When Melody was Queen - Making the song

Part 2 – Making the song

For a person to listen to a song and finally say – ‘are wah! kya gaana tha… yaar, woh’, the song has to be nothing short of inspirational. From conception to production, from advertisement to music CD release is a long process, and somewhat haphazard when it relates to Bollywood. By the time the music director finally has his copy ready for mass CD or record punching in the pre-90’s era, he was huffing and puffing and would have lost a good deal of hair.

In the first article ‘From the original soundtrack’ we went through the historical development of the music scene. In this one we will study the steps taken to get a song ready. As we saw, a few film studios were established in Bombay during the 30’s and some names like New Theatres, Prabhat talkies and Bombay talkies were prominent. Many others followed, notably Imperial Film Company, Minerva Movietone, Ranjit Movietone, Sagar Movietone and Wadia Movietone. Of course Calcutta and Madras had their own studios, but smaller in number. Most of them had in their employ a number of musicians who not only composed BGM or background music, but also the main fare, film songs. People from that era would easily associate a tune of the movie with a film company, mainly because certain MD’s (music directors) worked only for certain companies and had a distinctive style (An example is Punkaj Mullick who worked for New Theaters). With the passage of time, MD’s became professionals and were associated with various film producers, companies, projects and directors.

Group Photograph of Talat Mahmood, Mohd Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Geeta Dutt, GM Durrani, Meena Kapoor, Kamal Barot, Mubarak Begum and others
In the early days where the tune was almost always set to a classical raga, the MD who was usually well versed with Hindustani or Carnatic music would build a tune based on the raga befitting the mood. In case the mood was more suited for a folk tune, a little adaptation of a popular folk song would be done. Once the tune was cast, the lyricist would, again, based on the situation explained by the director, put together or change the words and word sequences to fit the tune (AR Rahman once said it was difficult for him to set his tunes to Malayalam words!). It was important to get the overall combination right, for only then would it become a ‘hit’. Only experience would tell the motely group assembled if the resulting concoction would be a classic or a hit or a filler, there was no formula to make it a hit, it simply had to be instinctively good. Of course, there were inspired songs (song tunes lifted from popular hit compositions in other languages) created by virtuoso’s like Mozart or popular composers from other countries. Early on, Calcutta studios had more western content (Mullick being one among the first to introduce western styles in Hindi songs) than the ones from Bombay and also had a tendency to be biased with Ravindra sangeet. Saraswati Devi, the doyen among MD’s of Bombay stuck true to Hindustani though. Devotional themes used only basic Hindustani tunes and were developed as kirtans. The intention of these songs, as you can imagine, was to embellish the scene, but as years went by, the music in many a case carried the film.

The tunes and interludes were usually supported by various instruments and in the beginning these comprised just the tabla, the harmonium and the violin, with the focus mainly on the vocals. Soon the number, the variety and the combinations of instruments increased greatly, for the piano, Saxophone, flute, xylophones, clarinet, bongos, Congo’s, drum sets, synthesizers, sitar, jaltarang, bulbul tarang and so on could be seen. In most cases, the composition was done by the team comprising the MD, musicians and the lyricists sitting together. Complications, increase in quantity and quality were soon the reasons for the split of this ideal arrangement. MD’s started to demand the lyrics early and this became the norm, whereby the lyricist created his poetry with greater independence. As one can imagine, the number of films were not too many and the time available to create a song and to review and change it was substantial. Each film company did about four to five films, and that meant about 35-40 songs in total per annum. The MD was usually an employee of the studio and so the competition between MD’s was not so fierce.

As you may recall, earlier movies had the actor singing the song, so the MD had to set the tune befitting the vocal ability of the actor and his persona. MD’s rebelled or showed their frustration often for there were very few good actor singers and the final result was typically mediocre. Their style was typically Hindustani and the voices coarse, heavy and somewhat hoarse. To get an example, listen to Awaz de kahan hai by Noorjehan, you can see its difference from the silky texture as compared to Shreya Ghoshal’s Jism song jadu hai nasha hai. Days went by, movies became a popular medium and the Calcutta style of softer sensual singing or crooning caught on in Bombay. The trick with the new style, I understood, was to sing close to the microphone. Saigal was one who adapted very quickly to the new style.

