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Nitin Sawhney: Cultural Expansion

Composer/Producer/Remixer By Paul Tingen
Published March 2004

From hit solo albums to film soundtracks and remixes, Nitin Sawhney has turned his hand to almost every aspect of music production — and his music is equally diverse, blending Indian and Western classical styles with rock, hip-hop and dance.

Nitin Sawhney: Cultural ExpansionPhoto: Richard EcclestoneNitin Sawhney's impressive range of activities has prompted one writer to ask "Is there anything Sawhney can't do?" He emerged during the mid-1990s, leading a wave of British Indian musicians, and along with the likes of Bally Sagoo, Mushtaq, Cornershop, Asian Dub Foundation, Fun-da-mental, Talvin Singh, Joi, Sona Fariq, Susheela Raman and State Of Bengal, helped to bring Asian music into mainstream pop culture.

It appears that everything Sawhney does aims to transcend boundaries and limitations, whether musical, cultural, racial, political or otherwise. He has a law degree and embarked on a brief sojourn as an accountant, before making his first claim to fame as an comedy actor and writer — he was one half of the radio comedy duo Secret Asians with Sanjeev Bhaskar, and had a hand in devising the BBC comedy series Goodness Gracious Me. The evidence of Sawhney's eclecticism is also abundant in his music, which blends Indian influences, trip-hop, rock, classical, blues, rhythm & blues, hip-hop, soul, flamenco, jazz, Latin, drum & bass, house and other dance beats, and even Britpop.

Sawhney has released five solo albums to date. Perhaps the most famous is 1999's Beyond Skin (1999), which was nominated for the Mercury Prize and received the South Bank Show Award, while his latest, Human (2003), features contributions by British vocalists such as Natacha Atlas, Tina Grace, Reena Bhardwaj, Jacob Golden, Taio, Matt Hales of Aqualung and Kevin Mark Trail of the Streets.

As a master player on the flamenco guitar and piano, and having studied composition, Sawhney oversees the proceedings on his solo albums as a player, engineer, producer, arranger, programmer and co-writer. Sawhney's solo work comes in addition to his musical activities as a film, television and orchestral composer and as a DJ. He was also once a member of the James Taylor Quartet, formed the Jazztones and the Tihai Trio (with tabla player Talvin Singh), has produced the likes of Cheb Mami and Cirque du Soleil and remixed works by Paul McCartney and Sting.

Sound Sculpting

The centrepiece of Sawhney's studio is a Yamaha DM2000 digital mixer.The centrepiece of Sawhney's studio is a Yamaha DM2000 digital mixer.Photo: Richard EcclestoneNitin Sawhney's Spirit Dance Studios (see box) on the first floor of his south London house is built around a Yamaha DM2000 digital desk and a combination of Pro Tools and Logic Audio. Sawhney has been described as a "confident geek", and he admits that he loves programming and the "computer side of things", but insists that this is of a piece with musical creativity. "With Indian classical music you need a very mathematical understanding of the tal system, in which you need to calculate a lot of rhythmic cycles. I think of Indian rhythm as almost mathematical poetry. And harmony in Western music... I've written for orchestras and this requires a lot of mathematical understanding. Structure, arrangement, harmony, all these things are intrinsic and require the left side of the brain, just like technology."

Be they applied to computers or musical arrangement, Sawhney's technical skills are always put to use to convey emotion in his music. "When I begin I have a very focused idea of what I want to say. I don't just knock up some grooves and then start trying things out. I also do many film scores, and you usually have very strict deadlines for that, so you don't have time for trial and error. You're working to picture and you're focused on exactly what mood you want to achieve with a certain sound or idea. With my albums the conceptual idea is also there before the recording. I always know what it's going to be about. I may have a melody, or a poem, or I may do a jam with people. But I'd have a jam around a certain mood or idea.

