You have probably seen the Hindi film named Dirty Picture. A befitting name indeed! It profited big time by deriding the hardships of the South Indian film actress Silk Smitha’s shattered life that ended in her suicide. Vidya Balan, the current day actress pranced through the hugely successful potboiler practically semi-naked, was honoured with a National Award for best actress! The song ‘Ooolaala Ooolaala’ from that film was a super hit, credited to Vishal Shekar as composers. It was sung by Bappi Lahiri, popular Hindi film song composer of eighties, and Shreya Ghoshal. That song left me perplexed in more ways than one.

The very first confusion was the artificial rendering of the song by Shreya Ghoshal. I always thought of her as a natural! Another shock that assailed me was that it was a rank copy of the song ‘Ui Amma, Ui Amma’ from the 1983 Hindi film Mawaali for which Bappi Lahiri himself was the composer. He sang the song ‘Ooolaala’ without mentioning anywhere that it was his own music! But what really shocked me was the astounding fact that the audio quality of ‘Ooolaala’ could not hold a candle to the audio quality of ‘Ui Amma’ that was recorded thirty years earlier! Anyone who doubts my word on it may listen to the vinyl record of Mawaali on a Hi Fi music system.

Similarly A.R.Rahman’s songs in the recently released Tamil film Kadal was bewildering for me. Though I was happy that even twenty years of continuous innings in the industry has not diminished A.R.Rahman’s ability to offer creative music, I was totally unprepared for the shocking fall in the sound quality of his songs, something I have not seen in over two decades of his career.

I heard his song ‘Anbin Vaasaley’ from the film Kadal at midnight on an FM Radio channel. The music arrangements was fantastic but its rank sound quality, the way different sounds bumped into each other to emerge without clarity or separation, made one doubt whether it was indeed an A.R.Rahman song. The next song broadcast was his ‘Anjali, Anjali’ song from Rahman’s 1994 film Duet. The saxophone intro at the beginning of the song resonated with an astounding clarity, as if someone standing near me was playing it for my exclusive benefit. Amazing sound quality permeated every note of that song.

What is happening? And I can’t believe this fall is happening in an era when audio technology is scaling new summits! Was this an inadvertent mistake that happened during recording or while making copies of the songs? Or worse, has A.R.Rahman come to the conclusion, after his world-wide success, that sound quality is not important any more for his music? Is sound quality irrelevant for music?

Music happened when man composed the natural sounds in a pleasing order. In the beginning music was rendered either with music instruments or man’s vocal chords directly for the pleasure of music listeners. It was a truly natural music. This natural rendering of music continued for centuries. Many would have, in that early era of music, desired to record the music so that it can be heard again and again. But they had no means of doing it.

As per the recorded history, it was only 155 years ago that a publisher of books in France found, for the first time ever, a way to record sounds. Edward Scott was running a press in France. He invented a machine called Phonautograph that recorded audio on paper. He first densely coated the paper with the black soot of an oil lamp and recorded on it an old French folk song that went something like ‘On the edge of the moonlight’ with a female voice. Thus music became the first ever sound that was recorded! The recording on the paper looked like the scribbling of a child. But the phonautograph had no provision to play back the song! Nobody believed the scribbling on the paper to be the recording of music. The world believed it only in 2008, 150 years after it was recorded; when it was played back with the help of a computer!

By 1890s equipments were made to record sound and then hear it by playing it back as often as one wished and whenever one wished. Never-say-die efforts of scientists like Emile Berliner and Thomas Alva Edison made this possible. The sound record that was then made is, to date, the best audio play back format that man ever invented. What was first made in the form of cylinder and then a heavy round disc called the Diamond Record underwent many improvements and changes over the next hundred years to sustain itself as man’s most favourite form of audio reproduction.

With the arrival of the compact cassettes in 1970s, the records started losing their popularity. But the fact remained that compared to the sound quality of the records, the sound quality of cassettes were sub-standard! However, the ease and convenience of handling the compact cassettes made the unwieldy records that needed highly careful maintenance to beat a hasty retreat.

The compact discs that came later had audio quality that was many times better than that of compact cassettes. But audio of a CD can never compare in quality with that of a record played on a properly maintained music system. After spending many years listening to music from records, I can say with certainty that no modern audio format can compare with the sound of records.