It was towards the early 40’s, when playback singers arrived and with it the quality of the song shot up. Naturally the singer had to have a stand out voice, had to be flexible in adapting to various situations, moods, actor styles and voices and possessing a basic understanding of music. While the actor was a visible connection to the person in the audience, the playback singer had to connect to his audience purely with his voice, all the time staying invisible. As songs and the orchestral ensemble developed, the number of instrumentalists increased and the team size in each studio varied. In many a studio the western part was taken up by Goan Christians. New instruments like Guitars, French horn, trombone, cellos, mandolins and so on arrived on the scene. MD’s in most cases made up and chose members of their teams. The team created the team style.

As the song stood its stead, the lyrical content, the vocal quality and the instrumentation improved, so also the recording techniques. The song started to have its own place in the movie and became more than a scene embellishment. In fact even today people remember the scene of an old movie from playing a particular song back in their mind. The song is etched into your memory, not the scene or the acting, if you ask me.

Picking up from where we left off in the previous article, the number and quality of microphones increased, playback was the norm and music was recorded in the studios. Music was recorded on magnetic tape. Songs were recorded first, filming was done later. Import restrictions were the stumbling factor in development and nothing changed until the 80’s. Even though there were multiple mic techniques, recording was done on single track film.  Studio vans were being conceived, and recordists took over the session. HMV soon acquired the optical transfer machine and rerecording was finally done away with. As technology developed, sound was recorded for films at Film center, Mehboob, Famous and Bombay sound studios. Finally magnetic tape recorders with the 35mm format arrived and by 1967, optic recording started to become obsolete. Multi track recording came next, and by the 70’s upto 4 tracks were being recorded. Music, rhythm, voice and a composite formed the four. Eventually they all got mixed down to a single track for the film master. As days went by, some sound engineers worked with upto 12 tracks dubbing down to increase music in each track. Finally the highly dependable portable Swiss Nagra recorder was used to transfer sound from the 35mm magnetic tape to film.

Some MD’s now had one more member in their entourage, the recording assistant. The cassette player had arrived and impromptu ideas and tunes were quickly recorded and archived for later use. The first movie with six track stereo was Sholay, with Deepan Chatterji as the recording engineer and the music by the maestro RD Burman. The complex recording process for the 70mm film was completed in London and later replicated for Shalimar, with Pancham da always deeply involved in this pioneering process, of getting the stereo sound right. Recording coordination was tough, the large orchestra synchronized instruments watching the others, for there were no monitor earphones. But the process was old fashioned, the singer sang with the orchestra while it was recorded multi track on a 35mm magnetic tape, and if a mistake occurred, they started all over again. Experience counted, or costs went up. New singers and musicians were therefore not easily inducted. They had to earn their place.

In the old Bollywood, when Shankar-Jaykishan, Kalyanji Anadji, The Burman’s, OP Nayyar and so on ruled, the musicians were all free lancers and four songs a day was the norm. Pyarelal was considered the most knowledgeable, OP Nayyar the most human and Kalyanji Anandji as a keyboard whiz when it came to composing tunes. In the new Bollywood of the late 80’s and early 90’s, where HMV was less important, RD Burman, Rajesh Roshan, Bhappi Lahri, Ravindra Jain and so on influenced the scene, to do things differently. Gulshan Kumar and the cassette revolution happened, western influence on Indian film music increased and music became affordable and more mainstream than before, a time where you depended on the AIR or Radio Ceylon to play a tune. Now you owned your music. The large studios and orchestras were becoming a waste and the cost of song production too large for a budget producer. And with this came up the lumpsum system where the producer offered a package deal for a certain number of songs. The MD thus increased his dependence on electronics and synthesized sound. The orchestra died, it became history. But it was an era of originality, it was an era of group effort, improvisations and sometimes, genius peeking through. They gave us the memories. So how exactly did one of those sessions work out in old Bollywood?

