You are here

Sai Shravanam: Recording Indian Music

Music Producer & Recording Engineer By Sam Inglis
Published July 2021

Sai Shravanam

Learning to capture Indian music in all its rich variety has been a life’s work for Sai Shravanam.

“Lack of satisfaction has been my teacher,” says Sai Shravanam. “I don’t go by the rules. I just go by: if it sounds right, I record that!” India’s leading engineer specialising in classical and folk music could be described as a perfectionist, but not a purist. He puts vast amounts of work into his goal of capturing the sound of instruments as he hears it. Sometimes this means upgrading equipment — a constant struggle in a country where many brands have no distribution — but more often it involves adapting the recording environment, and using relatively humble gear in imaginative ways.

“It was my dream to be one of the world’s best tabla players. I wanted to be a musician, and in parallel, I developed an interest in harmony and arrangement, and was a composer for my school band. I was never satisfied with wherever I used to go, so I started recording my own music. When I recorded, that’s when I realised the limitations of technology.”

Initially self‑taught on the tabla, Sai achieved his first goal while still a teenager. It was the start of a journey which would eventually see him build his own studio.

“All the top artists in India — very, very famous classical singers and instrumentalists — used to ask me to come and accompany them on the tabla. I was travelling around the world, right from the age of 13 and 14, playing professional concerts for them. Very often, I was going into recording studios. That is where my search began.

“After playing my tabla tracks, I used to come back to the console and listen, I was never satisfied with the way it would sound. That kind of seeking for my tabla sound led me to: why can’t I start recording myself? Why am I so disappointed with recordings that I am hearing, that people do in professional studios? This was when I was 15 or 16.”

Creative Control

Aspiring engineers are often advised to start out with a very basic system, and learn to get the sound they want through mic placement and good arrangement. That advice isn’t often acted on, but Sai Shravanam had no choice. “My father first bought me a Pentium One computer. It had a 4GB hard disk, and it had 512MB RAM. And I still remember, when the first computer came home, we did an Indian ritual to it, praying to it like a temple. We had it in our house, and I used to record on free software.

“I used to record the tabla, and the first mic I had was a gooseneck microphone made by Creative. Creative used to make soundcards, and there used to be a Creative mic. Buying that microphone was very difficult for my family, it was a very big investment for them. So I used to record on that, and it used to sound so horrible, but I could capture my tabla. I used to do so much EQ for it to sound natural, and the EQ would be so weird.

“Many years later, I was given an SM57 as a gift, by one of my well‑wishers. When I used to record tabla, the tabla used to be on the floor, and the mic used to be grounded to the floor, as I didn’t have a mic stand at that point. Every time my left hand, the bass, would play, I would hear thuds. So I used to stack up three pillows, and then keep the SM57 hanging out, and then record the tabla. That’s how I learned sound. I did not go to school for sound, I did not have anybody teaching me sound.

“When I started my own studio, when I really learnt the art of recording and making my own music, I used to hire fantastic musicians in India to come and sing some of my compositions. I made a very big hit album in India called The Confluence Of Elements, sung by Bombay Jayashri, who was later the singer for the Academy Award-winning Life Of Pi’s ‘Lullaby’. That album was produced in 2006, and it was well ahead of its time. So, people were, like, ‘What kind of sound is this? What is this guy doing there?’

“And all the musicians started having a lot of trust in my work. They left all these big, huge studios in Chennai, and they used to come to my little studio in my house, which was about 200 square feet. And from 2007 onwards I was so busy that I never had a Sunday and, until the Covid pandemic, I worked almost every day recording and producing albums for Indian musicians. That’s how, from my wish to being a musician, I’ve ended up being a music producer and recording engineer.”

Wood Works

“I never had a reference book, or any mixing guide. Nor, when I started my career, did I have YouTube to teach me what recording was. I did not have a great variety of microphones. I used to see which sounded best on my speakers, and I used to wear headphones to ensure that my room didn’t mislead me.

“For example, the Neumann KMS105 is a handheld microphone that people use for live singing. People would not want to record any drums with it. I record my tabla’s right‑hand top tone on that microphone, because it just captures the exact frequency of the tabla without doing much EQ. So if I go by the rules, I can’t record with that; I may have to go for a mic that can take a high SPL.

“I realised very soon that having a room with a lot of padding was really not making Indian acoustic instruments sound great. So I used to go to the harbour and buy very old wood. I couldn’t afford new wood, so I used to bring old wood, dried out in the sun. I used to make different louvre patterns and I used to play my tabla to see where I would get some natural sound back to my ears.

