Written By: Alex-Fi
One would think that around the late 17th century, with the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, we would eschew all our subjective tendencies and rely on Cartesian logic as our primary cognitive guide, basing our decisions solely on a discrete set of self-evident axioms and irrefutable lemmas. Our lives would be without statistical error or fanciful delusion, and all of our personal subjective social realities would combine into one common objective utopia.
If this doesn’t sound like your day to day, I’m not surprised. The fact is, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves, we are all subjective beings. We have our likes and dislikes, our favorite bands, our favorite songs, our favorite genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres – you get the point – and they all have a profound effect on our point of view.
This installment of Angry Metal-Fi was inspired by another AMG classic article entitled On Objectivity. If you haven’t read it, you should, since it’s a fantastic, down to Earth treatise on the issue of aesthetics. But if you’re lazy, the general take away is this: All reviews are subjective, and that score you so loathe or agree with at the bottom of each review is simply an opinion – nothing more, nothing less. To quote, “objectivity is a logical impossibility in regard to art.” [Or put more pompously: “De gustibus non est disputandum.” You’re welcome. – AMG] Ah, Nietzsche would be so proud. Well, maybe.
But what about DR scores? Aren’t they a quantitative metric, not a qualitative one? In other words, a DR score is based on the waveform of the material in question, not the reviewer’s intrinsic bias or taste, so isn’t it an objective methodology to gauge production? Undistorted peak over RMS. Lower scores sound terrible, higher scores sound better. Right?
Well actually, no, it doesn’t quite work that way. Even though the DR score is an objective metric unto itself, once you tie it to an album’s production value, you’ve just thrown a subjective wrinkle into the reviewing mix. For example, no matter how much I think that the latest Fallujah record sounds like utter non-sense, there are probably an equal number of folks who think I’m deaf. And if you think that’s bad, then riddle me this: The record that is widely regarded by most industry experts as one of the worse sounding albums in modern music history, and the one that is literally cited over and over again as the record that brought the attention of the Loudness War debate to the mainstream, Metallica’s infamous Death Magnetic, debuted on the Billboard chart at number one and went on to go double platinum. Couldn’t have sounded that bad now could it?
Heck, even one of the most talented mastering engineers on the metal scene today, Colin Marston, said in a recent interview I did with him that “..if a good recording gets a bad mastering job, it can often still sound good. Low dynamics mastering doesn’t necessarily prevent everything from sounding good at all.” The fact is even when the DR number is dreadfully low, the music usually still finds a way to eek through1.
So in the spirit of the original article this one is mimicking, why would I (a) undermine my own ‘authority’ by writing this post and (b) do it in the first place? Again, good questions.
First, as Dave and I have both written about in the past, DR scores are just guideposts, and that on face value, only offer some insight into what a particular record is actually going to sound like. Trust me, over the course of Metal-Fi’s short history, I have listened to plenty of DR5 and DR6 recordings that both delight and disgust me. That’s why I’m a big advocate of level matching your listening session and measuring the DR score only after your ears have had a chance to peruse each and every brutal note.
Moreover, even though the impetus behind the Loudness War itself is dubious at best, and that hypercompression clearly degrades certain parts of the frequency spectrum, that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the music any less. In fact, I’m quite aware that the majority of the metal listening community at large as well as the majority of people reading this article right now couldn’t care less about dynamic range compression, mastering, and fidelity in general.
These epiphanies bring me to the second half of the above two part question: I believe that when your ears and mind are given a choice, you will almost always, subjectively speaking, pick the higher dynamic recording versus its louder, brickwall-limited counterpart — regardless of DR scores, TT meters, spectral analysis, bit and sampling rates, etc. — and that the only reason why the industry continues to perpetuate this aural madness is inertia. If artists, engineers, and labels just took a few minutes to educate themselves on the subjective gains a record achieves by retaining a modicum of dynamics during the recording process, the overwhelming majority of them would pop out higher dynamic masters. It really is that simple.
The takeaway here is this: even though many of you are only mildly interested in this obscure topic, I hope you’ll stay with us on this journey anyway, and discover for yourself, subjectively speaking, how dynamics in metal can play a vital role in your own personal enjoyment of music. And at the very least, by exploring some of the technologies and philosophies behind the production of your favorite metal albums, you’ll hopefully have a deeper appreciation for just how hard it is to write and record, subjectively speaking, kick ass metal.