By: Alex-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-FiWhen Dave and I founded Metal-Fi, we were prepared for many things, but the one thing we weren’t prepared for was that Angry Metal Guy would get well, angrier.

It all started with his insanely insightful review of the latest Fleshgod Apocalypse album, Labyrinth, where he points out that though the music is chock full of dazzling displays of flamboyant brutality, the record ultimately comes off as “flat and oddly lacks intensity.” He goes on to attribute the record’s uninvolving nature to the amount of hyper compression applied by mix/mastering engineer Saul Morabito – a practice that has unfortunately become modus operandi for the majority of engineers mastering music today.

But what exactly is AMG lamenting about when he talks about the album’s level of compression?

He is talking about a mastering technique called dynamic range compression (DRC) whereby the music’s overall dynamic range, the ratio of the softest sound to the loudest, is reduced in an effort to maximize volume. This process is accomplished by making all the quiet parts louder while lowering or maintaining the louder parts at their respective levels. DRC is typically used in combination with brickwall limiting in order to increase the volume of the record to the absolute peak level before unwanted distortion ensues. The end result is a homogeneous sense of loudness whether the material warranted this artificial boost or not.

But as AMG and many of you are already aware, hyper compression comes at a great cost – namely fidelity. As an engineer compresses the level of dynamic range, the music starts to lose its vibrancy and sense of realism. In fact, certain frequencies can get squashed so badly they become completely inaudible. Ever wonder why you can’t hear the bass or why cymbals and hi-hats sound tinny and don’t reverb quite right? That’s typically DRC coupled with brickwall limiting rearing its ugly head.

Now what AMG did not know until very recently was just how badly compressed Labyrinth was compared to its contemporaries. When he discovered our article on how to measure dynamic range and found out that Labyrinth clocks in at DR4, with the overwhelming tracks dipping into DR3 territory, his anger was finally quantified. To give you a sense of these numbers, DR6 is now the industry average and already considered by most sane engineers as too compressed. The recommended level by most industry experts is DR8 or higher. A bit of a fair warning though, a higher number doesn’t necessarily mean its sounds better, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, it usually does. And applying DRC is not evil in itself either, provided it’s done judiciously. The fact is DRC is an invaluable tool that can make a good sounding record sound great. I highly encourage you to read some of our in-depth articles about dynamic range and why it’s not about the numbers, but about the sound.

So I’m sure you’re wondering though, why sacrifice the music’s fidelity just to make it sound artificially loud?

It stems from the fact that at least initially, our ears perceive louder as sounding better, and labels and artists try to leverage that fact in order to gain market share. The idea is simple, if a label’s roster sounds louder than its competitor, you, the listener, will tend to gravitate toward that label’s louder tracks than the other guy’s softer ones. Moreover, since metal is suppose to be loud, extreme metal artists equate volume with impact. So if a band chooses to master for fidelity instead of loudness, the label or even worse, the fans, can perceive the album as weak which can theoretically ruin sales. Is there any truth to this logic? None whatsoever, but inertia is a powerful force and Labyrinth is a testament to that fact.

This race to the top (or bottom to be technically accurate) has been aptly called the Loudness War, and it has been single handily destroying music since the early 90s. And in case you haven’t figured it out already, you are smack dab in the middle of it.

AMG has graciously invited me and Dave to pop in from time to time to discuss dynamic range, fidelity, and a slew of other issues that you will hopefully find both interesting and provocative. In the meantime, the next time you give into your anger, I want you to listen, really listen, since there is very good chance that when the record was mastered, making it sound louder was more important than making it sound great. And that, my friends, should make all of us angry.

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  • Very informative stuff!

  • lvtnsnddpths

    Anyone know if Nile’s At The Gates Sethu suffers from this problem? How can you tell? I can’t make it sound good on my player no matter what i do with the EQ

    • Neither can I. That album is a production disaster from top to bottom.

    • According to my reference files, Nile – At The Gates of Sethu is a DR6 with a couple in the 7 range. So, while it’s brickwalled, it’s not nearly quite so bad as it could be. The big issue there, as Alex says, is just that the production is a nightmare. Nile has always had shit production, though.

      • funeraldoombuggy

        Note that “brickwalled” limiting isn’t bad at all, it’s just where you set the brickwall. But I agree that Nile has always had bad sounding records… I’m amazed at how well they’ve done despite it!

        • No, it’s true. Some compression is fine. But, brickwalling to DR6 is bad a lot of the time.

