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Chinese Crisis: Recording Hanggai's Folk Music

Matteo Scumaci & Robin Haller
By Sam Inglis

The task of bringing Hanggai's Chinese folk music to Western ears was challenging enough in itself. But then things started to go wrong...

Travelling to China to record an album was always going to be an adventure — so what Matteo Scumaci and Robin Haller did not need was a large and unwelcome surprise awaiting them on arrival. "The American label had been quite invisible for a while," explains Matteo, "but they said that they were going to put some money forward for this record. When we touched down in Beijing, the chequebook was nowhere to be seen."

Matteo Scumaci and Robin Haller (below) tour scenic Beijing.Matteo Scumaci and Robin Haller (below) tour scenic Beijing.

Deprived of their budget at a stroke, the two Englishmen had to radically revise their recording plans: what had been planned as demo recordings became album sessions proper, and with any notion of hiring a studio eradicated, there was no choice but to record at Robin's Beijing apartment. "I took out a guitar, a G3 Mac laptop, an M‑Box and a pair of SE1 mics, and I had a Rode NT2 in my luggage. Rob had his laptop and a budget large‑diaphragm SE mic. So basically we had two budget large‑diaphragms and two small‑diaphragm mics, which we were going to do sketches with."

Everything's In 'D'

Chinese Crisis: Recording Hanggai's Folk Music

The grasslands folk band they had set out to record, Hanggai, posed a number of further challenges. "For the arrangements, what we were faced with was the most limited range harmonically and in terms of the frequency spectrum. It's a two‑string banjo and a horsehair fiddle, and that's it. Everything's in 'D', it stays in 'D', it's all in the mid‑range, and there's nothing else in the texture."

In musical terms, then, the problem was how to retain Hanggai's distinctive sound, yet give the album enough diversity and structure to appeal to Western audiences. This, at least, was something the band were open to. "All the guys in the band are young, probably younger than us, half of them started out playing in punk or rock bands and they've come to this sort of music later on," explains Rob. "So it's not like we were going to some village in the middle of nowhere and doing fieldwork recording proper folk musicians. They think about it like a rock band playing these songs. The songs are original, but there was always flexibility in the arrangements. Beijing is in northern China, and the grasslands are just outside Beijing, and within the Chinese psyche, that's the wild west, where the cowboys and horsemen are; it's dangerous and exotic. And that whole culture plays a big part in the Chinese psyche, so what we wanted to do was make an album based in the city, thinking about the grasslands — imagining this culture and these songs, from the city."

Any thoughts of tracking the band live were erased by the need to rely on Robin and Matteo's 'sketchpad' equipment, which limited them to recording two sources at any one time. "It was a very strange way to do things," admits the latter, "with guys who had never multitracked, who weren't used to playing by themselves. So that was the first thing: how do we exert a certain amount of control over the project, but at the same time allow them to express themselves musically and rhythmically in a way that was important to the style?"

Hanggai's band leader Ilich, playing the two-string banjo that is at the heart of their sound. Hanggai's band leader Ilich, playing the two-string banjo that is at the heart of their sound. In most cases, addressing this question meant creating a click track or tempo map in Cubase ("Most of the songs increase tempo naturally, that's part of their vibe," explains Matteo) before recording Hanggai's two principal instrumentalists, banjo player and bandleader Ilchi and fiddle player Hugejiltu. "They're not used to tracking, but they play all the time so they're very good live," says Rob. "We put both of them together playing against the click. Often they didn't like that, because their music goes in and out of tempos."

"When we single‑tracked them, they were drifting in and out of the click, sometimes quite wildly," adds Matteo. "We wouldn't play that to the other guy, because we wouldn't want that to influence his timing, so he would play individually to the click. I thought they were just drifting in and out of click and they couldn't slave to it, but when we took the click off, they'd both be completely out of time with the click, but perfectly in time with each other. Unbelievable. And we realised that these things have a natural rhythm all of their own."

