The Devil’s in the Details – Production in Metal

Production is a mystery. At a glance, it seems like a simple task: record some tracks, mix ‘em together, work out a couple kinks on GarageBand, and voilà! Album. The reality, of course, is quite a bit more complicated than that. To be successful, production must serve the music; there is no one-size-fits-all. Production must amplify the strengths and diminish the weaknesses of an album. Imagine if Darkthrone was produced like Dream Theater, and vice versa! Even if the melodies and riffs are exactly the same, the music remains malleable almost to the point of unrecognizability simply via different production styles. There’s much more potential for disaster than success in production, too. A good album can be fatally hamstrung by poor production, but a bad album can never sniff excellence through a good mixing job. No album escapes unproduced, so I’d like to take a closer look at what exactly what makes production tick. Note that I am not a sound engineer and have no experience in actually mixing or mastering music; this is only an examination of the final product. So, what makes good production good? And bad production bad?

In my mind, there are two hopelessly broad categories of production: clean and raw. Clean production results in a sound that is professional and polished, with no sharp edges. All elements are distinctly defined, fitting like a jigsaw puzzle. There is no fuzziness in the recordings, and the music tends to feel snappy and energetic. This type of production excels in genres like prog, power metal, metalcore and post-(insert here). In this style, good production crackles with vigor and spirit; bad production drudges with lifeless apathy.  

Conversely, there’s raw production. Raw production is jagged and fuzzed-out, dangerous and menacing, unpredictable and mercurial. Raw production envelops, surrounds, and, if the music wills it, suffocates and chokes. It lumbers with foreboding heaviness, trembling with the paranoia of the unknown as riffs explode from the murk like swamp gasses. Instruments and voices often blend in the distortion of the mix, creating a wall of sound that is more than the sum of its parts. Raw production tends to dwell in the heavier sides of metal, like black, death, thrash, and grind. Raw production done poorly, however, can deform the music beyond listenability, hiding melodies behind the sludge of sound. And sometimes, raw production is not an aesthetic choice, but a result of inferior recording equipment, resulting in a poor final product.

Obviously, these broad categories of “raw” and “clean” exist on a spectrum. Most bands exist somewhere in the middle, oscillating back and forth as needed, sometimes on the same album.  

So then, with these massive labels defined, let’s take a look at examples of quality clean production, beginning with the woefully bleak, apocalyptically heavy Seven Bells by Secrets of the Moon. I’ve never heard an album elevated by its production so much. The seven bells opening the seven songs on the album echo with hair-raising reverberations, heralding the descent into hell. But this is no chaotic hell; Seven Bells is a measured, sadistic inferno that triggers every phobia with pinpoint accuracy. Massive riffs stalk with the lazy gait of a killer who knows you’ve got nowhere to run. But make no mistake: without the production job pulled off by none other than the legendary Tom G. Warrior (of Celtic Frost/Triptykon fame), Seven Bells is an average album. The riffs aren’t world beaters on their own. But when the bass thrums like a steel cord in a thunderstorm—when the tremolo runs like chills down the spine, quiet and insidious—when the percussion punches sharp and clear counterpoints—an average black/doom album becomes a great one. The beginning of “NYX” is a masterclass in production. It’s at once minimalist and crushingly dense. Tom Warrior and Secrets of the Moon know how to weaponize silence. In the stillness, the percussion’s fork-on-glass tapping cuts like shards, and the bass reverberates like a bestial heartbeat. Every second of the album is mixed perfectly to accentuate the pervasive feeling of impending doom rushing through Seven Bells, and the end result is a cleanly-produced album that punches far above its weight class thanks to its flawless production.

Contrast the minimalistic excellence of Seven Bells with clean production done badly. Most people call albums like this “overproduced”, and I think in most cases, they’re right. Most cleanly produced albums go wrong when the mastering process goes too far, adding tracks and garnishing flourishes until the raging spirit of the music is buried under the weight of an artistic “vision”. I hate to pile upon the Jari Maenpaa hate brigade, but Wintersun’s Time I is a classic example of overproduction. Jari was all too happy to boast about the hundreds of individual tracks comprising the songs and bloating his computers, but his machinations only brought his music down. Every moment in Time I is pure bombast. I’ve gone down my requisite power metal phase, and I love bombast as much as anyone, but there are percussive symphonic blasts practically every half-minute. Random female vocals wail. Jari has, like, six hundred voices. MIDI instruments flit and babble like virtual hummingbirds. Notice I haven’t mentioned the guitars, bass, or drums yet. They’re that superfluous in the production. The guitar is the most egregious failure, though. It sounds oddly electronic and artificial, and even when it (rarely) takes center stage it sounds quiet and neutered. There is no restraint at all in the production.

The shame of it all is that this could’ve been an amazing album. “Sons of Winter and Stars”, despite the flaws dogging every bar, still manages to be an enjoyable song. As he’s stated, even Jari isn’t happy with Time I (although what worries me is that he wanted to do more). May Time I stand as a cautionary tale to the aspiring genius musician.

The problem of overproduction seems to be endemic to big name labels, particularly Nuclear Blast. I suspect that access to too much high-end equipment, software, and money can make artists snowblind to the dangers of overproduction. It’s hard to not use tools available to you, after all. As much as I love them, Blind Guardian and Nightwish also suffered mightily from terrible clean production styles. Beyond the Red Mirror managed to get out alive on the strength of the otherworldly talent of Hansi Kursch, Andre Olbrich, Inc., but the guitar tone sounds like a weakly scrabbling housecat compared to the mighty rakes they used to dish out in their speed metal days, or even back in 2010 with At the Edge of Time. Frankly, even the drums sound muffled in cloth, and the production leans on choirs of 70-strong Hansi Kursches far too often. Despite these shortcomings, the most toweringly epic moments of the album (“The Grand Parade”, “The Grand Parade” and “The Grand Parade”) still shine through with the power we’ve come to expect from Blind Guardian. As far as Nightwish—I know they haven’t been a guitar-driven band for some time now, and I’m not faulting them for that, but c’mon. You could isolate the guitar tracks from Endless Forms Most Beautiful and lull a suckling babe to slumber.

