(I got sort of caught up in all the year-end Listmania we’ve been feeding you on this site, and am therefore late in publishing this guest opinion piece by Jesper Zuretti of The Binary Code. Check this out and let us [and Jesper} know what you think. Are we putting too much emphasis on recording quality?)
We Are the 3%: Recording Quality v. Song Quality
a novice attempt at history, psychology, and temptation
Many people hearing music in this day and age tend to put the quality of the recording in the forefront, even ahead of the quality of the composition and music. But how much does the music-hearing individual really understand about the quality of the recording they’re listening to? Should they need to understand anything at all? Should music be over-scrutinized and classified into the depths of genre segregation, with fine-tuning into multiple combinations of classification?
The best part about music, in my opinion, is the freedom you have with it, and yet people are probably pickier about music than they are the food they eat. The history of music proves to us that recording (although it’s the conduit to our musical stream) is but a small aspect of music’s place in the entirety of human existence. I’m no certified musicologist (although I’d like to think I am), but maybe we’ll open some minds – just bear in mind that I’m a long-winded typist! Stay with me:
Human beings have been making music as long as the species has existed. The human voice is considered one of the first instruments we ever used to make music. And beyond that, Humpback whales also spend a great deal of time creating music (and by “great deal of time,” we’re talking Frank Zappa amounts of time). So it’s very safe to assume that music was being created even before mankind came into existence. On that assumption, if you subtract the amount of time during which humans have actually captured music on recordings from the length of time whales have been on this planet (speculated to be 54 million years), you end up with less than 3% of music’s supposed development time dedicated to recording.
When was the first recording of music ever created? Music history books will tell you that Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville created the phonautograph in 1857. It was essentially a horn used to capture the sound, which was directly attached to a diaphragm and bristle that vibrated inscriptions onto a hand-cranked cylinder. The song recorded was “Au Clair de la Lune”, a children’s song/story that I’d be willing to bet most children from the 1980’s forward (including me) haven’t even the faintest recollection of.
Now, you can imagine the quality of the phonautograph, as compared to Pro Tools 10 with hundreds of thousands of dollars of outboard gear and analog tape machines. The quality might be different, but does the latter really tell a story, set a mood, or bear a tone in a fundamentally better way? Keep in mind, 1857 was the first time humans were capable of hearing playback music. Since that time, each era of music has had its top-notch producer. A shitty recording in 1960 may very well be the best recording of its generation. With the progress of technology, we need to understand that the quality of the engineering and recording at any one moment may not stand the test of time.
The first time I heard black metal, I was instantly turned off by the lo-fidelity quality of the music. (Mind you, I “heard” black metal; I didn’t “listen” to black metal. But we’ll diverge into the differences between hearing and listening to music a little later on.) The quality of the musical composition, emotion, story-telling, and just about every other aspect outside of the Audiophile’s Guide to Music, were all completely disregarded, based on the final production value of the recording. Same goes for the drone genre: all I was hearing when I first clicked Sunno))) on mp3.com in 2001 was rumbling, low-end, changing pitch every 25bpm meter.
Contrastingly, the first time I heard a band like, say…Meshuggah, the quality of the recording was obviously leaps and bounds beyond something that would have come out of the Inner Circle in Norway. But now, with all of the recording tools we have in our modern musical era, it’s very easy for a band to obtain a “high quality” recording. But as many wise men have said, “You can’t polish a turd.”
Hearing music versus listening to music, what’s the difference? First and foremost, when you hear something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you fully paid attention to the sound. As a matter of fact, we hear things all the time without paying any mind to them whatsoever. This is often the case for the average, common, simple, music-hearing individual. Music to them is in the background of their lives; the lyrics, the creativity, the uniqueness, the meaning, none of that has any effect on what they’re listening to.
Of course, we all can admit that when we listen to music, we don’t always sit in a windowless room with a prospectus of musical rules and regulations, checking off each line as the song plays on. But I tend to give heavy music fans more credit than the average human when it comes to scrutiny.
When you listen to music, you’re doing just that: LISTENING. When your parents yelled at you about things as a teenager, you were just hearing “rarr rarr rarr rabble rarr”, not listening to the advice (most often disguised as demands) they were giving you. Now, as a grown-ass human, you should be able to look back in retrospect and realize that you weren’t listening. You just heard their words, in one ear and out the other.
