Interview: Sunit Kansakar
|Photo: Marcin Bondarowicz|
How do you approach recording as an idea?
We have to begin by thinking of sound as being three dimensional. There are three major things to take into account. First, we listen to music from two speakers, left and right. Second, music as a whole covers an entire spectrum or range of frequency, from the bass of the bass drum to the highs of the cymbals. It is important for the whole frequency range to be covered in each performance. Listening to music that does not cover the entire frequency range is often unpleasant – for instance, listening only to horns, which fall around the narrow band of the high midrange. Music has evolved over innumerable years, and whether knowingly or otherwise people have learned to divide up their musical instruments in such a way that they can cover the entire frequency spectrum. In more recent years, if musicians can divide their instrumentation so as to cover the entire frequency range, they are more likely to have a hit record. That has become one of most basic concerns of a music producer.
Third, the ‘depth’ of the sound in relation to the speaker is also of great importance, especially if there are many instruments. You can think about depth by imagining, say, five instruments in a rectangular three-dimensional box. If we line up all the instruments along the same plane, then all the sounds are heard up front – ‘on the face’, we say. Doing it this way makes the overall sound much louder, but it can also sound as though the instruments are clashing with each other. Most rock recordings these days are ‘on the face’. People have become used to listening to loud music, and having everything on the same plane often makes for a hit record. If you arrange your instruments in three dimensions, however, the sound of any particular instrument can be moved around – the vocalist can be up front, the guitarist in the middle, the bass behind the speaker. This way, the instruments do not sound as though they are clashing.
Can a sound engineer compensate if a group of musicians is not covering the entire frequency range?
Yes, to an extent. Suppose, for example, somebody is playing a sarangi and singing. We think of the arrangement in terms of the music coming out of two speakers, so one speaker for the sarangi and one for the singing. But then that means that our imagining of the sound is limited to left and right – it’s not taking up the whole space in which the recording is happening. So, there are different techniques to occupy that space. One is to add reverb, which is a way of saying we’re ‘bringing the room’ – or the sound of the room, so to speak – to the recording, to make the overall sound ‘fat’.
There are also miking techniques. For instance, if a sarangi is being played, instead of putting a single microphone directly in front of the sarangi, we can put two mikes to either side of the instrument, at a bit of a distance. In this way, the sound does go to the left and right speakers in stereo, but it also occupies some of the recording space. If we put the mike directly in front, on the other hand, the recording will sound more ‘narrow’, more ‘thin’. Thus, even while a single sarangi does not cover the full frequency range, the placement of the two mikes can compensate for this problem.
What are the differences between recording music live versus in the studio?
There is not a great deal of difference. But, of course, live performances are more challenging due to the constraint of time and equipment. Because the output is so immediate, the sound engineer for a live band has to be someone who knows the sound of the band very well, a dedicated long-term engineer. The thing that gets the most importance in the studio is the sound of the room, which the engineer captures. He does this by putting numerous mikes in the room, and through extensive experimentation. How can that be replicated in the live setting? The engineer doesn’t have the five or six mikes as are available in the studio, so that’s a challenge. Then again, the challenges in the studio are altogether different. Whereas you listen to live music only once, the studio recording reaches the masses, and perfection is essential. As there is time to test and experiment, the engineer should be able to replicate the sound the particular band has while playing live.
Would a sound engineer approach recording, say, Hindustani classical music and commercial rock or pop differently?
Rock music usually is compressed, which is to say that everything is brought to the same level. Usually, when people play instruments, each individual plays with varying levels of intensity. In rock music, however, these different dynamics are compressed, which makes the overall effect louder – more ‘on the face’, as I said before. In classical or folk, however, you can’t do this. Music is a kind of dynamic, and you can’t ignore that. If someone is playing a guitar, he or she sometimes plays soft, sometimes loud, sometimes even crescendos from soft to loud. This awareness of dynamics is actually one of the indicators of the quality of the musician, showing his or her range of ability and skill in creating a mood. If you just compress everything, you take away the feel of the musician.
In recording the various forms of music from Southasia, what are some of the common mistakes you’ve seen?
I can’t really talk of mistakes, because everything is subjective. For instance, sometimes it sounds like there is a frequency clash – say, if the singing and the instrument are both in the higher range. How do you compensate for that? You can lower the frequency, but then the quality of the vocals might be lost. In my view, sound engineers, more than anything else, need to listen to different genres of music. That’s a kind of ear training, as a person can learn a great deal about what different instruments can do. Such familiarity makes the engineer far more efficient and effective. See, every instrument has a sweet spot, meaning there is a particular spot in the room where the mike should be placed to result in the best sound output for each instrument. A good engineer needs to be able to figure that out for a broad range of sounds and instruments.
How would you rate the health of sound engineering in Southasia in terms of knowledge and opportunity for training and equipment?
First off, you don’t need very high-end technology – if you have it that’s great, but you don’t need it to start off. You can start with a laptop, a sound card, a few microphones. You can download most of the software necessary. You just need the knowledge, that’s the most important. In Nepal, there’s really no opportunity to learn sound engineering, while there is much greater opportunity in India and Pakistan. One of the greatest weaknesses in Nepal is that we don’t have the concept of a producer, perhaps because of the financial constraints of the market. In my recording studio we compensate for that: when a new band comes in, I go to their practice space before they come to the studio. In this way, as a kind of producer, I can get to know the sound that they’re trying
How are you able to take this knowledge and view of sound into the field – to do recordings, say, of folk singing in the hills of Nepal?
In the field it’s very difficult to find a good balance using only two mikes when there are, say, five instruments. If we put down individual mikes and mix the sound later, that makes it much easier. But if there are only two mikes, how do you record the whole ensemble? The answer has to do with placement – put the loud instrument in the back, for example.
There is always a trade-off in the field. To make these trade-offs, we follow the guidelines of what are called ‘polar principles’, which essentially force the engineer to identify what exactly he or she wants to capture. Do we want to capture the sound of all the instruments equally, or just of the instrument towards which the mike is turned? Knowledge of these principles makes it far easier to work in the field. If two or three instruments are playing, you have to decide which is the most important, at the cost of others. Furthermore, you have to have it perfect at source, because there’s not much flexibility in the mixing later on – you can’t separate individual instruments at that point.
Another difficulty in the field comes from the fact that we’re capturing the emotion of the moment. If the musicians suddenly play very loudly, this isn’t a problem in a live situation because the listeners are a part of the artists’s emotions. But listening to a recording doesn’t necessarily evoke the same feelings, and thus this it can be a problem. So, the kind of work a sound engineer can do in the mixing process is to reduce that, to bring it all down to a particular level.
You started out as a musician before becoming a sound engineer. Has this affected the way that you think about your own music, when you’re playing your sitar or guitar?
Before I became interested in sound engineering, it was enough for me if I thought my guitar playing was good individually. But now, even when I play, I notice that a particular part is, maybe, hollow or has some other problem. So, even when I’m practicing with a group, I can’t help myself from thinking about these weaknesses – how I can fill them in, or how other members of the band can do so. It’s all about filling out the sound.
--Surabhi Pudasaini is programme manager with the Hri Institute, in Kathmandu.
Tapestry offers articles that come up in the course of the work done by Himal’s sister organisations. This piece comes from the Hri Institute for Southasian Research & Exchange.
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