Dilemma: Heavy Music and Audiophile Sound Quality

Heavy Music and Audiophile Sound; what went wrong?

Throughout my years as a music lover, I have listened to many different genres of music. While I appreciate any music for the skills involved, I have my favorites. I love jazz, especially small venue jazz musicians, blues, rock, and some country. One genre that also has a special place in my heart is heavy music. What some call heavy metal is a genre that has many different subgenres some I like some I don’t. One thing that has remained constant over the years is that sound quality for heavy metal music has been questionable at best.

In this article, I am going to discuss how the recording techniques of this music have changed over the years and their effect on the sound quality of the music produced.

The recent release of Anthrax’s 40th-anniversary album “XL” started me on the journey of thinking of how heavy music has been recorded over the years and what went wrong in today’s releases. Anthrax did something cool with this album. They set up in a large room at a studio and played their whole set like they were playing for an audience and then had the studio record the performance.

While this album is not perfect. It sounds much better than a lot of other metal albums I have heard lately regarding sound balance, soundstage, imaging, and instrument placement. It got me thinking that the way studios make heavy music recordings today is flawed!

When I got into music, I never stuck to any given genre, but heavy music always resonated with me. From bands like Black Sabbath and Cream that pioneered the genre, to bands like Korn and Slipknot that have taken the genre in different directions, I have always felt “in tune” with this music. The dilemma starts when you love this style of music but also care about sound quality attributes like imaging, sound staging, and tonal accuracy.

Heavy music has never had a great reputation for sound quality in many of the recordings and the issue has seemed to get worse as the years go on. I know that the record labels and studios mostly make these recordings knowing that younger adults and older kids with Bluetooth headphones/speakers will be listening to this music. These same people mostly do not know anything about quality audio or care. They just want it loud with lots of bass.

Overall technology is a good thing with audio and electronics. But many times, new technologies can move things in a direction that takes away from the result. Like many of today’s recordings, metal and heavy music recordings are a patch-together of all of the musician’s separate parts and recordings — many times made hundreds if not thousands of miles away from each other. Today’s computer-driven home recording promotes this and makes the recording more economical and faster by not having to travel to the studio and sit there for days making a recording. But I think something is missing from these recordings. Not just from a sound standpoint which I will get to but as a band as well.

From my days playing in bands, I loved rehearsal and practice. It was a time for you and your other members to bond, jam, and come with up music. There is something euphoric about getting together and making music. The melding of the instruments as they play along in time. The dynamic contrasts in the music. It’s just magical! And playing your parts miles apart from each other does not entertain this component at all!

Led Zeppelin recording “Whole Lotta Love” 1969

Heavy metal bands in the 70s would get into the studio and play all day with live takes to get their music recorded. I think early albums from the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath had an energy that was hard to ignore. While the sound quality from some of these recordings is not what I would consider perfect by any means, they are much better than a lot of the over-processed, over-compressed messes we have today.

We have all of this technology at our disposal to make great recordings and the majority of studios and record labels make recordings that are so bad that I would be ashamed to put my name on them! But it all goes back to who is listening to these recordings.

Most everyday people do not care or even know what soundstage, imaging, and dynamic range mean. And the Record Labels know that it costs a lot more to make a good-sounding album. If the band doesn’t care and the majority of their audience doesn’t care then this is the result we have before us. Most of my musician friends are like the majority of music listeners, using Bluetooth headphones or speakers and not knowing what can be accomplished with a good system.

Over the last few years, there has been a trend in Rock music. Bands are tiring of Record labels and their controlling ways. Bands like Clutch, Black Label Society, Megadeth, and many more have moved to their own created record labels. This opens up doors for these bands to do things exactly how they want to. This would allow these bands to up their game on studio work and also recording techniques in the future if the fans asked for it.

Anyone that has heard albums from the likes of Chesky Records, MA Recordings, and Reference Recordings will know that they do mostly live take recordings and are very selective about things like where the recording is made, mic placement, and equipment being used to get the best recording possible. Anyone who has heard recordings from these labels knows what they are capable of producing in a great system. To put it bluntly, the Anthrax XL recording doesn’t hold a candle to a Chesky recording but it leaves me with a question.

If Chesky or another label were to put a heavy rock/metal band into a great room, with good mic placement, and the right equipment and made a recording would heavy music then be more accepted by the audiophile crowd?

I still listen to all my heavy music even with its faults in the recording process. But there is a limit to what I can stand. Alter Bridge is an example, “Walk The Sky” is their 2020 album and I looked forward to this release but when it came out one listen was all it took. The whole album is an over-compressed joke.

Interestingly, the songwriting is great, musicianship great, but the studio work is so miserably done that it is unlistenable on any system. The sad thing is that for some bands this will not change. Years of these practices in the studio have made it almost a normal operating procedure. I have hoped there would be some unseen force rise above and kill these bad practices, but I don’t think it will happen anytime soon. With streaming being the main way people get their music, releases are more a song at a time instead of a whole album. There is not much money in whole album releases anymore. With most heavy metal, rock and top fourty pop music the motto is “money talks-nobody walks!”

Being that audiophiles are already a minority in the music-consuming world, It will take a lot of asking and begging to get heavy music releases to improve as far as sound quality standards. There is hope though. Bands like Tool, Gojira, and Soen all have albums that have come out in the last few years that have a good studio sound. No, these releases will not give you the live, you are there sound and feel that a Chesky, or Reference Recordings releases will. But compared to other heavy music releases I have heard; they are an improvement. So, there is someone out there that cares. I just hope it’s a condition that is contagious!!!


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4 thoughts on “Dilemma: Heavy Music and Audiophile Sound Quality”

  1. Dillinger Escape Plan has pretty high quality stuff. Same with Nails, Full of Hell, and Ad Nauseum. Great article, the 5 of us metal music audiophiles have it tough lol

  2. Completely agree with the article on sound quality of heavy metal music. I would also extend that to progressive rock music as well. I enjoy exploring the whole genre on what I believe to be a fairly revealing system and some recordings are simply so awful as to make them unlistenable.
    This is a great shame as in many cases the music and musicianship are excellent.
    One additional point of note – I have explored a number of prog bands from Scandinavia and Poland and in many cases their sound quality is superior to US or UK based recordings. Why is that?
    If there is a forum to influence record labels and/or bands that the “sound” of their music is just as important as the music itself – sign me up!

    • From Douglas—-. I think this type of music is more popular in places like Scandinavia and Poland which in turn is why they pay more attention to the sound. Or maybe they are just more in tune with how their music should sound.

      The only way I know of to influence a particular band on their music and sound would be to contact their fan website or social media and make them aware that we audiophiles are fans as well and love their music and would love listening to it even more if they paid attention to sound quality on their releases.

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