When I was growing up, Indian music in Britain was a very underground thing. Apart from immigrant families like mine and perhaps a few Beatles-influenced Western fans, there wasn't a great market for it or appreciation of its unique possibilities.
Now, however, nary a day goes by without another advert Bollywooding it up or trance act sampling some 'Indian atmosphere'. Add that to the mainstream success of artists like Asian Dub Foundation, Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh and you can see that Indian music is finally becoming a visible part of British musical culture. And American too, judging by the Indian flavour in tracks from Missy Elliot, Redman and other hip-hop/R&B heavy hitters.
I'm lucky in that I grew up listening to my parents' record collection. So I'm naturally familiar with the sound of Indian music, whether it's the pukka classical tunes my dad prefers or the more poppy Hindi film soundtracks my mum sings along with. But to a puzzled outsider, Indian music may seem initially intimidating and they may approach it filled with questions. Is it true the classical form doesn't change chords? What are the different instruments you need to get that Indian flavour? What's that instrument that sounds like a goose being throttled?
Into this breach step Swar Systems (www.swarsystems.com), a Swiss company who specialise in Indian music software. Their Swarshala 3 Pro/Swarplug bundle can provide not only Indian instruments in VST Instrument form (Swarplug) but also teach you about Indian music and provide a virtual Indian backing band for you to practise with (Swarshala). For those who prefer to use a hardware sampler, Swartrax packages the same sample library in Akai format, but includes the MIDI files and Librarian application, which are important components of the product.
Swarshala 3 Pro is Windows-only (although its Learn section is available separately as a $50 cross-platform application called Swar Tutorial) and installed painlessly on my XP PC. After the CD self-ran and installed Swarshala, I simply inserted the authorisation floppy and, following the obligatory chuntering and whirring, Swarshala was authorised.
The program is divided into three main sections: Learn, Practice and Compose, all aptly labelled. The Learn section is a virtual encyclopaedia of Indian classical music. This is not to say it deliberately excludes Indipop but rather that modern Indian pop is very cross-fertilised with Western music as well as still having obvious Indian roots both in classical and folk songs.
For those who don't want to stretch to the full Pro version of Swarshala, Swar Systems also offer the cut-down Standard version. This is limited to three instruments — tabla, harmonium and tanpura — and lacks the Compose section and piano-roll view, plus the ability to export in Wave or MIDI file formats.
Learn is further sub-divided into three sections, the first of which is Initiation. This is, thankfully, not some A Man Called Horse-type ritual but the background to Indian music, its basic building blocks and a very detailed history of its development. I found this section fascinating, especially the little jewels of information about the influence the Muslim conquest of India had. Once slight criticism I'd make is that the information in all of Swarshala is presented in a scrolling window which has a kind of wood-grain pattern behind it to match the rest of the interface. Although this looks attractive, it does make it more difficult to read and I found myself squinting several times. Perhaps if the background was rendered lighter it would contrast more with the text?
In the Raga subsection the melodic basis of Indian music is explained. Many examples are presented to listen to, in both aroha (ascending) and arova (descending) form. A couple are also presented with improvisations within the raga, as you may hear them in performance. These samples are quite long and since they're of a singer, it's easy to couple the notes they're singing (which are in the Indian do-re-mi form) with Western equivalents. This makes it far easier to translate into your own playing, on whatever instrument you use. On the shorter samples, it's worth pointing out that each note in the raga displayed is clickable — I had quite a bit of fun building up my own chords from clicking around here. I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone based an entire track just around this learning function!
The Tala subsection is probably my favourite in the Learn section. Here, the essence of Indian rhythmic accompaniment is explained, again in clear, concise detail with many accompanying examples. This, of course, is the joy of interactive media — as you read about the subject, you can also hear it come to life. And with any music, hearing is understanding. I love the way the bols are presented in both voice and tabla form so you can immediately hear the correspondence between the two. The section where the tabla are presented alongside beautifully animated clickable explanations of the different strikes is simply stunning. There's a level of detail here that I haven't seen in any other interactive explanation of Indian music.
The Practice section of Swarshala sets up a virtual Indian group for you. You're presented with three different panes, one for the Rhythmic element, one for Melodic and one for Tanpura (the drone element). Each pane has controls specific to its purpose: the Rhythmic pane lets you select cycle type, the Melodic part lets you select instrument and composition and the Tanpura part lets you select string order and style. All the instruments have a volume control and stop/start buttons. At the bottom of the panes is the part definition section which holds global elements like scale, duration of the whole piece and initial tempo. The best part of this section is the option to increase tempo every n cycles by a chosen percentage. This brings the practice session to life, mimicking the tempo increases in live classical music that build to the climax of a piece. It's possible to define three different Parts — which, confusingly, actually means three different types of practice, each with their own settings.
I did notice a few quirks in the Practice section. Firstly, anytime you change a parameter, the whole lot comes to a sudden halt. Say you're tinkering with a session, its tempo is building nicely, and you think 'How would this sound with a santoor instead of a harmonium?' You click the drop-down selector in the Melodic section — but instead of changing instrument, the whole session stops. Not only that but you have to re-select composition, which is a pain in the bum if you forgot what you'd left it set on. Similarly, any changes you make in the volume of a pane aren't heard in real time: you have to stop the whole lot and start again. This limits the real-time tweakability.
