Metal Music Manual and musings on ‘heavy’

Written by Mark Mynett, m.j.mynett@hud.ac.uk

If you are reading this, then you likely share a passion for metal music; so hopefully you’ll bear with me whilst, briefly, I wax lyrical about my love for the genre.

I was just 12 years old when my Dad took me to see Thin Lizzy at Preston Guildhall (FYI; 1981– the ‘Renegade’ tour). It was the closest thing I could imagine to a religious experience; the power, energy and glory of the show was mind-blowing beyond belief. This was quickly followed by a moment of clarity in the form of ‘That’s what I want to do with my life – rock musician!’ I got a guitar for my thirteenth birthday, and after entirely losing my teens to my newfound obsession, joined a band and played my first gig. The band I was in then got the U.K. support to Saxon on ‘The Dogs of War’ U.K. tour (at the time Saxon were my favourite band on the planet) so by this point I was a full-time metal music addict and obsessive musician. My world entirely revolved around listening to and working out the riffs on Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Deep Purple, Gillan, AC/DC and Rainbow albums. But eventually I went on to discover Pantera, Machine Head, Fear Factory etc., and wanted to join a more cutting-edge band that reflected these influences.

After forming a sort of industrial-metal band called Kill II This, I had a semi-successful (make that quarter-successful) career as a musician with four album releases, and support tours with the likes of Slipknot, Megadeth, Machine Head, Anthrax, Fear Factory and Type O Negative – awesome memories! A natural progression of my long held interest in the recording and production side of the industry saw me engineer, produce and mix the last two of my bands albums – and on starting to realise that my skills as a musician/songwriter were nowhere near that required for a viable career as a musician, I gradually drifted toward a deeper interest in production rather than performance. So much so that after being a full time record producer for three/four years, I went to university to complete a BSc in Popular Music Production, and then went straight into lecturing in music technology and production at Huddersfield University, where I still am.

After enrolling on the staff doctoral scheme and completing a PhD on ‘Contemporary Metal Music Production’, I went straight into writing a more practitioner-based book on the subject, and three years later ‘Metal Music Manual: Producing, Engineering, Mixing and Mastering Contemporary Heavy Music’ is being released by Taylor and Francis on the 29th March 2017.

One of the most challenging areas of the book’s writing was firstly clarifying and providing a deeper understanding of what perceived ‘heaviness’ actually is. As a summary (there is a whole chapter dedicated to the subject) I came up with:

• The core parameters of heaviness are various combined perceptions of: weight; size; proximity; density; loudness, power, aggression, energy, emotion, and intensity.
• These qualities are afforded via harmonic distortion, and conveyed through the approach and composition of the individual and collective performances.
• To enable the drum shells, bass, and vocals to punch through the dense wall of sound created by distorted rhythm guitars, many of the modifications provided by distortion need to be reflected in these other sounds. Most importantly, brightness—enabled through the effective capture and delivery of transient energy—and consistent perceived loudness.
• By definition, the word “heavy” suggests weight, and objects of greater weight are normally accompanied by greater size/volume. Sonic weight—a component part of heaviness—therefore refers to low-frequency qualities associated with “size” and “mass”, creating the perception that the sound source is large, dense, and powerful.
• Clarity is a component part of effective heaviness—heightening the energy and intensity of each performance, while strengthening the power and drive of the music’s rhythm structures.
• Performance precision and overall tightness—which refer to subdivisions performed very close to the intended rhythmic sequence—can contribute to both clarity and heaviness.

If anyone has any thoughts about this summary, or potential additions/alterations, I would appreciate it if you found time to forward these ideas to me.

Anyway, if you’re still reading this, then well done, and here is a bit of further blurb that should give you a general feel of Metal Music Manual’s content.

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Metal Music Manual: Producing, Engineering, Mixing and Mastering Contemporary Heavy Music

From rehearsal room through to final mastered product, this manual presents – in meticulous detail – the technical and creative processes for the production of contemporary heavy music to a professional standard.

This is an inspiring time to be writing a book on the subject. Metal music has demonstrated the longevity of its appeal by existing for almost half a century. However, it is only in the past 10 years or so that the genre has gained broad cultural acceptance. This is reflected by an increased integration into mainstream media that previously focused solely on rock, indie and pop. Similarly, many news publications that once reflected a negative stigma towards metal music now provide continued positive coverage, with the genre now acknowledged as a challenging and highly compelling art form.

These developments have been accompanied by a dramatic increase in the research and study of the genre. Typing ‘heavy metal’ into Amazon’s search engine reveals literally thousands of volumes that have been published on the subject. These titles tend to address the importance and relevance of metal from historical, sociological, cultural, and musicological perspectives. From heavy metal inspired cookbooks, through to extensive studies on Islamic metal, there is an incredible diversity of publications. However, at the time of writing, there isn’t a single book dedicated to the production of the music itself!

It is important to ask why a music production manual is needed for the contemporary metal style. Isn’t the process pretty much the same as for other forms of popular music with the same instrumentation? The categorical answer is no, it most definitely is not. In brief: we’re dealing with a sonically dense wall of distorted down-tuned guitars that heavily obscure the other instruments. And often-fast, rhythmically synchronized kick/bass/guitar subdivisions, resulting in quickly-recurring slow low-frequency wavelengths, and several times more musical events per song than typically involved in other genres.

In simple terms then, this production style involves capturing and translating a dense concentration of musical sound – usually referred to as ‘heaviness’. However, there is a paradox; this defining feature of ‘heaviness’ is also at the core of the challenges involved. If the qualities that equate to heaviness are not sufficiently controlled, the performances and sounds lack clarity. A lack of clarity results in less effective heaviness, as the music’s energy, aggression, and impact are lost in what becomes an unintelligible mush. For example, the rhythm patterns of the all-important guitar riffs get blurred, and the complexity involved in the performances just ends up sounding confused and messy. For other genres, an uncontrolled, unintelligible mush might adequately translate the emotional message of the music, but this is seldom the case here. When presented with poor clarity, this is a style of music that is usually considered unacceptable.

For these reasons, this manual does not address lo-fi production values in any way. Similarly, it is not intended as a simplistic ‘101’ for achieving a good quality demo. Its objectives are to present the approaches, processes and techniques involved in producing contemporary heavy music for maximum sonic impact. This is enabled through an appropriate balance between heaviness, sonic weight, clarity and performance precision. Different productions need these key characteristics emphasising in entirely different ways, but a production that is deficient in all four areas is inevitably weak.

Metal Music Manual: Producing, Engineering, Mixing, and Mastering Contemporary Heavy Music can be purchased here. Become an ISMMS member from the menu above and receive a 20% discount as well a yearly subscription to MMS journal!