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Thread: An audiophile ranks and reviews every MM album solely on sound quality. [NERD ALERT]

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    Man Who Fell From Earth A Gruesome Discovery's Avatar
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    Default An audiophile ranks and reviews every MM album solely on sound quality. [NERD ALERT]

    I'm an audiophile. That means I have sex with audio. Look it up.

    I don't hear much talk about the sound quality of Marilyn Manson albums. There's plenty of talk about the song quality, or how this album is better than that one, and this other one sucked, or this one has a cool sound, but I've yet to have a good, substantive chat about the production, engineering, mixing, and mastering behind these albums. There's a reason for this: most of Manson's albums are a big sonic mess, and audiophiles would normally run screaming from them. Not me, though. I charge in headlong.

    So I'm going to basically prattle on about it for an entire thread. You're welcome to read along or join in, but I'll be fucking shocked if anyone does once I bust out the math. There might be some math.

    And to throw some red meat on this nerdy fire, I'm going to break down every album with a review of its sonic quality – intentionally trying to avoid discussing the quality of writing – and rank them from best to worst. There's a good chance that an album I don't like will win out against one that I love when compared on a sonic level, but that's just the way this cookie crumbles.

    My goal is to do this as objectively as possible. That may sound like a contradiction; how could a “review” be objective? And you'd have a point there, but we're talking about quality. I think there's a way to discuss and compare each album's sound objectively, and even definitively say one sounds better than another. But how?

    I'll use an example of two different photos. Two digital photos. They're both photos of cats, because it's the internet. Now, which one is the better picture? That is purely subjective. But dig this: one is taken on a camera phone built in 2003 with dirt on the lens at a resolution of 640x480, and the other is taken on a DSLR with a goddamned Zeiss lens at 4K resolution. It's still subjective as to which one is the “better” photo; folks might prefer the charming "retro" style of the former one, but I think there's a case to be made that the latter photo is objectively of higher quality. So I'm going to approach reviewing the sonic quality of Marilyn Manson records from that perspective. There's still going to be plenty of subjective stuff (read: my asshole opinions), but I'll try to behave.

    And this is going to take a few days. And there will be tangents. Oh yes, there will be tangents.

    So, let's start with a tangent:
    This space intentionally left blank.

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    Dynamic Range and You: Why Your Music Sounds Like Shit Compared to Your Dad's

    I'll get to the album reviews eventually, but first we need to talk about a thing called dynamic range. I hate to have to give a lecture, but I'm going to be mentioning this a LOT when I start talking about the albums.

    Wikipedia defines it as this:

    Dynamic range, abbreviated DR, DNR, or DYR is the ratio between the largest and smallest values that a certain quantity can assume. It is often used in the context of signals, like sound and light. It is measured either as a ratio or as a base-10 (decibel) or base-2 (doublings, bits or stops) logarithmic value of the difference between the smallest and largest signal values, in parallel to the common usage for audio signals.
    So basically, it's a measure of the “volume” range between the loud parts and the quiet parts of a song. If something has a HIGH dynamic range, the loudest parts are way louder than the quiet parts. If something has a LOW dynamic range, the loudest parts aren't really much louder than the quietest parts. If something has NO dynamic range, it's just a long fucking BEEP that never changes in volume. That's a gross oversimplification, but it's not entirely inaccurate.

    Why does this matter? Because most modern recordings have very low dynamic range, and they fucking sound like shit because of that. Many come close to sounding like that aforementioned long fucking beep.

    Why would they intentionally make recordings sound shitty? Well, in part because of the Loudness War. Google that for a long fucking read if you want, but it comes down to this: when it comes to music, the human brain equates “louder” with “better”, up to a certain point of course. But there's a problem; you can only make a digital audio file so loud. There's a limit, which we call “the ceiling”, “0 dB”, or “digital zero”. Nothing can be louder/higher than the ceiling. So they try to make songs as loud as possible, but since there's a ceiling that cannot be breached, the only way to do this is by reducing dynamic range.

    How do you reduce dynamic range? Compression, and a specific type of compression called “limiting”. What compression does is turns the loudest parts down in volume. Once the loud bits have been turned down, you can then increase the volume level of the entire song, because you “shaved off” a bit from the loud parts.

    If that didn't make any sense, I can put it another way: how do you fit 10 pounds of shit into a 5 pound bag? You need to squish it in there. And compression and limiting is “squishing” the audio.

