By: Dave-Fi

Angry Metal-Fi is a series of articles that are cross posted on Angry Metal Guy and Metal-Fi as a collaborative effort to evangelize dynamics in metal.

Angry Metal-FiIn our first Angry Metal-Fi article, Alex pointed out exactly what’s wrong with Fleshgod Apocalypse’s Labyrinth — it’s compressed to within an inch of its life, ruining the music that the band worked so hard to create. It’s easy for us to sit and point fingers though and tell you how everyone is doing it wrong, (which they are). To really get a sense of what you’ve been missing, you need to hear some examples of bands and engineers that are doing it right. Once you’ve heard how good fully dynamic metal can sound, and how much better your favorite albums could have sounded had they been mastered with full dynamics, we hope that it will make you angry. You might even shed a tear for everything that’s been lost over the last 20 years, so many great albums ruined because of the insanity that is the Loudness War.

One of the most pervasive myths in metal production today is that because metal is supposed to be played loud, it has to be recorded loud. This could not be further from the truth. Some of the most popular metal albums in history are also some of the most dynamic. Master of Puppets: DR12. Rust in Peace: DR13. Painkiller: DR11. Reign in Blood: D14. Notice anything similar about these albums? They were all released prior to 1992, which is roughly the start of the Loudness War. From that year onward, the entire music industry began to engage in constant one-upmanship. Not only did every new album have to be louder than the one that preceded it, but louder than the other guy’s new album as well. By the late ‘90s everyone began to settle around DR6, which is where we are now. Why DR6? Because that’s as loud as you can possibly go while still attempting to hold on to some semblance of fidelity. DR6 is far from ideal, but for every point of dynamic range lost below that mark, you begin to do exponentially more damage to the sound.

A big problem with the industry today is that if you’re on a major label, chances are they won’t let you release an album with high levels of dynamics even if you wanted too. If you send them a fully dynamic master, they’ll think there’s something wrong with it and hire an engineer to smash it down to DR6 before sending it off to the CD pressing plant. But despite all that, albums with full dynamic range are still managing to squeak through in every subgenre of metal, belying the popular myth that “Sure, Dream Theater might be able to release a fully dynamic album, but brutal death metal has to be hyper loud.” Wrong. Gorguts’ brilliant sounding Colored Sands clocks in at DR9. The Polish progressive bands Riverside and Blindead both released superbly produced albums [and the AMG review is here] this year, each at DR81. In a refreshing change, dynamics on the latest album from Argus are actually up from last time, to DR8. Black metal bands often purposefully use terrible production, (“Do you likes it? Then I hates it!”) but Woe’s Withdrawl and Christicide’s Upheaval of the Soul both prove that even black metal albums can be fully dynamic and still retain all their rawness too.

Of course, you can’t have heroes without villains. DR6 may be the absolute limit of reason, but that hasn’t stopped plenty of bands from going well below it. To be clear, ridiculous amounts of compression are in many cases not the fault of the band. Believe it or not, producers, labels, and even engineers often actively push for it. One of the prime examples of a Loudness War casualty is Metallica’s Death Magnetic. According to mastering engineer Ted Jensen, the mixes for the album done by Greg Fidelman were already completely slammed when he got them, and there wasn’t much that could be done. Metallica decided to hire Fidelman after hearing his work on Slipknot’s Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses). You may also be familiar with his work on Red Hot Chilli Pepper‘s Californication, another sonic abomination. So in the case of Death Magnetic, the band and producer Rick Rubin [Rick Ruin – Alex-Fi] clearly had a sound in mind that they wanted, that “jumps out of the speakers,” as Lars Ulrich put it, and they hired the guy to give them just that.

Here’s the thing though, Death Magnetic doesn’t actually sound any worse than similarly hyper loud albums like SuidAkra’s Eternal Defiance or Immolation’s Kingdom of Conspiracy, Metallica is just a lot more famous. As a result, Death Magnetic’s insane compression levels and terrible sound found its way into The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, finally generating some mainstream attention to this issue.

