Until now, I wrote about techniques, shortcuts, utilities etc. But the more I mixed, travelled and interacted, the more I realized that there was something crucial missing in this when students or beginners attempt a mix.
It was missing Life in it. That may be a profound statement on the verge of new age bullshitting. But that was the truth. All this came to a realization when yesterday I happened to meet the Ganagandharvan (the heavenly singer), Dr. K.J. Yesudas.
Yesudas (or Dasettan as he is lovingly referred to) is considered, within my parent’s generation and mine, as the singer of the Gods. He is a versatile genius who has sung upwards of 70000 songs in various languages starting in 1969. Turning 76 on January 10th, he has no sign of that age in his voice or health. (Touchwood). But yesterday, I had the conversation of a lifetime that lasted for 5 hours on a one to one talk. It was nothing short of a blessing for someone like me, He spoke about life, about the journey of a singer and about his understanding of music with me talking about sound and the engineering aspects. Being down to earth and yet someone revered across a whole country is something I was able to see for the first time in my life. This time, I wanted to share my experience of how the experiences of someone like him, benefits us greatly as a mix engineer. Because it changed the way I started to think about what sound, the technology and the mix means to me.
The Singer Prepares
A singer singing from his heart prepares the note to be sung before the song has started. There is life of a note before he starts singing. That is not something that can be captured if the start is exactly on the count. He / she has to fall into that note. It is like a plane taking off. Runway to air. Inferring from that, I realize that the cue for singers sometimes is longer. They have to imbibe the song and the melody or the intro within him or her before it is voiced to the world. I have noticed that in mixing too, this has a profound effect and I have been unknowingly doing this.
Getting to the EQ or the fader level always has to start from minimum. This is a much easier way to reach the right level rather than starting loud and getting it down. It is the same case in EQs. Always try to be minimal with boost or cuts before tone-shaping. Tone-shaping requires considerable experience. The reason I say experience is because it is important to have an aural memory or idea of the tone you want to achieve. This takes time, effort, practice and listening. It is also one of the most difficult things to explain to anyone. It is almost like riding a bike. Once you understand the balance, you get it. That being said, the reason Practice and Listening are very important is because you need to understand and get exposed to a variety of cultures and sounds. This widens the library you would build within your mind, and after a point, this will click with the right one that you think is good for the song or the scene. This is also what will help you think about sounds without the limitation of the plugin.
So, starting before the actual point brings life. Think about it. In real life we prepare mentally and physically before attempting anything, be it eating, reading, talking or even making a phone call. This same thing applies to a mix. Before any sound change, think and let it have a beginning.
The Speakers should vanish
He said to me, “As a singer, when I start singing, the audience is taken on a journey with me as I travel too.” He was spot on when he told me about the journey. If you have been reading my blog, I have written many times about taking the audience on a journey in cinema. One statement of his that struck me was, every time he sings, he gets immersed in the message of the lyrics. The example he gave me was by singing the Tyagaraja Krithi Ksheera Sagara Shayana. Let me tell you. First off, hearing this from the maestro itself is blessing for a lifetime. But, him explaining how he interprets the lyrics when singing is priceless. For my readers who don’t understand the lyrics, it means Lord, reclining in the Ocean of Milk! O Rama! Should you keep me immersed in sorrow? Now, while interpreting this, the first line means Lord, reclining in the Ocean of Milk. In this, Ksheera Sagara means Ocean of milk. If you hear the song in the link, you will notice how he sings the line Saagara (Ocean). There is a calm way and during a repetition, it feels like the wave of the ocean falls upon us. This is the life in the song as given by a singer. Taking this into learning for me, it teaches me that everything has a story. The variation is what gives life to it. Within a mix, a simple ride of the percussion section for around .5 db up or down in the song makes it more human to hear. Unknowingly I have taken this I mixes too. One of the things I do sometimes is to change reverbs ever so slightly even if it comes back to the same space. Sometimes, I change the Predelay, or EQ or the tail. Not by a huge chunk. This allows me to put the characters not only in the real space of the geography, but also the state of mind. For example, when someone is unwell and gradually gets weaker, there are two ways he / she can go forward. Accept it and live life as it comes, or get closed to life. Both have difference in the way they talk behave and even the room. Now, it is important to get the geography right. No doubt on that. But when we say a room is live or bright, we really mean reflections. We can use this in a subtle way to build the character too. If they accept life and decide to be happy, these little things get more prominence. If it happens the other way round, we can start closing the highs, reducing reflections etc. I know this because I personally know people who have had this experience. Talking to them, and the way they go about their life, prompted me to use this technique a lot. In fact, if you see my video blog, you will notice how I use some of this in the mix.