Time to record a song, and now we are in the old Bollywood era, a time when the maestro’s ruled. The producer and director explained the scene and the sequence, the locale, and he hero or heroine who would lip the song. Everything started in the music room, and typically the MD’s office as this was usually in his sitting room (Some MD’s like RDB rented a room in Linking road and put up an impressive sound system, popular SJ had a large building set aside for this). The MD brought on the appropriate tune from his bank vocally, with a harmonium or through his sitting assistant and discussed who would be best to render it vocally. The producer or director would step in and insist on a certain singer while the discussion sometimes veered away then to expenses based on that singer. This was a time when self-taught musicians and trained musicians existed side by side. The latter was needed to notate the tune for this was the only way a group could play synchronized music after it was arranged. But some of the traditional players still could not read the notations and picked the requirements instinctively, after it was explained to them and a couple of rehearsals were carried out. The swaras were written in an Indian language in the sa re ga ma fashion and in some cases the song was notated in western style. The musical interludes were based on the location or situation and had to blend with the main tune. In some complex cases where the scene changes and takes on multiple characters, the tunes and interludes have to be redone after a first version is completed.

The lyricist in those days interacted with the director, producer and MD often, making sure his poetic composition would fit the tune and also have the right set of words, based on the character and situation. Use of Urdu, local dialects, other languages, and so on was based on the situation and scene.  In many a case, the musicality of the director was persuasion enough for the flow of creative juices from the MD and lyricist.  Not all songs had an audio value and many were situational at best. The audio value song was the song the MD really counted on to become immortal, that was his signature song of the film.

The concept started at the sitting or baithak session where the MD came up with the tune befitting the
scene and developed it with a sitting musician, a petti or harmonium player or violinist. An assistant or arranger notated it (in later days recorded the tunes with a portable recorder). The sitting musician was a regular with a particular MD and accompanied him like family, unlike the orchestra staff who got involved case by case. He was usually welcome to bring in improvisation, and was well respected by the MD. Once the tunes were set and accepted by the producer, the next step for the rhythm arrangement with a specialist set of musicians. Then the various other parts were set, such as interludes, countermelodies and orchestration. Soon the composition itself was ready for a group rehearsal (In the New Bollywood, things took a slightly different route, where this entire section was completed using keyboards, with hook lines and repeating of set music rhythms. By the 90’s the usage of computers, MIDI sync and Protocols picked up and the traditional raga based song fell by the wayside).

Initially there were restrictions on the song duration, both due to AIR as well as due to the recording media and set to around 3 minutes. To fit this, you had a prelude refrain – Mukhda, followed by an Antra a verse, the Mukhda is repeated, then a second antra or verse and finally the refrain again. In longer versions you had a third and even a fourth verse. The interlude music is the bridge between the sections. The Mukhda sets the mood, and gets you into the song, so is very important, that is where the magic starts.

It was a time when there were no cellphones and SMS, so messengers or informers scooted or biked to various places in Bombay’s suburbs, delivering messages to musicians, singers, summoning them to sessions, changing times or cancelling sessions. They were music coordinators actually, getting together the group to perform the orchestral session or a song, based on the requirements, usually well advised by the MD and the arranger of the prerequisites. Once the group was readied, they rehearsed in parts or together and again and again depending on if the MD had arranged a studio or if he had his own (like SJ did). Some of the very busy Ustads did not come until the penultimate day. Most of the famous MD’s of that time did not directly partake on the film background music aspect and passed it on to their arrangers, only checking now and then.

The great MD Khayyam reminiscences - It used to be magical to record with a huge live orchestra. Aisa lagta tha ki sangeet banana ek ibadat hai (we used to feel that making music is a prayer). Singers, writers, recordists and musicians would all work together towards fulfilling the mission of making beautiful music. Every music company used to have around a 30 member orchestra. The rehearsals used to be two three hours long, and there would be around three rehearsals before a song was recorded. By then, all the musicians in the orchestra would know all the notations by heart. So, while recording, the music used to come straight from the heart. (Interview - Soumya Vajpayee Tiwari, Hindustan Times, Mumbai Apr 02, 2016)

During these recording sessions, the prominent person who later on simply faded away was the track singer. They were the ones who participated in the rehearsals to get the tune just right, until the final day. On that fated day, the star play back singer arrived, threw some tantrums, made some changes, sang the song with a flourish and walked away with all the adulation and praise. In fact these track singers were the first to sing any song, but you won't find their names on album covers or anywhere in the movie credits. Their only hope is that one day the MD will elevate their name and version or use their song if the singer did not turn up.