    So what's the problem? Compression can actually sound great; in fact, it's the sound of rock and roll, if you ask me. But it's a problem when the engineer gets greedy and tries to squeeze it too much – tries to make it the “loudest” album around. Remember, this is accomplished by making the loud parts quieter so you can make the quiet parts louder. But go too far, and a song becomes hard to listen to. A delicately fingered acoustic guitar should not be as loud as a hard snare drum hit. A sparse verse shouldn't be as loud as the full band kicking in on the chorus. But if you compress/limit it too much, that's exactly what happens; there's too little dynamic range, the entire track is all at the same volume, and the attempt to make a song “louder” actually just made it boring and difficult to listen to. The contrast between loud and quiet has been dulled, and all life has been squeezed out of the track. You are left with a recording that is at best boring to listen to, even though it's now “loud”. At worst, it's annoying and painful.

    Have you ever had an album where you like the songs, and you dig the band, but you just don't listen to it that much? It's probably because it's been compressed to shit. It's a boring mess.

    Another major problem with this is digital distortion. Not the good kind of distortion that you'd get by turning up the gain on a guitar amp, but the kind that occurs when you try to breach that digital ceiling. You see, when you actually hit “the ceiling” in digital audio, it distorts, because digital doesn't know what the fuck to do with values above its limit. This is called “clipping”, because the audio actually gets “clipped” as it tries in vain to reach beyond digital zero. The sound manifests itself as awful noise, and this shit actually makes it on to professionally produced albums, if you can believe that. If you're wondering what clipping sounds like, go buy a bucket of the tiniest screws you can find from your local hardware store and dump them all into a clothes dryer. Then set it to “high”, hit the start button, and then start banging your head against the metal door while listening carefully. That's what clipping sounds like.

    Now, many of MM's albums are mixed and/or mastered “too hot”, too loud; the dynamics are destroyed and you're left with a noisy mess consisting of bags overstuffed with shit and dryers full of screws. I long to hear what some of them would sound like had they not been raped by limiters. Now, they're not all like that, and the bad ones aren't nearly as egregious as some albums out there by other artists, particularly in pop music. And I can find things to enjoy about each album, but I really do need to stress that this Dynamic Range thing is a serious problem. Like I said, I'll be mentioning dynamic range a lot.

    Anyway, here's a bit about how I listened to these:

    -All albums are judged on the original CD release. I have some on vinyl too, and I'll mention those in a few reviews, because they really do tend to sound a lot better. There's actually physical reasons why vinyl records aren't squished as much as CDs and other digital media.

    -I listened to each one twice over the last few weeks; once on a pair of Grado SR225 headphones through a home-rolled headphone amplifier, and again through a pair of Event ASP8 monitors. The D/A converter for both listening sessions was a Universal Audio 2192 Master Converter via the AES/EBU inputs. Feel free to look up all that shit, but believe you me when I say it's fairly high end gear. I'm also listening to them as I write through a Marantz receiver and Polk Audio tower speakers, which are more in line with a typical home setup.

    -I used a program called “TT Dynamic Range Meter” to measure the dynamic range of each album, so the Dynamic Range score is an objective, repeatable measurement, not just a “score” based on an opinion. Higher numbers mean more dynamic range.

    Are you still here? Holy shit, really?! Well, ok, let's find out what the best sounding Marilyn Manson album is.... soon-ish.
    Last edited by A Gruesome Discovery; 01-12-2017 at 05:58 PM. Reason: wee-woo wee-woo, grammar police
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    #1: MECHANICAL ANIMALS
    Dynamic Range: 7 (Too loud, but mostly tolerable)
    Overall Production Grade: A+

    THE LOWDOWN: This is it, the best sounding Marilyn Manson album. I cannot stress how great this album sounds. The production is top-notch, the mix is superb, and the dynamic range isn't too shabby either, at least compared to other contemporary albums. Again, just a reminder, we're not talking about my favorite album or the “greatest” album here, just the best sounding one. Although, in my opinion, this is all three of those.

