Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Sai Shravanam: perfect blend of a scientific brain and an artistic mind

By Savita Narasimhan

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes of your favorite song, between the glass and wood that separate the console from the cubicle? It's not just the attractive voice, pulsating beats and catchy melody that grab your ear. The task of recording and mixing sound is onerous, one that requires immense skill, concentration and patience. It can add or subtract from even the best-written and well-performed numbers. 
Sai Shravanam is one individual who regularly undertakes that task. His recording studio Resound India, a state-of the art audio production facility in Chennai, offers total audio production – from creating music albums, multi-lingual voice-overs and sound design, to original music, post-scores and jingles.

What is so important about having a great audio technician, seated behind that forbidding-looking panel of knobs and slides? As part of the team of Fire and Ash, a JustUs Repertory production directed by Gowri Ramnarayan, premiered on 14th November 2014 and to be restaged at Kalakshetra on 6th December 2014 in Chennai, I recently had an opportunity to observe Sai Shravanam at work, while recording the sound track for this production. Apart from providing the most relaxed and comfortable recording ambience, he had the solution for every requirement – a temple bell, the sound of a tavil in a temple procession, thunder, gentle breeze and the list goes on. “How nice it would be if we had the chirping of birds,” exclaimed Gowri, for a section that depicts a village scene. And there it was - the birds called out over the speakers!

As a trained Audio Engineer, Sai has the complete knowhow of the technology and the scientific understanding of sound. Mixing consoles, microphones, equalizers, amplifiers, speakers and more such terms are part of his daily jargon. His job centers on knowing how to use various studio aids that capture pristine sound. But his passion takes him further. A good recording is not really about the equipment. It is not enough if the technician is a wielder of technology, which is but a means to an end. The point of all the mad-scientist whizz-bangery is after all to assist in presenting a great performance to an audience.  

What about the aesthetics of sound? This is where Sai’s musical training and intuitive taste for good music come in handy. He is an accomplished, self-trained tabla player. He also plays the piano and arranges music for albums and movies. Sai finds himself falling back on his musical acumen more often than not “...because good music is the basic requirement for a technically perfect recording. Technical expertise and musical knowledge could help me reconstruct a track completely and bring back its intended color and life with no compromise! Mere technological expertise can't handle classical forms of music recording. You need the ear of a musician at the console...” says Sai. When asked about the creative challenges he faces, he responds promptly “In the various stages of creating music, the inherent exchange of ideas and knowledge between the console and booth that brings out the best, the ‘unseen aspect’ of an artiste during a recording is the most challenging yet satisfying part of the process.” That he is a key point in the evolution of a production is the icing on the cake.

A stickler for perfect sound, Sai will not proceed if he is not satisfied with the output at any point in the recording. And yet this is where he has to tread carefully without bruising artistic temperaments. His role behind the console is predominant, but one that he plays subtly and sensitively.

Western engineers and producers consider him a classically trained sound designer-producer, an admirable and formidable combination of roles that Sai juggles with ease. With the ears of a lynx, the head of an engineer and the heart of a musician, he is perfectly equipped to take on the most challenging assignments – effectively using his craft to serve his goal of connecting ‘the real to the ideal’. 

Savita Narasimhan


SN: Is recording an art or a science?

SS: I would prefer to think of recording more as an art than a science. Though science is an essential component, it is only an aid towards achieving what we want for music to reach our ears. Fundamentally, humans hear sounds three dimensionally. In simple terms, when we have a conversation in a room, we just do not hear the other person directly; what we hear is the direct sound from the source as well as the reflected sound from the walls, floor and ceilings. The human brain perceives sound in this manner. When sound is captured through a microphone, it is a single source, unlike the human ear, which adjusts to any given situation. In a studio, we try to capture the source as much as we can and emulate the acoustics using technology, to bring out the best in the form of a recording. The irony lies in the fact that though this process involves science, it is finally the human ear that judges the recording, decides the levels, understands the harmonic content and mixes the desired output. In other words, given the best available technology, if the engineer cannot understand music, its nuances, its dynamics, a vocalist’s perspective, and an instrument’s characteristics, he may not be able to decide ‘what’ to use in the available technology and ‘how’ to use it effectively. 

