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I've been a metal-music addict since my early teens. But in the last few years I've listened to more and more Rap/Trap and so on. And I've bought myself some really really expensive headphones to enjoy music and to pick up small details in the songs I listen to.

And lately sometimes I tried listening to a metal song and I can't help but notice that everything sounds so incredibly muddy. Everything is centering around the mid, not particular highs nor real bass.

After a while of listening to it I just attune to it but immediately after listening to rap where there is often really low 808's or high notes which make a sound very enjoyable to listen and diverse, I only find muddy mid-centered guitars when switching back to metal (generally speaking of course).

Why is this? Is this just bad recording, or (bad) practice/style?

Some bad examples would be:

"Der Tote Trakt" or "Brücke aus Glas" from "Agrypnie".....This just sounds so empty, lacking any highs and lows.

"Feuer" from "Die Apokalyptischen Reiter".... It somehow seems as if the mids swallow the lyrics

Some good examples would be:

"I Believe" from "Ghost"... on the other hand has everything. Highs, lows, clearness. Sounds like a damn good mix to me.

"Toxicity" from "System of a Down" ... No swalloweed lyrics, relatively clear instrumentals.

"Valentine Kid" from "Triple One" ... Rap song, and this is what i mostly listen to now, and this is so totally different to most metal. You have the deep basses, the high synths or hats and mostly free mids so that nothing obstructs or swallows the lyrics. Imho this is how it should be.

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    Saying all metal sounds muddy is a blanket statement. It depends on the quality of production. Metallica's Black album has amazing production, and is not muddy. Everything Dream Theater makes is crisp. Mar 21, 2018 at 13:22
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    Ghost isn't metal, by the way. It's today's version of Blue Oyster Cult...with clown suits. Apr 3, 2018 at 20:26

3 Answers 3

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I think there are two factors that are responsible for the phenomenon you describe:

  1. Lack of financial means. Neither of the metal bands you mentioned as bad examples are even close to the mainstream and are hence financially ill-equipped. They don't make much money with their music and - justifiably - don't expect massive sales; therefore the amount of money they - or their label - are willing to invest in a top-notch production is quite limited.

  2. A matter of style. Both Agrypnie and Die Apokalyptischen Reiter exist on the fringes of Black Metal, which - historically speaking - is quite prone to a somewhat fuzzy sound in an attempt to evoke an archaic atmosphere, conjuring images of times long gone by; Darkthrone's Transilvanian Hunger and Burzum's Filosofem come to mind.

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  • "Lack of financial means" can occur for any kind of music... not for metal music only.
    – Bebs
    Aug 29, 2019 at 8:55
  • @Bebs This may very well be correct - yet, it doesn't exclude "lack of financial means" from being a contributor to this particular sound.
    – glahn
    Aug 30, 2019 at 9:07
  • +1. I listen to Xasthur because of, not in spite of, its terrible recording quality. The attempt to convey "harshness" is sometimes done to such a degree that it filters out many potential listeners who are only comfortable with the increasingly overproduced sounds of commercial music.
    – JacobIRR
    Aug 16, 2020 at 15:37
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"Metal" is a fairly broad term, and as you observed in your original post, only certain artists' work is characterized by a "muddy" sound. As glahn's answer indicates, for certain metal artists, a "muddy" sound may either be a result of lack of the financial means to obtain a better recording and/or mix, or an aesthetic choice; in certain more extreme types of metal, there's a perception that a clean mix is somehow inauthentic.

Regarding the distinction between metal and rap, a great deal of rap music is simply less dense with instrumentation, so it lends itself to a cleaner mix. A dominant instrument in metal (along with most rock music in general) is a heavily distorted electric guitar, and the "space" that that instrument occupies over the EQ spectrum is substantial; add in multiple guitars, a distorted bass guitar, vocals, and drums, and there's the potential for a muddy sound unless the mix is done well. Contrast this with the instrumentation in a stereotypical rap music track where the main focus is electronic drums and vocals, plus potentially a synthesizer sub-bass and additional synth elements, and there's simply less going on to "get muddy".

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There's all manner of highly varied sub-genres to metal, so claiming that "all metal sounds muddy" is of course simply not true. Some sub-genres like Power metal, Symphonic metal or Nu metal (like your System of a Down example) have a pretty broad spectrum with lots of high notes. You'll also find it with lots of classic/mainstream metal bands like Judas Priest (particularly on latter albums like Painkiller) or Iron Maiden.

As for why many bands pick a dirty, distorted sound, I believe you have to dig into heavy metal history. The genre was mainly inspired from blues, another genre which strives to be authentic rather than polished. The big three, "founding" bands of the metal genre: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, all emerged out of the blues genre and brought the sound with them from there. These three bands in turn inspired a whole lot of metal bands; you'll have a hard job tracking down a metal band which doesn't claim to be inspired by any or all of these.

Also as mentioned in another answer, lack of financial means was also a reason back in the early 1970s. A band could afford to rent a record studio for something like 5 hours and in that time they had to record the whole album with ten or so tracks. It would turn out raw, unpolished and authentic.

Black Sabbath in particular went both intentionally "muddy" - in order to create a spooky sound - as well as unintentionally as the guitarist and songwriter Tony Iommi down-tuned his guitar because he had hurt his fingers in an industrial accident. Which song that should count as the first metal song is heavily debated, but Black Sabbath's self-titled debut track tends to be the the one closest to some sort of consensus among metal fans... and it is arguably quite "muddy" - heavily distorted.

So a lot of the sound goes back to the roots of the first metal bands and the blues genre before them.

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