    THE MIX: This is a brilliant mix. The separation is flawless, every element is clear, and there's a fantastic feeling of spaciousness in each track. This really is as close as MM has gotten to sounding like a full band playing in a real physical space. Michael Beinhorn seemed to have a very clear and consistent vision and just nailed the recording. Tom Lord-Alge absolutely killed it behind the console. What's most noticeable is the use of what's known as “LCR Panning”; this is kind an old school way of setting up a stereo soundstage in a mix.
    See, a mixing console has something called a “pan pot” (panning potentiometer) on each track, which balances a sound between the two speakers. A mixing engineer can “place” an instrument in the left speaker, the right speaker, or anywhere in between, so it sounds to the listener like it's coming from a certain spot on the stereo field. Something that comes out of both speakers equally, for instance, sounds like it's coming from directly in front of the listener. Panning something slightly left makes it sound like it's coming from just left of center, and so forth. Nowadays, many engineers place instruments in various places across the stereo spectrum, imitating what a live band would sound like to an audience; the bass and kick are dead center, guitars are somewhere off to the sides, the snare can be either centered or panned slightly out, etc. But back in the old days on the old consoles, all you could pick was fully Left, Center, or fully Right, and that's what's going on here. You'd think with something as dense as this album, that would be a disaster, but it totally fucking works. Notice it on “Fundamentally Loathsome”, which goes a step further by panning the vocals and drums fully opposite each other, something that used to be done back in the 1960s when they first started releasing rock records in stereo but hadn't quite settled on a “standard” for using two channels. Very cool.
    The bass and drums hit you in the chest thanks to the decent dynamic range (any more compression and the impact would have been severely weakened). You can really hear this on I Don't Like The Drugs and The Dope Show; the kick-snare-bass are locked tight, just pounding away. There's not a shitty guitar tone on this album; there's a few that are kind of weak, but fit the mix perfectly, whereas a thicker tone would just be too much. All harshness and fizz often found in high-gain guitar has been masterfully tamed, yet presence has been preserved. Space has been carved away for Manson's voice, which is far more melodic compared to prior releases and thus occupies a more consistent range in the lows and mids when contrasted with his screaming, mid-heavy vocalizations. And the synth work is tucked in nicely amid all of this; it's far less bombastic than on, say, Antichrist Superstar, but still an important contribution to the overall mood and tone.

    STANDOUT MOMENT: Practically the whole thing, but dig that bit after “the nervous system's down...” in the bridge on “Disassociative”. You know the part I mean. It's dense, heavy, and beautiful with multiple vocal tracks, distorted guitar, slightly cleaner guitar doing arpeggios with chorus and delay, thick bass, pounding drums... it's almost a miracle that it all fits together the way it does. That's great mixing.

    WEAK POINTS: “I Want To Disappear” doesn't survive the overcompression as well as the rest of the album – when the chorus kicks in, it kind of lands with a wet thud instead of the intended kick in the balls, primarily due to the almost equally loud verse. “User Friendly” is a little messy, too, though this might be an arrangement issue; it never seems to lock into the groove that it desperately needs. “Posthuman” is way too loud, but it kind of works given its electronic stylings, although it doesn't really sound like it fits in with the rest of the album.
    Now, the album's mixes are fantastic, but the dynamic range is still just so-so; I have no doubt this would sound even better at a DR of 8, 9, 10, or higher. In fact, the vinyl has a DR of 8, and does indeed sound even better. I'd buy the shit out of a high dynamic range, high sample rate, high bit depth digital reissue.

    FINAL THOUGHT: Eargasm.

    Next up: #2, which generally comes after #1. Not for a while, though; I have to listen to it and I might be drinking.
    Last edited by A Gruesome Discovery; 01-12-2017 at 06:02 PM. Reason: Clarification on something
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    #2: ANTICHRIST SUPERSTAR
    Dynamic Range: 9 (Yay!!!!)
    Overall Production Grade: A

    THE LOWDOWN: Oh, Antichrist Superstar, what a special album you are. With a score of 9, this has the highest dynamic range of any Marilyn Manson CD release, yet have you ever heard anyone complain that it's “too quiet”? Fuck no; this album goes from sulking to soaring like nothing I've heard. This should be a benchmark against which all other MM releases are judged. DR9 isn't loud enough? Fuck that noise.
    Honestly, I almost went with a two-way tie for the number one spot, but that would have been a pussy move. I made a decision, but it's almost too close to call. Mechanical Animals wins on the classy production, but Antichrist Superstar gets a gold star for its sane levels and insane sound.