"For instance, for 'Eastern Eyes' [from Human] I had written a poem and I had a beat, and I told Kevin Mark that I wanted it to be celebratory, but also melancholy and peaceful. He sung it and it was fantastic. With Matt Hale [on 'Falling'] I talked a lot about issues of isolation and growing up being a teenager and the uncertainty of youth. He could relate to those things. But I never mentioned the racist issue because I didn't know whether he would be able to relate to that issue. When I began working with Matt I already had that track written and arranged, and it was a matter of writing lyrics and finding melodies to sing.

"Since I work with other singers, I see myself more as a director than an actor. And I think of this work as sculpting. I use Emagic Logic Audio as a glorified recording tool that I then use to sculpt the song in. Quite often I have so many ideas that I want to put down, and then I throw things out that I don't want, honing everything sonically, conceptually and in terms of arrangement. The whole track becomes like a sonic sculpture. So I'm sculpting my emotional identity and placing it before other people in as exciting and dynamic a way as I can. It's about creating that sense of drama, and creating it from a sense of reality as well, rather than films that are based on fiction. Making your own albums is much more exciting, because it's based on your own life and your own life experiences."

Fusion And Focus

Nitin Sawhney is active in the world of politics, especially on issues concerning British Asians, and although he claims that his music doesn't generally make political points, it's clear that his political ideals feed into the eclecticism of his music. "Music is a place without prejudice," he insists. "It's not subject to the same insecurities that we have in language, because language is something that everyone uses and it's the tool of education and manipulation. Music can be as abstract or literal as you want it to be. Its form defies attempts to manipulate it by people who try to dictate or control the colonisation of the mind. It's also a fantastic place to escape to. I find that music is a great place for sanctuary and also it's a very free place to express yourself as who you are and not as other people expect you or are trying to dictate you to be. I find it a powerful and empowering place to be in. I've learnt everything I know about humanity through music.

"People always say I'm a fusion artist," continues Sawhney, "but I always say 'I've never fused anything in my life.' All I've ever done is make music without barriers. I will draw on whatever influences I want to get across emotions across. To say fusion you have to think that everything is separate; you don't fuse things unless you think there's separation. But I never think of fusion. I never think there's a problem in the first place. Music is music and then you learn about all the different aspects and areas that you want to engage with. I look at it as a very flexible giant bubble that you inhabit and you can move in many directions. But if you get it wrong the bubble bursts, so you need to make sure that you keep things focussed in terms of what you're trying to say. Everything flows around emotions. Emotion is the glue that binds everything together."

Emotions are indeed very much to the fore on Human, which charts the human journey from before birth until after death. The opener 'The River' is, explains Sawhney, "a pre-birth track, with the Ganges river being the spiritual place where your spirit comes from and returns to." The track 'Eastern Eyes' is "about the pain of birth", 'Say Hello' is about racism, and so on. The album highlights various aspects of human life, with much of the subject matter taken from Sawhney's own life, and ends with 'The Boatman', which is about "life's completion. I used the ferryman concept from the Bengali folk tradition, which represents fate and death.

"The whole of Human is autobiographical," relates Sawhney," and I was trying to find a sense of identity in the songs, while working chronologically. I wanted to take people through time and in order to do that you have to find a vocabulary. So I wanted to find lyrics that would get across the emotions and angst of growing up, the times of isolation, and all those things, and collaborate with people who can empathise with these ideas and experiences."

All Too Human

Sawhney is a talented guitarist in addition to his skills on the piano and tabla.Sawhney is a talented guitarist in addition to his skills on the piano and tabla.Photo: Richard EcclestoneThe sound sources on Human are consistently diverse, and include the juxtaposition of a crackly blues guitar sample and an Indian sarod on 'The River', and the clash of house rhythms and an Indian raag poem on 'Heer'. The album is framed by a sample of people bathing in the Ganges, and is generally awash with samples, many of them ambient sounds like vinyl crackles, white noise, sea sounds or amplifier hums.

