Recent Production Trends

So here we sit at the cusp of something we, the Metallica faithful, have waited for, patiently-ish, for 8, yes *eight* long years.  So, what’s the first thing I do?  I complain.  I know – I’m trying not to because, well, honestly?  The first three singles represent the best metal Metallica has put out for decades.  So, then, why be a whiny, complain-y guy?  Well, let me preface it by saying it’s not directed at Metallica, specifically.  They just happen to be the most recent band whose album is mixed with something missing – the high end.

Now, there’s high end.  I know that.  The cymbals are crisp and the guitar solos have bite.  That said, what they don’t have is “air” or “breathing room.”  What?!  What am I talking about?  I’m talking about that lift in the upper frequencies that actually allows *everything* to have a little more room to shine.  I’ll have to demonstrate because I’m not sure my brain is equipped to parse it all out intelligibly, right now.  So – let’s look at things that will help me explain.

Hardwired

This is where I noticed it, first.  So, here’s a sonogram of how it is without the little tweaks I give it to give it air and more – in my opinion – life.

image

You’ll notice there is a lot of blue at the top.  That’s where the “air” lives.  It seems like a small thing.  I guess that’s where my frustration came in.  It was obvious to *my* ears – why was it not obvious to the mixer, producer, mastering engineer OR anyone of the fellas in Metallica?  My second frustration came from the fix taking, literally, under a minute of fiddling with my standard Mastering Bus plugs.  How much of a difference could it make?  This is what it looks like when I kick in the plugins:

image

You’ll notice there’s a TON more in the “air” frequencies.  You’ll also notice that there are more hotspots within the other frequencies, as well, meaning they’re getting more space and you’re able to hear them.

I have taken both versions – the original mix and my re-EQing and intertwined them.  You can hear when the blanket is lifted and then is there, again.

[Hardwired — Comparison]

As you can hear, there’s a marked difference.  Now, I tried to match volumes as closely as I could, but there are a couple spots where they’re crossing over where it gets a bit louder.  The thing is, it’s not rocket science.  That’s what is frustrating to me.  On the track, itself, I just hit it with an EQ that took out some resonant points that became obvious when opening up the top end.

image

Then, on the master bus, I used FabFilter’s Pro-L and Pro-G, Slate’s Virtual Mix Rack and T West’s “After” which, if I may say so, is one of the handiest little filters out there.  Here are the settings:

image  image

image

and image

So, as you can see – there’s no voodoo involved.  It’s just tweaking here and there to expose more of the depth.  It’s not just this track, though.  Of the three singles released, “Atlas, Rise” needed the least amount of high-end massaging.  So, I’ll go on record saying to Metallica – Hey! I’ll fix those for you! and then move on to the song that really started me listening more critically to new releases.

Mirror.  Neat band, good talent, good producer (I mean it – he’s got a great pedigree), but muted and muffled production.  I had a little row with someone about it and their point was that the band *wanted* it that way and that it sounded “retro.”  I guess he could be right, if by “retro” he meant demo tapes from the mid-70s.  I can understand a band wanting a warmer sound than the almost sterilized, clinical mixes that have been coming around, as well.  I can.  I appreciate the warmth and tone of older recordings.  What I have a hard time getting past is when there’s *no* high end, no opening up and it all sounds muddy.  Now, this isn’t perfect – it’s re-EQing for demonstration purposes.  Obviously, I could make a better comparison with the actual stems and remixing it, that way.

[Mirror – Galleaon Comparison]

So, I guess my real question is *why?*  Why have so many good albums been mixed/mastered with no “air” to them?  I mean, I’m listening to Anthrax’s “All of Them Thieves,” and Jay Ruston did a great job capturing the music *and* giving it room to breathe.  So, what is the decision making process?  I have a hard time believing that a band would listen to something with dampened high end and decide that’s how they wanted their hard work to be presented.  I could be wrong.  There could be something charming about it.  It just all feels to me like when Nevermore sent “Enemies of Reality” to Andy Sneap to have him re-mix/master the album because the high-end clarity was missing.  Their hard work wasn’t showcased, completely, and with some love – and air – “Enemies 2.0” was sent out from Century Media and all was well.

In conclusion, I guess it melts my mind a little when we have hard work put in by musicians, hard work put in by the mixing engineer, hard work put in by the producer and hard work put in by the mastering engineer – but it still sounds like it’s buried under a layer of silt.