Most albums though are not this extreme, they are typically industry average loud and consequently, sound mediocre to halfway decent at best. The truth is that most bands simply have no idea that the DR5 and DR6 masters used on the vast majority of new CD releases are not something people actually want. I know that it’s going to be a long and uphill battle to change the minds of the executives at the major labels, but most bands on small labels generally have a fair amount of creative freedom in terms of what they can do with their masters. So if enough of you let them know that you want them to release albums with proper dynamics, they will listen. You should also contact bands like Gorguts, Riverside, and Woe, and thank them for having the guts to do what the common industry wisdom says can’t be done.

The industry believes that dynamic albums won’t sell. Prove them wrong. Together we can we fight back against the Loudness War and take back our volume knobs! Join us.

Show 1 footnote

  1. And while maligned by many, Turisas2013 clocked in at DR7 (an improvement) and still sounded pretty damned good, with a separate vinyl master and Nygård telling me on Twitter that the band intentionally skipped “turbocharging, plugins, etc.” – AMG
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  • MeatWolf

    Can anyone tell me what DR was last year Wintersun? It sounds uberquiet which probably means it’s not even 7 or 8 and I guess there is a big reason for that which is all those infinite orchestrations. So I’d love to know about it.

    • DR10. Which is great to see, since it was on NB!

      • MeatWolf

        Thanks for the info. 10. Woah, that’s something. I’m most of the time pretty fine with how things sound on my crappy internal audio card and $ 50 speakers / $ 100 headphones (except when it’s something like recent Suidakra or Masterplan, which are beyond any kind of salvation, yea…) but maybe this is the one and only album that makes me curious about how it would sound on a good audio system. Jari really knows his deal.

        • Noctus

          Jari did a fantastic job on Time I. First time I listened I was in awe – such a fantastic sounding record. Hopefully Time II is equally as great-sounding and great in general!

          • Noctus is SPOT on! Time I sounds fantastic, I write about it in my review! ;-)

          • Too bad the music was kinda underwhelming. ;)

          • I really dug Time I, more so in some ways than the original (it was more epics and grandiose in design).

            Btw, production was tough on Jari, his computer needed to be upgraded to 64-bit to complete the project if my memory serves me right.

          • I missed the noodling.

          • MeatWolf

            Computer issues, house building in his backyard and lots of other misfortunate stuff… I will always remember that number, 1682 tracks on Sons of Winter and Stars. I mean… anyone done that to 1 song with 1 shitty notebook? Ever? After I read about the album creation process and heard the result Jari became something like hero of the modern age to me.

          • MeatWolf

            Well it surely WILL be as fantastic because it’s the same album. Though then again I come as a preacher of The Church of Jari so I basically can’t say otherwise. My most anticipated album ever for quite some while.

      • MeatWolf

        Speaking of Nuclear Blast. Soilwork — The Panic Broadcast, I remember it also being uberquiet, what about that one? Should be 9 or something, then.

  • Solbrave

    Cheers. You don’t understand how happy these articles make me, just by existing.

    • Right on man!

    • Realkman666

      I seriously don’t feel like buying albums anymore, because I genuinely don’t want to listen to them once I have them. I buy less than 5-10 albums a year, whilst I used to buy 3 per week.

  • Brett Reistroffer

    The funny thing is, I went to college for audio engineering and there was not one professor I met who didn’t absolutely despise the ‘loudness war’ and its effects on compression. So where these modern compression happy engies are coming from, I have no idea. I don’t even understand how you can go into a field, one which requires a very specific passion for the craft, and be perfectly fine with watering it down. It’s like a painter refusing anything other than a wide coarse brush and primary colors as acceptable for painting.

    • Wontolla

      Maybe the problem isn’t with the engineers, but the producers that hire them. Engineers are also taught to be accountable to their clients, as well as the customer, and if the client says “louder!”, there aren’t that many options.

      • Brett Reistroffer

        Very true. I recall at least one or two interviews with engineers working with Rick Rubin in which they claim he insisted on having the audio clip out from peaking. There is also the overwhelming factor of labels insisting on the mastering engineers ‘mastering for the mp3’. The philosophy is that if the song is going to end up as a highly compressed file played through low-fi earbuds anyway, why not start from that quality? Unfortunate, but at the end of the day if that’s what the average consumer is ok with, then that’s what they’ll get.