Rounding into raw production, second wave black metal bands like Darkthrone made disgustingly lo-fi production values their anointed aesthetic. There are plenty of anecdotal and apocryphal stories of second wave artists trashing their amps until they bled electricity and singing into headsets or a Fisher-Price plastic echo microphone—y’know, whatever happened to be lying around. In any case, the deliberately bad production popularized by the second wave has now been adopted and refined into a kind of metal production aesthetic to great effect. Though many are loathe to be known as such, the second wave artists were innovators. The intense electric waterfall coursing through albums like A Blaze in the Northern Sky did more than feed a misguided anti-establishment rage against the machine; the riffs filtered through this raw production tap into a primal part of the brain that feeds on the fight-or-flight aggression and simplicity of the music. The vocals, already transfigured by black metal shrieks, descend into pure bestiality when they’re shrieked into cord-frayed microphones. The absence of production becomes the strongest production. Free from human intervention, the end result is powerfully alien, with its inhuman voices and unrecognizable instruments.

Of course, raw production has come along quite a bit since the chaos of the early 1990’s. Raw production is now a tool to be harnessed, and even the rawest of productions still tend to have some intentionality driving them other than random rebellion. Moloch’s 2014 album Verwüstung is a lesson in raw production done right. After an ambient track, “Blutmond” closes in mercilessly. At first, the production seems to be poorly done; the sound is echoey and far-off, and the drums feel muffled. But then “Blutmond”’s feint turns into a riposte, surrounding and crushing like a sonic tsunami. The guitar tone is treble-greased and eerie, working well with the surprisingly melodic riffs. The vocals are a particular achievement; they do sound far-off and echoey, but it works in their favor. It’s not the far-away sound of a danger avoided; it’s the dreadful shrieks of a predator circling, zeroing in on helpless prey unable to locate it. The production is so raw that there’s some audible fizzing and popping on “Spiritueller Selbstmord”, and I honestly have no idea if that’s from when I ripped the CD to my computer or if it’s intentional on Moloch’s part. In any case, the production on the album is blisteringly raw, encompassingly evil, and punishingly atmospheric. This is what torture sounds like. No other production technique would have served the album this well. It’s because of the innovation of second wave artists that we can enjoy music like Verwüstung today.

There are lots of examples of effective raw production that I felt obliged to mention. Midnight, for example, takes raw production via a different route. Their production is as disgusting, cheap, and sleazy as their music, and it’s awesome. It’s raw in a Cheeto-dusted, used-condom-littered bedroom studio sort of way that accentuates the offhanded simplicity and honest energy of the music.

Another location on the raw production map finds atmospheric and depressive suicidal black metal bands. These genres are particularly interesting because, depending on their musical roots, their production style can be accurately guessed. The more atmospheric and post-black metal the music is, the cleaner it presents (Saor, Agalloch, Ashbringer); as it drifts toward DSBM, it becomes muddier, fuzzier, and rawer (Panopticon, Nyktalgia, Blut Aus Nord).  

Despite its bludgeoning effectiveness, raw production can certainly be misused. I’ve heard it described as bad bad production, and I think that sums it up pretty well. Just because some second wave black metallers struck gold while trying to summon the shittiest possible production, doesn’t mean that approach works every time. There are countless examples of bad raw production cluttering the web; although, to be fair, many of those probably result from inferior recording circumstances, where better production would have been used given the opportunity. Still, bad production is bad production. I would be remiss to not briefly draw attention to Metallica‘s beleaguered St. Anger and that godforsaken monkey-in-an-aluminum-factory snare. Let’s all agree not to do that again. One of the most resounding failures in raw production I’ve heard is Halls of Death, by Nav’. It’s quite the spectacle. The guitar buzzes, but not in an invigorating, electric way; more like a “my flip-phone speakers are broken” sort of way. There are occasional bursts of sound, but not in an explosive, incendiary way; more like a “my amp fell over while recording” sort of way. Put simply: it’s raw production done badly, and unfortunately the songwriting isn’t strong enough to rescue it either. And the vocals stink.

Production is one of the most difficult tasks a band has to manage. Most bands don’t have the luxury of a professional producer to mix and master their music for them, and even that avenue invites struggles with artistic vision. Genius songwriting and prodigious instrumental ability does not guarantee a well-produced album. On the whole, though, I think modern metal bands do a tremendous job of producing their work. Any band worth their salt should have studied the history of their genre to know what production styles work in a given musical context. No, don’t put a black metal bass tone on your djent album. Don’t record your progressive metal masterpiece with your iPhone in an upturned aluminum trash can. Simple stuff, really.

The much more difficult task is what to do. Fuzz out the guitars a little for a more expansive atmospheric and risk losing fret-shredding precision? Beef the bass for a more percussive beat at the expense of the guitar? Ultimately, an answer can only be derived from close study of what has succeeded in the halls of metal history, combined with a strong but not inflexible artistic vision. Then, with a little luck (and maybe Tom G. Warrior), you can create production that fits your music like a glove—no saunas required.

Andrew Hatch is from a place that isn’t interesting enough to bother mentioning. His hobbies are diverse and unrelentingly avant-garde, ranging from such arcane activities as rock climbing, reading books, and listening to music(!!) Additionally, he is of the firm belief that the great superhero Guitar Solo and his sidekick, Tremolo Riff, have the mettle to cure all that ails the world.