“So I designed rooms that are made of wood, with specific louvres, no padded surfaces, and all of this just by playing my tabla. I would play my instrument, check for the sound: no oscillator, no speakers, no measurement microphones, just my ear. I realised that my mics were capturing fantastic sound only after my room and my instrument was giving out something good. So I designed a room where Indian percussion, stringed and wind instruments are going to sound great.

Sai Shravanam: I never used to feel satisfied with one microphone on the bridge of the sitar or just adding room mics. It just used to sound like a different instrument.

“Indian classical/folk singers move all over the place. When I record them in a very tight space, the proximity effect is exaggerated. And then, when I add reverbs, the overall sound just goes very clinical. Something is just too limited. I put them into my wood-treated rooms which smoothes the capture. I give them semi‑open‑back headphones. If I solo the vocal track, yes, there is going to be minor leakage. There is no jury sitting on my mix. Until it sounds clean on the mix, it’s fine. I have realised, they perform better if I give them nice, open‑backed headphones, and the room gives them back some fullness.”

The Elusive Low End

Many of the instruments that pass through Sai’s studio radiate sound in very complex ways, and he says it’s often impossible to capture every aspect of the sound using only a single mic. A good example is the tanpura, a drone instrument with four open strings that are tuned, in Western parlance, fifth, root, root and octave. “Tanpura is the heart instrument of Indian classical music,” explains Sai. “Without that, there is no single concert that happens. Everybody needs the tanpura, without which there is no pitch reference.

“When people used to come into my studio and sing, I never used to have good samples of those tanpura. So, I brought tanpuras with a lineage of 300 years of design. They’re made of pumpkins; those big, huge bottoms that you see are made of dried pumpkin, and the long stem is made out of jackfruit wood.

“The older instruments sounded great. The newer instruments are not sounding that great; I don’t know why. So I hired older instruments in my studio. I kept it for two days with the air‑conditioning on, so that the wood and strings would settle. I spent two days just conditioning the instruments to my studio’s temperature and humidity before I started recording them.

“While I was recording, when I kept it on my body, I realised there was so much low end coming from the instrument. As a listener from far, you just hear all the fundamental notes, typically 200Hz and above. But when it is on your body, and when you play it, it gives a ‘dum, dum!’ on your chest, as low as 60Hz. That is so inspiring for all the artists. I’m like, why can’t I capture that ‘dum’? Why can’t I capture that low end? If I take the mic too close to the instrument, I was having noises coming from the instrument. If I keep it far, I’m losing the low end.”

The eventual solution was a classic example of how doing the ‘wrong’ thing in the studio can sometimes give the right results.

“One of my rooms has a floating floor, meaning, it’s not hard concrete, and I decided to put the tanpura on the floor. I used an M147 Neumann tube mic to pick up just the low end in isolation. I really like the low end of it, so I chose that microphone, but I didn’t put on a shockmount. I kept it on a short stand so that it directly grounded to the floor. When I played the instrument, the physical vibration of the tanpura actually went through my floating floor, and it was resonating my mic stand, which in turn was resonating the microphone without a shockmount that captured the low end. There was no other way I could capture it to my satisfaction.

“I rolled off everything over 100Hz, isolating just the sub low, and I added that layer to other microphones. When people come into my studio and I play this tanpura track, they’re like, ‘Where did you capture the sound? This is so intimate. This is so close and feels like we are holding it.’”

String Theory

Other instruments such as the sarangi, sarod and sitar use open strings which vibrate in sympathy with the plucked or bowed strings. These have always posed a challenge to Sai’s engineering skills. “I have been having a very, very hard time recording these instruments in the stereo spectrum exactly how they sound when you listen to it with your naked ears. I never used to feel satisfied with one microphone on the bridge of the sitar or just adding room mics. It just used to sound like a different instrument. Where are the sympathetic strings? What happened to the resonances that come out of the instrument? So this was a big itch in my mind. How can I capture it?”

He finally solved this problem in a recent session with Debashish Bhattacharya, the leading exponent of an unusual tradition of Indian classical music. “His instrument is called the chaturangi. It’s basically a Hawaiian guitar, but it has a lot of sympathetic strings. At times he uses a slide, and sometimes he uses polished stone to slide on it, which gives a very different and unique sound.

Capturing the sound of Debashish Bhattacharya’s chaturangi required some creative mic placement!Capturing the sound of Debashish Bhattacharya’s chaturangi required some creative mic placement!

“So, when he said, ‘Sai, I would like to do this recording,’ I said, ‘Sir, will you give me one day for set up? I want to experiment, and then I will record your album. I have to breathe the instrument; I have to know what it is. I need time.’