Today’s technology compresses thousands of songs as MP3 and we listen to them on computer, iPod, iPad, Cell phones etc. But most of us do not realize that their sound quality is much worse than that of audio cassette tapes. The natural warmth of sound that we can sense to some extend in audio tapes is missing in all possible digital audio formats like MP3.

In the 1890s audio recording studios were started, mostly in U.S.A. and Europe. In the following 35 years Acoustical recording method was followed for recording as neither Microphone nor Amplifier had been invented then. In those days either a sound-insulated room or places with low incidence of external sounds were used for sound recordings.

Musicians used to sit before a cone-like contraption, as seen in the Gramophone Record players that came into vogue later to produce their music, whether vocal or instrumental. The audio thus produced would directly carve circular grooves on a wax / shellac plate or record. This system remained popular for decades as the records could be immediately played back and heard. Soon portable audio recording systems were also developed. I have listened to a three-minute record of a conversation in Tamil with a Horse cart driver outside the Central Railway Station in Chennai recorded in 1907 on one such portable audio recorder brought from Germany!

Electronic recording of sound became possible because of the invention of microphone and amplifier circa 1925. But nobody in those days made any effort towards recording of the sounds with natural clarity and depth, without the intrusion of extraneous noises. After all, it was the era of complete satisfaction that sound could be recorded at all and be heard again and again at will!

The American singer-actor Bing Crosby is important among pioneers who pushed to move the industry to the fidelity of the recorded sound. I have quite a few records of Bing Crosby recorded around 1930, and considering the state of technology those days, their sound quality is indeed something of a miracle. The sound quality of the Western music records scaled new heights by the end of 1940s. Even today, hearing the music records of those years surprises us with their audio fidelity.

The mono audio recording was in vogue for many decades. Many records were made with mono sounds that were with impressive sound quality. Then the stereo sound recording and playback was introduced. This was a system where the audio was made to emanate through three separate channels on the left and right and a virtual middle. The stereo recording of audio increased the naturalness of the played back audio many-fold. The recording and listening of music entered a new era of popularity.

But it was only a few decades later stereo recording of Indian film songs became a popular reality. India’s first stereo film record was that of Laxmikant Pyarelal’s compositions for the movie Jal Bin Machli Nrithya Bin Bijlee released in 1971. The songs composed by Ilayaraja for the movie Priya in 1978 were the first Tamil songs with stereo sound. But it was only in 1980s that Indian film songs completely shifted to stereo audio.

Entry of world-class audio technology notwithstanding, the quality and fidelity of audio recordings in India remained many decades behind its peers in the western world. Hindi composer R.D.Burman was the first one in India to attempt to bring world-class sound to his songs. Today when I hear some of the records of his songs, I am struck with wonder at his tireless efforts and dedication to bring high fidelity to every bit piece in his songs. Thus R.D.Burman stands out as the first Indian to create a real hi-fi stereo sound in Indian film songs. He was gifted at once with an understanding of the minutest nuances of natural sounds, the music of a genius and a total grasp of the subtleties of electronic technology. One can endlessly listen to even those compositions of his with below par musicality, churned out to suit the fast-changing taste of times for their sheer audio quality.

But there were very few such composers who wanted great sound quality in their songs in South India. The good sound quality that we experience in many of the songs here were entirely thanks to the efforts made by some of our great sound engineers and audio technicians, based on their personal taste and understanding. Koteswara Rao who worked with both Gemini and Bharani Recording studios of Chennai in the era of mono-sound is an important name among prominent audio technicians of South India. It was he who undertook the sound recording and sound mixing of most of the songs that had great sound during 1950-60 period.

S.P.Ramanathan is another important sound engineer who came from the mono age to the stereo age. He was the sound recordist for many Tamil films like Johnny, Thanikkattu Raja, Moondram Pirai and My Dear Kuttichhathan with music composed by Ilayaraja in the early eighties. The sound that softly envelopes you without being loud was his speciality. But the sound arrangement that I regard as fantastic was the creation of Emmy who worked with Ilayaraja during the period 1984-88. When I hear the over 250 records of Ilayaraja in my collection, again and again, my conviction that the best period for the audio quality of Ilayaraja’s music was the period when Emmy worked with him becomes firmer. These recordings by Emmy are brimming with the unique bass guitar patterns of Ilayaraja in one of the tightest bass sounds I have ever heard in Indian music. The sounds of every music instrument used in these songs resonate with a stunning liveliness without getting mixed up with one another.