      • Brett Reistroffer

        Very true. I recall at least one or two interviews with engineers working with Rick Rubin in which they claim he insisted on having the audio clip out from peaking. There is also the overwhelming factor of labels insisting on the mastering engineers ‘mastering for the mp3’. The philosophy is that if the song is going to end up as a highly compressed file played through low-fi earbuds anyway, why not start from that quality? Unfortunate, but at the end of the day if that’s what the average consumer is ok with, then that’s what they’ll get.

  • Shahir Chagan

    As a young person who discovered metal within the 21st century, I have been exposed to both sides of the dynamics spectrum, before even knowing what the dynamics in music were.
    Many modern albums with their super-loud production annoy me somewhat. Even if the music is awesome (like with Surgical Steel), the production puts me off and I don’t enjoy it as much.
    I’m a huge sucker for the production on older albums, mainly because they sound so natural. Be it Defenders of the Faith, Powerslave, Human or The Red in the Sky is Ours, I feel like those albums just have a more organic feel to them, which is why I enjoy them so much. There’s nary a record released by Century Media or Nuclear Blast these days that’s a contender in the sterile loudness war, and that is quite sad.
    I’d just like to point out that in 2004, Vintersorg released one of my favourite albums ever, ‘Visions From the Spiral Generator’. The production job on there is almost perfect (for a modern record) and I wish more bands today sounded like that.

    • It’s funny that you say that. Visions from the Spiral Generator is a DR6 for the most part. Not even that great. Cosmic Genesis is a DR8 and Till Fjälls is a DR 10. A track I heard from the new one is a DR4…

      • Shahir Chagan

        I didn’t even know that *hangs head in shame*.
        Guess I’m just biased towards the album, I just felt that the production job was perfect for the music.
        I suppose the spiral generator is just an exception :P

        • DR6 != Bad. It may well sound very good, but at those loudness levels, I find it hard to believe its going to be mind blowing! :-)

          • Richard

            Indeed, the number is unimportant if it manages to sound good.

          • A very important point. Such as the Turisas record I pointed out. Visions from the Spiral Generator does sound pretty damned good.

          • It’s “mind blowing” because the music is mind blowing, not the production.

        • No, sorry, I was just pointing out that even by earlier standards the Vintersorg stuff is quite compressed. I LOVE that record and, frankly, I love plenty of highly compressed records (even ones that peak!) like Rhapsody’s comeback record for Nuclear Blast.

          It’s just that in terms of dynamics, it’s still quite crushed comparatively to even Vintersorg’s earlier material.

          • Shahir Chagan

            It could also be related to the genre – progressive and power metal sound better with clearer (not necessarily louder) production. I don’t think VFtSG would have sounded as good if it had a murkier production job. But you are right, especially the earlier records would have been better without the compression (and probably made the albums’ nature themes seem more prevalent in the music).

          • Think, too, that one of the things that can get buried in such a DR6 mix is bass, but the use fretless bass means that everything sits nicely in place without the bass having to get buried. So, that might help explain why it works so well in the case of Vintersorg.

          • Shahir Chagan

            All hail Steve DiGiorgio and his fretless bass mastery!

          • Realkman666

            The thing with Vintersorg is that when you look at the complexity and density of instruments, arrangements and vocal styles, you’d imagine he’d want all of that to be easily audible. In fact, it’s surprising how well these albums sound even though I have to turn them down to be able to listen to them. With Witherscape levels of definition, they would be glorious.

          • I completely agree. But I’ve noticed that the Napalm Bands are similar to the AFM ones in compression levels. Hopefully it’ll start backing off sooner than later.

  • Pat Adriance

    I just tried listening to Woe but the vocals were buried waaay in the mix. Is it something I’m doing wrong or is it meant to be that way? The instruments sounded great but I was straining to hear the vocals. Whats the deal?