“He was very, very cooperative. He brought his chaturangi, and he had also invented a new instrument called the pushpa veena. It’s a very Persian sound, with an Indian touch. And when I just quietly sat in front, and heard the sound, I realised that the sound was not just coming from the instruments where he plucked or where he kept his fingers. I was hearing a lot of resonances coming from the place where he would tune the instrument. I was hearing resonances that were coming from the strings that would meet the other end of the bridge, where it goes to the tuning pegs.

“How would I capture it? There would be a lot of noise from slide/finger movements. So, if I keep the mic too close, he can’t play. If I keep it far, it’s hardly going to pick up the sympathetic resonances. I thought to myself, what’s the smallest mic I could think of? And I could just think of basic lapel microphones that they use for conferences. I thought, why don’t I just put it under the sympathetic strings, so that it’s not going to hit his hand? But I had a huge challenge. When he plucked, it would make a ‘dhup, dhup’ thudding noise.”

Compliments To The Chef

Solving this problem required an unusual piece of lateral thinking. “I was going down from the studio and my wife was making Indian bread; the dough is made of wheat flour, and it’s very soft. At that moment, with not many options in hand, it struck me that the moist dough could absorb the thuds from the sound board onto this miniature microphone. So I made a small round piece of dough and pressed the mic there, very close to the sympathetic strings suspending the diaphragm in free space. And boom! It was a miracle. I could hear just the sympathetic strings opening up, and it was great.

“I could hear so many things from different parts of the room. I also heard a very nice reflection that was coming from the wooden panel, which was just one foot away from where he was playing, so I thought: why don’t I keep the mic away from the instrument, just capturing what’s hitting the wood? So I kept one mic there. Apart from this I had kept one room mic, in an omnidirectional pattern, that would just take the wholesomeness of the sound. That’s when I decided, probably, if I’m going to run a reverb, I’d better run just the omni through it, so that I just feel the space, and none of these close mics should have artificial reverb. I wanted that kind of a three‑dimensional approach to the recording.

“When I did a sample recording and I called the artist to listen, his eyes were full; he was emotional. He hugged me, and his eyes were so moist. He told me, ‘This is the first time, in the history of me, as a musician, I have heard my instrument sound exactly how it is when I practice and it is close to me.’”

In the control room at Sai Shravanam’s Resound India studios with Debashish Bhattacharya (front). The chaturangi is an instrument derived from the Hawaiian guitar, while the pushpa veena (red) reflects the Persian origins of much Indian music.In the control room at Sai Shravanam’s Resound India studios with Debashish Bhattacharya (front). The chaturangi is an instrument derived from the Hawaiian guitar, while the pushpa veena (red) reflects the Persian origins of much Indian music.

Horizontal Music

Capturing every aspect of the sound of an instrument is, as Sai Shravanam sees it, particularly crucial for Indian music, because the musical forms do not allocate different pitch ranges to different instruments. “Mixing Indian music can be very difficult. I’m not talking about Bollywood music or fusion, which has harmonies. I’m talking of Indian classical music, Indian folk music. We listen to CDs from the UK, or the US, and we wonder: why can’t I get this sound mix? And then your mind goes: is it the equipment?

“But in the last 15 to 18 years of recording and mixing sound, I realised, this is also to do with the form of music, because there is no vertical harmony. In Indian music, there could be five musicians, all of them performing together, and in the same octave creating horizontal movements of notes. Most instruments camouflage one another in the mix. And as they improvise, everybody follows, one on top of another. So it’s a cascade of cluttering frequencies. This is when I realised: I have to do something with the miking. That’s where recording became a very important part. How can I make the sitar shine so well that even if I don’t have harmony in the music, it can fill my ears with the different resonances? Can I allow the space of my room to add that beauty which is missing in the form of music when recorded?”

Field Work

As well as two main forms of classical music (see 'About Indian Music' box), India is home to hundreds of folk traditions, each with its own instruments and repertoire. Many of these instruments were made to be heard in very specific locations and contexts, and capturing the sound adequately in a recording studio can be impossible.

“Inside the studio, I never hear the sound that I would hear on the road, or in the field, or when I’m in an Indian celebration filled with music. That sound can really lift you, it can throw you off the chair. The rhythmscape and melody are so amazing. These instruments are basically for people to know that something is happening in a temple, or some event is happening in their village. There were no emails, there were no SMSs, there were no communication systems. Musical sounds were the primary communication system.