Another puzzler is the drop-down selector for Raag in the Melodic pane. Firstly, it should really be labelled Raga to be consistent with the rest of Swarshala (yes, I know that it means Raga but it adds confusion for novices). Secondly, when I first tried it, it didn't appear to do anything — the only raga choice was 'All'. Fortunately, I checked the FAQ in the manual and discovered that you can load any raga you wish within the Compose section and then it becomes available in the Practice section. Hey presto! Yaman, Asavari are all there to play with in the Practice pane.
This loading methodology also applies to the instrument selection in the Rhythmic pane. The default is tabla but you can load in dholak, manjeera and other suitable instruments in the Compose section, whereupon then that instrument is available in the Practice section. I found this to be a bit confusing. I'd much rather all the instruments and ragas were available in the Practice section on startup. Indeed, you can kludge this yourself by entering their names into the auto-load section of the Preferences, but it's a bit of a laborious workaround. At the very least, you should be able to load instruments in the Practice section without having to switch to the Compose section.
The Compose section is a simple pattern arranger; there are no facilities here for you to hit Record and then twiddle in your own majesty. Instead, you create a new composition, create specific tracks for different instruments and then add what Swar call 'components' to these tracks by using the component selector on the left whilst in Track view mode. Using tabla as an example, you'd create a tabla track in a new composition and then drag and drop tabla components from the left. By right-clicking, you can resize these phrases — in effect, time-stretching or compressing them — or repeat them.
If you double-click a component, this opens it up in the Sequence view window. Here, you can see exactly what parts the phrase is made of and then change them by dragging and dropping a new hit or note name. In this way you can muck around at root level with the preset elements, changing hits or creating your own bizarre cycles for the melodic instruments. Before you add a particular component, you can double-click on it, which also opens it up in the Sequence window. Since the different elements are meant to be played at different tempos, this can be handy to make sure you're not adding a cycle that was originally meant to be played at 60bpm to your gabba masterpiece. Or maybe this is exactly what you want?
A quirk of the Compose section is that each track is divided up into cells, and if you drop a new component onto a cell it won't automatically expand beyond its boundaries. Hence, a seven-beat element will play within a four-beat cell unless you right-click it and expand it to its proper length. I would prefer it if the dropped parts automatically assumed their natural lengths.
The final view mode is Piano Roll, which lets you view the particular component alongside the typical keyboard graphic. Bear in mind that this is a view only, and you can't start dragging notes up and down or try to change the timing of notes side-to-side. I wish you could — perhaps I've been spoilt by years of fully editable piano-roll displays...
Once you've arranged your composition, Swarshala lets you save it in its own proprietary format or export it in either Wave or MIDI file formats. I experimented by assembling some inelegant combinations of components and then exporting the results as a MIDI file. I then imported them into Logic and listened to my ambient masterpiece. OK, it actually wasn't very good, but that's the workman not the tools.
Swarshala Pro 3 also comes with a little application called Swar Sampler. Ostensibly, this is to enable you to play those lush Swar samples from the outside world (or inside, via another sequencer). I say ostensibly because I simply couldn't get it to work — it kept crashing Windows so, beleaguered, I gave up... thank goodness for Swarplug!
Swarplug itself, which is compatible with Windows, Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X, consists of a VST Instrument plug-in plus the Swar Librarian Java application, although the Librarian is not available in Mac OS 9. Swarplug gives you access to the sounds of 21 instruments (there are actually 16 unique instruments, some presets being variations) while the Librarian lets you browse MIDI loops of performance components and then add these to your seqencer.
Installation, again, was painless. Testing this on a Mac, I had to uncompress a SIT file and I dumped the resulting directory in my Logic VST plug-in folder. I ran the authoriser, entered the code and when I booted up Logic, there was Swarplug. The plug-in itself takes up very little screen estate, consisting as it does of a little graphic, drop-down selector and three virtual knobs. These control, from left to right, Gain, Pan and PBR (pitch-bend range).
I started with the bansuri (flute). Yep, it sounded as good as in Swarshala, breathier than Western flute but with more body and roundness than pan pipes. Next, the santoor (hammered dulcimer). This instrument excelled. I immediately started trying to play Ghulam Ali riffs but, unfortunately, I sucked. Which is a shame since the santoor is one of my favourite instruments, an import into Indian music with a rich history (www.santoor.com/ santoory.html). I defy anyone to play this preset and not be inspired by the timbre of the instrument. It will lead you instantly into John Barry territory.
Another standout for me was the sarod (a "short-necked, unfretted, waisted lute" according to www.sarod.com/thesarod/thesarodframes.htm), which again had a wonderful presence and zinginess. The only thing that let it down slightly was that the attack seemed slow in the lower range, something you expect with a harmonium sample but not with a plucked instrument. Moving onto said harmonium, it's another gem. It's grunty and groany and could suit a sea shanty as easily as Indian music. The only inaccuracies I could find compared to my dad's harmonium were the lack of mysterious internal clacking sounds, and the fact that it didn't smell of mothballs.