Now, when a person listens to black metal or drone (and, for the record, I’m not here to convert anyone into black metal or drone fans – they’re just often overlooked genres of music), they should hear more than the 4-track tape recording quality. I’m sure there are hundreds upon thousands of reasons why black metal still just doesn’t do it for some folks — I’m not saying that people who don’t like black metal and drone aren’t listening to it correctly. I’m simply saying that it’s almost border-line teenager for someone to avoid a genre based on the quality of the recording.
I hope I’ll be able to delve into this topic a little bit more in the future – so leave questions, comments, concerns, and I’ll make sure to keep them in mind with my next guest piece. Thanks for reading!
– Jesper Z.
PS: For those interested in checking out some black metal or drone that have interesting and unique qualities to the recordings, please check out: Xasthur – Portal of Sorrow, Leviathan – Massive Conspiracy Against All Life, Deathspell Omega – Paracletus & Fas – Ite, Meledicti, in Ignem Aeternum, Sunno))) – Monolights & Dimensions.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out Jesper and his band the Binary Code @ http://www.facebook.com/thebinarycode , and by all means, if you’ve got an opinion about the topics Jesper explores in this piece, leave a comment.]
[ANOTHER EDITOR’S NOTE: Jesper and I have figured out that we are pursuing the right career paths, instead of one that requires . . . math proficiency. The correct percentage for this post is not 3%, but .000003%, which is roughly the percentage of the time since whales came into existence that human beings have been recording music. But we’re sticking with 3% anyway. Call it literary license.]
To me, musical quality always comes before recording quality (or should, anyway), but production does play a part in how I feel about a song. Taking “Revelation of Doom” by Gorgoroth, for example (featured in an earlier post about re-recording), I like the early recording of that song better because the lower quality production helped give the song a chaotic feel, making it feel like a descent into hell. The re-recording takes that extra punch away. An album like Transylvanian Hunger wouldn’t be a black metal classic without the raw production to give it that cold, evil feel that really makes it sound like something supernatural. On the flipside, an album like The Apostasy by Behemoth (in my opinion a very high-quality recording) would hampered by grimy production, because it would really make Behemoth’s riffs much less epic and majestic.
And don’t worry, I got that the point of your post was that people shouldn’t dismiss a good song soley based on the quality of the recording. Just tossing in my two cents regarding part production plays in how I listen to music.
I am pretty much in agreement here, songwriting and composition come first, but just like Black Shuck says the wrong production can make or break a song. I think to a certain extent one can say that production has to rise as a function of how technical the music is; give Meshuggah the “Nattens Madrigal” treatment and it will probably just sound like muddled noise.
Here here. Finally a voice of reason in a sea of underwhelming Djentleman.
I love Black Metal, and Drone, and all 5 records you just mentioned…
One thinks you mean “Hear, Hear”…
Sweet music though. Finally checked ’em out on YoutTube.
Interesting piece. I find that, in general, a modern production can be brutal as fuck but not really heavy. Heavy as in funeral doom, Seidr that kind of thing.
I like this piece. I enjoyed reading it.
In fact I just had a 2 hour car journey where I was considering the merits of production, the merits of re-recording, and the merits of genre classification myself.
I think I will use your post as a jumping off point of my own. It’s nice to be inspired.
I do think that any reasonable person would agree that the “right” production for the right song is most important. Some things just suit certain production styles. I do however think that all production styles deserve to be done “well”. Sticking a mic int he woods and recording half a mile away will not necessarily capture your tr00-ness any better than actually recording in a studio with the right vintage gear.
Also, as people have no doubt become aware, I think some types of black metal work very well with production of awesome power and clarity. Modern production is not necessarily the devil. Or, maybe it is, if that’s what you want.
Well, 150 years (approximately) out of 54,000,000 (give or take) most definitely is less than 3%, so I can’t quite say your math is inaccurate………
See the additional editor’s note at the end of this post. 🙂
Several years ago, I participated in an online songwriting competition called Song Fight!. (As far as I know, it’s still taking place, at http://www.songfight.org)…
The idea was, they’d announce a title, and anyone who was interested was welcome to write a song for that title- then after about a week, everyone submitted a recording of what they’d written, people would listen, argue, and then vote on a winner.
Being that these were all amateurs, using whatever bedroom-style recording equipment they had available, there was a rather wide range in quality of recordings (as well as quality of songwriting). Sometimes the sleekest-sounding recording would win, instead of the best song. If ever anybody mentioned that a certain song sounded terrible- in terms of production or recording- a huge debate would re-ignite. “It’s called Song Fight!, not Recording Fight!,” they would complain.
