From spool tapes to disk drives, from old technology to chic up-to-date softwares, Vijay Benegal has been there and done that. Vijay also has donned many hats through his journey. Recording engineer, mix engineer, live music concerts as both Front of house (FOH) engineers as well as Monitor engineer, recording music for cinema, documentaries, advertisements, live music concerts, and studio designing.
In nearly 25 years, he has worked with some of the biggest names of Indian music. Ustad Zakir Hussain, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Indus Creed, Vishal-Shekhar, Ranjit Barot are a few of them. He has also worked as FOH engineer for the Mumbai production of eminent theatre personality Rahul DaCunha’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and won the IIFA Award for Best Song Recording for the Bollywood film ‘Dil Chahta Hai’.
I caught up with the veteran for a short interaction about, well, sound recording and mixing.
The field of sound engineering and mixing is multi-faceted. It would be difficult explaining them in simple words to a layman. For the final listener, the song is good if it sounds good to him. The efforts behind making it sound good are alien to him. The final output is dependent on the skills, knowledge, and experience of both the recording engineer and the mix engineer along with the rest of the production team. A recording engineer’s and mixing engineers’ roles are complementary though many times one plays both roles. Their roles are different with distinct KRA’s.
“The skill is in capturing of the source audio which can come from a live instrument or a microphone. It can also come directly from electronic instruments such as keyboards, drum machines or even guitars at times. There are many ways to capture it. The thing is the skill lies in how well that is captured,” explained Vijay.
Today the bulk of the music is electronically produced so there are not a lot of live recordings. Small studio setups are springing up due to the easy availability of technology. This has aided a budding producer to set up a studio in his bedroom, garage or a small room available.
How to ensure quality
“The kind of sounds that are chosen and the way they are sent out for the final mix involves many problems. Particularly the monitoring environment. Producers sitting in their bedroom or with a pair of headphones, what is the quality of the speakers, headphones and the acoustics in your bedroom?” asked Vijay.
These play a huge role in how you select a sound. For example, if you pick up an electric piano sample from an online library through a VST instrument, there is a certain tonality to it by factory default.
“You need to edit it in some way, adjust the tonal character by compressing it, EQing it and you should be able to judge that. This is where your monitoring environment is important,” asserted Vijay.
During the recording of the movie Dil Chahta Hai, the mix engineer and Loy Mendonsa from the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy trio did a lot of programming in the studio itself. Loy’s setup was plugged into the mixer and Vijay sat in the sound engineer’s chair which is the sweet spot. The sound you hear in the sweet spot is an accurate representation of what is supposed to be coming out finally. This helped the mix engineer to instruct Loy regarding the sound requirements. Vijay would put the sounds through his processor before recording it. As a result, the sounds that were being recorded were confirming with the thoughts of the producers and him.
“You cannot get this sitting in your bedroom as it is not acoustically treated to give you a neutral sound field,” quipped Vijay.
Vijay Benegal’s tips on setting up a home studio
The mix engineer
The other skill is the art of mixing. Mixing is the process where you are combining all these different elements together in the way that it should eventually sound like.
Over the years there has been a habit, in the music industry, called ‘fix it in the mix’. In order to save time in the recording studio, the issues are not fixed there but the mix engineer is expected to deal with it. If your source is bad how do you produce a good output? The source directly affects what the final output is going to be.
“A good mix engineer will be able to fix it up to a point. A mix engineer is not a magician. We do a lot of magic at the end. An experienced mix engineer will understand what I am talking about,” said Vijay.
There is a certain hierarchy that dictates the quality of the source. First and foremost is the musician. Next is the instrument. If you have a top quality musician there is a very good chance of him using a top quality instrument. Then comes microphone selection. What microphones are used and how are they placed. Then comes the other electronic processing.
“Listen to the instrument first and understand its sound. This will help in correct microphone selection to capture the tonality of the instrument. There are many factors that come into play while recording. They apply equally to all instruments,” said Vijay.
“If you pick up the right kind of microphone and place it in the correct way you will have no problems in capturing the sound if you have all the other things taken care of.”