I would think it is very important at the console to be an artiste who sculpts sound and not just an engineer who tweaks knobs.

SN: Are there inherent differences in the way you approach different recording assignments – Indian classical music, music for Indian classical dance, films, documentaries and theatre? Do you require different working styles for different kinds of productions?

SS: Absolutely! Each genre involves a distinct set of challenges and requires a different handling. 

Classical music: This is one form of music that is the most complex to handle not only because of the richness of sound, but the richness of content. South Indian classical music is largely vocal-centric with accompanying instruments. The lyric is a very important part of it. While compositions evolve mostly out of the lyrical richness, the music also takes shape from the lyric. The mix is dependent on the extent to which the lyric cuts through the mix and the crucial factor of accompanying instruments not dominating, regardless of how they are played. Also, recording classical vocalists is difficult as their expressions (physical movements of head and body) leave the microphone orphaned at many instances. Another key aspect is that all classical artistes are live performers not used to the studio environment, to being isolated in a booth and hearing themselves through a headphone, as both physical and mental comfort is lost. I have recorded almost all the classical musicians of this era and have taken immense care to ensure they feel comfortable. I give them the best possible audio feedback that is central to their pitching and creativity, ensuring they can render with ease and full freedom despite the alien experience of singing in a studio. 

Classical dance music: I was inducted into this only because of noted musician-composer Rajkumar Bharathi. He is one of the best composers for dance music that I have had a chance to record and observe, and whose personal and artistic influence on me cannot be understated. This genre is very different because today, the music takes shape even before the dance is choreographed. I have never just engineered a recording but always co-directed almost all the production with decisions on how the music must evolve and soundscape achieved. Nowadays since Click track recording is very suitable for various reasons, I have to understand a dancers viewpoint as well. Even two beats more or less can make or mar the recording. Also, once a pilot track of vocal music is recorded, the rhythm sections and the dramatization of beats are very different from generic classical music. Recording them on click is not easy and this is where my being a percussionist is very useful. I also play the piano to an elementary level and compose music. All this helps me in understanding the composers’ perspective. 

The process of mixing for dance music is completely different. These recordings are not heard on high-end systems or on i-pods. They are mostly used as soundtracks in live performances. The mix has to suit a live sound that is available in existing theatres, with the capacity to compensate the acoustic deficiencies in most of the large halls across the world. A clearly heard rhythm to aid footwork is essential for the dancer to feel at ease on stage and the mix needs to ensure this. For this purpose, I personally visit the theatre to see how the mix translates in a live scenario, to learn with my ears and then apply what I have learnt to the next mix.

Raising the bar for the quality of Indian classical music productions is a goal dear to my heart. Even after completing over 600 such projects, I enjoy the novelty of every production – such is the beauty of art.

Film music: This is what goes out to the broadcast medium. These mixes need to be commercially successful. Sometimes the music needs exaggeration in the mix for a dramatic effect. Mixing for films gives me freedom to change the original sound completely. The composer’s vision can be mixed in numerous ways using technology, which now plays a very important role. Synthesized music has pre recorded sounds and samples and the processing is quite different from recording real sound out of an instrument. Film musicians differ from concert artistes. They are seasoned for studios and they know exactly what output is required through the microphone and also the  pros and cons. The whole recording process is very different. 

Documentaries and theatre: This is an area where I deal with more than just music. What take centre stage here are the voice-overs and ambient sound. A different aesthetic is required to mix and master such productions. Recording ambient sounds in nature, recording sound effects in very difficult situations, are all a part of it. Sometimes due to practical constraints such as difficult, unapproachable terrain, I may have to recreate the required effects in the studio. Imagine for instance, a flamingo flapping its wings in the middle of an island - we capture the shot using a zoom lens, but the microphone cannot pick up the live sound. So we use a cloth to recreate the same sound in front of a microphone inside a studio.  A bird's wing flaps during its take off using a post it sticker book, a tigers paws on dried leaf using a crepe paper and two soft filled socks and so on! 

In the end, irrespective of what the genre or style may be, every mix is like a newborn child with a unique character and destiny of its own. 

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