But the truth is, many people can’t look past that. If it doesn’t sound “good” then they can’t listen to it to see what it really is all about. Whether that’s good or bad is certainly open for discussion, but I don’t think it’s something (at least as an attribute of society in general) that’s likely to go away…
I think I mostly agree…
As long as the music is clear and the production suits the genre, composition should be foremost.
But I don’t want to listen to a technical death band with black metal production if the that means all the music is murky and washed out.
I think production, whether we like it or not, though, is ultimately another instrument. Producers can have a huge influence on the final product, like that fifth Beatles guy. So, while I agree the music should come first, I think we should bear in mind that production still needs to be done right.
Did I just contradict myself?
Production as another instrument? I never thought of it that way, but it’s kinda true. There are some albums where my favorite thing about them is the drum sound.
Also, hamburgers are tasty. I’m going to eat you now.
Don’t eat Phro, it’s not just his opinions that are under-cooked…
But that’s the point. I eat undercooked Phro, get food poisoning, and then poop happens. And then it only gets better from there.
I apologize for myself. I’m not quite right in the head.
I promise the most orgasmic poop ever or half your feces back!
I knew it was just a matter of time before we turned the discussion about recording quality vs. song quality into shit.
Not many of the discussions seem to turn into discussions about shit of late though.
Perhaps Phro is becoming better integrated into your collective personality? [One wonders if that is the correct phrase…]
I think Phro has merely been working more and drinking less.
That is, alas, pretty accurate.
I’ll try to do something about that next year.
Hahaha! I’m like raw horseburger. Horrible to all the senses and logic, too!
I’m follwing. Thats an interesting point about the producer. As far as “Art” goes, it seems similar to cinema in how a particular combination of a director (producer) Actors (musicians) and the writing/script (music itself) make a certain special unique finshed product which is the film (album). Like how certain directors have style signatures like Bay and his splosions or Abrams and his lensflare, we got dudes like Albini and his wall of sound or how Suecof is able to make a bands br00tal brutal chainsaw sound and forge into a tight, clean, and sharp saber to the jugular. The same band playing relatively similar compostions can make wildly divergent albums in the hands of different talented producers.
I really think this is an important thing to consider in the future, as far as the digitilization and compensation of resorded music goes. Pro tools and basement studios can work modern wonders, but few can match master producers, ao the access (ability to afford) said producers is something i imagine any aspiring band would be conscerned with. There are a handful of magnificently inventive and original ‘films” on youtube, but there’s still only one spielberg or scorcese or tarantino.
Your last sentence sums it up perfectly. Excellent point.
Great minds and great dick’s think and splurt alike!
I mean, me too!
You think with your dick and spurt from your brain? 😐
Almost… I don’t really think…just lots of splurting.
I agree with you and I wanted to try to say something intelligent to expand on your point and then I read something about dicks and spurting and it all went right out of my head.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to derail the discussion. Go find what you were going to say. We’ll wait for the glorious leader.
Well, I guess my only further point was this: What VyceVictus put his finger on is the human element — the ability of a talented producer to make suggestions about how a certain musical phrase or idea could be expressed even better. I don’t think this is inconsistent with Jesper’s point, because, if I’m understanding VyceVictus’ point correctly, it’s not so much about the manipulation of the recording technology as it is about changes in the notes and the tuning and a bunch of other stuff that I don’t even pretend to understand.
I’m sure that a talented producer can also achieve improvements in the mixing and mastering — the purely tech-end of things — but my sense is that, like a film director, it can go beyond that.
Now, please proceed with spurting.
When I think of talented producer, my mind jumps to Erik Rutan, who has plenty of experience playing death metal and who, by all accounts, is very good at squeezing the best performance out of the artists he works with.
So, I guess the ideal producer would be someone who knows both the tech end and the music end inside and out, as you say.
I totally agree with all of this…which is why I really like when bands/artists self produce.
To me, that’s the most interesting aspect of bedroom djent bands, whether the music appeals to me or not, it’s very much the embodiment of one person’s artistic ideals.
So, li-fi production isn’t bad, as long as it suits the artistic image, which is totally in line with what Jesper said.
We’re a happy family!
Well said. Also, you did not contradict yourself.
But, one still wonders what the “ideal” black metal recording quality should be. Quite a few recordings one has heard are so murky that they might well have been atmospheric noise in place of guitars and bass, and a washing machine / dishwasher in place of drums. One often feels that if the artist WANTED the recording to be so murky, what was the point in taking the effort in writing the music.