    THE MIX: I don't even know where to start with this. When I first heard this album, it was a revelation. I was familiar with NIN and Ministry and Skinny Puppy and all that jazz, but I'd never heard such a style with such accessible pop sensibilities as well as (paradoxically) a grim edge normally only found in the deepest, darkest metal.
    What we have here is a mix that manages to hold itself together while perpetually threatening to fly apart. This is an album of contradictions and synergies; digital recording and editing meets the analog saturation of reel-to-reel tape. Catchy hooks meet violent screams. Distorted, punishing beats meet weird little percussive flourishes. And classic, recognizable tones meet bizarre, “what the fuck is THAT?!” soundscapes. Even if this isn't your type of music, Antichrist Superstar is a fascinating listen.
    Starting with the drums, well, they're all over the place tonally. Note the mechanized hi-hat firing off artificially precise 16th notes over the trashy drum kit in “Irresponsible Hate Anthem”. The famous 12/8 beat in “The Beautiful People” oppressively pounds away, its tight dryness offset against the roomy sound of a simpler pattern in the chorus. That's one thing that I love about this album; there's an incredible sense of space around the drums – draped in a short but natural reverb, the performances sound like they exist in a real room. And a lot of scary shit is going on in that room. This is most prevalent on “Tourniquet”, which gets top honors for its tone; Marilyn Manson, the band, just ripping away at their version of a somber but powerful ballad. A creepy ballad.
    Bass is of utmost importance on this record, and it remains clear and present throughout, periodically darting away to allow a song to breathe. I consider Twiggy an honest-to-goodness underrated bass player; he's single-handedly holding much of this chaos together, and the mix seems to approach the bass from this angle.
    The guitars are... well, they're adequate. There's some harshness here that is missing from my #1 pick of Mechanical Animals. The tones here work for the most part; the gain is sensible, the arrangements make musical and technical sense (with one exception...), but they're a little too thin at times. This is most noticeable on Little Horn and 1996, two tracks that both feature bits where you can hear the rhythm guitar by itself. It can be hard to pick out the fundamental notes behind the fizz. Now, when the guitars are going along with the bass, it does sound huge, which is a telltale sign that the mix just fucking works, but there's an identifiable thinness in the sound.
    Synths are heavily featured, ranging from simple, dulcet tones to ear-splitting, reverb-laden shrieks. These are bizarre sonances, but it's a testament to the mixer(s) that none of this sounds out-of-place in context.
    The vocals feature Manson at his most menacing; multiple tracks thicken them up, whispers layer atop screams. There's a warmth to many of the vocal tracks, but sometimes they're thinned out for effect; “The Minute of Decay”, for example, begins with a severely filtered, distant-sounding vocal, stripped of its powerful lows - likely a stylistic choice to convey the vulnerability of the singer. And some more extreme effects pop up every now and again, namely the vocoder in “Cryptorchid” and the heavy distortion in the title track. There's a lot of variety here, adding further to the colorful tonal tapestry.

    STANDOUT MOMENT: Like Mechanical Animals, there are so many here that it's hard to choose one. I'll stick with the theme of dynamic range though and draw your attention to the part in the title track, “the time has come/it is quite clear...”. It's loud and it's raucous; Marilyn screaming away while those two-dozen layered guitars (!) hit that chord hard. Then what happens? BOOM, the chorus returns even more powerfully. If this had a lower dynamic range, the BOOM of that chorus would be lost, because the preceding bit would already be as loud as possible. Once you're at top volume, where is there to go? That's right; fucking nowhere. Since this album was mercifully not squashed to hell and back, we all get to enjoy this magical moment.

    WEAK POINTS: Well, as I mentioned, the guitars are a bit thin and harsh at times. Overall, the mixes can sometimes be a little thin too, as if there's a slight dip in the all-important mid frequencies leaving a space that never gets filled. This is a minor complaint. We're talking about Antichrist fucking Superstar here, for Christ's sake.
    Two tracks that have room for improvement are “Deformography” and “Wormboy”. The former seems to lose its way in the chorus; the drums don't seem present enough to carry the song forward. The latter has some instrumentation problems; the guitars never really “gel” with the mix and seem to lay on top of the track without ever really integrating into it. They're fairly experimental guitar parts, certainly, but it does stick out on an album that's otherwise so coherent and perspicuous.

    FINAL THOUGHT: The apocalypse sounds fabulous.