Well, as tradition dictated, the playback singer listened to the track singer’s version and got the feel of the song which had been recorded on a solo track. This was the track that got erased and replaced with the singer’s voice after he had executed it with his inimitable style. So you will understand that there were many track singers in the industry, with voices close to the required singer’s style. Track singers were required to know music, understand notations and the MD’s style and unsaid requirements. Because the good ones were always required, they were always left there and never allowed to advance, as some track singers opined. They were the ghost singers.

Once the song is complete, the choreographer takes over and creates the scene with the dance and steps to match, after training the hero, heroine and others in the scene. The actors lip sync to the song as it is filmed with a variety of locations and costumes effortlessly moving across continents, air or water, indoor and outdoor and all sorts of weather. Sometimes it is an item song, which has hardly anything to do with the story line and features an erotic dance, these days enacted by a leading heroine and not a vamp (Helen, Bindu et. al.) like in the old times. This is typically used to take of any drag a previous scene sequence may have created and energizes the audience.

Between the 30’s and today, the suburbs of Bombay housed so many film and music recording studios, but now is concentrated around Andheri. The musicians and the studios are all there, barring those of maestros Rahman and Ilayaraja which are in Chennai Madras and other parts of the Globe.

Time went by, beautiful songs and immortal melodies were created which we all savored, a great many music directors graced the scene sharing the limelight with countless actors and directors who have since then faded away, unrecognized. Hemant Kumar, SD Burman, Salil Chaudhary, Madan Mohan, Naushad, Shankar Jaikishen, RD Burman, LP, OP Nayyar….the list goes on and on…all names we know so well, those who produced countless gems we hum even today. The incredible lot of playback singers we grew up with in the 60-80’s are also gone, Kishore, Rafi, Mukesh, Gita, Lata, Asha and so many more. They were the vital stars, the people with golden voices, infusing soul, voice and life into the song. Changes were seen rarely, like when ghazals entered the film scene and when singers from the south made their mark in Bollywood. Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand’s productions continued to stick to quality, while Disco made its entry with Bhappida. After a diffident phase in the 80’s, the 90’s brought back many a great score, new MD’s like Rahman and many new singers. MD’s including RD Burman slowly strayed from pattern music to new styles, and brought back melody like in 1942 a love story.

As somebody mentioned, a good singer has the magic in his voice which stirs up dormant human emotions, put a smile to a grumpy face or bring a tear to a joyous man.

The singers too, made their mark and slowly the last of them are retiring from the silver screen today. The new wave have taken over, with new sounds, we can detect the Punjabi weighty voice coming back, what we had lost when Noorjahan left. The tunes are more energetic, and no longer lilting. There is an urgency in each song, with little time to waste in conveying a message. The lyrics are more nonsensical.

The many hundred musicians are hardly remembered. Some moved on to become music directors or made their own recordings, like guitarist Bhupinder, but by and far, the instrumentalists just retired with their instruments, the sounds having been recorded or consigned into banks and memories, only coming out rarely for live shows or paid events.

In the mid 80’s programmable synthesizers arrived on the scene and the process started to get broken up. The keyboard was used to program the song tune and this was used to get the final parts together, and on the recording front, new multi-track machines were being introduced and the uninterruptible power supply was used to get a constant power source and avoid track tuning errors due to the fluctuating power frequency in densely populated and industrial suburbs of Bombay. Can you imagine, some recordings had to be done after the factories and offices had shut down and the power magnitude and frequency had stabilized, sometimes early in the morning! And then came Dolby Digital and digital recording in the latter part of the 90’s. With the 24 track Dolby methods, hard disk recording on computers had also commenced.

With software programs a plenty, new sessions are done on the fly. Programming the track is done at home, then some recording of acoustic instruments is carried out at the studio back home where the files are mixed and bits punched in and out. The home studio easily blended with the music studio. Singers were asked to do bits and the MD team combined (punched) various versions later, as needed. Old timers complained, they had to sing the whole song in progression to get the feel right, to get into the mood, but soon, they too picked it up (more like - or adjusted, put up with it and got paid), or so they say. It was certainly cheaper than getting hundreds of musicians in one sweaty room and having a temperamental singer sing the song 15 times before the final take, but well, that’s all history.