The Mighty Pencil

The other central instruments in Hanggai's music are horsehair fiddles such as the matouqin and the yekul, played here by Bagen.The other central instruments in Hanggai's music are horsehair fiddles such as the matouqin and the yekul, played here by Bagen.

Faced with unfamiliar instruments and a limited choice of equipment, the duo ended up spending a long time working on mic placement. "The first thing I did was get in a close mic about a foot away," says Matteo. "We put a large‑diaphragm and a small‑diaphragm on everything. I hadn't used pencil mics for a long time, I always reached for the large‑diaphragm mics on everything, but we quickly found out that those SE1as, for some reason, just sounded great, particularly on the bowed instrument [matouqin or horsehair violin]. It's not like a cello, which is very sonorous — because it's a horsehair bow, there's a rasp to it, and it's a really delicate quality. I found you had to mic the bow, in a way, to get that quality."

"We'd have a large‑diaphragm for the body of the sound and a pencil picking up the 'atmosphere' of the bow against the string," agrees Robin.

"One thing that surprised us is additive things in the texture," adds Matteo. "In the very first bars of the whole album there's a string line that kind of sounds orchestral. All it was was the martotune, which is the horsehair fiddle, on one side, and the surhu, a bowed metallic instrument. They weren't separated completely, so they kind of blended together, and that blend sounds like a new instrument, or a string section. It sounds almost like it's been effected in some way."

In their bid to broaden the musical palette of the album, Robin and Matteo incorporated Western elements such as electric guitar, and also various percussion instruments — some Chinese, some more universal. "There's nothing inherent to the music except maybe hand percussion," explains Matteo. "When they play live they have the classic cowbell, but not as we know it — a real cowbell with the bell inside, and they shake it. They have simple things kind of like djembes. For the djembes, the best sound that we found was not to mic the skin, not to put two mics on, but actually to use one mic capturing the reflection off the floor at a 45‑degree angle. For some reason, that seemed to be absolutely the most defined sound."

"We had one drum that I'd borrowed from a guy in Western China," adds Rob. "He'd had to trek for days into the mountains to find the one guy who still made these drums. We were going to use this on the album, but I put a big wooden beater through the skin."

"It was such a beautiful sound, and it goes all the way through the album, but I think we only hit it about three times before it packed up," laughs Matteo. "We had to go back to the recording and put it into Reason and trigger it for the rest of the album."

Mixing Without Monitors

With no budget, Robin and Matteo were forced to record with the equipment they had: an ageing laptop, an M Box interface and some affordable mics. With no budget, Robin and Matteo were forced to record with the equipment they had: an ageing laptop, an M Box interface and some affordable mics.

The limitations of the pair's equipment also caused problems at mixdown. Not only were they forced to mix entirely 'in the box', but with no proper monitoring they were listening on five‑dollar speakers bought at a Beijing market. "I was using this technique I still use today if I don't have an analyser or decent monitors," explains Matteo. "I've got this plug‑in from the early days of Cubase, it's an MDA limiter, and I put on the greatest amount of limiting possible and see what's ducking the mix — so I can judge the bottom end. And those decisions proved, when I got home, to be the right decisions."

Fortunately, the time spent moving mics around and working on arrangements proved well worth while in the end. "It always winds me up when producers say 'I didn't do anything, I just miked it really well!' but that was certainly true with this. Last night, to refresh my memory, I went back to the mixes, and I couldn't find an EQ. The only thing I could find was a little bit of C4 multi‑band on the vocals, really gentle. Normally I'd group instruments to send them to a group and then effect them, but here it was just for volume rides. We spent a lot of time bringing in instruments with the rides, while the vocals generally stayed at the same level.

