Heaviness in Metal Music Production (HiMMP)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Huddersfield
Department Name: School of Arts and Humanities


Since Black Sabbath's self-titled debut album in 1970, metal music has been on a quest for greater heaviness. Although performances have become more extreme, the music's heaviness has benefited from numerous advances in music technology, facilitating dense walls of distorted guitars and hyperreal drum performances.

From cultural and musicological perspectives through to vocational and practice-based production studies, there is a lack of understanding of what heaviness is in a recorded and mixed form. In a music genre that is approaching its half-century of existence, this research is likely to have significant global impact on our understanding of the genre's fundamental qualities. At present, there is a deficit of music production knowledge and educational material that enables those interested to understand how top producers capture, manipulate and present the various qualities that equate to heaviness.

This project will examine how seven leading metal producers specialising in different subgenres define heaviness, and how they process and control the constituent aspects of heaviness during the mixing of recordings. It will analyse the producers' understandings of heaviness, their individual approaches, and how the characteristics of the musical material influence their mixing decisions. It will lead to a theory of heaviness derived from systematic empirical analysis. The project takes seven mainly sequential steps:

1) After compiling existing research on heaviness, the team - consisting of two metal music producers, one also a practitioner, one a musicologist - will 2) compose one metal song with clearly defined sections of three contrasting subgenres (doom metal, symphonic power metal, modern extreme metal) based on previous stylistic analysis. 3) The song will be recorded to professional standards. To allow multiple production choices, multi-amplifier/cabinet setups and clean drum hits for sample reinforcement will be recorded with a variety of recording techniques. 4) The experiment will be pilot-tested with a UK producer. 5) The styles of the main producers will be analysed to inform the experiment and data analysis. 6) The recorded song will be mixed by 7 leading metal producers. The producers present their results to the team, followed by in-depth interviews on the approach taken. The mixing and the interviews will be filmed with multiple cameras and screen-capture. 7) The video documentation and interviews will allow analysis of the producers' individual mixing approaches. They will reveal whether the subgenres require distinct production approaches and whether there are overarching features of heaviness across diverse subgenres of metal. The data will show how leading producers approach the mixing of a metal track, thus documenting the process in a way that is useful as a learning resource for music producers. The analysis of the producers' mixes will be an audible demonstration of their individual understandings of heaviness, showing the breadth - or lack thereof - of possibilities of achieving heaviness. These analyses will form the basis for a theory of heaviness in metal music production filling a gap in knowledge in the disciplines of metal music studies, musicology and the art of record production.

The findings will be published in a research monograph, two refereed articles in Metal Music Studies and Popular Music, one practice-oriented article in Sound on Sound, and presented at two international conferences. All project material including sheet music of the song, the raw recordings, the 7 mix project files, the edited videos of the producers' sessions and interviews will be available on the project website. The resources provide authentic, first-hand documentation demonstrating the crucial decision-making processes and the techniques involved in high-end metal music production for a full song. No print magazine, video service nor commercial educational provider offers comparable resources.

Planned Impact

The project will impact all those interested and working in music production and metal music, metal music producers/engineers and recording musicians. Many online forums exist that allow producers to share strategies, i.e. www.ultimatemetal.com (150,000 members), www.futureproducers.com (500,000 members), www.gearslutz.com (360,000 members), www.soundonsound.com (80,000 members), however the materials available here are not detailed or rigorous. A few metal producers such as Andy Sneap lend their name to a forum (on Ultimate Metal) and occasionally reveal insights into their work. However, such actions do not provide interested producers with a complete documentation of the mixing process and the decisions involved, and leave the users to speculate about productions as demonstrated by the countless discussion threads. These mainly rely on advice by fellow amateur/semi-professional producers and very rarely benefit from shared insights into professional producers' thoughts and techniques. Commercial services such as 'Nail the Mix' (with 28.000 subscribing members) exist that offer mixing projects and video interviews with the producers of renowned metal bands, but this resource only involves one producer per song. This work will have significant impact on all of this specialist public audience, and the material will be promoted through these fora.

For metal music producers and self-recording artists of all levels of expertise the proposed research project will generate knowledge and learning material that is far more systematic and comprehensive than any resource currently available. Unlike production manuals and tutorials that touch on the topic of heaviness and provide generic guidelines, the results of this project will equip metal producers with a profound understanding of the variables and techniques of producing heaviness in metal music, so that they can apply them according to their specific needs. They will benefit from the research analysis of the three contrasting subgenres (composition, performance, production) by having a guideline for their own creative work from the first idea to its finalisation in recorded form. Interested producers and artists will not only have seven role models to emulate, but the empirically derived theory will give them an understanding of the many constituents (structure, arrangement, song tempo, instrumentation, performance, recording and technical processing), their interrelation as well as underlying acoustic and perceptual principles. This profound knowledge will support them in their own productions. This could impact upon a self-recording band's commercial success, to achieve the necessary level of production quality to receive attention from a record label or to play at more prestigious venues. For producers this knowledge is also likely to lead to an improved production quality, possibly helping him/her to attract new and more high-profile clients, local and beyond.