        • Rob Turnbull

          Production on Annihilation of the Wicked is pretty good in my opinion.

  • Jukka Alanen

    Great stuff! Thanks again AMG for spreading the word.

  • Robotron2084

    Great to see an article on this.
    I have been watching this for years (along with auto tune…”no Mr. Producer I do not wish to use your cool new auto tune device”) and this does make me very angry.
    Some recordings are absolutely garbage as everything just descends into a blurr in my ears. The peaks and valleys are gone and it makes me sick.
    Vinyl releases are usually mastered better so they can sound better if done right.

    Recently I unpacked some old discs. Roger Waters Amused to Death was in there. The sound was amazing. From the vocal breaths to the snare drum snaps. The real dynamics are vanishing in this Loudness War.

    Thanks again for the article AMG!

    • Every time I listen to older Pink Floyd records I post “Production was better back in the day” on AMG’s facebook. Seriously.

      • Grymm

        I’m Grymm, and I approve this message.

  • Noctus

    I am SO GLAD I’m not the only one seeing albums fucking slaughtered by this issue. This needed more recognition among metalheads. Thank you.

  • funeraldoombuggy

    Great article! Covering this topic and having your reviews call out records that are overly compressed is a nice step in fighting the loudness wars. Record labels, recording engineers, and band seeing a backlash from lack of dynamics will make them start to think about how hard to slam a record.

  • jeremcord

    What I think is very annoying is the fact that (most of the time) we need now to buy expensive vinyls to have a decent mastering. And people think that the vinyls are a better support, which makes no sense from a technical point of view. It’s just that they have a different mastering. The last carcass album seems to be a good example of that (?) which is non-understandable to me given their wonderfull 2013 CD remasters.

    • Please check out the Carcass FDR releases from Earache. We have covered them as well as the other FDR re-issues since the campaign’s inception.

      Dave and I plan to talk more about vinyl, mastering, and the Loudness War over the course of the next few weeks.

  • André Snyde Lopes

    Oh man, I definitely agree with this everything in this post. I hope to see more discussion on this topic in the coming articles.

    Hopefully, the word spreads through the industry and producers and mastering people will realize how much their stupid “loudness war” is ruining perfectly good albums.

    • Well, the more bigger blogs point out the problems and encourage people like Swanö to break the mold, the better it’ll get!

  • I feel smarter already. I’m looking forward to learning more.

  • MikkoKukkonen

    Very informative article, thank you!

  • Kryopsis

    I am very happy to see articles like this on my favourite Metal blog. Very informative!

  • Sui

    Very informative while in plain language (I guess the writer really tried to make it simple…)

    Still, I suspect it is not easy to judge production for someone without a sound engineering background (or interest)…

  • Francesco Bordoni

    This is so true! As a background, my politic on buying records is actually to buy a CD only if I really dig it (by listening to it on lousy torrent mp3s first, woe is me – for example this month it’s time to order the new Falkenbach, which is definitely growing on me). This is something I can’t really do anything about, since selling my organs isn’t really a monetary option.

    So, getting to the point, while on this matter I can’t speak for music I listen to on mp3s, I can (angrily) complain about this brickwall issue for albums I did buy on CD. In particular. a couple of months ago, I made an exception to this listening-before-buying rule of mine (as I do often for bands I really like) for Carcass and Fleshgod Apocalypse.

    While, musically, I enjoyed the hell out of the new Carcass (and ultimately failed again to found any traces of Oracles’ bone-crushing feel on Labyrinth), I found myself with two records I rarely spin at all, slaughtered by this loud-oriented production madness. Especially for Surgical Steel this is frustrating: since the first listens riffs are stuck in my head and I really fucking love the songwriting, but somehow when I get to listen to those riffs and sections I know I love on the record, they fail to deliver the feeling; the sound, the all architecture lacks of dynamic and in the end I get turned down. This is slowly killing good, excellent music, and it really sucks.

  • MeatWolf

    I wonder why AFM records tend to suffer from this. You mentioned Labyrinth but play SuidAkrA — Eternal Defiance or Masterplan — Novum Initium. Its SO BAD that is sounds like played through a pillow with knives.

    • Read Dave’s rant about it on Metal-Fi if you want some more detailed background. It maybe the worst album of the year (even worse than Labyrinth).

  • Christofer

    Stop the madness! Really sad that so many metal-albums suffers from this.

