Echoes of Sonisphere - The Magical Fours

Some audio fans often discuss threads like "The best  loudspeakers for heavy metal". If you like to listen to CD recordings that are  available in stores today, the good news is that you do not need any special  type of equipment/loudspeakers - a car audio or a boombox from a supermarket  will make the service well provided that they can play loud....

Echoes of Sonisphere

MetallicaOn June  19, 2010 a dream of metal lovers came true. The bands representing tips of a  thrashmetal iceberg showed to 40,000 fans who have ruled the genre for last twenty years, independently of the recent renaissance of heavy riffing among  newcoming bands.
On several occasions we declared certain scepticism about the future of HiFi under the attack of new non-physical data  formats. As a result we hoped that our magazine would not be forced quit by the  coming generation of iPods, docking stations or earplugs.

Fortunately this is  not happening, however, a significant threat has arrived from somewhere else:  provided there is no change in way how music is produced and mastered, the  pleasure of listening may be killed by music industry. Invisible terrorism that  can be heard - today it does not make a real difference if you play back your  favorite albums through a high-end gear or an iPod as you are not given a chance to feel and hear the difference. That is where this article perfectly  complements with the Sonisphere happenings.

Sangre Pintada Mundo

Three stages, outstanding line up, twenty-one bands and eleven  hours of crushing music, topped by Metallica' s unstoppable force at midnight  gig. James Hetfield said it: the Big Four, that is Metallica, Megadeth,  Slayer and Anthrax, gave birth to the thrashmetal genre and helped to sculpt it  to perfection. All four bands showed to some 40,000-heads crowd tour de force  performances filled with the best moments of their career.

Officially  the Sonisphere should have culminated with Metallica - the guys played  great set with self-assurance, enthusiasm and charisma. Yes, there were some  drawbacks like wrong intonation and off-rhythms here and there or Lars Ulrich's  backstage oxygen therapy that made the breaks between the songs longer than necessary to keep the crowd boiling, but these are minor complains. Metallica  have ever ruled and it still rules.

Apart from this official culmination  there were at least two other climaxes. I've seen Slayer twice in last  twelve months and this band, now complete with original members, is in  unbelievebly good condition, aspiring for the best performance of the   festival with ease. Sheer virtuosity (can we consider this thrashmetal tornado  to be virtuosity?), cleverly set stage with not overdone lightshow neither sound  and the simple fact that the guys were apparently having good time themselves  lifted tremendously the lethargic atmosphere of the evening. True metal in its  purest form and one of the best performances ever.

x metallica

x anthrax

The next climax happened a few hundred meters right from Anthrax-dominated Apollo Stage (I have to admit that the comeback and vocal performance of Joey  Belladona was below my expectations) where Saturn Stage was sweeped by punishing mechanical mayhem of Fear Factory. This band features some of the finest  musicians of today: Gene Hoglan and his superfast drumming contributed  significantly to the tremendous success of Dark Angel's Darkness Descends album - he was 21 at that time. Since then, he has been heard on many legendary releases like Death's Individual Thought Patterns or Strapping  Young Lad's Infinity and Terria). The latter band was also home for Byron Stroud, the new Fear Factory's bass player. Stroud could not be overlooked on the stage and nicely balanced Dino Cazares' merciless guitar staccatos. The atmosphere in a boiling cauldron of fans was ever escalated by charismatic Burton C. Bell, who did not stand still a second behind his  microphone and made all fists be raised with an emotional recollection of the  ecological mess in Mexican Gulf: „BP must pay!“ is what we heard from  thousands throats.