A.R.Rahman’s first audio recording studio The Panchathan was designed by Emmy. He also had played his part in the audio recording of Rahman’s debut song ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’. Later sound engineer H. Sridhar started working with A.R.Rahman. Sridhar, who was an expert in digital studio sound equipment and computerized audio recording, worked with A.R.Rahman till his untimely death in 2008. Sridhar’s recording genius helped A.R.Rahman till the film Slumdog Millionaire which had won him the Oscar Awards.

Without any doubt whatsoever, A.R.Rahman can be named as the first South Indian composer who worked to achieve high fidelity sound in music recording. It is said that once, many seasons before his debut film Roja happened, he had tried to play the tape of one of his music recordings on his car stereo. He was so disgusted to find the sound quality of his recording was so poor compared to a western music recording he had heard before it. He threw the tape out of his car in irritated by its below par sound! Probably his untiring search for achieving a world-class sound quality must have started from that point.

Rahman toils for weeks and sometimes even for months to carve every little sound bit in his music.  That is why, beginning with Roja, over the last twenty years he has been able to so consistently serve only the best musical sound. It is my abiding regret that till date I have not had the good fortune of fully enjoying the sound of the film Roja. Just because vinyl records of that film was never released! I am still nursing my big wish that I should hear the song ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ at least once from a vinyl record! Vinyl records of A R Rahman’s Gentleman and Kizhakku Cheemaiyile were released. Their audio quality is something to write home about. Kizhakku Cheemaiyile remains the last released vinyl record in Tamil!

In recent years, vinyl records of A.R.Rahman’s Hindi albums like Jodha Akbar, Vande Mataram, Guru, Rang De Basanti and Lagaan have been released. Released at a hefty price, their sound quality is not particularly impressive. They sounds more like CDs! Originally recorded on the current digital audio formats, they must have run into conversion problems while preparing the Analogue Master needed to produce the vinyl records! But I just cannot imagine what could have gone wrong with the sound of the songs of the film Kadal. There is no way A.R.Rahman could have okayed this sound!

Among contemporary Tamil film music composers, sound of Harris Jayaraj is crystal clear and enjoyable. His sound has its own character. Sound arrangement of many of Karthik Raja (Ilayaraja’s son) songs is just great. You can see a unique approach to sound right from his songs of the film Alexander, released in mid-nineties to the latest songs of his recent release Rettai Chuzhi. There is great high fidelity in the sound of recently released albums of films like Engaeyum Eppodhum, Severkkodi and Ponmaalai Pozhudhu by the young composer, C.Satya.

One needs an array of high quality audio playback equipment capable of reproducing high fidelity sound to finely judge the true sound quality of a recording. Even the wires and cables connecting the array of equipment need to be the best in class. But it is indeed a fact that those with an ear for high quality sound and the will to look for it, those who evaluate the sound arrangement of music on a regular basis can recognize the audio quality of the original recording even when a song played over radio or a cell phone.

There still remains the question:  what is truly meant by sound quality of music? I am sorry to say that that one cannot define sound quality in words. It has to be felt!  However, if I were to make an attempt to define good sound which is not amenable to a wordy definition, then it will be something like this. The sound of music should be natural without frills or additional colours. It should have depth and punch but should never boom. The music bits should not get mixed up and they must have total clarity and separation. Frequencies of different sounds should not clash but travel in different layers with pristine transparency. The sound should have hold, precision and it should be absolutely enjoyable.

It is possible to enjoy a below par song of Bappi Lahiri on the strength of its sound quality! But even the best of music from Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart becomes a cacophony in the absence of well recorded audio quality. Even the marvels of music are difficult to appreciate if their sound gives a thumbs down. Great sound is the heart beat of great music. Very definitely it has its own expression of emotions beyond that of music. We must not forget that music is nothing but properly arranged and groomed sound.