    • This is a mix decision and very black metalish. I actually don’t think they are THAT buried though. I can give you some black metal with vocals buried in the mix. Trust me!

    • Just a choice in the mix. It’s quite “black metal” but I hate that kind of shit.

  • hubcapiv

    Death Magnetic also got attention because it was released as downloadable content for Guitar Hero, and some bright spark put together an alternative mix from those tracks. In which you could, like, hear a bass and stuff. So you could do a side-by-side comparison. It was ridiculous that a homebrew mix from videogame backing tracks actually sounded livelier than the bajillion-dollar official mix.

  • The Metal Pigeon

    Curious that you mentioned Suidakra’s Eternal Defiance, an album that I’ve particularly taken to this year. I haven’t noticed much about the sound of the album in terms of DR/compression. Did you find it to be disagreeable on a sonic level?

    • Yeah, I did. What do you use to listen?

      • The Metal Pigeon

        Ah normally when at my laptop just big headphones, alot of the time my car stereo. I wonder if I’m lacking the actual equipment to make heads or tails of this. I can usually tell a horrible compression job with no problem at all but maybe there are some like Suidakra’s that are passing me by.

        • MeatWolf

          This album is one of the most obvious cases… and the most horrible ones. Really sad because the music is good and there’s even some smart sympho stuff added this time. All ruined by compression. Same goes for Novum Initium of Masterplan, Axel and Roland put so much effort in the arrangements only to smash it all into pieces with the production. Sad, that.

          • The Metal Pigeon

            I guess I can see what you mean about the compression, I took a long listen to the record again today, but I still feel that despite that its a pretty strong album and it doesn’t detract my enjoyment of it.

          • MeatWolf

            The problem is, you can’t hear the details behind this mess of a sound. And there’s absolutely no way you can hear them now, ever.

          • Rik

            Honestly I think the musical direction they took (especially the symphonic stuff) ruins that album as much as the compression. Book of Dowth was amazing, Eternal Defiance was one of the biggest disappointments of the year for me.

          • MeatWolf

            I’d say the opposite, Book of Dowth was mediocre at best while I totally loved the classical re-arrangements which are now integrated into the metal stuff. And save for the ballad, each track on Eternal Defiance is pretty much killer.

          • Rik

            Well I guess we just have very different tastes. I have tried and tried to get into ED because I loved their past releases so much, but I just can’t. I just get bored every time. Book of Dowth to me is possibly their best album, maybe a tad one dimensional but it has so many amazing tracks.

          • Rik

            Book of Dowth was full of amazing tracks, it may be a tad one dimensional but it’s probably my favourite album from them. I have tried and tried to get into Eternal Defiance but I just can’t, I get bored every time. I guess we just have extremely different tastes. I’m not really into symphonic stuff, I don’t mind it as long as the metal itself doesn’t suffer but as far as the actual metal goes, BoD seems far superior to ED to me. I listen to Suidakra expecting an awesome blend of melodic death metal and folk, and that’s just not what ED delivers. It leans too far into Turisas style epic “battle metal” territory.

          • Rik

            Okay something weird’s going on here, I just typed two lengthy responses to your post and they keep disappearing. Maybe they’ll both re-appear at some point. Maybe not.

          • MeatWolf

            They are both here, fear not! I guess that “one-dimensional” thing was my problem with BoD, on the other hand I totally liked Crógacht.

          • Rik

            Okay well… I see that post I made about the posts disappearing (that one disappeared too after I posted it)… but I still don’t see the others! You clearly did though so no worries. Yeah Crógacht was awesome too. Honestly I like all their albums that I’ve heard (still haven’t heard one or two of the earliest, should get round to that)… but Eternal Defiance is at the bottom of the pile for me :

    • Dave

      Listen to Book of Dowth again and compare. Eternal Defiance is so smashed that I honestly can’t listen to it. One of the worst sounding records I’ve heard this year.

    • Rik

      Are you kidding? It sounds like absolute shite to me.

