by Andy Stewart.
Sometimes it pays to push aside everything you think you know about audio, turn off the studio lights, the computer screen and your phone, and listen deeply to some of your favourite music. Setting aside time for your own listening pleasure is not only a must for your own sanity, it’s a great way to recharge your batteries for upcoming productions and fuel your imagination. Some of the greatest insights into sound occur when you indulge in deep, immersive listening.
This is not a gimmick, by the way, nor is it a new-age hipster catch phrase for what everyone else would simply call ‘listening to music’. No incense is required to be burnt during an immersive listening session, and it demands nothing of you apart from your full focus, for your own sake.
Call it self-indulgent if you like, that’s fine. In many ways that’s exactly what it is!
Immersive listening is all about enjoying the thrill of listening to music again with no professional strings attached. One rule, however, is that it can’t be something you’ve worked on yourself. It has to be music created outside your orbit.
What’s awesome and inspiring about immersive listening is that, for many of us, the ritual teleports us back to the days when listening to music was our favourite pastime, not a job. Do you remember those days? The love of listening to music was something that got almost every one of us involved in this business in the first place. Indeed, I hardly know one person in this industry, be they a studio or FOH mix engineer, producer or engineer who didn’t play in a band or have a favourite album that they rave about all night at parties.
Unfortunately, for many of us, our job, somewhat ironically, has largely replaced listening for pleasure as a familiar pastime, and that’s a real shame. What’s less obvious to most of us pros is that ‘listening without pay’, as it were – as quaint a notion as that may now seem to some of us – is also a hugely untapped well of insight into our incredible world of sound.
Diving Down Deep
You see, immersive listening is all about listening to something without distraction, preferably in a darkened room – even if it’s your studio’s control room – and letting your mind run free, so it’s not something you can do with others present, particularly clients.
If years have past since the days when you listened to music for pleasure – before it became a career – then you’re in for a real treat here.
What typically happens when you revisit this pastime now that you’re a seasoned professional engineer, is that you hear with greater depth of insight than ever before. The experience can be mind-blowing because you now carry with you a capacity to hear with a tuned ear, both technically and emotionally, and this may be something you’ve not tapped into for years, in some cases.
The insights gleaned from immersive listening can be profound, for you can now perceive the inner workings of another person’s process – not simply hear a band playing a song. This insight allows you inside the mind of a fellow engineer’s techniques, and in many cases inspires you to try them for yourself, or put on them your own spin.
I did this recently here at The Mill where I sat in the dark for several hours late one night listening to a piece of music called Immunity, by Jon Hopkins – an English producer/DJ/multi-instrumentalist.
I’d only recently discovered this piece, and had quickly grown to love it.
There I was in the studio, with the lights off, my awesome Genelec 8260s in full flight with a sub, and Immunity playing over and over at a considerably high volume. I spent most of that night with my jaw on the floor, as the waves of insight and amazement crashed over me.
It was incredible.
My insights into the Immunity piece have triggered a reawakening of techniques I’ve not used for years, others I’d forgotten entirely, and whole processes that have laid dormant in me for far too long.
Jon Hopkin’s use of backwards audio, for instance, is truly inspired, his capture and repurposing of creaks and clunks into drum loops, from the mechanical sounds of pianos and pedal organs, quite incredible. His ability to craft noises and sound effects into pieces with seamless skill is breathtakingly musical, rather than ‘tacked on’.
His own deep insight into the power of filters to create mystery, depth and texture are all there to be marvelled at in astonishment, especially when you know what you’re listening to and how it’s put together. It makes the whole experience all that more fascinating, and pleasurable.
My hat goes off to John Hopkins for achieving greatness in this piece of music, and although I know everyone reading this has their own likes and dislikes when it comes to music, I would urge every producer and engineer out there to listen to Immunity, up loud, with the light off, and no distractions… I’d love to know what you think.
As you might have noticed, my most recent immersive listening experience has turned me into a 16-year-old Jon Hopkins fan-boy. But that’s exactly the point of the exercise in the end. Listening deeply for pleasure’s sake has countless benefits to every audio professional. It reinvigorates the mind, clarifies certain techniques in your own head, and inspires investigation into new ones. It triggers the imagination in countless ways, and rekindles a love of music and listening itself as a worthwhile pastime, not a chore.
Personally, I derive great pleasure from hearing the work of other people, who, like you and me, have sat in front of a pair of speakers for days on end somewhere out there in the world, to achieve great audio outcomes for others to enjoy.
I’d like to think I do that for other people, too, of course, in some form or other, as do most of us reading this, but I can never enjoy my own mixes in the same way as others can. So it help me to listen to the work of others, if only to know that there are other crack-pots out there slaving away with filters and reverbs in the hope that others will enjoy, and can appreciate, their deep insights into what happens in the worlds between speakers!
So regardless of how you manage it, if you’re a professional engineer, producer or mixer, I’d urge you – if you don’t do it already – to dive deep into a piece of music that’s not yours, and listen with focus and intent, for pleasure’s sake, your own indulgence, and for the insights that may come your way as a bonus.
You deserve it.