Well, music is not the only thing our magazine is  about. Let's check the sound of Sonisphere. The sound was not consistent, above  all. Especially in the afternoon the music was too loud and as a result some  performances got lost in the sonic mess. We witnessed unbearably unbalanced  sound of Anthrax, for example. Not only was Joey Belladona out of tune, but it  was even more apparent due to the used mix settings. I tried hard to find a spot  where the music would be listenable but there was none. Similarly Megadeth struggled with the overdone settings - they are not a typical  festival band as their song structures are more sophisticated and instrumentally  demanding. With the bad sound the charm was lost, though Dave Mustaine did a perfect job, using the stage as a catwalk and finishing the set of Megadeth with a not so typical theatrical thank you ceremony.


x megadeth2

x megadeth1

As  darkness descended, sliders of mix consoles finally moved - Alice In Chains was the first band who benefited from the attenuation. The Best Sound Award goes to Slayer, though unusually decent the sound was perfectly legible and I could easily understand every world of Arraya's lyrics. Metallica started in the same fashion till Fade to Black - the soft guitar required a change of  settings and they never came back to normal again and after midnight we were  back to a bit overdone sonical garbage. Too much volume equals less enjoyment:  this holds true in real life as well as in recorded music. This leads us from  the Big Four to other Fours.

The sound of four decibels

In  the course of last few months I have listened to many heavy metal audio releases  in search for good sound. I would just repeat myself by criticizing Metallica's Death Magnetic that could have been twice as good if its mastering had  been done properly - you are advised to check our Road To Hell article.  Unfortunately, Death Magnetic is not an exception as a good recording is becoming more precious than a Unicorn. Now, I have following discs spinning in my CD  player:

World Painted Blood makes a direct reference to the best Slayer's albums from the end of 80's. It took quite a long but finally we can enjoy brand new thrash metal stuff in the vein of where Seasons in The  Abyss left off.

After several years of break Fear Factory has taken a new breath, producing 3 new albums in a row. The last one, Mechanize,  is arguably among the best in FF's catalogue. There is plenty of the band imitators out there, however, the guys from FF still lead the pack which is highly contributed by impeccable studio production.

Heathen released two excellent albums twenty years ago and then remained quiet until this year when their latest The Evolution of Chaos has been released. It is not a thrash metal discovery and one can easily hear inspirations from many peers like Metallica (Master of Puppets era) or Exodus, however, Heathen has managed to make a wonderful and compact blend of heavy riffings wherever they come from.  The Evolution of Chaos simply aspires to one of the best thrash metal albums of the year (last few years inclusive).

The last band I want to  discuss is legendary Overkill. Unlike others they never ceased to make one album after another, though not always the sun shines for them. There is a lot of  variety and good musicianship to their latest Ironbound which is further  highlighted by slower tempos and compositional creativity. The result is really  good.

I have selected the aforementioned albums for the reason they not only perfectly underscore the atmosphere of the Sonisphere but also for they  unfortunately represent, from technical point of view, typical rock music production of today. You do not have to look for that - practically any metal  album that has been released in last few months/years is a sonic disaster. What  are we up to, then?

„In the times of deceit telling the truth  becomes a revolutionary act.“
George  Orwell

If you make an effort and go through the albums' reviews you would learn that their sound is fantastic! So where is the hook? Read further.

We will need a REFERENCE, that is the recording which has really good sound - therefore I used 20-years old Horrorscope (Overkill, Megaforce/Atlantic 75667-82283-2) as the reference. In my personal list I would put this album in Top Twenty of the  best recorded heavy metal albums ever. It represents the golden mastering era when, unlike today, digital compressors were rarer than microphones. Howie Weinberg, who was the mastering engineer on the album, did a great job: dynamic levels reach 13dBFS and the sound is very legible and resolving while keeping its heaviness and impact. Should I rank the sonics I would give 10 points out of  10.


Overkill artworkWell, what happens when the Horrorscope is replaced by their newest Ironbound in the CD player? The difference is night and day since the very  first notes - we have to turn volume down by about 6dB to match the original loudness and not to get deaf. Listen to drums; heavy pounding of the Horrorscope has been replaced by clicking and popping of an unidentifiable instrument that mostly reminds me of a synthesizer for kids that can be get at a toy store. The guitars that were previously sharp as a knife now lost their metal edge, they are flat and unpleasant to ears, and the soundstage, previously nicely laid, has got totally confused. I could not listen to such a sonic crap  for long and after 3 minutes tried to compensate for tiring acoustic pressure by  turning the volume further down by 2dB. It did not help, the music despite its  catchiness remained flat and induced a sense of discomfort in me.



