Have been wanting to write about this for a long time now!
Carnatic Music Concerts have moved from Single mic Concerts to Analog mixers to Digital mixers within a span of a few decades. Though we are not qualified sound engineers, years of using mics/ sound gadgets, and years of working with reputed sound engineers have blessed us with quite a lot of insight regarding the art of sound management for a live Carnatic Vocal Concert.
Lets take our own Concert as an example here. Typically there are 5 of us on the stage. Two Singers, Mridangam, Violin and Ghatam/ Khanjira. We normally dont mic the Tampura, but this could be done too.
By professional standards, one needs to allot at least 30 mins (this is the barest minimum) per artiste, which itself comes to 2 and a half hours!!!! Now, this is practically impossible, unless we have the hall from the morning, or we do the sound check the previous evening. Whenever this option is available, we do it without fail, as we hate to keep the audience waiting!!
However, in most of the venues that hosts concerts in India and abroad, either the hall is rented only for a few hours, or there are concerts before the main concert for the evening. The Sabhas have to resort to this for multiple reasons, and they cannot be blamed for this. So, practically, the whole team is given 15 to 30 mins for sound check. This is like asking the cook to prepare Paaladapradhaman (Kerala delicacy that demands a lot of time and attention to detail) in 15 mins!!!
The whole exercise becomes even more difficult when its a duo, with similar Voice texture! Without getting too much into the details, it would suffice to say that to equalize the Voices, and make sure that both are heard distinctly yet without one not sounding louder than the other, is not an easy job :-)
Also, we cannot have a pre-set soundscape, as each hall is different. Certain halls are acoustically treated, whereas others are not. The capacity of each hall is different, while some can hold thousands, others will fill up with a few hundreds. It could be either open air or indoor. All these play a huge role in adjusting the volume levels and other parameters (hundreds of them, by the way).
As most of you are aware, we have the PA system and the feedback monitors. For those who are not familiar with these terms, PA refers to the speakers the audience listen from. Monitors are the black boxes you find on the stage, used by the artistes to hear themselves. The sound check has to be done separately for the PA and the monitors. The sound mix could be different. Professionally speaking, each artiste must have one monitor for himself. That’s however not practical every time, so once again a lot of compromise happens in this front. Nor is it possible to go with in ears for a Classical Concert, as its an art form that thrives on improvisation and interaction among the artistes. It doesn't work for many artistes, certainly doesn't work for us in a Carnatic Concert.
One more aspect that merits mention here is that, there are different mics for the different elements in a Carnatic Concert. For example, Shure SM 50s are our preferred mics for vocals, if we are not using a condenser. The Mridangam needs a sharper mic for the right and one with more bass for the left. The Ghatam needs a sharp mic whereas a Khanjira needs a bass one. Imagine the plight of artistes, when we find that the whole set of mics on the stage are completely mis placed, say just half an hour before the concert. Of course, that happens very rarely nowadays, with Sabhas investing in proper sound equipment and engineers.
We can go on and on about the various technicalities involved. If we can talk so much, imagine what a sound engineer will have to say about this.
One of the reasons we wanted to write this post is that, we have had feedback from our well wishers and rasikas, and critics (both constructive and destructive :_)), that we tend to take a lot of time for our sound check :-)))
First of all, we want to make it absolutely clear that , we hate to keep the audience waiting! Nothing could be more unprofessional. At the same time, we are very keen that we give our best for the sound check, in the half hour that we get. As we said, this is just 1/5th of the time, that it normally takes to adjust the sound.
Also, as we mentioned in the beginning, whenever we have the choice, we take the trouble to come early and finish the sound check, but due to practical constraints for the Sabhas, this option is not always available.
We also feel that, we would rather spend this quality time in the beginning, rather than fiddling with the system time and again during the concert, which, we suppose, is a bigger disturbance for the audience.
In fact, most of the time, we go without the monitors as this would take another half hour, minimum! We cannot thank the accompanying artistes enough, for cooperating with us in this respect. Its very difficult especially for the Mridangam to play without the monitors, but given the circumstances, our dad has never complained about this! Nor have the Violinists or Ghatam/ Khanjir Vidwans who normally accompany us! Thanks!!
Why is this half hour of sound check very crucial?
Numero uno- this is very important to safe guard the Voice. A poorly adjusted sound system can lead to Vocal abuse and land the Singer in trouble sooner or later. This is our life and profession and we better be careful.
2.) In a Carnatic Concert, the whole concert revolves around the Shruthi! If you cant hear the Tampura, and still perform, that is gross injustice to this artform. Only a well managed sound system will allow the artistes to clearly hear the Tampura and enjoy themselves and share that Divine experience with the listeners.
3.) A Carnatic Concert is well experienced, when all the elements have the right tone and volume! If the Ghatam sounds louder than the Mridangam we have a problem. If the Violin sounds feeble as compared to the Vocals we have a problem. If one of us sounds louder than the other, thats not fair!!:-) if the overall volume is less, we have an issue (though we have to resort to this in halls that are not acoustically treated), if the volume is loud, then its not Carnatic Music!!!
This is just a brief write up. We have just touched the tip of the iceberg! There is so much more of science and technicality and talent involved! Sound engineering is not meant for the feeble hearted! You need brave-hearts to handle this :-) It requires years of training and experience. Its like a cricket match, each pitch is different, and we have to play accordingly. So with the sound too! Each venue is different.
We hope this article will help put aside a lot of wrong notions about “Sound Check” .
We would like to request all you wonderful rasikas out there to be patient when the artistes do the sound check. They are equally or more eager to commence the concert.
So the next time you walk into our concert or any other concert, and are treated to some “Sound check” , we request you to enjoy the whole process and not complain, for there is more to it than meets the “ears”, in this case :-)