“Imagine if all the taxis in the world were yellow”
How boring would the world be? The non-yellow taxi among the sound engineer professionals is industry veteran, K J Singh.
Fondly called KJ, the National Award winner for the film Omkara started his career as a musician. He holds a diploma in sound engineering and music production from Trebas Institute of Recording Arts, Canada. With over three decades of experience in studio and live sound, his knowledge of sound engineering is beyond text materials.
Every creative person has his/her own perceptions of things. KJ is no different. He firmly believes that sound engineers are artists and that sound engineering is a creative art, instead of just a technical one. Just like various artists express themselves in their own medium, he equates the same with sound engineers who express themselves through their recording and mix, in the way they relate to it. The result might not always please the composer or the producer but they both need to work on it, chipping away.
The dynamic between a sound engineer and composer
Sitting in his cosy dim lit recording studio, controlled by an iPhone app, with a statue of Buddha overlooking us, KJ spilled his thoughts about his journey and the experience that it has brought to his life.
He feels that the relation between a composer and a sound engineer takes time to evolve. It is like an individual’s equation with his tailor or mechanic. It takes a while for both to adjust to the other’s needs, whims and fancies. The composer maybe on a different tangent and the engineer’s creativity on a different plane at the start.
“It is important for any composer to understand the engineer’s mind set before they start working and vice versa. They have to be on a similar wavelength. This makes the work easier. They need to speak the same language as far as references go,” said KJ, adding,
“When a composer comes to an engineer to mix a song it is like they are handing over their love-child to you. In my opinion this relation is very much like the ‘Guru-Shishya Parampara’, where parents would hand over their child to the guru to shape the child’s future. It is a big responsibility so you have to make sure that you give it your best shot. This kind of trust building takes time and it is rare that both click the first time.”
He cites example of AR Rahman with his engineer H. Sridhar and Pritam with engineer Eric Pillai where they clicked and it shows.
Creating music is a team effort
Evolving as a sound engineer, according to the man himself, has helped him gain ground and also, at times, put him in a spot. Being an ‘old school’ man, he misses the human presence in the studios. The internet age has reduced the human interaction to a large extent. He prefers to meet the composer/producer over tea/coffee/lunch to understand their requirements. KJ is the type who likes to venture inside your head and dig out your perceptions, likes and dislikes. Being a part of the team, he believes every individual is a fork of the wheel to success.
“You have to remember that, ultimately, music is the king. It is not just the composer, singer, producer, musician, engineer or the music label. It is important to realise this. We, each, are just a source and the contribution of each of these sources is what is paramount,” said KJ.
“It is very important to understand your role in this legacy as you are just one part of it. Along with you the entire team is involved. Whatever you are doing today will become a part of your legacy.”
Music making – Then and Now
Recollecting the time when the entire team would have a ‘sitting session’, before recording a song, the maestro spoke about the rifts, agreements and opinions it shot out which ultimately helped the song become a classic. The team would at times meet daily, sometimes for a week. This developed a bonding and helped them gain an insight into each other’s thoughts. With the machines taking over, this bonding is now almost sterile and emotionless which reflects in today’s music too. The music of today has a short shelf life as it does not have much emotional appeal.
“A synergy is important and it reflects in the end product, as it takes into account the dynamics of all the people involved. A song or an album becomes a benchmark when the team works in tandem. Creating music is like cooking. The dish tastes good only when all the ingredients brew together in the same pot. Similarly when the team is together while creating a song, it carries an emotion attached to every individual,” asserted the veteran.
The job of a sound engineer is to capture the magic being created and performed, in its truest form, with the best gear that is available to them and to make it sound as good as possible. According to him if there is a possibility to improve the sonic fidelity then one should not be hesitant to communicate it to the composer. Then it is the composer’s call.
“If the song is beyond my understanding I refuse it upfront. It is perfectly ok to refuse work beyond your thought process. It is not possible for you to be a master of all trades. Your work speaks for you, there is nothing beyond that. At 57 if I am still getting work it is because people have heard my work and appreciated it and maybe want a part of that in their art,” smiled KJ.
He feels that engineers of his generation were lucky to have seen the pinnacle of analog audio and the birth of digital audio. A self-confessed geek, he is old school by thought but has adopted new technology and sound of the present day and his studio is proof of that.
The ace sound engineer has worked with composers and musicians who have etched a name in history. From AR Rahman, Vishal Bhardwaj, Amit Trivedi, Shankar Ehsaan Loy, Sneha Khanwalkar in Bollywood to bands like Indian Ocean, Parikrama, Euphoria or solo artists like Rabbi Shergill, Hariharan, Deepa Nair and Pratyul. The enthusiasm in him forces him to take up new challenges.
“I like working with upcoming artists as it is a new challenge. To aid them release their work I started my own label, Asli Music,” smiled K J Singh as we bid goodbye and he whispers to Siri to change the light colour.