That’s a good question. I’m not enough of a black metal fan to answer that…but I do think that there is definitely a limit to murkiness that shouldn’t be crossed.
Actually, a Japanese band I reviewed (from the 80’s I believe) was right at that edge. If you’re interested, please check it out here: https://www.nocleansinging.com/2011/07/13/g-i-s-m-s-detestation/
The fuq? Vince Jew-stein wouldn’t let you post this crap on Metalsucks.homo?
I may be undercooked, but I think you mistook the keyboard for your toilet.
Where the fuck did you come from? Wherever it is, get the fuck back there. You ain’t welcome here.
Wow, I know you attract the occasional dick here at NCS, but this is the first time I’ve seen you attract “The Lesser-Spotted Homophobe”.
In fact my Troll Bestiary also suggests that this might be a hybrid offspring from the “Red Crested Racist” as it displays some interesting anti-Semitic tendencies in its primitive grasp of language.
Notice also how easily it is confused by simple internet addresses – “Metalsucks.homo” instead of “Metalsucks.com” – here you can see how the beast becomes enraged easily by simple mistakes in its own perceptions.
If I weren’t at work, I would have laughed very much outloud at this.
There’s always the toilet… All the privacy you need.
I am not at work and therefore laughed very much out loud at this.
There was the one time someone got homophobic with “faggot” triggered by some comments about Marilyn Manson. But I don’t recall having the racist homophobe combo before.
I actually don’t get the “racist” part. Vince and Axl obviously chose their pseudonyms to intentionally caracature-ize their religion/heritage, so clearly it’s something they themselves emphasize. So to call somebody Jewish who openly celebrates his Jewishness… is a really stupid attempt at an insult.
That would be about as effective as yelling “you’re so gay!” at a gay pride parade.
I bet this guy would do that.
I lulzed at your overly pedantic attempt at an insult. Get your head out of your “bestiary”(Bestiary? Are we playing Age of Camelot? Toolbagggg) and teach yourself something worth learning. Broaden that lexicon, broseph. You’re not going to get pussy because you’re writing on this sorry ass website, acting like you know what the fuck you’re talking about, no matter how many delicious homosexuals write up shitty articles no one wants to read. Fuck off, Washington!
Your comment just made it even funnier.
Also, if he were homosexual, would he even WANT pussy?…
“Broaden that lexicon, broseph” HA HA HA HA!!
Also he “lulzed”? I think he means he “laughed”.
He also mis-uses the word “pedantic” – seriously, it’s a real stretch to make that word apply in this situation.
His “g” key also seems to get stuck at one point.
And I do like the repressed nature of him calling homosexuals “delicious”.
“His “g” key also seems to get stuck at one point.”
Im willing to bet he has a lot of sticky keys on his computer
This very article embodies what I think about almost every day. Sound is so important and so personal to each and every band/artist. It’s a constant struggle for me as an engineer/mixer/producer for a band. Some bands are just meant to sound a certain way. Burzum wouldn’t be Burzum if Varg didn’t go to the lengths he did to make it sound as nekro as possible. And Periphery wouldn’t be Periphery if they didn’t go to the lengths they did to make it sound so incredibly punchy, crisp, and clean.
Carving a band’s sound out is a huge challenge sometimes. Other times it’s very easy. Some band’s (typically bands that play A LOT of live shows) already have their sound before they even step in the door. The only thing I need to do is facilitate the recording. Other times though I basically become that “5th Beatle” and start figuring out in my head what the end result should sound like and how I’m going to achieve that. Unfortunately for me, I don’t personally have much money, space, or equipment to facilitate “vintage-style” recordings. Recording to tape is no joke financially and technically. I thank the wonders of Pro Tools all the time, and all the digital plug-ins I use. They are tools and are not in and of themselves bad. It’s how you use (or abuse) them that makes the difference. I’m sure some people would be surprised to hear how very “un-kvlt” the recording process is for Oak Pantheon, lol.
In more direct relation to the article though, something I’ve taken to heart is that a great song is a great song, regardless of how well it is recorded.