This research will be of interest to the millions of metal fans around the world who buy the recordings produced by the participants. The project's research will be publicised to them through online metal fans' forums and through press releases to metal music periodicals. The producers will also circulate the material through their own media channels. The research will impact upon the producers involved, by helping others to understand the skills and knowledge they bring to the form. It will contribute to and impact upon an understanding of the complexity and detail present in metal productions by making processes public that are largely unknown. Contacts at Reuters, national and international press, and with the BBC will be used to circulate the research to as wide an audience as possible, emphasising the scientific and technical detail of the research as well as the production practices involved. The research is intended to be circulated widely, in order to impact upon metal fans, musicians and producers.


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Title Project song 'In Solitude' 
Description The research project explores how heaviness is created and controlled in metal music production based on a song written, recorded and produced by the researchers. We collaborated with known metal musicians, who feature on the recording: vocals: Ralf Scheepers (Primal Fear, Gamma Ray, Avantasia); vocals: Aaron Stainsthorpe (My Dying Bride); guitars: Rich Shaw (Cradle of Filth); bass: Luke Appleton (Iced Earth, Blaze Bayley); drums: Dan Mullins (My Dying Bride); orchestration: Mark Deeks (Winterfylleth). The recorded song is integral to the research project because the project is based on studying how leading metal music producers mix and produce this song. Not only does this allow direct comparisons between the producers, but it also enables independent scholars, artists, engineers, producers and students to mix the same multi-track recording. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact The song has been released on popular streaming platforms like Spotify in the form of the researchers' mix/production. 
URL https://open.spotify.com/album/23dI8tJo5bSz69dQITEvez?si=QHOyvmxvSauj6X2kI4i4Nw&nd=1
Description The project (still active) is guided by five interrelated objectives aimed at understanding heaviness in metal music production.

1) The research seeks to determine compositional, performative and production attributes of heaviness. The findings suggest that structural, performative and technological aspects cannot be considered in isolation, as they must be aligned for maximum heaviness. There seem to be different forms of heaviness, and it is up to the artist and producer to choose one over the others. Thus, a production may favour maximum sonic density for an encompassing "wall of sound" impression at the expense of clarity and rhythmic impact conducive to aggression. The speed of rhythmic subdivisions and the quality of the performative realisation appear among the main factors determining how heaviness can be sculpted with the recorded material.

2) The research aims to map the conceptual understanding of heaviness held by seven leading metal music producers. At present (February 2023), four producers have been interviewed. While individual understandings differ to some degree, there appears to be some common ground: all declare heaviness a fundamental quality of metal music with positive associations but find it difficult to clearly define what it is and how it can be achieved. While the producers agree that certain sonic characteristics, such as sonic weight (low frequencies) and often slow performances, are beneficial, they note that there are no general principles, as creating and controlling heaviness is influenced by a variety of factors, including the compositions, the quality of the performances, and the aesthetic intentions of the band or record company.

3) The project investigates variations in the production approaches to heaviness in different metal subgenres. From the interviews conducted at this stage, it appears that producers are aware of genre conventions but do not wish to be dictated by them. Instead, their work is informed by the nature of the recorded music that, in turn, is governed by the compositions and their performances. Rather than adhering to generic genre formulas, most producers respect the individuality of each artist and their recordings. Acoustic and psycho-acoustic laws are as important as aesthetic visions, meaning that certain genres lend themselves to different engineering approaches than others. For example, extreme metal genres often require drum sample reinforcement and more drastic modifications to the frequency spectrum (significant cuts to low and middle frequencies) to maintain clarity at high speeds. Conversely, slower subgenres like doom metal often benefit from extensive guitar overdub recordings to create a dense and immersive wall of sound.

4) The research aims to determine the relationships between technical requirements, creative freedom and individuality. Several outputs analyse the expected conventions and standardisation in metal music production. The findings suggest that there are standard approaches for metal as a whole and for individual subgenres that can be explained by general engineering best practices, as well as proven solutions to the challenge of crossing the thresholds of what is acoustically and psycho-acoustically possible, which is required to fulfil metal music's pursuit of transgression and ever-increasing heaviness. However, metal producers value individuality, both in themselves and in their recording artists, and therefore try to find individual approaches to distinguish their productions from others. Therefore, while (psycho-)acoustic laws set certain limits, producers are looking for individuality and creative freedom.