When you listen to a kick drum on a live stage you hear it by your belly. It is a very dynamic instrument. Not in the Ironbound - here the sound of a mallet hitting the drum's skin is like the sound of a stick hitting the canvas of a tent. The guitar solo that can be found in The Goal is Your Soul sounds like a synthesized melody as there are no upper harmonies, nothing. Do not get me wrong  - I like Ironbound for its musical content, but I hate it for its sound. Out of the  albums I reviewed in this article it is the worst one and cannot be listened to even in a car. Jonas Kjellgren behind a mastering console completely failed (I  wonder why because the guy is an active musician in Carnal Forge or Scar Symmetry so he is supposed to know what is the real sound like). If I  were Overkill I would not pay for such a job and sue Jonas right away. Overall  sonics: 0/10.


Heathen-artworkInsert Heathen and The Evolution of Chaos in the  player and you will have to further turn the volume down by 2dB. There is a certain glimpse of sanity in how the album is mixed; at least there is some bass thrown in that lets the drums be more dominant with more natural weight  within the mix. A few more minutes of listening reveals similar artifacts like with Ironbound, however. All the other instruments and voices are mastered (maybe even mixed) very flat and one-dimensionally. It is like someone would listened to a distant radio and played live drums in a karaoke style.  Checking the program in a WAV editor the dynamic flatness is apparent - there are no peaks whatsoever, the loudness is maximized and natural dynamics heavily surpressed, both contributing to highly unlistenable sound.




This  is not the first time I encountered the work of Jacob Hansen of Hansen Studios  of Denmark. He was behind Mercenary albums before, with exactly the same  compressed and flat approach. Maybe he should be blacklisted or jailed. Maybe he  was forced do so. But he could have refused. The Evolution of Chaos is an  excellent album so I will not scrap it. Overall sonics: 2/10 (the two  points fo the bass).


SLAYER-artworkSlayer has never enjoyed the reputation of  sonic clarity and the production of World Painted Blood is not different.  It is multicompressed, edited and clipped to death. Vlado Meller of Universal Studios must have been temporarily insane to commit such a mastering crime. Look  at the first picture below and you can see that he managed to compress, clip and  normalize even the short intro to the song despite it should have been few  decibels quieter that the rest. The three samples below are cut from the  passages marked by red spots: 54s, 1m26s and 3m38s. There are areas where musical information is missing completely (look for flattened peaks) and  therefore the sound is distorted or replaced by a digital noise.





Despite  these fatal drawbacks the recording's mix is okay, the instruments are well balanced, there is no synthetic feeling to the sound and the album rocks. I suppose that Vlado Meller concentrated exclusively on digital plug-in mutilation and left the rest relatively untouched. What is new and what was missing with  both Overkill and Heathen is the soundstage. From left to right there is at least a certain positioning of instruments in space whcih enhances overall legibility and this is very refreshing.  Individual tracks are fierce and  short and this helps to keep a listener listening without realizing that microdynamics are completely missing.

I love Slayer and stick to their thrashing roots with World Painted Blood so I eagerly expect a day when the album will be available in a less manipulated version. Meanwhile I recommend you to check the credits-catalogue of Vlado Meller, which  will help you to avoid recordings he has mastered. Should you need examples go and listen to infamous Californication (Red Hot Chilli Peppers) or Black Holes and Revelations (Muse) and it will be clear to you where the  problem is. Overall sonics: 3/10 (the three points for the mix).


