Anoushka Shankar with a sitar.
Recording is a global scene these days, so it’s a good idea to learn to record all types of genres of music. Indian music sessions are not very different than any other gig where the musicians sit on the floor in close proximity and leakage is at epic proportions. As a matter of fact, all those instruments are supposed to bleed together for the proper effect. Here, I’ll go over ways to record the most common traditional Indian instruments, and share some killer miking tips that I learned from Wayne Newett, who engineered Ravi Shankar’s Music Circle.
Made from a gourd (or two), the sitar has one main melody string, three drone strings, two “chikari” strings (tuned in unison for rhythmic purposes), and up to 11 “sympathetic” strings. There are two “jiwari” bridges, usually made of ivory. Since the instrument is hollow, there’s beaucoups harmonic and sympathetic energy going on with this sucker.
Most engineers would reach for a large-diaphragm condenser, but this can sound a little too crispy, according to Newett. He recommends a Sennheiser MD441 large-diaphragm dynamic mic, saying, “It’s big and ugly, but sounds incredible.” Aim the mic perpendicular to the front of the instrument, six or seven inches from the spot where the player is picking with his “mizrab” (sitar pick that fits on the index finger). Make sure the mic doesn’t get in the way of the player.
Depending on the quality of the sitar, placing another dynamic mic behind the neck, aimed into the resonant gourd, can beef up the sound and offer stereo effects. Avoid compression or limiting; even small amounts can suck the life out of the sitar’s natural sound.
A tabla comprises two drums, a large metal drum called the “baya” or “bayan,” and the smaller, wooden drum called a tabla. (The correct term for both drums is “tabla,” not “tablas.”) Usually, the player will place his or her left hand on the baya and right hand on the tabla, and perform several styles of finger and hand strokes to produce a multitude of tones on both drums.
Again, a large-diaphragm condenser is the way to go: Try centering a Sennheiser MD421 between the drums, about six inches away at a 45- degree angle, to make room for the player. This delivers a perfectly balanced sound, especially with an experienced player.
If you want to stereo-mike a tabla, try placing a MD421 on the baya and an AKG 414 large-diaphragm condenser on the tabla. The tabla has a “crackle” to it that the 414 really accentuates. (You can get similar results with other largediaphragm condensers.) Aim the mics toward the center of each drum, about seven inches away at a 45-degree angle. As with sitar, compression seems to squash the tone here; tablas are quite dynamic instruments and impart extreme subtleties that can get squashed to death. They can get loud, so you’ll just have to ride the faders.
A sarod is like a banjo with a goatskin on the front. It is hollow, with a metal, fretless ”fingerboard” and a resonant brass “gourd” on its back. The bridge is on the end of the instrument, and with ten sympathetic strings, seven drone strings, and one melody string, there is no lack of twang on hand.
Small-diaphragm condensers pointed as close to the middle of the goatskin “head” work best; that’s where the most resonance emanates from. My reasonably- priced Audio-Technica AT2021 sounded just fine, but Mr. Newett got all pro on me, saying, “I would only use an AKG C451 or C452 on sarod.”
Tamboura is a four-stringed instrument that is tuned to the tonic chord and strummed slowly throughout the piece, providing a “hypnotic,” mood-building bed.
Mere mortals may be getting low on quality condenser mics at this point, but luckily, a modest Shure SM57 pointed five inches or so above the bridge— enough to clear the hand—captures the qualities of the tamboura very well.
Chances are, someone may show up with a harmonium, especially if the musicians lean toward Middle-Eastern music. This little pump organ plays a drone chord while the player improvises melodies with the right hand, while pumping with the left.
Use your cheapest condenser and aim the capsule about 10 to 12 inches from the side where the sound comes out. You want to pay close attention to the harmonium player and give that fader a small nudge up when melody is being played. Harmonium can stand a light compression ratio of 2:1, with a medium attack.
One Universal Tip
A raga is a fundamental melodic form in Indian classical music; it usually begins with a long sitar solo intro called an “alap,” and then the tabla comes in, followed by the other instruments. When recording a raga, gate all instruments except sitar with a very low threshold so they don’t feedback or buzz during the alap.