"The Ganges river sample at the beginning and end of the record illustrates the tapestry of life and death at the Ganges," explains Sawhney, "where you can have people bathing babies and funeral pyres at the same time. Siddharta became enlightened sitting by a river. It's about the flow and cycle of life. The blues guitar was a sample from somewhere in my library, and I like the idea of combining it with the sarod, because it blurs geographical boundaries. I like to put things together so people think, 'Oh my God, this is so similar.' It makes people question why they worry about boundaries in the first place.

"It is true that I put in a lot of crackle ambience on the record, which is literally vinyl crackle that I recorded from a record player. I suppose it's nostalgia, especially on an autobiographical album. When I was young I spent a lot of time listening to vinyl and I like that feeling of crackle. On 'Fragile Wind' I wanted quite a dark crackly sound on the drums, and some white noise, so I programmed the sounds on the Yamaha AN1x, which is a keyboard I really like. You muck around with the sounds and play with the filters to get the sound and attack and resonance I wanted, and eventually I got this really wicked white noise. I put some delays on that make it sound like it's arpeggiated as well."

Vinyl is still a strong presence in Sawhney's musical world. At the rear are the Line 6 delay and distortion modelling stompboxes, and his Boss Voice Transformer. Vinyl is still a strong presence in Sawhney's musical world. At the rear are the Line 6 delay and distortion modelling stompboxes, and his Boss Voice Transformer. Photo: Richard EcclestoneAs well as being a talented programmer, Sawhney is a virtuoso guitarist, pianist and percussionist. "I began playing piano at age five, and grew up playing a lot of flamenco. I used to play solo gigs on the flamenco guitar many years ago, which was fantastic. Flamenco is the most enjoyable and exciting form of guitar playing. I also play tablas. I was a complete obsessive fanatic. Between the guitar and the piano I was practising eight hours a day. It was mad. I didn't do anything else. I didn't talk to anyone, I was just sitting in a room playing guitar and piano. At one point you have to come out of that otherwise you go nuts.

"So I'm now much more into sitting with a computer and looking at the overall creation of a piece of music and the sonics that come out of the speakers. Being a solo instrumentalist can be a very egotistical thing. You're mainly interested in the musical expression of your own instrument. But when you're programming you're looking at the overall picture. Today I develop ideas first, and then I practice to be able to play them. Technical virtuosity no longer impresses me. I'm much more interested in what people are saying with what they're playing. For me the best musicians are people who have something to say, rather than those who are obsessed showing off their technique."

Spirit Dance Studios

Nitin Sawhney's Yamaha DM2000 desk is at the heart of his Spirit Dance Studios, and has been expanded with three ADAT interface cards, eight channels of AES-EBU digital I/O, a Waves processing card and an eight-channel unbalanced analogue input card. There are also Apple G4s with MOTU 2408 and Emagic Unitor 8 audio and MIDI interfaces, the former equipped with an Apogee AD8000 multi-channel A-D converter, and a new Pro Tools system, while monitoring is supplied by a Dynaudio AIR5 system for 5.1 surround and Adam S3 stereo speakers. Processors and effects include an Empirical Labs Distressor compressor, Avalon 2022 mic preamp, Waves L2 Ultramaximiser, Lexicon PCM91 reverb, Line 6 delay and distortion modellers, Boss VT1 Voice Transformer, Ensoniq DP Pro and Digitech TSR24 effects.

Nitin Sawhney's Spirit Dance Studio. Logic and Pro Tools running on G4 Apple Macs are used for recording, while a Dynaudio AIR system handles surround monitoring.Nitin Sawhney's Spirit Dance Studio. Logic and Pro Tools running on G4 Apple Macs are used for recording, while a Dynaudio AIR system handles surround monitoring.Photo: Richard Ecclestone

"The Yamaha desk is really great," says Sawhney. "Sometimes I have to work in 5.1 and it's a great setup for that. All outboard gear is patched permanently into the desk. I mix in digital through the desk, applying analogue and digital effects. The L2 is a great piece of limiting hardware that allows me to get a really strong fat sound at the end. I was amazed by it when working on Cirque du Soleil. I'd used the Waves L1 software bundle until then, which is also really good, but there's a certain harshness to the sound that's very hard to get rid off. But the L2 is so smooth, it's fantastic.