  • Adam

    I have been “bombarding” bands on facebook pages and various forums regarding this issue, and to my surprise most bands are aware of the situation, but think that to be commercially successful, you have to be loud. Now luckily most albums that came out recently are not clipped, although still lacking some dynamics. I hope this will change very soon!

  • RilesBell

    Really nice to see this brought up. It has definitely become something I notice now and unfortunately it seems to be getting worse. Remember Death Magnetic? fuck me that was bad. Seems like Steven Wilson is one of the best in the business right now in avoiding this issue. His latest album really highlights his respect for sound quality. It would be cool to get a couple of lines added to future reviews to see where the album stands on this issue. Regardless, I’ll check out their site.

  • sathriel

    The more you know. Keep bringing the knowledge to the metal crowd guys.

  • Rik

    Very interesting article. The production on Labyrinth isn’t unbearable (like it was on the aptly named Agony) but it does sound really flat and monotonous, like the article says it lacks intensity, despite being ridiculously fast and heavy. It’s just like a constant wall of noise and it’s not really much fun to listen to. I’ve been hearing about the “loudness war” for what seems like a decade now, I’m kind of surprised it’s still such a problem.

  • MikkoKukkonen

    I don’t know if I should thank you again, or blame you for pointing out these things as you have left me in a void for the first time in my 20+ year journey of actively listening to music. I grew up on my mom and dad’s record collection of Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Steppenwolf, Cream etc and I could listen to those records all the time.

    Then I started to form my own taste in music and fell in love with AC/DC and Aerosmith at an early age and I still love AC/DC, mind you. Enter the mid 90’s when I heard White Zombie’s Astro-Creep: 2000 and Clawfinger’s Use Your Brain, my mind was blown and that was the start of my heavy metal journey. I still enjoy both of those records and I must say that to my ears UYB’s production sounds terrific also.

    Now, as my metal years have started in the nineties that means I have been living in the loudness-age most of my music enjoying times. I’ve enjoyed a shitload of metal (and Prodigy!) during that time, but on many occasions there have been a nagging feeling that something is not quite right.

    I’ve found a lot of albums that sound good and powerful on a first few listens but then start to irritate me sonically and finally make me lose interest in them. At one point, I thought that it has to be some kind of “musical fatigue” setting in and there were short periods when I didn’t listen to any music at all.

    As the symptoms started to get more frequent and I found myself missing those childhood/boyhood bands even more I thought that maybe I just can’t get excited by new music anymore. That’s when I slowly started realizing that “Wait a minute! On those old AC/DC albums, there actually were some imperfections and the instruments didn’t sound the same all the time and I loved it!.”

    Then I wondered why I hate, for the sake of example “metalcore” so much and while listening to it, the fatigue sets in immediately. “That’s because all those fucking bands and their production sound the same, which is JUST LOUD!” Now, as I’ve gotten to learn more about dynamics in music (thanks to you!) I’m in a point where I’m frantically ripping my 400+ CD’s and Dynamic Range Metering them, only to find out that many of them are even below DR6!

    I have fucking remaster CD’s because there was a time when I thought that remastering actually makes the album sound better! They’re useless to me now, as I have heard how much better many of the original masters sound. Now I know that it’s not always about the numbers, as I have a few albums that clock at DR6-7 or even below and sound good to me.

    It’s just that, as I’ve realized what it is that makes some of my records sound way better than majority of the others, I don’t know what to trust anymore. I just wan’t to have the great albums back that have been destroyed during production, so I can enjoy them to the fullest!

    A few years ago I stopped buying any more CD’s and switched back to vinyl in hopes of it sparking new energy in my musical hobby. Only to find out (some web forum about dynamics) that even some of the vinyl masters today are crushed dynamically! Maybe this has something to do with how my AC/DC reissue vinyls sound way distorted..

    Oh well, in the end I’m happy that I have found the reason for almost losing interest in music (even though it means I have put thousands of euros in CD’s I now consider almost worthless). And that I now get new excitement in searching for more dynamic music. I wan’t to get rid of most of my CD-collection and start all over again. I’ve started the journey with Earache’s FDR-releases of Carcass and Entombed and man those albums sound punchy and clear at the same time! Most of all, they don’t induce any fatigue on my ears/brain!

    Although this FDR-edition thing while a positive turn of events, could turn into a new industry-wide cash grab scheme if the dynamics over loudness kicks in high gear. I can already see record companies reissuing their back catalog in FDR and milking the full price. Maybe I’m just being cynical and mostly I’m glad that someone (Earache, maybe someone else already?) have taken a step in the right direction.