  • Excentric_1307

    For quite a while, I thought my receiver was doing some weird processing to the audio stream. I kept hearing what sounded sort of like a helicopter outside, particularly on double bass moments such as (deep breath) Utterances of the Crawling Dead by Nile. My real breakthrough for what I’ve been missing was recent, with Torture Division’s excellent “The Sacrifice”. Amazing clarity and space, and it’s brutal Death Metal!

    I think one of the big issues with calling attention to the loudness problem is that for a long time, people have not had decent enough hi-fi equipment to notice a difference (original iPod earbuds). With the proliferation and popularization of high end headphones, perhaps people are starting to notice something odd about the way their music sounds.

    • Jay Alan Goodwin

      IDK. I hate a shitty master on earbuds just as much as I do on my home stereo :)

      The Torture Division EP does sound excellent and I made a point of telling them so when I paid for and supported it.

  • Richard

    Unrelated directly to the loudness war, but… I wonder sometimes how much of an effect hearing degradation has on engineers’, producers’ and bands’ perceptions of the recordings. I wouldn’t trust the hearing abilities of someone who’s played heavy music as long as (and partied as hard as) Lars, for example. I can’t remember what record it was recently, maybe from 2012, where I found the treble to be too piercing; it was from an older band, which made me wonder about the hearing degradation aspect.

    • That’s an interesting question. I know that mixers/masterers actually work pretty hard to keep the volume quite in order to avoid that kind of stuff. But I went through 25 years of my life being a total idiot about that stuff myself and will definitely pay the price for it.

      • Richard

        I would guess that engineers would try to be sensible about it for the most part, but I remember on a work experience thing at Abbey Road (NAMEDROP) an engineer who worked particularly on restoring and remastering mentioned he’d probably done his hearing some damage through extended, loud headphone work.

        I’m always faintly amused at Ozzy’s standard between-song banter. “I can’t hear you!” Duh…

  • Kim Sørensen

    Just got a decent home stereo (NAD D3020 and a pair of B&W speakers) again after serveral years without and it does take some of the exitement away that so many records sounds like shit
    The ironic thing is that you end up turning it down instead of up and you will actually listen to music for shorter periods because of the ear fatigue.
    When i think of first getting the vinyl then the first badly converted cd and then a butchered remaster i become An Angry Metal Guy too.

    • The first time I got ear fatigue was Blind Guardian’s “A Night at the Opera.” I’d never experienced that particular sensation before.

      • Realkman666

        That might explain why I never listen to it. It’s a bit physically painful.

        • But with some brilliant writing. It took me years to come back around to it, but I really do love it now.

          • Realkman666

            Oh, I loved the music right away, though. That’s around the time I saw them live too. That was a cool year.

  • Stasia98

    Yeah i would say 95 percent of metal fans would want way more dynamic range. I remember that it was death magnetic that alerted me to the issue i put it on but could only listen to about 3 minutes of it before my ears felt like they were going to bleed. All to often these days i put on a fine sounding album only to find it’s essentially ruined by the compression.

  • Oh one correction to the article, it’s Rick RUIN, not Rubin. God, Dave gets that wrong all the time! ;-)

    • MeatWolf

      Haha, nice one.

      • I removed his joke and haven’t re-edited it in. My bad.

    • Accoun

      I think Mr. Ruin’s clients are making this mistake as well. :-P

      • Or they don’t know better… :-p

  • Ernesto Aimar

    What is the best way to notice DR compession issues? I kindda fail to be aware of those problems if an album is good musically. And Otherwise as well. For example, I really love Wintersun’s “Time”, but I’m amazed to read it has very good DR indexes, because I alway’s thought the only problem of that album was productionwise….there are too many arrangements going on and sometimes you cannot distinguish well between them. On the other hand, from what I’ve checked on the DR database, “Imaginations from the other side” from BG doesn’t have very good numbers, and still to me that album is an absolute masterpiece with no issues whatsoever, not musically nor production. But maybe I’m not seeing the picture right.
    What’s the best way to distinguish these kind of Issues? I have a Marantz 7.1 stereo, but for CDs I only use the stereo mode with Dali sensor speakers.