The main outboard rack at Spirit Dance Studios, with Lexicon PCM91 reverb, Ensoniq DP Pro and Digitech TSR24 effects, Avalon AD2022 dual preamp, Empirical Labs Distressor compressor, Roland XV5080 and Emu Proteus 2000 sound modules.The main outboard rack at Spirit Dance Studios, with Lexicon PCM91 reverb, Ensoniq DP Pro and Digitech TSR24 effects, Avalon AD2022 dual preamp, Empirical Labs Distressor compressor, Roland XV5080 and Emu Proteus 2000 sound modules.Photo: Richard Ecclestone"I know my ASIO setup really well, and the Pro Tools system came in a few months ago, and I'm using it to finalise things, because I'm still getting used to it. I'm also using it as to put my guitar through effects like Amp Farm, because there's no latency on Pro Tools. I plan to integrate the ASIO and Pro Tools properly, ideally using Logic software and Pro Tools hardware. What's really great about Pro Tools is that I can use these amazing plug-ins — the DSP processing is really powerful — and I wanted to be able to use [hardware] effects in real time. For instance, it's difficult to have the L2 running properly on an ASIO system."

Sound sources in Spirit Dance include an Akai MPC4000 sampling drum machine, Emu Proteus 2000, Quasimidi Sirius and Roland XV5080 modules, Yamaha CS6x and AN1x keyboards, and Roland V-Drums. "I don't use the Akai a lot," comments Sawhney, "but I like its quantise facility. And it offers me a different way of playing in drums. The 5080 is probably the module I use the most. I've used it for a long time. For me the main thing in the studio is to go with what I know until I have something better. I'm constantly working and I always have projects, so I don't really have the time to experiment or test things out. I'm more like 'Does it work or doesn't it work?'"

The Bedrock

As an accomplished player, Sawhney tends to play all his parts live into Logic Audio. "I use a Studiologic SL880 MIDI controller, which has a weighted keyboard, but nothing else, no sounds. I can't really work with non-weighted keyboards. I like to get some feel into what I'm doing. I rarely quantise things, unless it's drums. But even then I'll quantise a live feel and avoid simply quantising to 16ths. I try to make the music feel as organic as I can."

An Akai MPC4000 sampling drum machine is a relatively recent addition to the studio, and sits here above Sawhney's Quasimidi Sirius and Yamaha CS6x and AN1x keyboards.An Akai MPC4000 sampling drum machine is a relatively recent addition to the studio, and sits here above Sawhney's Quasimidi Sirius and Yamaha CS6x and AN1x keyboards.Photo: Richard EcclestoneOn his debut album Migration in 1995, Sawhney used an Akai S2800i sampler, GEM S2 keyboard and a PC with Cakewalk software. For Beyond Skin in 1999 he used a PC with Logic and a Yamaha 02R desk. Following this he's migrated to the Mac, and his Spirit Dance Studios currently sports two G4s. "I changed over from PC to Mac because of stability. At the time MS-DOS was still part of the operating software, something that only has been eliminated with Windows NT and 2000. This meant that things were a lot less stable and that there were lots of clocking problems, which were a digital nightmare. Clocking is just much more stable with Macs."

Sawhney has since imported all his PC samples into the Mac, where they are held in a huge EXS24 library. This sample library, full of sounds recorded on his trips around the Earth, forms the bedrock of his studio universe. "Mostly I just have a mother keyboard and I use many internal sounds from the EXS24 or I use live audio. There's very little MIDI from other modules. I sometimes use the Roland XV5080, because it has some nice cards, like the World card and the Asian card. If you put them through a Pro Tools plug-in like Amp Farm to make it sound a bit more dirty and realistic, you get quite interesting sounds. If you use these sounds without effects they're so clean it's very hard to use them.