Life has moved a long way from all that. Spiraling costs and studio economics changed the entire process in the 21st century. Computers, software and banks of audio sounds meant that everything was available without having to ‘recreate it for the moment’ with an instrument. The lump sum system became the norm and the making of music was centralized in the MD’s computer or keyboard. Synthesizers were the first, MIDI common protocol technology came next, sequencers to play back the combined music soon following. With that the art of music direction mostly became programming. Using advanced software, maestros like Rahman or other new MD’s create and change tunes at will, working off vast libraries they have themselves created to ease their work.

Look at the case of the currently hot Salim Sulaiman duo (Sonam Joshi, Mashable, July 19 2016) - In the last few years, as the siblings have spent an increasing amount of time travelling and performing live concerts, they've increasingly used apps such as Music Memo and Garageband to record ideas and work remotely. For instance, Salim often works with a room mike fixed to his iPhone to record tunes, which are then exported to Logic Pro to be fleshed out. "We do 75 concerts and travel 100 days a year," Salim says. "A lot of our music is composed in hotel rooms. These remote gadgets really help us put down an idea when we're away from the studio." But they add - "Technology is there to help you. The most important thing is your own creativity and what you produce," Sulaiman says. "Everybody uses the same machinery, but two people sound so different because you have the option of unlimited sounds. Technology makes life simple, but it's your creativity that works"

Singers then lend their voice, not necessarily singing the whole song in a few takes, but doing bits as and when required, all to be joined up and edited later, punched in or out or overdubbed. Facetime and skype are used with the singer not even in the recording studio for the rehearsals. Rhythm bits are looped, time markers helping sound engineering and mastering done with expert software such as Pro tools. They still create lovely tunes, just a few if you ask me, and not necessarily ones which would be remembered like that masterpiece by Lata Mangeshkar or Rafi or Mukesh from the 70’s. But then, that is my take, not one my nephew or niece would agree to!!

In conclusion, I will add the words of Vishal writing at Apna sangeet - Philosophically speaking, the music composition gives body to a song, the music arrangement gives flair or dignity to a song, and last but not the least, the lyrics gives the character to a song. Take away any of the component mentioned above, and the song becomes incomplete....

Behind the curtain – Gregory Booth
Bollywood Melodies – Ganesh Anatharaman
A journey down memory lane – Raju Bharatan
Hindi Film Git – Alsion E Arnold
Hindi Film songs and cinema – Anna Morcom
More than Bollywood – Ed Gregory Booth and Bradley Shoppe

Some interesting recording clips

Rdburman at recording – courtesy  womenonrecord.com
Rdb at recording - courtesy megabyte4everyone
Group Photograph of Talat Mahmood, Mohd Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Geeta Dutt, GM Durrani, Meena Kapoor, Kamal Barot, Mubarak Begum and others - courtesy bombaymann2.blogspot.com


Haddock said...

I liked the arrangement in the olden days - The producer or director would step in and insist on a certain singer while the discussion sometimes veered away then to expenses based on that singer. This was a time when self-taught musicians and trained musicians existed side by side. The latter was needed to notate the tune for this was the only way a group could play synchronized music after it was arranged. But some of the traditional players still could not read the notations and picked the requirements instinctively.......
this picking the requirements instinctively is the real skill and they are self taught.
Lovely coverage of the music scene of yesteryear. Enjoyed it.

Maddy said...

Thanks haddock..
glad you liked this.. the character in the song is gone today, of course there are a rare few. But the magic is lost. I listen to current music in all seriousness and like many a song, but if if you ask me to come up with a list of 5 good numbers in the last decade, it would take an effort to come up with one, because these new songs dont seem to remain etched in your mind, like the old melodies.

harimohan said...

how much and how soon have things changed ,a brilliant run through of an interesting industry of all music lovers but like you nothing to beat the soul stirring melodies of seventies

Maddy said...

Thanks hari...
Some like the 70's, some the 80's some the 50's....