“The instruments were ingeniously, very amazingly designed to be heard kilometres away. They used to make drums that are incredible in their sound; each drum would be having a diameter of almost six feet, like a taiko drum, or bigger than a taiko drum, and it would sound great. And the moment where I bring it into a 30 x 20 room, something goes incredibly wrong with the sound. However good a mic or technique I use, or whatever best preamp I used, there is no way I could actually be satisfied. I would be so hurt that I was not able to do justice to recording these sounds.

The nadaswaram (left) is a South Indian instrument designed to be played in a temple — and that, says Sai Shravanam, is the only place it can properly be recorded.The nadaswaram (left) is a South Indian instrument designed to be played in a temple — and that, says Sai Shravanam, is the only place it can properly be recorded.

“There is another incredible instrument called the nadaswaram in the South of India. It’s a long pipe that they play in the temples. I used to bring them into the studio, and when I recorded them, they used to sound like little whistles. They are something that would fill a square kilometre of temple area with sound, and it sounds so dead inside a studio. So I used to break my head on this phenomenon despite fantastic technology.

“I decided: OK, why don’t I just take my studio out to where they play? At least, then, can we capture the sound. The day I took all my equipment there, and I recorded this instrument in the temple or fields, I found that technology was actually capturing it so amazingly. These microphones were incredible. The preamps were incredible. That’s when I realised: oh, this is nothing to do with technology, this is nothing to do with microphone makers. Acoustics play a huge role in music perception and capture. I’m missing the stone walls of the temple. I’m missing multiple reflections that bring different sounds at different points in time. It comes to your ear, that sometimes negates sound, sometimes adds sound, sometimes creates second, third‑order harmonics. The reverberations add beautiful midrange that this instrument actually does not have. If you bring it into the studio, you can hardly hear anything from 800Hz and above. But when they play in a temple, you hear a perception of 200Hz, 500Hz, and that’s when they are so amazing.

“This was like a eureka moment for me. Be it tabla, or a nadaswaram, or any instrument that I want to record, it is not going to sound great, unless and until they have the environment they should be in.”

Learn From The Best

“All recording engineers should understand one thing,” concludes Sai Shravanam. “You cannot be great without good artists in your studio. You can not be a magician of sound, without good performances. So, give the resources to them to be amazing on their performances. Recording Indian classical music and folk music is the greatest challenge, but it’s your greatest teacher. If you can do that, you can do anything else in the world.”

A Little About Indian Music

“India is, by itself, a country which has 28 different countries in it,” says Sai Shravanam. “Every 400 kilometres there is a completely different culture. In South India there are four or five states; all of those have a completely different culture, totally different language, nowhere similar to one another. Everything is completely new. In North India, you have so many states with unique cultures, unique traditions, different instruments, different folk arts. If you go to the West of India, if you go to the East of India, it’s completely different. It’s just too much for anyone to understand. When you have a culture of so many people, just think of how much music could exist in India. It’s incredible. So it’s not just classical music, it’s not just folk music; there are probably hundreds of forms of folk music.

“There are, primarily, two forms of Indian classical music. Hindustani music, which belongs to Northern India, has been influenced by Persian music. Carnatic music belongs to South India and has its roots from Hindu tradition since the 12th century. Both of these forms sound so different, but they are Indian classical music.

“And folk… if you take just South India, it’s said that we have had about 300 percussion instruments of folk music. Three hundred! There are various forms of rhythm instruments, and incredible sounds that the world has not heard. It’s very unique. And the way they play, the beats, the swing; it’s not just four‑four, it’s not a swing, it’s not a shuffle. There is so much that happens to the rhythm. It’s something that you cannot notate. It’s something that you absorb, and you have to give it back.

“This is a very important point. Most forms of music have some way of notating. But typically, Indian music has come with the ear; it’s more of what you hear and what you express. Even a scale is called a ‘raga’, but a raga isn’t just a scale that goes up and down. It becomes a raga only if there is an emotion attached to it.

“So if you just play any notes in a specific scale, in India they won’t call it raga, they will say, ‘What are you trying to emote with this combination of notes?’ There are some sets of notes that will really make you feel sad, some really joyful, some that would say, OK, I’m here for war. A scale becomes a raga only if you can emote that in your composition.

“In India, every emotion is music. Indian classical music has derived many scales from folk arts. When a child is born, you have to sing music. When somebody dies, there is a drum ensemble that they play when the dead body is carried, and when they go away. Fishermen sing music when they fish. And many scales come from fishermen, and that has become a form of folk music. If you go to agricultural land, there is folk music that they sing, when they are in the paddy field and all the people work; that is another form of folk music. It’s endless with time. And because India is very rooted with its culture, belief in God and various religions, there are so many stories and myths that come along with the richness of Indian music tradition.”