What happened in 1992?

Hi all. This is something I’ve often pondered when looking back at the music I was listening to in the early 1990s. I feel like there was a point in time – I’ll just nominate the year 1992 – when the general production-sound of some bands seemed to shift: it became glossier, fuller, with a wider stereo width, but somehow also flatter, with less dynamic range.

Three examples:
Front 242: Tyranny for You (1991) v Up Evil (1993)
Nitzer Ebb: Ebbhead (1991) v Big Hit (1993)
Pet Shop Boys: Behaviour (1991) v Very (1993)

I remember not liking the sound of any of those 1993 albums, and still don’t. So what happened?

It’s easy to just say “digitalisation”, though this would have been a part of it. I certainly remember an interview with Nitzer Ebb at the time where they talked about Big Hit being their first album that was recorded to hard-disk rather than tape. 242’s Up Evil sounded awful: sludgy but thin, over-full but flat. Was it just a case of bands suddenly having 48 tracks or more at their disposal?

I don’t think the bands got worse: PSB’s Nightlife (1999) was excellent, and sounded great (with production by Rollo Armstrong), and Nitzer Ebb bounced back by 2010’s Industrial Complex.

The sound I’m talking about wasn’t universal either: early jungle was totally digital but tracks like Rufige Cru’s Krisp Biscuit are rough as hell and have a similar crunch as late-1980’s industrial.

Any of you have other examples?
Or a more nuanced idea of what happened in 1992?


20 characters of ADAT?


I would argue that the hop from well-adopted vinyl to the beginnings of main stream CD adoption was encouraged by lots and lots of “remastered” versions of stuff you already owned…the general trick of these remasters was changing he compression and brightness because new and shiny …the knock on effect was to create a bar that new content has to match up to in terms of that rather squashed square sound that seems to define the era.

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Waves L1? Think that was 1992 or 1993. It ruined a lot of music. :slight_smile:

[EDIT] Seems Waves L1 plugin was first released in 94 so can’t have been that, sorry!

Mackie mixers? Pro Tools?


I think there were a lot of changes that probably led to some records sounding confused as they became bigger productions. There was the mainstreaming of underground and independent music with big corporate budgets, the expansion of MTV and stadium festivals for that kind of music, changes to club music where electronic acts had to compete with the sound of rave/techno records, the switch to digital mixing and recording which probably took engineers a while to get right.

1992 was the post-Nevermind year, many different styles of music went chasing a similar aesthetic at the time. Look at major label heavy metal records through that period, they all went kind of weird, and for some reason had a penchant for black and white videos.

I can remember the Lollapalooza/Psalm 69 iteration of Ministry really blowing up, I’m sure every EBM/Industrial band felt pressured to chase that sound.


I think it’s similar to the switch from analog tape recording to digital recording in the mid 80’s. Listen to Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward. Sounds completely flat, with literally no bass.

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Isn’t that also the time that digital mixing desks started to show up?


I’m gonna second the idea that it was the sudden proliferation of ADAT. The assault of crispness was undeniable. And awful.


Looking across the industrial landscape (Last Rites for Skinny Puppy, Tactical Neural Implant for Frontline Assembly), 1992 was most certainly an inflection point.

In mainstream music, I think the Nevermind-effect was a real thing. Executives were looking for something other than what they had been peddling for over a decade (hair metal, new wave pop, modern RnB, etc al), and the technological shift to digital coincided with that change in musical tastes.


DnB producers might’ve been focusing more on hip hop 12 bit sampled breaks to emulate. That might explain their propensity for crunch.

My long held theory is that it was when digital recording, and digital playback (CDs) started to became omnipresent, but no-one quite understood how to treat them yet. The problem here, was that digital recording and playback was used as a drop in replacement for their analogue counterparts: this was a mistake. In particular, mastering for vinyl was a specific trade off to make the disc playable by various means and then to rely on the player to undo that process (RIAA). Similarly, sonically, mastering was done assuming the consumer would have a hifi system that would also colour the sound. In other words what the master media contained and what the final audio was meant to sound like were very different.