I don’t really know anything about music production, recording, or music in general – I can tell the difference between a guitar and a bass, but that’s about it – so I’m not sure how much difference production/recording quality makes to my music choices. I suspect it plays a bigger part than I’m aware, but I don’t recognize it if it does. I do know that my predilections lean toward “no clean” anything…I like a lot of distortion and raw sound (the “whirlwind of angry bees in a cave” sound that makes black metal what it is, for example). Generally speaking I prefer demo versions of songs over their more produced (?) versions…they just seem more “real” to me. That’s not always the case; Moonsorrow has a track called ‘Hvergelmir’ that they recorded for a demo (Metsa) and then re-recorded in 2008 (Tulimyrsky EP) with better production and I can honestly say I like both versions equally, though they sound almost like completely different songs to my untrained ears. Here’s linkage:
Demo version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvquin9HSqA
EP version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lrv62bdSYWI
The thing is, I don’t know how much of that difference is production. Maybe all of it? It’s something I try not to think about a lot. For me, music paints a landscape in my head, and trying to suss out how it was made takes away from that magic a little…thinging about dudes in sweat pants and headphones checking and re-checking the drum tracks kind of takes away from the “organic” nature of what I’m listening to. It’s kind of like watching a horror movie and analyzing how the special effects are done. It’s interesting, for sure, but if you’re doing that while watching the movie you’re kind of missing the story.
The difference between those two versions is almost entirely the production and mixing. I can tell the drums are more properly mic-ed, the guitars are in-phase and much more present. The melodies are a lot more clear and easier to understand. A whole lot less reverb was used on the EP version. A lot of people seem to think that adding tons of reverb will make your mix sound bigger, but if not done properly and making the correct frequencies reflect in an environment it’ll quite often make a song sound much thinner and smaller.
You can also tell the producer spent some time with the vocalist. Not only was he properly mic-ed and mixed forward, but he changes vocal styles ever so slightly to better match each new movement change.
All technical mumbo-jumbo aside, I’m also split on which I like more. The EP version was obviously recorded a lot better and certain sections really stand out a lot more. It’s more pleasing to listen to in general. But with black metal, a lot of that stuff I learned in school gets thrown out the window. Sometimes you want that “shitty” production. It’s a very raw genre of music with tons of emotion. I like when I hear mistakes and when it sounds more fluid and alive. Like you said, it sounds more “real” and true to the band. But at the same time I’m a person who does like to pick out melody and listen to something properly mixed (or at least mixed in a way that’s interesting to my ears). Some bands that I think really nail my ideal black metal production on the head are Wodensthrone’s “Loss”, The Howling Wind’s “Into the Cryosphere”, Young and in the Way’s “I Am Not What I Am”, Orrery’s “9 Odes to Oblivion”, and Agalloch’s “Marrow of the Spirit” albums. All maintain a very raw, live sound while also being mixed properly or interestingly. The aren’t over-produced, they just sound great while maintaining an honest representation of the band.
Man, it’s been a while since I’ve seen any mention of “Into the Cryosphere”. That’s such a great record — it really does have a raw sound without being muddy or overly distorted, and the production suits the music so well. I got very effusive about it here:
I’ve been listening to a few of the Young and in the Way tracks on Bandcamp and I’ve listened to Marrow about a dozen times over the years. Somehow, I now need to find time to sample Wodensthrone and Orrery. Thanks for further complicating my life. 🙂
As in a balance of “raw” sound with good production? That is relevant to my interests. I shall examine forthwith.
Orrery is the most “kvlt” sounding out of all of them, but it’s so damn unique and (dare I say) infectious.There’s so little distortion but it’s so black metal at the same time. Very mysterious band that only recorded that demo/album and split up afterwards. Rumor has it they recorded it in a cave, not sure I believe that though, haha. It’s super DIY but it adds to its charm. Just long, epic instrumental atmospheric black metal with short acoustic interludes in-between. Even the thunder and rain fx were done by old-fashioned/physical means with big thin sheets of metal.
I uploaded the first track of the album to Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rHVpmM2v5A
DIY is right. The drums are barely audible (I hear the cymbals more than the bass drum). In fact, it’s hard to pick out any individual instruments other than the looping tremolo chords. The vocals just sound like waves of scratching noise, and there’s like an overlay of static throughout. But the effect is hypnotic and it’s definitely not like anything else I’ve heard.
Wait, there’s vocals? Where? It’s an instrumental project. XD
HA! Well, I guess that proves some point about the production — I guess it was just the static sounding like some kind of ghoulish rasping. Or the music made me hallucinate.
Maybe it was your penis singing to you.
And just to get anthropologically pedantic on your motherfucking asses, making music (at the very least rhythmic sounds) is believed to be the oldest human form of expression, predating the written word, painting, sculpture, and even most likely language and speech. So while it may only take up 3% (or 0.0000003%) of the world’s life, it takes up 100% of ours.