Ilayaraja and recording quality

The below was originally written by me in the comments of a Quora answer to address a question about why recording quality in Ilayaraja songs isn’t that good/lousy/worst depending on where you’re coming from.  It was a very long and elaborate explanation and I felt I should preserve it somewhere where it can be easily retrieved for future reference rather than a comment on a Quora answer.

  1. Recording synth, drums and maybe a few other instruments is not the same thing as recording a large orchestra. Why is this? Because there is a limitation of the number of tracks the engineer can record (it has been considerably overcome in the digital age). In analog days, even Pink Floyd’s masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon (widely held to be an audiophile’s delight) was recorded on 16 track. From what I understand, IR only had access to 8 track recording which was even more constrained.So anyway, because there are only so many tracks available, when a lot of instruments are used, the sound gets dense. You may notice the tracks on Agni Natchatram sound better. This is because for the most part, they don’t have such dense orchestration (albeit it is still very sophisticated). I will quickly use an example from Western music. I used this in a similar discussion on Baradwaj Rangan’s blog.

    This track was recorded at the iconic Trident Studios, London by David Hentschel, a top producer of the 70s who worked with many top bands/artists like Genesis/Elton John. But see how dense the sound is:

Now, another track from the same album, you can hear the drums better here, because it doesn’t use heavy orchestra.

The point being that in capturing the dense orchestration, the sound becomes thin. Raja had the same problem and as mentioned earlier, he was working with 8 track. It was also not easy in pre liberalisation (1991) days to acquire anything that would have to be imported. Rahman fans dislike this being mentioned because they see it as taking away credit from him but a lot of things fell in place in the ecosystem in the 90s which weren’t there before. Be that as it may, the point is even with the best technology, because of Raja’s very style of using lots of instruments, the effect cannot be compared to the well separated sound of Rahman. Consider an album like Neethane Enthan Pon Vasantham which was recorded in Hungary and mixed and mastered in Abbey Road studios, London! Even then, I heard complaints from popular bloggers like Sureshkumar that the sound is too dense. That is just how a heavily orchestrated track sounds on a recording, as I have demonstrated with the above example, being a then state of the art production. The band, by the way, were with Warner Bros at the time so budget too would not have been a constraint.

2. There were limits to what could be done with analog. Digital recording came into being in the 80s but was still primitive at that time. It reached maturation in the 90s…just as Rahman broke through! So Rahman has to be credited for being so up to date, so quickly adapting to the possibilities of technology. But even if Raja had adapted, the 80s recordings would have remained. And I am saying nothing much could have been done to improve them significantly.

3.  Views are also coloured by the poor audio quality of the recordings played on TV whether in music channels or as part of an old film. I am guessing their print has deteriorated a lot and a result, the sound lacks resolution very badly. However, good remasters are available pretty easily on Youtube and my impression is at least from around 84–85, the mono recordings disappeared and mostly all Raja recordings were stereo and pretty good. Not as good as Rahman, but as I have explained, that’s not an apple to apple comparison. But the below recording quality is more than acceptable imo.

Just to illustrate my point, compare this to Rajshri production’s upload of the same song and see how much more grainy and disturbed the latter is:

4. Now only one point remains. That is, why didn’t recording improve in the 90s when the technology became available. I would say in patches, his recordings did improve. If you compare the first upload of Oru Poongavanam with the below one of Madathile Kanni, the recording has clearly improved in the latter:

But from the late 90s, the recordings in general went down the drain with the few exceptions where he worked with a big banner and got ample budget (in these cases the recordings were great, like Pithamagan, Virumaandi, Mumbai Express, to say nothing of films with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra like Hey Ram, NEPV). I have to assume he was not getting the kind of fees he used to and unable to retain a good sound engineer. Or the ones he had did not update themselves.

When Raja got into the field, sound engineering was a very specialised activity. It still is and Rahman was ably assisted by H Sridhar for many, many years. Anyway, because it was specialised, the musicians left the recording activity to the engineers with some guidelines for what they wanted the recording to sound like in terms of balance. By the time digital disrupted the ecosystem, he had been a pure musician for too long to now get involved in recording. Perhaps his son Karthik Raja, who anyway was involved in Raja’s scores, should have helped him out in this department. However it may be, the transition from analog to digital was bound to catch him off guard.

UPDATE:  In my book Raga 2 Rock, I discuss Raja’s music extensively.  You can get it here.

7 Responses to “Ilayaraja and recording quality”

  1. Prasanna Sridharan Says:

    Nice insight into raja’s recording quality in 80’s. For me, his songs were very inconsistent. Thani kaatu raja of 1982 sounds heavenly compared to padikathavan of 1984. Mohan’s Jodi nadhigal in 1986 is very bad though a great song but ennodu paattu padungal of 1985 is great. guess it has to do with budget and raja himself may not be with recording quality of all songs.

    • Prasanna Sridharan Says:

      May not be happy*

    • Madan Says:

      Somehow missed your comments. It is believed that Udhaya Geetham was recorded in Mumbai, which then had better studios. Probably still does, considering that Shamitabh was mastered and mixed in Mumbai. Anyway, back then, whenever logistical issues forced Raja to record in Mumbai, he got a better sound. This was observed in Anantha Kummi too. Again, years later, in Dhalapathi which was possibly the best film music recording made up to that point.

  2. Navaneetha krishnan K S Says:

    Overall both Saregama and ECHO recording company never focused on a proper audio mix before releasing cassettes. Mouna Ragam, Unnalmudiyu Thambi, Mundram Perai(few songs) are still in MONO…Don’t think the cost is factor. Sound Engineers failed Ilaiyaraaja here…

    • Madan Says:

      Not sure I agree about Mouna Raagam being in mono. I guess it depends which source you’re listening to. The Rajshri jukebox mix is terrible. But this is from the official youtube handle:

      Moonram Pirai, possible some songs were in mono, likewise with Unnal Mudiyum Thambi. For eg, Punjai Undu is definitely not mono, but Idhazhil Kathai sounds like it is. Because there is very limited instrumentation in Idhazhil, it doesn’t hurt the song much but the mix is nevertheless very noisy.

      I of course have had the benefit of listening to the CD versions which mostly had remasters. God, the sound would have been tinny as hell on tapes.

  3. Navaneetha krishnan K S Says:

    Telugu Version of Idhazhil Kathai is a perfect Stereo…Post Priya , Even in mid 80’s none around Raja focused on Stereo output/mix of the songs.

    My Mix in tamil

  4. Madan Says:

    Wow, that’s wonderful. How did you remix it with stereo? And yeah, the Rudraveena mix is so much better. This is just inexplicable, lol. He was so demanding of his singers and musicians and so callous with getting the best out of his sound engineers.

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