    • MeatWolf

      From a simple listener’s point of view, compression over the edge = muddy, blurred production + volume levels at around 97 and more dB + obligatory clipping. Of course sometimes some of these features are intentional but then it sounds different. I’m sure our Metal-Fi guys have a much more scientific explanation on all this.

      Time I has crystal clear production, some people view it as an issue because it sounds “not metal enough” in their opinion but then this album is more of a soundtrack journey rather than a punchy metal like the first one. IftOS sounds on the verge of being overcompressed to me but it’s still not really that bad.

      • Ernesto Aimar

        I guess it’s a matter of ear training. I’m quite new with Hi Fi systems, and compared to the equipment I had before, every album sounds awesome, at least for today. But I do wanna have more insight in technichal aspects of sound. I also bought a record player and love the sound!
        What about Opeth “Damnation”?? to me that album is unbelievable, you can listen to every single sound the instrument’s throwing out.

        • Jacqueline Laine

          Damnation had a lovely sound, in my opinion, but I was always relatively impressed with the dynamics of some of their oldest stuff. I just checked Black Rose Immortal since it was fresh in my mind from earlier, and it clocked in at a pretty nice DR9.

    • Wontolla

      An easy way to check is to listen carefully to the drum hits. Drum transients usually need the most dynamic room, and with too much compression, the rest of the mix has to get a lot quieter to compensate. A really nasty example, off the top of my head, is about 3:40 in “97% Static” by Monuments (yeah, I know, djent); it has a sort of helicopter sound from all the double bass.

    • Realkman666

      I’ve always felt that IFTOS was one of the biggest crimes of metal “thanks” to how fuzzy and sludgey it sounds. It’s almost as bad as AJFA, but I don’t give a shit about Metallica. Imaginations is one of the best metal albums of all times and it deserved a lot better. I think the tuning is a bit shifted on everything too, it truly sounds nasty as fuck.

      • MeatWolf

        Well, apart from the original version there is a remaster and even a remix. I guess you can try the latter if haven’t done so already. It does sound different.

        • Realkman666

          I bought the title song and they have cleaned it up, there’s more definition and crispness, but it’s obvious that many stages of sound treatment were messed up and they can’t recover it. Nightfall sounds much more defined, thankfully.

  • MeatWolf

    Also I have to say Finns and their production quickly became something like a model to me. Ansi Kippo, Mikko Karmila, Mika Jussila, Janne Joutsenniemi, maybe there are records with average production that came out from their hands but never could I put the word “ruined” and any of these names in one sentence. I don’t think they really go for full dynamics but they never go for overcompressing either.

  • Mike Eckman

    How do you find out the DR # of a particular record? Is there a website you go to, or is there some way to do it using the actual CD?

    One album I am curious about is Dream Theater’s Awake. I imagine as it was released in 1994, it might not have suffered much.

    The reason I ask, is that for years, I used that as a benchmark album for testing speakers in car and home audio setups. I always found the extremes between the highs and lows on that album to be a really good measurement of good sound. On the other hand, it could just be because its an awesome disc! :)

    • Wontolla

      There’s a plugin you can download at dr (dot) loudness-war (dot) info. It has standalone apps for Windows/Mac, along with a foobar2000 plugin for you Linux weirdos (hi there!)

      • Mike Eckman

        Cool thanks! Turns out that dr loudness-war site has a database of known DR values and I looked up Awake and it is DR9. So thats in the “orange” area. Not great, but not bad. Images and Words is DR11, When Dream and Day Unite is DR12, but Falling into Infinity (the one right after Awake) drops all the way to DR6!!!

      • Jacqueline Laine

        Tossing out that the foobar2000 plugin is a valid option for Windows, too. I’ve been fairly impressed at how much some bands have gotten better over time thanks to being able to check on the fly. Sabaton’s for example’s done fairly well, I think, going from DR4 to DR6-7 over their career.

  • Awesome. Thanks for the link!

  • skooly d

    I really wanted to love the new Immo, but the brickwall production made me wince. Yes, it really does suit the music, and does it justice, but it could have been a little more dynamic and still had the same feel. This is just smashed.