"I've never been a fan of using lots of MIDI. I used it a long time ago because I could program so quickly with it. Today, if I'm doing an orchestral score it's good to have some simulated instruments so I know what it will sound like, and then I hand out the score and the MIDI is replaced by real audio, so I don't have to worry about the MIDI sounds. That's the only time when I use MIDI. Otherwise I use sampled instruments or instruments that come from a session. Sometimes when I'm feeling a bit lazy I'll resort to sample CDs. There are fantastic sample libraries out there that are very well recorded, and which are actually a great resource, because they give you a diversity of sound and recording techniques, resulting in a bigger sound."

According to Sawhney, musical ideas can spring from playing around on the guitar or piano, from poems or lyrics, or "getting a nice loop and cutting it up in Recycle and then importing that back into Logic, where you can speed it up or slow it down and so on. I may begin a rhythm playing the Roland V-Drums or sample something that I checked out on vinyl or from a sample CD or a live drum session. I'm flexible about it. Of course, you have the sources where things come from. But it's more about what I'm trying to get across. I need a sound that's going to complement that. Sometimes I'll dump the REX file and play it again by hand or with a keyboard in real time. I cut the loop and assign the sounds to different keys and replay things. And sometimes I'll play a bass line with my right hand and drums with my left."

Urban Soul

Most of Human was recorded on Logic Audio using a MOTU 2408 audio interface with an Apogee AD8000 converter. Towards the very end of the project Sawhney acquired a Pro Tools system, which he is still integrating with Logic Audio (see the Spirit Dance box). Pro Tools and ADAT were used for the Indian sessions for Human during which strings and vocals were captured. A significant amount of string recording was also done at Spirit Dance, where the Urban Soul Orchestra consisted of just five players, multitracked in different seating positions.

"We miked the string players up quite ambiently," Sawhney explains, "and we asked them to play over and over again and to switch places in between takes. I had arranged the strings in ascending harmonic layers, so I could layer them afterwards. All this created a bigger sound, a big orchestral effect. Dean James helped me out with the engineering for Human and we experimented a lot with microphone distance, which is very important to get the right sense of presence. People tend to express themselves more when the microphone is very close-up . They express themselves rather than sing. I get very bored with singers, I'm much more into people who can express things. I spent ages getting the right distance from the singer to the mic to convey a sense of intimacy. Particularly when you listen to the tracks on which Tina [Grace] sings, you can hear that the mic is very close."

Using the Apogee AD8000 rather than the converters in the MOTU interface or Yamaha desk suggests a concern with sound quality, but when queried, this doesn't appear to be high on Sawhney's list of priorities. "My Yamaha DM2000 desk can do 96k, and I can master up to 192k, but to be honest, I would do this only to conform to needs from people outside, like film people who want things on 48k. I don't really worry about it otherwise. Human was recorded at 44.1k/24-bit, and I was happy with the sound. At one point we were looking at warming things up, and it's sometimes very tempting to throw things onto two-inch analogue. But it was more a matter of working with the EQ and making the sound as fat and strong and in-your-face as we possibly could. And ultimately when you're working for a CD, it has to be converted to 44.1 anyway."

One example of a project where he did need to conform to other people's requirements was his collaboration with composer Violaine Corradi of Cirque du Soleil, where Corradi sent MIDI files of his compositions and Sawhney arranged and produced the finished music. "Cirque du Soleil's Varekai was done at 96k, because that's what they wanted. But the project became a nightmare from a technical point of view. I was importing WAVs from other countries and trying to convert them to the right sample rate and there wasn't enough compatible equipment and so it was taking a lot of time and memory. I had to go to other people's studios to find gear that was equipped to do what we wanted to do."

Nitin Sawhney also mixes his own material at Spirit Dance, with an awareness that it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when doing so. "I will always start off like everyone else," he says, "listen to individual parts and get everything EQ-wise to sit together. But a lot of people will work in too much detail all the time and they'll lose sight of the overall thing. I think it's very important to keep a very strong focus on the overall sound. I'll work on things in detail but I'll always allow myself enough time so I can work with the entire sound if it's too heavily affected by the details. I think holistically as well as in terms of sound."