Written by 10:59 AM Film • 3 Comments

H. Sridhar, the man who sculpted A R Rahman’s sound.

An exceptional sound engineer, famous domestic and internationally for his skills. He was A.R. Rah…
H. Sridhar – photo courtesy – Facebook Fan Page

It was probably in 1992 when my musician friend Mark Sarma walked into my house with a cassette around 7.30 pm. Sarma, Shekar, and I were often jammin’ in either Shekar’s house or mine. Shekar is still a whiz kid on the keyboards and can persistently drive you to perfect your art! Sarma is more of a laid-back and easygoing instinctive guitarist and singer. I loved their company while it lasted; until I moved out of the country, ending our jammin’ sessions.

Boy, did I or did I enjoy those days? Anyway, back to our topic.

“Machaan*, listen to this new music director. He’s really good”. So, I played the cassette, and I was blown away. The composition and the sound were simply fantastic. It immediately perked you up in a good way. As far as I know, the reggae beat the song was based on was never used in an Indian film song.  

The music and the sound were so refreshingly good that we kept listening to the same song repeatedly, one of the reasons being that the cassette had just this one song, a pre-release version. The song was Chinna Chinna Aasai, the Hindi equivalent, released later on, being Dil hai Chota, and the film was Roja. How Mark was able to lay his hands on it prematurely, I don’t know.

The recording and subsequent mix of most Indian film songs in the pre-1990s were pathetic. When the bass notes came on, there was a palpable drop in the volume of the other instruments. The singer’s voice compressed and squished.

This sound was different, more in line with a Led Zep’s or a Beatles’ album.  

Playing Sherlock Holmes

We started enquiring who was the composer and a possible sound engineer involved in this beautiful sound. The memory is a bit hazy, but I think someone told us it was the same guy who composed the Leo coffee ad, with beautiful bass lines that stood out loud and clear. Same too with the refreshing composition and sound of Regal Sottu Neelam Doi. I then discovered that the Asian Paints jingle has the “Ella lo ela ela lo,” which figures in the Roja song! 

So, the composer was the now internationally mega-famous A. R. Rehman. We then wanted to know the sound engineer behind these jingles and the Roja song, and we discovered that a guy called H. Sridhar was the raison d’être!

Now, that name rang a bell. I recall a H. Sridhar, who used to play bass for the Vivekanda College band. The band consisted of Sridhar, along with W. Vijaykumar, the lead guitarist who had a Fender Strat those days, a singer, and a drummer. I used to drool looking at his guitar; mine was ‘a made in Pallavaram* Givson’ – supposed to be a copy of the Gibson. Later in life, when I laid my hands on a real Gibson, words failed me to describe the difference adequately!

Surprisingly, our band, The Gurus, used to come up tops in most competitions despite Ahuja amps and lousy full-range speakers. Many bands had great gear, but ours was the pits. The Ahujas seemed built to pass on a nice dose of ‘electric shock’ to the guitarists and the microphones. Most of us knew how to get around this; attaching a wire from the guitar’s bridge to the 1/4″ jack or the metal portion of the cable. The singers would never make lip contact with the RCA mics. At one time, Viji, a singer in our band, got carried away and made contact with the mic with her lips. The high decibel yelp she let out is unforgettable. The audience, thinking it was part of the hype, thundered in response with huge applause.

Things changed later when we started to rent out the necessary gear from Johnny D’Mello, who I think rented out stuff more to encourage bands than as a source of revenue. You could rent an entire drum set for Rs. 10 a day!

I remember Sridhar setting up the P.A. system for his band. Before picking up his bass guitar, he seemed very particular about the cabling, amps, and stuff.

After the college scene, I used to meet him at StereoVision, an audio store on Mount Road in Madras, now called Anna Salai and Chennai. 

I lost touch when I moved from Madras to Cochin, and when I moved back after probably nearly a decade, Sridhar was already a well-known sound engineer. While W. Vijaykumar and I reconnected in Cochin and Madras, somehow, I lost touch with Sridhar.  

Another friend of mine, Pradeep Govind, who is a multifaceted personality, is currently the Regional Business Head & Projects Director of Muscat Media Group, publisher of Times of Oman. He was also the Branch Head of Sony Music Entertainment, India.

He is an international award-winning author and a singer-composer who worked with Sridhar. A die-hard Elvis fan, he has composed and sung many songs. One of the songs, C’mon Baby, had Sridhar as the recording engineer. I asked him how it was to work with Sridhar, and he said this to say,

“Sridhar has some very unconventional recording methods. He has very unconventional timings too! We recorded this song between 11 pm to 5 am!”

You can listen to the song by clicking on this link.

Pradeep also wrote the lyrics for the song Stranded on the streets for the film Nala Damayanti (2003). This song was sung by the famous actor Kamal Haasan.

What makes Sridhar’s mix different

From my perspective, Sridhar’s mix allowed each frequency to live in its own space. Nestled comfortably in their own spaces, each instrument shone and was at its Sunday best. The strings and the winds had their own allocated space; the bass lived in the lower end, and the singer existed somewhere between.

All this was by the clever use of equalization and judicious use of reverb and pan that placed each instrument, left or right and how near or far, on a virtual soundstage. I know this is a gross oversimplification of the process, but I think this is a fair generalization, an abridged version. Reverb is probably the most misused effect. I have done a lot of stage shows as a sound engineer, and this is what I have observed.

There are three types of singers;

  1. Absolute newbies, so don’t know what to ask. You can see them shaking with fear.
  2. The in-betweeners. They have sung at many karaoke parties and have had their egos massaged. They usually carry a bottle of water and take sips from it periodically. Some carry their own mics too. These are the ones who would come up to the sound engineer and want lots of reverb. These are the most dangerous lot; tough to manage.
  3. The third lot are seasoned singers who are pros to semi-pros and go with whatever the sound engineer’s settings at most times.

I remember a famous sound engineer once remarked, ‘if you can hear the effect, you’ve set it too high!’

For starters, you had to be blessed with a good ear, and being a musician-sound engineer, that Sridhar was, is an invaluable combination. In fact, before his avatar as the country’s leading sound engineer, Sridhar played as a sessions musician for the great Ilayaraja. As an artist and a recording engineer, I know how invaluable it is for a recording engineer to be a musician. The connection with the artist is much better. 

Sridhar’s ears were always ‘on’! Once while watching Lagaan in a theatre in Chennai, he had the theatre stop the film. He complained that the sub-woofers were wired out of phase, and it was completely ruining his mix.

What he hated

Sridhar reportedly hated dynamic compression. It is reported that he was asked why film music levels were so high, and his reply was that film music was basically for the TV and FM channels and not mixed to be played back on a Krell or Johnson system. 

Although the soundscape extends from 20Hz to 20,000Hz, many cannot hear the whole spectrum. I doubt that anyone can. However, these sub and super frequencies affect the listener.

Check your sense of hearing frequencies with this recording! I got this on YouTube and don’t know whom to thank. Headphones might help.

Test your listening frequency!

The Grammy Award

His goal was to win a Grammy, which he did, unfortunately, posthumously. This is not known to many. Three sound engineers were awarded the Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album – H. Sridhar, P.A. Deepak, and Vivianne Chaix.

A.R. Rahman noted that “Sridhar’s professional goal was to get a Grammy. I am happy that God has answered his wish but sad that it came after his demise.” 

And the best part is, he never formally learned Sound Engineering!

So much for academic qualifications!

*a typical slang used in Madras. It means brother-in-law, but when used as slang means, dear friend.

*a town in suburban Madras

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