5) The project seeks to map the process and the result of producers mixing a metal track, the project song 'In Solitude'. While a summary of the work-in-progress findings is beyond the scope of this report, it should be noted that all four producers involved at this point approached the mix differently. Each had individual solutions for the technically challenging multitrack recording provided, and each final mix/production sounds unique whilst ensuring a professional, release-ready standard. This is a clear indication that while there are technical and expectational requirements for producing heavy music, these do not appear to dictate a standardised production method or aesthetic.
Exploitation Route Scholars in the field of popular music studies, and metal music studies in particular, benefit from the in-depth empirical and practically informed insights into heaviness from a musical and technological perspective. The research provides stylistic analyses that bring together composition, performance, recording and production. Scholars from various disciplinary backgrounds benefit from the research team's expertise in music and music technology and the invaluable experience of leading music producers, whose practices are documented in unprecedented detail. This rich material, from songwriting to finished mix, as well as interview data, allows for in-depth analyses that provide a holistic understanding of heaviness from a research-informed practitioner's perspective lacking thus far.

For practising metal music producers and self-recording artists of all levels of expertise, the research provides knowledge and learning material far more systematic and comprehensive than any available resources. Unlike production manuals and tutorials that touch on the topic of heaviness and provide generic guidelines, the results of this project equip metal producers with a profound understanding of the variables and techniques used to produce heaviness in metal music so that they can apply them according to their specific needs. Not only do interested producers and artists have seven role models to emulate, but the empirically derived theory gives them an understanding of the many components (structure, arrangement, song tempo, instrumentation, performance, recording and technical processing), their interplay and the underlying acoustic and perceptual principles. This profound knowledge supports them in their own productions.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism

URL https://www.himmp.net/publications
Description Our research has been featured as an article and resource for the educational provider "Futurum Careers", which contained an article and interviews with the research team on the topic of "heaviness", as well as a PowerPoint document for educators and an activity sheet. Multitrack recordings of the project song "In Solitude" and the research team's mix of the track were among the materials used for the activity. Students were assigned and guided to mix the multitracks and analyse the process and results, performing the same production task as professional metal music producers.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Creative Economy,Education
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Title Engineering Conventions in Metal Music 
Description This dataset contains transcripts of eight interviews conducted with contemporary metal producers. These interviews formed the basis for the research article "(No?) Adventures in Recording Land: Engineering Conventions in Metal Music", accessible here: https://doi.org/10.1080/19401159.2021.1936410 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This dataset contains the full transcripts of the interviews with leading metal music producers, which provides in-depth knowledge to fellow researchers and interested practitioners, who wish to read the producers' statements in their original contexts. 
URL https://doi.org/10.34696/4xwq-c211
Title Heaviness in metal music production 
Description Project song, audio and video files, interviews, miscellaneous data and other footage of the research project 'Heaviness in Metal Music Production'. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This dataset is at the centre of the funded project, containing the various song materials (audio mixes, stems, individual audio files, sheet music), as well as the professional producer audio mixes, stems, interviews and video explanations. 
URL https://pure.hud.ac.uk/en/datasets/heaviness-in-metal-music-production
Title Netnography What is Heavy in Metal 
Description This dataset is analysed in the output 'What Is "Heavy" in Metal? A Netnographic Analysis of Online Forums for Metal Musicians and Producers', https://doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2022.2114155. The study analyses how musicians and recordists use the term 'heaviness' in their discussions in online message boards. The dataset includes the project file of the qualitative content analysis software, MAXQDA, as well as a PDF export, giving insights into the category system. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Currently, what constitutes 'heaviness' in metal music production is not well understood. This study/dataset extends other theoretical and literature-based research published resulting from this funded project by investigating how practitioners use the semantic metaphor 'heavy' to better understand its use in practice. 
URL https://pure.hud.ac.uk/en/datasets/netnography-what-is-heavy-in-metal
Title Standardisation in Mixing Metal Music 
Description Spreadsheet with systematic information on mixing choices based on 50 analysed metal music mixes, as documented in videos released by URM Academy Nail the Mix. Also includes SPSS file used for statistical analysis of the spreadsheet information. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This dataset contains systematically analysed data from 50 observed metal music mixes. This resource is immensely useful to fellow scholars and academically-minded practitioners (engineers, producers, artists) in that it gives a comprehensive overview of processing approaches and strategies. 
URL https://pure.hud.ac.uk/en/datasets/standardisation-in-mixing-metal-music
Description Crowdfunding event for audio engineers in metal music 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Co-I Mark Mynett initiated a crowdfunding campaign ('UK Metal Merger') to collect funds for audio engineers in the metal music live industry, who lost their income as a result of the Covid-19 lockdowns. The campaign was reported on by the BBC and Sky News, amongst others. It involved a social media campaign and a virtual music festival that generated funds for the audio engineers. Several renowned metal musicians, including Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, contributed to the campaign.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.facebook.com/UKMetalMerger/