With the introduction of digital recording, playback and amps the audio heard was much closer to what was on the media. Just not doing the RIAA (effectively what was done) wasn’t enough to get a final recording that sounded the same through an analogue setup (and that sound was what was intended). The consequence was a lot of masters and mixes that worked well when cut to vinyl and played back on tube based amps, which sounded sterile and thin when played back on CD on the new digital systems. It took some years for mastering engineers to adapt to and adopt appropriate mastering for digital media and this resulted in a spate of “digitally remastered” releases, where the mastering was done with the intent of playing back on the modern systems (coloration that we expected to be added by the consumer’s amp was embedded in the master among other things).

The other side was tracking. Early digital recording at 16 bit didn’t have the bits to spare to leave a lot of headroom, but sounded awful if it clipped. The result was a lot of sub par recordings, or a lot of compression and limiting into the interface in an attempt to optimize for fidelity without clipping. This resulted in a characteristic loss of dynamics in the name of higher quality. In an analogue studio your amps would saturate with asymptotic response rather than clipping though they tended to have higher noise floor and worse SNR. Given that the early digital recording was in a mixed analogue/digital studio with high noise floors, it was even more costly to add headroom as that meant you’d bring up the noise floor, so expanders and gating were the order of the day. By the time we switched to 24bit recording much of the noisy gear had migrated out of the studio and the overall noise floor was greatly reduced. This allowed for more headroom (meaning you could record without compression and limiting and not worry about clipping) and just turning the volume up in the digital domain: sure this brought the noise floor up, but it was so much lower than in the older setups that it didn’t matter.

Stereo width is a slightly different aspect; vinyl didn’t have fully separated stereo as it was encoded in a single groove meaning some degree of bleed occurred. Add to that that mastering was done with the expectation of listening with speakers, you’d expect even more bleed as your right ear could also hear the left speaker and visa versa. Mixing approaches like LCR don’t work so well when you have no bleed (like listening on digital media with headphones). So again, mixing and mastering engineers had to adapt to how the music would be consumed and create appropriate stereo images that worked in the (new) expected listening environments.


I was really into Psalm 69-era Ministry. You can definitely crank a song like ‘NWO’ way further up than, say, ‘Thieves’, from '89’s The Mind … There’s that highly compressed flatness perhaps.

I’m from the UK, so whilst I picked up on their Lollapalooza ascendancy through the music press, they didn’t get any radio airplay at home, where that crushed sound might have had some practical function. Might have made them sound louder on MTV though, playing over crappy, mono, analogue TV speakers.

Getting nostalgic now: pilgrimages to Sister Ray at 94 Berwick Street in London. :grin:

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@bedhead777 Maybe even at that point 12-bit samples of vinyl releases featuring 12-bit samples! Not wanting to overload or overly differentiate between genres, the transition from what was called jungle to what became drum’n’bass wasn’t just stylistic. Goldie’s Timeless (1995) felt crazily polished at the time, compared to jungle 1992 releases which were often even mono.


This and your other two points are really interesting. Thanks.

Aside from the actual technical reasons for this sonic-turn in 1992, I guess I’m interested in how this year could be identified as a very specific point in time when listening habits changed. Since then there have been so many more changes: CD-walkmans, Napster, PC desktop speakers, Tiktok … and now a modest vinyl resurgence and cheap Urban Outfitters record players. Would be interested to know what developments car-makers have made: any specific moves towards car-as-entertainment-system.


Great explanation! Is this why there’s so many hard-panned jazz mixes from the 60s and 70s? Some of these are almost impossible to listen to on headphones unfortunately - I’ve been trying to find a reasonable solution to intentionality bleed the stereo signal on my laptop so it doesn’t so jarring and unnatural.

Yes, LCR mixing is probably the culprit; you could probably try breaking it into dual mono, initially hard panned out, then experiment panning them gradually toward the center. My guess is that you’d be able to get something more headphone appropriate that way. The best option would probably be to use some sort of binaural software to simulate listening on speakers then use that to make your headphone mix.


I’m currently digitizing a 90’s, early aughts bands catalog and the rehearsal tapes are benefiting greatly from a stereo enhancer. The studio material is a treat as it’s mainly just a straight transfer, but I know I will soon being doing the DATs and minidisc recordings which I’m a little concerned about (in terms of being sterile sounding)

I’m lucky in that everything up until ‘02 mostly have analog cassette backups in addition to the released albums.

I graduated from high school in 92 and I have to wonder if that had a lot to do with it.


Try a decent Crossfeed processor if you have one. There are plugin ones but these days I use the one built into my RME box.