Exploring heaviness of heavy metal

THE music genre known as ‘metal’ originated more than 50 years ago, with a 1969 album by British band Black Sabbath often cited as the catalyst for a style of rock that would spread around the world. Ever since, musicians and producers have sought ways and means to make it heavier and heavier.

What techniques have they pioneered, and how have they developed? A University of Huddersfield research project – with almost £200,000 in funding – aims to find out and will play a part in enabling new talent on the metal scene to add extra weight to their songs and tracks.

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Launched this month, the three-year project, which has received backing from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), is titled Heaviness in Metal Music Production (HiMMP). It is carried out by Dr Jan Herbst, a Senior Lecturer in Music Production and a seasoned musician and producer who has also researched and written about many aspects of popular music.

Dr Herbst is joined by his Senior Lecturer colleague Dr Mark Mynett, whose career as a professional guitarist has included six worldwide commercial album releases and several years of high-profile touring.

Now, the two University of Huddersfield lecturers aim to visit the studios of leading producers in the UK, Scandinavia, Germany and the USA, where they will explore and document different mixing and production approaches to a song they have composed and recorded. It will go through various sub-genres of metal, said Dr Herbst.

“We will be exploring what different forms this quest for heaviness can take. For symphonic metal, we would have more keyboard instruments, for example, or for doom metal the music would slow down considerably, while a modern extreme metal part would be very fast,” he continued. The researchers will be able to observe how the producers create and produce heaviness in different sub-genres.

Guitars might be tuned down and the tempo slowed to create a sinister sound, while a fast tempo can produce an aggressive effect. But whether it is fast or slow, all metal – whatever its sub-genre – is characterised by specific forms of heaviness, said Dr Herbst.

Metal is generally considered to have originated with Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album in 1969 before becoming a global phenomenon and one that is now widely analysed and studied. Since 2013, there has been an International Society for Metal Music Studies and the journal was launched in 2015.

When they visit studios around the world, the two University of Huddersfield lecturers will be accompanied by a professional video company and they will also use screen grabs to record in detail how the various producers add heaviness to the raw musical material provided by Dr Herbst and Dr Mynett.

The findings will be made freely available via the project website and it is intended to run a mixing contest, so that would-be producers can take the basic song file and – after learning the lessons of HiMMP – they will come up with their own take on the material.

“We are very much focussing on impact, so we are producing educational material to be shared with a wider public,” said Dr Herbst, who added there are also plans to run workshops in the music production studios at the University.

“People can either bring their own song or work with our song and we will guide them and help them to develop as a producer.”

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