's pretty heavy handed with his sound replacement on the drums... which is ok in this genre, except that it leaves absolutely no excuse to not have great drum sounds, and many of his kick and snare sounds fall into the "what were you thinking?!" catergory. In fact, come to think of it, the guitars are the only thing that sound good on most of his recordings IMO. He's also not a very transparent producer... if you know what his guitar playing sounds like, you can clearly hear his hand in writing parts for the bands he produces. I've seen a lot of metal producers do this but it's particularly blatant with him.


I would reccomend checking out recent work by Zeuss or Jason Suecof before I would reccomend Michael Keene... they're far better examples of balanced mixes in this genre. Jason's work on the newer Bury Your Dead stuff is really impressive - no sound replacement on the drums and they sound HUGE.

 

 

I suppose that's where my taste in technical DM of this type makes me biased... he seems to be the only guy who has done much in this genre - aside from the guys in Sikth who's albums have both sounded fantastic "to my ear" - but to me, they're a slightly different sub-genre (I hate that word "sub-genre")

 

I agree with you whole heartedly on the venerable Mr. Seucof - his work is phenomenal - Chimaira's new album was great, Bury Your Dead was harder hitting than most sledge-hammers i've seen amongst other things... Funny guy too going off of the antics he got up to during the recording of "ressurection" on the bonus DVD it came with or the youtube footage you can find easily... I will always remember the scene of them all sitting outside, chilling out when Matt Devries walks up behind and wheels jasons wheelchair into the pool... with him in it

 

As for triggering - I only like it used live... recorded it makes things sound WAY too mechanical. I can't claim to even be an engineers arse-hole, but I like to think I know my way around enough to be able to record a demo or MAYBE an E.p. for a metal band, I'm horrible at mastering, so I usually pass that on to someone else though...

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Advice to the forum: glance over other threads started by this poster (see
), then decide if you want to take him seriously or not. I remember
in particular from a few months ago.

 

 

Oh yeah it's that guy! No wonder he doesn't like metal, it's not cork sniffer friendly and doesn't have the noise of tape.

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Yup, I saw the same thing. He seems to post these type of things only to wind people up. Ma Suk Dong, not cool dude, not cool at all. We're all trying to be/make friends here.

 

But, in spite of that, it was still cool to read the thoughts of folks who I actually respect on the subject.

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