Heaviness in Metal Music Production (HiMMP)

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

Abstract

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.

Publications

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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 that is written, recorded and produced by the researchers. We have written and recorded the entire song apart from one remaining vocalist. Once this is finished, the song will be released as an output related to the research objectives. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact The song/production has not been released yet. 
 
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/