    I think that's more than enough for today. #3 is up next, and I'm not actually sure which one it'll be yet (it's a too-close-to-call scenario between two of them). I guess I'll have to blast both of them tomorrow and then ask my neighbors which one they preferred.
    Last edited by A Gruesome Discovery; 01-14-2017 at 08:48 PM. Reason: write drunk, edit sober.
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    Omg fucking finally!!!
    Someone besides me makes a good post.
    Totally agree with everything so far Mechanical Animals is my 2nd fav album. EMDM is my first. I hope it gets a good score.

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    I've been waiting for someone to post something like this, actually. Can't wait to hear (ha) what you have to say for others. I'd say TGAOG is too loud, i've been saying that for a while. Sure as hell am too tired to go into depth, i'll leave it to you.
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    If you think MA is too loud, I can't wait to hear what you have to say about GAOG lol. Even I have always thought it was too loud and there wasn't enough room for the music to breathe so to speak.

    Quote Originally Posted by Zimscum View Post
    Omg fucking finally!!!
    Someone besides me makes a good post.
    Totally agree with everything so far Mechanical Animals is my 2nd fav album. EMDM is my first. I hope it gets a good score.
    EMDM is ear candy imo, especially when you listen to those instrumentals on their own.
    Last edited by Mok; 01-04-2017 at 11:21 PM.

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    I will preface this by saying I am not a true audiophile, nor at all technical when it comes to production and mixing (I am however fine with math, so have at it) and often I prefer rough as guts because in the end I see my music rather than hear it. And after all, if I want perfection I can find it elsewhere. But what I have always liked about Manson is that combination of utter hot sonic mess and often amazing sound textures and landscapes created in the layers of voice, instrumentation and effects that just gush out. Even if sometimes you have to metaphorically squint to see it.


    What we have here is a mix that manages to hold itself together while perpetually threatening to fly apart. This is an album of contradictions and synergies; digital recording and editing meets the analog saturation of reel-to-reel tape. Catchy hooks meet violent screams. Distorted, punishing beats meet weird little percussive flourishes. And classic, recognizable tones meet bizarre, “what the fuck is THAT?!” soundscapes. Even if this isn't your type of music, Antichrist Superstar is a fascinating listen.
    To my actual point though. Thank you, for articulating precisely what it is about Antichrist Superstar that I love. All too often reviewers and people commenting on it get overly fixated by either by it sounding like NIN or on the thin sounding guitars, when there is so much else that is absolutely wonderful in its vicious, tug of sonic war. When I first heard it I didn't so much hear the album, but the experimentation, the colder bits contrasted to a blast and rush of reverb and noise and I hated it. The mechanistic drive of the drums felt like I was being forced into things, the sudden loss of bass. The way the space around the drums carries over into a more general feeling, as you said, of being in an unseen room where bad things are happening - oddly freaked me out. How that very sound and its culimination in Tourniquet creates the spiralling creep and madness that is the first part of the life cycle. The contrasts between Minute of Decay and Reflecting God. Only then I was obssessed and couldn't get the flavour of it out of my head. And well... now, here I am.

    Mechanical Animals will always my favourite on all fronts for many reasons, but not least for its sound. So I can only concur, especially with Diassociative. Anything else will just be me listing bits of songs without the half decent vocabularly to talk about them.

    I look forward to rest of the posts, and the math.
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    I love this fucking thread.

    I'm not an audiophile by any means, but I find this sort of behind-the-scenes discussion interesting and it certainly gives a new life to records which I've played countless times. I look forward to the rest of your posts on the albums.

    Thus far, I can't disagree with you that Mechanical Animals has the 'best' sound quality, although I love the grimey nature of Antichrist Svperstar. If it was mixed like MA was, it wouldn't have that same filthy vibe to it. Eager to hear your take on Holy Wood, which for me, has some of the most atmospheric and sensational moments in Manson's catalog... namely details of certain areas of production.

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    I think your analysis is amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this entire post. I'm not a technical guy at all, but when it comes to anything Manson related I want to read it all. I agree 100% that the guitars on Antichrist are way too thin, incredibly fuzzy and maybe even a bit tinny. Although I have a feeling that if this sound were to change, the entire tone of the album wouldn't work. It needs to have that 'twangy' almost 'sick' 'out of tune' 'off sounding' sound on the guitars. Think of Wormboy on the bridge when everything drops out and we have that out of tune guitar and Manson singing "When I was a worm..." - the guitar makes me feel a bit queasy in the stomach and uncomfortable - which is what you want to feel on ACSS! BTW I'm new here, have been watching this forum for years and only decided to sign up today. Expect to see me around! :)

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