FearFactory-artworkThis  is not the first time we reviewed a Fear Factory's album. It is apparent that the phenomenal production of Greg Reely and Rhys Fulber is one of the essential elements of the typical mechanical and punishing FF's sound. Mechanize boasts of the best dynamic value of the four albums: 6dB. Still, it is hardly  50% of the dynamics of the 20-year old Horrorscope and 70% of the dynamic range of Fear Factory's defining albums like Demanufacture. The bad thing (compression) serves the good thing (machine-gun like computerized sound) surprisingly well and can be considered as intentional element of  the art. The mix of Mechanize is clean and clear, all instruments are perfectly balanced and the result is listenable with enjoyment. Only at very best  hifi gear you will miss deeper frequencies and finer microdynamic response - the sound still remains relatively flat (comparing to the best) and empty. Play it  back on a standard equipment and you will love it. Mechanize represents a lesson for engineers how to achieve modern sound through thoughtful digital  manipulation. Possibly, if you can equalize at home (standard tone correction  may serve well), add some bass to perceive better macrodynamic ratios and highly enjoyable sound. Should Mechanize be available uncompressed I would pay  hundreds of € to get it. Overall sonics:  4/10.



Is  there a cure?

The average dynamic values of the abovementioned albums are between 4-6dB which is significantly less than appropriate for any type  of music (the values should range at least between 10-12dB for rock music). There is one track at World Painted Blood that downreaches to 3dB of dynamic range!

Some audio fans often discuss threads like The best  loudspeakers for heavy metal. If you like to listen to CD recordings that are  available in stores today, the good news is that you do not need any special  type of equipment/loudspeakers - a car audio or a boombox from a supermarket  will make the service well provided that they can play loud. Anything  additional is senseless as the information you want to hear (like dynamic peaks or deep and tigght bass) is simply missing on the media already. Thus do not  overspend your money, rather go for something with good value or consider an investment into good headphones. If money is not of an issue and you want to spend then I urge you to buy out tickets for the concert tour of your  favorite interpret - enjoyment guaranteed.

I hear you saying "Hey, I do  not listen to metal, so what?" Stay assured that pop and RB albums are not different. If you can found a recent one with dynamics better than 8dB then buy a bottle of champaigne. Fifteen years ago it was not that bad and 12-16dB were  quite common.

So what can we do? Not a lot. The initiatives that try to fight back have no real power to force music industry to change the habits.  However, you can widespread the message to make people aware of what is happening. Not only is it harmful to the music but it is harmful to our health.  The times of deceit have come, it is the time to call for a revolution!




Slayer, World Painted Blood, American 88697599962, 2009
Executive producer - Rick Rubin, Mixed & produced by Greg Fidelman, Mastered by Vlado Meller/Universal Mastering
Dynamic values fo the tracks:  4,4,5,5,5,4,4,4,3,4,4 - all clipped
Official DR value: 4

Fear Factory, Mechanize, CDL 0469CDSE, 2010
Executive producer - Fear Factory & Rhys Fulber, Mixed & mastered by Greg Reely/Surplus Studio
Dynamic values fo the tracks: 6,6,6,6,6,6,6,6,7,6,6 - all clipped
Official DR value: 6

Heathen, The Evolution of Chaos, Mascot Records M7257 2, 2010
Executive producer - Juan Upteaga, Mixed & mastered by Jacob Hansen/Hansen Studios
Dynamic values fo the tracks:  7,4,4,4,4,4,4,4,4,4,5 - peak -0,1dB
Official DR value: 4

Overkill, Ironbound, E1 Music E1E-CD-2081, 2010
Mixed by Peter Tagtgren/Abyss Studio, Mastered by Jonas Kjellgren
Dynamic values fo the  tracks: 6,6,5,7,6,6,7,6,6,6 - peak -0,11dB
Official DR value: 6

© Audiodrom, VI.2010 -MJ-
© Photos with kind permission of Vojta Florian, VI.2010

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Related article: ROAD TO HELL


Audiodrom © 2010 MJ