Saturday, February 4, 2012
Ilaiyaraaja and the Synth Myth
For past one week, I have been reading gushing reviews on Ilaiyaraaja’s Dhoni soundtrack, and most of them quote “live recording” as one of the main reasons for the refreshing quality of the music in Dhoni. I love Dhoni soundtrack (musically a sequel to Nandhalala in my opinion), but I don’t think that is because of live recording. By making this distinction, by attributing the quality of Dhoni Music to live recording, I don’t know if people (even some hard core Ilaiyaraaja fans) realize the immensity of disrespect they shower on all of Ilaiyaraaja’s music that has layers of Synth in it.
Ram Hey Ram (Heyram), Edhilum Ingu Iruppaan (Bharathi), Ilangaththu Veesudhae (Pithamagan), Endhukamma Prema Prema (Gamyam 2), Kombula Poovai Chutthi (Virumandi), Kai Veesi Nadakkura Kaatrae (Nandhalala), Ninaitha Varam Kaettu (Kaadhal Rojavae), Thak thom (Kadhal Kavidhai), Chandrabimbaththin (Sneha Veedu), Aaro padunnu (Kadha Thodarunnu), Sapath (Shiva 2006), Kannil Paarvai (Naan Kadavul), Neeral Udal Kazhuvi (Thandavakone) are some of the songs (I go back to at least once every month) that were not recorded live in the way that many believe is how Dhoni songs were recorded. And moreover, all the above mentioned songs have layers of Synth. Synth is least of all problems that I could have with any Ilaiyaraaja song. There is not one Ilaiyaraaja song with Synth layers, which I don’t like now and which I would have liked if it had no Synth.
Melody. Melody is all. It is not just the main melody of the song that I am talking about; it is also melody of every single layer of instrument supporting the main melody and the ludes that lead and trail the vocal parts in the song. When I say, I don’t connect with an Ilaiyaraaja song, I mean, I don’t connect with the main melody and the melody played by the accompanying instruments or synthesizers. Ilaiyaraaja used in the song Sapath (Shiva 2006) a rhythm loop that A.R.Rahman used in Hawa Sun Hawa (Ada), Yuvan Shankar Raja used in Chinna Chinadhaai (Mounam Pesiyadhey), Vidhyasagar used in Kaadhal Vandhaal Solli Anuppu (Iyarkai), and that Synth rhythm loop may not have added anything to the song, but it sure didn’t stop me from getting emotionally moved by the song. On the other side, no live orchestration or live recording could have made me like the song “Kodi Kotti Koduththaalum” from Ponnar Sankar or that ridiculous song “Unmaya naan ungalukku” from Ayyan about which I wrote in my review “It is a kind of song the melody of which even Ilaiyaraaja would have forgotten a day after recording it”.
And what is all this fuss about “Live recording”? Is it just because that smart marketing man Prakash Raj says so in every interview while promoting the music and the film? Ilaiyaraaja said only that there will be no overdubbing done onto the track that was being recorded on that day. That is, the percussions are real; there will be no rhythm loops or Synth layers added to the song later. The instruments used are not the ones programmed into the song through sound fonts on computer software or through an electronic keyboard, they are real. The Harp piece in the prelude of Maalayil Yaaro (Chatriyan) was not played on a real Harp; it was played on an electronic Keyboard. Great many layers of instruments in the entire Thalapathi background score were played on an Electronic keyboard. There, I said it. Now, go ahead and denounce and complain about the lack of emotions in the Maalayil Yaaro prelude and in Thalapathi background score.
Synth is no sin; Sin or sane, depends on how a composer uses it in the piece of music. Ilaiyaraaja, when he decides to use an Oboe in a piece of music, he would write the melody in the piece depending on with what he is going to record the Oboe part. He wouldn’t write a Gabriel’s Oboe or Nandhalala Journey theme when he knows that he has to record the sound of Oboe with an electronic keyboard, which he knows cannot reproduce everything that a musician could produce with a real Oboe. How does a live recording really matter if the sound is going to be recorded anyway with an electronic keyboard? I am not saying that the effect of the acoustic instruments is exaggerated; I am just saying that the Synth or electronic sounds are not as bad as it is made out to be, especially not in Ilaiyaraaja songs. Moreover, live recording is not really as live as it used to be. Even Karthik, for Aravaan songs, recorded each and every instrument live, but he didn’t record all of them together at one go like Ilaiyaraaja. And Aravaan songs have no Synth.
With multi track recording consoles and mixers, each and every instrument can be put on to a separate track and the volume and other properties can be adjusted at whim. With the availability of such recording consoles, it doesn’t really matter whether everything was recorded at one go (like Ilaiyaraaja did for Dhoni) or each layer of the instrument was recorded separately (like Karthik did for Aravaan). If you want to listen to a live recording, you have to be present in the studio when it is played live. What we hear in the audio CD is not what it sounded when the orchestra played it live. A lot of musical ideas that a composer writes into an orchestral piece that is going to be performed live in front of an audience are based on the inherent volume, tone and timbre of each instrument and practicality of the performance. A composer cannot write a delicate melody for woodwinds when in parallel he has brass section playing a bombastic fanfare, but that is possible when recording in the studio. You can never have the sound of a double bass layer soaring over the entire orchestra in a live performance, in the way it does in Rahman’s Jaage Hain song from Guru.
Has Prakash Raj brought the sound of 80s Ilaiyaraaja back with Dhoni? I doubt. In the 80s, the song with all its instrumental layers was perfectly balanced on paper, even before it was performed, recorded or mixed. Even if they again record this song “Anjali Anjali” (performed during Ilaiyaraaja’s Nothing but Wind Concert) live with all acoustic instruments in Prasad studio now, it wouldn’t have the same sound or impact as the Original has. Moreover, the 5.1 technology spreads the dense layers far and wide loosening the impact of the orchestra further. What Ilaiyaraaja needs now, like, right now, is a good Sound Engineer who could bring back that dense sound in the song as if it were recorded live (in my opinion, Cheeni Kum, Mumbai Xpress, Paa are some of the best sound-mixed Ilaiyaraaja albums in the recent times). And that we would get 80s Ilaiyaraaja back if Ilaiyaraaja records the songs live with live instruments again is something I don’t believe in. Do I need to explain further why Chinna Kannilae (from Dhoni) is no Anjali Anjali, despite the “Live Recording”? It is not the Synth. It could be the Sound recording. It definitely is the Melody. Melody is all!
P.S: And, why does the very sound of Dhoni songs irritates my roommate though he could repeatedly listen to Aravaan songs, is something I am yet to understand.