Included in the samples are two vocal-based instruments: bols and sargam. The first is the spoken notes representing hits that you may have heard when an Indian singer is duelling with a tabla player. The second is the Indian do-re-mi being sung. I'm not sure how much use I'd find for the latter instrument but the bols are eminently usable in a rhythmic context — just think of it as Indian beatboxing.
I didn't like the shehnai very much because it does sound like a goose being brutally murdered. But then, so does the real instrument so I can't really fault Swar Systems on that score.
The sitar is the instrument most associated with Indian music in the West and it's well represented here. The low notes drone and build pleasingly (they're not loops, you do have to retrigger them) and the mid to highs have a crisp attack and voicing. Unfortunately, I'm nowhere near skilled enough to emulate the pitch-bend that real sitar players use. Without that element, the preset can't help but sound a little artificial but, again, that's beyond Swar Systems' control.
The three tanpura presets round off the selection with some fine, raspy tones. As a drone instrument, the tone of the tanpura is crucial to the atmosphere of the music. The plus with Swarplug is that the separate strings are sampled, unlike some other virtual tanpuras I've heard. Because of this, you can quickly get a good drone going as the bed of your composition.
The only thing I really missed from the plug-in was some form of release control. Yes, you can pedal-sustain samples but I wanted an intermediate amount of control. Perhaps Swar Systems could add a small Release knob next to the pitch-bend parameter?
Throwing authenticity completely out of the window, I fired up EXS24 and imported the Swarplug instruments via the Sample Cell-format folder Swar kindly provide. After a bit of minor tweakage (switching on Pitch for the melodic samples) I was free to mangle Swar's lovely samples in all kinds of nasty ways. Yummy! I could also now see the internal sample basis of each instrument: some, like the santoor, have numerous one-note samples, others are more stretched. The entire sample library is about 100MB in size. I was happy overall with the level of detail and realism in the instruments, but as always, do try to hear them yourself before you decide whether to buy the product.
Faced with these presets, it's easy to get bewildered. I was playing the tabla preset and although I was getting good rhythms out if it, they just didn't sound authentic enough. So, after a quick boot into OS X, I started up Swar Librarian.
The interface looks a bit like the left-hand pane of Swarshala in the Compose section and that's because it serves partly the same function. You select your instrument from the top left drop-down menu and then choose an element from the folders below. For the melodic instruments you may get subfolders for different Ragas and for the percussion instruments, different taals. Double-click on the clip you fancy and it's loaded in the right-hand pane, revealed in detail.
The difference here is that the right-hand window is read-only, unlike the equivalent in Sharswala. Above the window you can start the loop playing, cut and paste it (they're all MIDI files) and that's about it. There's no overall tempo control since each component plays at the tempo it's meant to. This is very authentic, but it might be nice to have an inauthentic tempo slider too...
Despite this, the Librarian is very handy as a small application to audition what the Swar instruments should be doing in traditional terms. Listening to the tabla patterns I was very impressed with the realism of the result because of the attention to detail Swar have put into sampling all the tiny nuances of tabla playing. I wouldn't say it's as good as the real thing because, as with Western drummers, when you hear a top-class tabla player, it's impossible to replicate their timing and passion. But it's certainly the closest I've heard yet.
Despite my passing criticisms, the Swarshala 3 Pro/Swarplug bundle is a very impressive package. It takes you by the hand and leads you into the basics (and not-so-basics!) of Indian musical theory, each step of the journey being signposted by appropriate audio examples. Then, armed with this primer, it opens up Indian timbres to you via Swarplug. As with all sampling or synthesis, how 'realistic' your performance sounds depends greatly on how you play as much as what you play. You can take the greatest guitar samples in the world but if you just plonk down keyboard-style root triads, the result will sound cheesy and unconvincing (which of course may be a valid style in itself).
Where Swarshala/Plug wins out over naked sample libraries is in the time and effort Swar have put into assembling the preset example patterns. Even a total newcomer to Indian music would have little trouble firing up their sequencer and assembling the base of a convincingly authentic Indian performance. You'll soon be breaking the Western norms and adding a sarod lehra of seven beats over a 13-beat tabla pattern. If you're new to Indian music this software will help you think creatively and differently. If you already know Indian music you may find the Practice section of Swarshala a great aid in composition as well as practice. I quickly assembled a practice based around Raga Yaman when my dad came round, and he couldn't help but start singing. Again, it's all very easy and spontaneous.
I do have a few niggles with certain elements of Swarshala and Swarplug. The Practice pane could benefit from being a bit less stop-start — more real-time controls please! And I'm sure it won't just be me who's confused by the loading system in the Compose pane. Perhaps, being extremely picky, some of the instruments could have benefited from a few more multisamples. I'd rather lose the sargam and gain some extra sitar or santoor. And how about a Mac version of Swarshala and an OS 9 version of Librarian?
But overall I recommend that anyone even slightly interested in Indian music auditions this software. The combination of a very useful sample library coupled with well-programmed example patterns and the musical theory to put it all together convincingly makes for a formidable addition to any electronic musician's palette.