What happened to Ilayaraja’s mixing?

Yesterday, as I was returning home and listening to music, I noticed how much fuller the sound is on newer (late 90s and onwards) recordings of Ilayaraja songs compared to the 80s ones (which, for understandable reasons, have a super compressed sound). I wondered why then do we complain about the recording quality of his later releases.

If you don’t believe me that the sound is fuller in new recordings, you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s Vaanaviley. You simply won’t hear such a full sound on the 80s recordings.

But if you’re paying attention, you have already noticed something is off here too.

I felt likewise. To find out what, I thought let me check out Oru Poongavanam:

Listen to the first interlude and you can feel the music coming through different places in your headphone set (oh yes, you absolutely need to use headphones to get this effect). Bass in the middle with the respective lead instruments – flute/keyboard/violin – on top and drums on left and right.

Cut to the charanam and you will see that there are two different percussion layers in the left and the right channels respectively. So each time they play, your mind darts to the sound to find out where it’s coming from. Vocals right in the middle anchoring the song throughout.

At 2:45 there is a very soft hi-hat stroke on drums that is lurking in the left corner. And when the big fill comes on at 2:48, it’s in the middle. This darting of the percussion tells your mind that something is about to happen and builds up excitement.

Now what is all this business of sound darting from one channel to another or feeling like it’s right in the middle called? Mixing. While there are many, many other things going into the mixing than what I described (and which would take an actual professional musician to describe, unlike yours truly), the above are very noticeable ways in which you can tell that there is a lot of creative input going on into the mixing.

A common argument put forth to explain why Raja ceded space to Rahman in the 90s (because Raja fans can’t simply accept that after a decade and a half of avalanche of Raja goodies, the audience simply wanted something different and great in its own right) is that Raja was weak with the sound engineering aspect of the music.

But this is not strictly true when it comes to the 80s, the period when he truly lorded over Tamil and Telugu music. As the Oru Poongavanam example shows, within the constraints of whatever technology he had to work with then, he was in fact striving to create a dynamic experience for the listener. So it’s not as if Raja’s role was after writing the notes and teaching the singers what to sing and the musicians what to play. He was dictating how the mix shaped up in a way that made the song engaging from start to finish.

Oru Poongavanam – and Agni Natchatram as such – is the high watermark of creative mixing on Raja albums. But you can hear it elsewhere in that period (say 1985 to 88/89).

Try listening to Vaa Vaa Vaa Kanna Vaa with the headphone/earphone over just one ear and you will find that the keyboard intro sounds weird. That’s because there are actually two keyboard parts playing simultaneously and they are in different channels.

Similar is the case with the intro of Sangeetha Megam or Vaan Megam.

The mixing is often so good you can feel the effect of it even in bad mono versions of the songs like Oho Meham Vandhadho:

For a better version of what the song should sound like, try this:

This is not a coincidence because the mid-late 80s period was his most productive, with many of his most memorable songs and soundtracks figuring in this period. While comparisons become difficult with his maddening prolificity and some connoisseurs may make an argument for the more experimental, adventurous early 80s phase or for the more world music/heavy symphonic turn of the early 90s, the mid 80s phase is from where the maximum must have songs of Raja get picked from. And while the mixing alone doesn’t explain his success during this period by any means, it is a significant part of the, uh, mix.

Now cut to the mid 90s and the mixing starts to suffer. Mastana, for example:

The recording itself isn’t bad but the mixing is devoid of flavour and as a result, instruments seem to come and go in a procession without stamping their authority as they seemed to in Oru Poongavanam.

This procession like effect would become an annoying feature of his music over these later years.

Take Khajiraho, a stylish yet poignant duet that would have benefited from a better mix.

Or Antha Naal Nyabagam. It has often been said that in later years, the singers let down Raja but this is one instance where Vijay Yesudas and Shreya Ghoshal’s soulful singing went in vain.

And here’s the more confounding part. On the odd occasion when a Raja song broke through the clutter in recent years and made an impression, the mix was good, if not great.

Here’s Ilankaathu. Listen at 0:25 how beautifully the bass is recorded, as if underneath the guitar:

Sayndhu Sayndhu, recorded and mixed abroad. And you can tell:

While Unna Nenachu is not perfect, it is a major improvement over the Dhoni/Chithiraiyil Nila Choru/Ulavacharu Biryani efforts. Listen at 3:03 and the reverb from the violin part splits into the channels. These are the things that give us chills when we listen even when we cannot put on a finger on the reason for it.

So just why, why did he stop investing effort in the mix? Beats me.

And here’s a last befuddling aspect of it. In the 80s, when Raja did all this creative sound darting from one channel to the other stuff, not many people at all in India had walkmans. Not many had good stereo systems either. Most listened to music on tiny 2 in 1 decks, transistors or on clunky and primitive television sets. Or in cinema halls that did not have Dolby sound. So was he putting all this effort for his own satisfaction when he listened to the output on headphones before OKing it? 😀 AND when the audience did start to have the equipment that would let them hear these things, he stopped paying attention to it.

I think this should go down as an only Raja fossible (but this time in a dubious sense).

UPDATE: In my book Raga 2 Rock, I have discussed how Raja used the mix to direct our attention to what he wanted us to listen in the mid-late 80s and also touched upon the deterioration of it in the 90s. You can get it here.

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