That all being said, when taking the audience on the journey, they should not be aware of the speakers in the front or surrounds. They should have the experience of the film / music. This is also how I kind of feel if a scene works or doesn’t. Trust me, it isn’t a conscious thing. But if the scene needs more work, you will be drawn towards the pans, or the music ride or the levels of the ambience, birds, dialogue etc. If not, even if was imperfect, you will see a unique blend of sounds. Cleaning up more will only make it sterile. If I feel strongly about a scene like this, I will have my points ready for the director or the sound designer. But in the end, if they have valid points and stronger ones, I will concede to that. After all, they sometimes have fresher perspectives of what I may have done.
Changes have to be Natural
When asking about how it was that he was able to manage consistency in his tone for so many years, he told me this advice. “Your natural voice is your conversation voice. Don’t change that to sing.” He explained further that many singers today change their voice when they start singing compared to what they converse in. If it is artificial, that means more strain to the throat and lesser way to practice. It also means your facial muscles, and expressions change to someone that was not you, in order to express. If this is the case, it then becomes very difficult to be able to impart what would be your signature in a song. This is not very different from a mix. There is no point in imitating something. That is not the requirement. If you want to create a signature, there is no point in making it like something else. If you want a job, you need an original certificate, not the copy. If you want gold, no point in getting something like gold. It has to be your own. The more you duplicate, the cheaper it gets compared to the original. In a mix, I keep telling students that it is not my plugins or my presets that make the mix. It is the context of using it and the thought behind that. That is what creates the magic for anything. This is also what gives your signature for you.
Culture in Music and Mix
The next words that I write are exactly as he told me. “There are 72 melakartha sampurna ragas in Carnatic Music. It means they must contain all the 7 notes. This is further divided into 2 called Prathimadhyama Ragas and Suddha Madhyama Ragas of 36 each. The names of these ragas follow an ancient encoding system called the Ka-Ta-Pa-Yadi system. What this means is that it is possible to tell the notes of that raga by decoding its name. More details are available on various sites. But what is important is the emotion these ragas give and how is it influencing us. I feel that it is the adjacent note that changes all the feel of the raga. This is how the Janya or derived ragas come into existence for emotion. For example, there is dawn and there is the sunrise. They are different. This is the same expression you can get with Bhoopalam to Bowli ragam. They are called early morning ragas, yet they express so differently in this case with just a single note changed.”
For someone who was not classically trained like me, this gave me a different insight. Adjacent frequencies or complimentary frequencies also have the same effect. This was known in terms of mixing music but for me, this opens up a new window of thought. Emotion through placement of frequencies is a very interesting idea to experiment. (Remember the Shepard tone?) This is also very interesting to try out in terms of how my eqs can be creatively done. This is also why I am more interested in the plugin called frei:raum. This seems to do this more closely to this concept. See how interesting it is to have culture linked to engineering to see how plugins can be interesting!
Everyone is your teacher
This was the biggest lesson I got from him. He told me that even if he learns something from a 5-year-old child, that child has become his Guru because then the child was the teacher. This is the same in the course of nature. One has to be ready to learn and observe throughout. There is no dearth to the things nature can teach us. How are reflections in streets? How much do you hear it when you are listening to a person speak versus listening to a recording of it. The former will be direct with little noticeability to the reflections, reverbs etc. But the moment we hear the recording, it all changes. Mics don’t have selective listening, we do. But what is more important is to understand the contexts. Children are very concentrated. My 5-year-old child is very focused when she is painting or singing or even talking to herself. She won’t hear us call her or talk. Now, if you observe, in a mix, to have something really concentrated on something, blur out the sounds around it. Low pass, reverb or lower it. Make it monotonous and the blind spot in the brain will kick into action. To suddenly make the audience aware of the space, bring a sudden change and all sounds back. This doesn’t need too much level to be pushed. But what it needs is an understanding of elements in the space in surround. Exactly how the child will react if you call out louder.
For me, this was the most revealing conversation I had. It was all about simplifying everything. The simpler it is people can relate to it. Even though it is a complex thing to perform or achieve, while presenting it should be the simplest thing that a person has heard. I feel the same has to be done to mixes and sound design. It is not at all the number of tracks, the plugins, and the formats. All can be molded and with practice and experience, comes a time when this sounds so very simple in the final product, no matter how complex a signal chain may be. This is where the audience will connect. This is where you can perform to engage or take them on a journey with you. I wanted to share this with all of you with the wish that you too can be a part of the experience I had and have an even more inspiring mix the next time. After all, what good is knowledge and experience if not shared. This encounter proved to me that even the most gifted and experienced ones are happy to do so and can inspire you no matter what it is that you do.