"I would normally set up a reverb send, or maybe two or three reverbs, but for this, I used Waves RVerb on the bus for a lot of tracks, and that was it. The one reverb that I really love though is the Timeworks 4080L, which is a really old reverb, I think I got it in 2002 -- you wouldn't use it to recreate real acoustic spaces, but to give depth and construct lusicous soundscapes it's in a league of its own, so some of the stringed instruments went to that, but generally it was a reverb on the bus. Also, I did mix through a compressor most times, but the real star of the show was the [PSP] Vintage Warmer."

Worlds Away

The subsequent success of Hanggai's album, along with sold‑out gigs in Europe, has borne out the judgement calls Robin and Matteo had to make to deliver a record that could be appreciated outside China. "Audiences over there are in a very different place to audiences over here," says Rob. "The whole idea that you wouldn't put big beats and huge pads over everything — that you might let the music say what it has to say by itself — probably wouldn't go down well over there. If you watch TV it's all General MIDI. What was different with the way we did it was that we put a lot of time and care into it, and thought about it differently because we knew that it was going to be released outside China. This kind of record wouldn't be made over there."

Introducing Hanggai is released on World Music Network.

A Little Help From Their Friends

Apart from the two core members, Hanggai's line-up is very malleable, and Matteo and Rob were keen to harness the talents of their many friends and occasional collaborators. They hit upon a powerful secret weapon in the quest for contributors: "I think we were the first people in Beijing to have a Nintendo Wii!" says Rob.

"It was like bait," laughs Matteo. "Everyone came round. I said to Rob, 'Music's transcendental between cultures, but the Nintendo's far more transcendental!'"

The social club atmosphere is most evident on 'Drinking Song'. "That was the most fun to make," says Matteo. "We were saving it 'til last, because we used to go to restaurants with them, they'd take their instruments and we'd get a private room and they'd be playing all these great tracks to us. Everyone's drinking, and suddenly the songs really mean something, hearing them in their natural environments. Once I'd seen that, I didn't want to track that song in the studio at all. It had to be in the restaurant, but we needed it to have the same fidelity as the rest."

"So they did a couple of takes of the horsehair fiddle and banjo in the apartment, we chose one, then we did overdubs, some supporting vocals and other instruments," adds Rob.

"We quickly bounced it down to MP3 and put it on an iPod," continues Matteo, "and secretly put it in our bags on the final night we were in China, along with a mic and a Minidisc player. So once we'd bought the 16th round of dirty rice wine and everyone was falling about, we announced that as a fun game we were going to hang the stereo mic from the light bulb in this restaurant, and gave the guy who sang it originally the headphones and told him to sing along to the track. Everyone was wasted by this time and they all sang along and went nuts. We recorded it four times, and incredibly, when we got it back into the studio, it slipped in perfectly. All we did was rode the four takes of the song. So it is, basically, like you're in the restaurant, but the character of the instruments is hi-fi."

From A Whistle To A Roar

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of grasslands folk music is the unique singing, which incorporates several unusual techniques for extending the conventional male vocal range. "They have the overtone singing which is now quite popular and most people know about," explains Matteo, "and they produce a whistling tone, that sounds like someone whistling over the top. But also what I'd never heard before was the opposite, which is an octave below, the sub-harmonic. So you have these three things: you have straight voices, the octave-above throat singing and the really deep bass, which you can't produce unless you know that technique.

"All the instrumentalists are vocalists as well, and they all have different special powers. So Bagen, who's a skinny little guy, had this incredible bass voice, and we used the NT2. We ended up putting a little bit of [Waves] RBass on that just to enhance it, but more often than not we'd just reduce it, it was so big by itself. The whistle that you hear, the humai singing, was pretty straightforward. In 'Lullabye' we tried to get three completely different vocal techniques. I asked Siahu, one of the singers, to lean into the mic and sing in the softest voice he possibly could, and then we double-tracked that, panned it left and right and supercompressed it, so there's a very eerie stereo thing, and then Ilchhi comes in, who's got that really strong wizened old man's voice, bang, right in the centre. it's a really nice effect."

Published January 2009