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Consciousness itself.

Andy Stewart shares how music replenishes and inspires in a way nothing else can.

Mar 29, 2022


Words: Andy Stewart

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Hi. My name’s Andy and I live in Woolamai, a small hamlet in Bass Coast Shire. Gippslandia approached me to pen the opening act for their ‘sound’ issue, which you have in your hands.

For me, sound is a way of life, and music more specifically is an art form I’ve lived and breathed every day for nearly 40 years. I’m what’s known as a ‘record producer’ by trade… or at least that’s what I call myself when someone asks me what I do for a living. It’s also how I’m often credited on the back cover of any CD or vinyl releases I’m involved with.

“Songs are really just very interesting things to be doing with the air!” – Tom Waits.

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As a producer (perhaps equivalent to the role of a film director), I make and record music with, and for, other people. I also wear other, more specific, hats in a recording studio environment: that of a ‘mix engineer’ and also a ‘mastering engineer’.

The mix engineer’s role is more akin to the tasks of a motion picture’s film editor. Wearing this hat, I bring the songs of recording artists together, and, ultimately, to the speakers of listeners worldwide. I’m the person who sits in front of those big consoles and decides – in collaboration with the artist – how a piece should sound, right down to the finest detail. This is my workspace, where I lose myself in the sounds I’m crafting; it’s also where I immerse myself in the masterful sonic landscapes of others.

A mastering engineer is different again, arguably more technical and narrower in focus. Here, I make final changes to the master copy of an album you might buy in the shops or online. In this role, the music you hear has essentially gone directly from my ears to yours. I’m the last link in the chain, as it were. From my studio, The Mill, the final master of a single or album is sent to the manufacturing plant (if it’s being printed onto CD or vinyl), and then, ultimately, it’s converted back into soundwaves via your preferred playback device – a phone, expensive home hi-fi, car stereo, etc.

In almost every respect, sound defines me, sustains me, brings me joy and sadness (often simultaneously), and fascinates me with its endless capacity to surprise, delight and inspire. It also has the magical ability to influence my emotions as a human being, as well as describe them, outwardly, to the world. In a nutshell, this is what sound, and more specifically music, is all about.

And, I absolutely love listening to music! It replenishes me in a way nothing else can and inspires me to do great work of my own. In some cases, a single song can reinvigorate me when I have nothing left to give and sustain me for months, years sometimes…

Illustration for 'Consciousness itself.' by Angharad Neal-Williams.
Illustration for 'Consciousness itself.' by Angharad Neal-Williams.

But whether you’re like me – fascinated with sound – or a person with little interest in what your ears provide, we all have one thing in common: we all hear sound, albeit within the framework of our own individual aural capacity.

To some, hearing is an almost perfunctory sense, merely a way for a person’s body to warn them of an approaching car or receive the thoughts of others via language and speech – nothing more. Then there’s the vast majority, for whom sound plays a more than functional role. Most people have an affinity with some kind of sound, be it waves crashing on a beach, birds, weather, a bat on ball, music or the voice of their loved ones.

And of course, lots of people love music. Always have. That’s why it’s played a pivotal cultural role in most human societies since time immemorial. We use it to celebrate and mourn, come together in a crisis, identify teams and nations, mark significant milestones, but mostly entertain. Without it we’d be vastly inferior as a species.

When I was a kid I loved music and was forever lying on my back with two big speakers either side of me, disappearing into the magical world of sound that others had crafted – where and how they’d done it, I had no idea. I loved dropping the needle onto vinyl and then bolting back to my listening position so as not to miss a second. Nothing’s really changed…

Since those early days, my perception of sound has simply become a more finely tuned, informed sense. According to one study on mix engineering, apparently, my brain patterns when I’m in this mode look very similar to someone deep in meditation… and I think there’s some truth to that.

Your hearing is crucial to you as a human being, though you may scarcely be aware of it. Indeed, it’s the main sense by which you perceive your own consciousness and spatial awareness, more so even than sight. You can’t shut it off, it covers 360 degrees, up and down, and even informs you of the external world when you’re asleep! It’s magical, tireless and relentless.

I’m excited to hear that there’s an edition of Gippslandia exploring sound – astonished actually. Enjoy the read… and then, afterwards, listen to your favourite song and marvel at how amazing your hearing truly is!

Andy Stewart owns and operates The Mill Studio, a world-class production, mixing and mastering facility. He’s happy to respond to any pleas for pro audio help. Contact him at andy@themill.net.au or visit themillstudio.com.au.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 22

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