Throes of Compression: Slowly We Raw
Do you care about album production at all? If you don’t, I envy you.
There was a time when I
was so broken-hearted didn’t really care about an album’s quality. I mean sure, if an album sounded so obviously bad it gave me headaches, I’d tend to stay away from it. But over the past few years it’s gotten to the point where I willingly don’t listen to albums I used to love because their sound irks me. My brain has irreversibly learned to hone in on the frequencies where audible distortion most commonly appears, and thus I can’t ignore bad quality even if I try to focus on other stuff (like, you know, the music). Needless to say, I only listen to lossless files; badly coded mp3s make me want to punch things.
The point I’m trying to make here is that I’m an audio nerd of EPIC proportions, and you should take everything you’re about to read with at least like 100 grains of salt.
We cool? Alright.
The other day I got to listen to the new Obituary album, not expecting it to be anything remarkable composition-wise. And, lo and behold, I was not wrong about that. However I was very surprised at how the album sounds, and unpleasantly so. I thought I was listening to a demo tape! The vocals aren’t even leveled and the toms sound like a toy gun I used to have when I was a kid. What the hell is up with that?!? I did some research: apparently the band was aiming for a “raw” sound, but the results are just inexcusable considering they got more than $60,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to fund the album.
Due to my ire I’ve been inspired to write about modern metal album production. I’ll be focusing on albums I think sound exceptionally good/bad and the people responsible for making them so. I’m not going to post videos, because discussing audio quality and posting youtube links would be like giving a sexism seminar while getting a BJ under the podium.
“Polished” albums that sound “good”
Bloodbath? Opeth? Katatonia? Edge of Sanity? Pretty much every Swedish band ever? They’ve all worked with a demigod that goes by the name of Dan Swanö. Recently he’s chosen to stay off the stage and works mixing and mastering albums for a buttload of bands, and boy does he ever master that stuff LOUD. But if audio nerding has taught me anything at all, it’s to trust my ears above any other audio analyzing tool (DR meters and the like, for any fellow audiophiles reading this. I hate that word, but I am what I am). Yes, his albums are very loud, but they sound really good!! In a world where record labels (especially metal ones) often require albums to be mastered at obnoxious volumes, doing so and not making the end result sound like ass is a really amazing skill. Just listen to the latest Hail of Bullets album; it sounds great with no audible distortion. This is because of the classic swedish “buzzsaw” guitar tone, which Swanö masterfully uses to mask the distortion caused by peak limiting. Genius.
Ever heard of Steve Evetts? You’ve probably heard his work: The Dillinger Escape Plan, Warbringer and Suicide Silence have all benefited from his expertise. Even though the albums he’s worked on are loud and have some traces of audible clipping (he doesn’t usually master stuff), they definitely don’t come from the production stage. Dillinger and SS’s latest albums are great examples of metal albums that sound “processed” (or whatever the kids these days call it) without blowing chunks.
“Polished” albums that sound “bad”
To bands everywhere: PLEASE stop working with Nick Raskulinecz, period. Nearly every album he’s been involved with in some capacity has copious amounts of audible distortion. A recent example of his musical atrocities is Mastodon‘s latest album. If you listen to the dual-guitar section of “High Road” it’s quite obvious there’s noise that isn’t supposed to be there. Some of his other screw-ups include Trivium‘s Shogun, both of Alice in Chain‘s post-breakup albums and Rush‘s Clockwork Angels. I love all these albums, but I don’t listen to them as much as I’d like because they sound like crap. You don’t even need a good pair of headphones and an amp to notice either, these albums have been criticized for being too loud by people who aren’t massive nerds, believe it or not.
Speaking of Trivium, their last album is a very good example of a big budget album that sounds like complete crap. I’m no Trivium hater; 2011’s In Waves is one of my favorite sounding albums of all time, no doubt thanks to master Colin Richardson. Let it be a lesson: this is what happens when you get David Draiman involved in anything you’re doing.
“Raw” albums that sound “good”
Anything and everything that Colin Marston touches. Seriously. This man is something from another planet, no wonder Luc Lemay tapped him for Gorguts. Here you have a man who does it right: he doesn’t rely on anything but his ears to mix, if he thinks something starts to sound too hot, he dials it down. This interview has some great insight into his methods (and his madness). He’s worked on the last three Origin albums, the new Artificial Brain and the latest Gorguts, Krallice and Dysrhythmia (on which he also played). All these albums strike a really good balance between being “raw” and sounding great. His stuff sounds organic, yet you can hear every element perfectly and across the whole frequency spectrum. I’d totally bang Colin Marston, is what I’m getting at.
I can’t come up with any other examples. Sue me.
“Raw” albums that sound “bad”
Aside from the aforementioned Obituary album, a lot of Grindcore and lo-fi stuff comes to mind. But that’s kinda the point with grind, black and all the other fun stuff, isn’t it? That’s partly the reason I decided to write this article: if something raw sounds “good” it’s kind of an added bonus (unless you’re KSoFM, obviously), but polished stuff is supposed to sound “good”. If something polished sounds bad you can tell right away, but if something raw sounds bad well, duh!
Which brings me back to the Obituary album. Generally speaking, Grindcore and Black Metal albums don’t have huge budgets, and are expected to sound relatively low budget. But nowadays you can get a professional sounding album for waaaaaaaaaaaay less than what Obituary spent (or rather didn’t spend) on an album that sounds pretty dismal (and I’m pretty confident wasn’t supposed to), so it all depends on what type of sound you’re aiming for. With this in mind, I wanted to address the new Fallujah: here’s an album that’s obnoxiously loud (second loudest in my entire library losing only to Anaal Nathrakh) and overwhelming. But that’s the point. People on the internet have jumped on the bandwagon complaining that it sounds horrible, but I call bullshit: it sounds just fine. There’s so much stuff going on you can’t hear the distortion, so major props and a shoutout to Zack Ohren for a job well done.
Like I sorta mentioned when talking about Colin Marston, it’s totally possible to make an album be “raw” or “organic” without it sounding like it was recorded in a basement in 1992. If you don’t want your stuff to sound super polished, take it to someone who knows what they’re doing! And if you don’t have the money to do that, do it yourself. Now THAT’s the key to being RAW, bro.
So what do you think? Do you only listen to stuff that was recorded in the bathroom of an abandoned Satanist Temple?? Do you even care about any of this?!? I plan on writing more of these, so deal with it metalheads: PRODUCTION IS HERE TO STAY.