Sukanta Majumdar, audiographer, is the main field recordist of this project He is collating and editing all audio and video material held in The Travelling Archive


Sukanta Majumdar
It was a summer afternoon in 2003 or ’04, I can’t clearly recall, on our way back from Surul to Santiniketan, when Moushumi asked me if I would join her project on “biraher gaan” as a research assistant. I was still at film school, studying sound recording. She wanted me primarily as a resource person since I had grown up there, in Birbhum. I agreed and started to work most earnestly on my first assignment, which was to locate and establish contact with Kanai Das Baul (Kanai Baba) of Tarapith. With the help of a friend of my aunt’s I found him, and fixed a date for us to go and see him.

The monsoons had arrived by now and the day we went to Tarapith, my first field trip ever, the whole place was flooded. A slate coloured sky hung gloomily over our heads, the land and roads were all under water and the river was howling, while the downpour continued. It was terribly dirty all around and the pilgrims were running about, trying to get out of this situation, while some were madly eating maachh, bhaat and chatni, at a temple-side hotel. The two of us—devoted researchers—landed in the middle of this chaos, and found Kanai Baba near the temple. Moushumi was ready with her questions and loaded still camera and I took out our new MD recorder and the condenser microphone, which would be with us for years to come (and which I still use sometimes though they are quite weathered), and with which I would start learning “field recording”.

Field recording

Being a film student, my orientation towards recording sound was studio-based and we were taught to chase the visual or be chased by it. What about location sound exercises? The one and only stand-alone sound exercise that we did was the hindi film songs or bangla adhunik gaan recording, surrounded by terms like “first antara (Song A)”, “second antara (Song B)”, “first interlude”, “punch”, “guide voice”, “metronome” and so on. The motivation for recording was very clear and the aesthetics as well: record as clean as possible, record the right tone, calculate a perfect delay… and when mixed, it’s like a ready meal—everything in the right place, in the right amount and the taste is perfect. Contrary to field recording practice, I was brought up to think that it was rather ‘impractical’ to record outside a studio.

So now began for me a process of simultaneous learning and unlearning…

A very brief history of field recording

From ‘resource person’ of an audio documentation project to co-researcher with a growing interest in field recording, folk music, ambience and incidental sounds–it has been and continues to be a rewarding journey. But before going into my personal experiences, let’s take a quick look at what our great precursors have done.

It was Thomas A. Edison’s Phonograph, invented in1877, that brought the flexibility of carrying recording equipment to the field. Edison developed a process of capturing sound on a tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder. Any sound made into a cone-shaped horn would cause the attached diaphragm to vibrate and a needle attached to it would transcribe this vibration as grooves onto the rotating tinfoil cylinder. One could play back the sound by reversing the process. If you ran the needle over these grooves, the diaphragm attached to it would vibrate and sound would be heard through the horn. In another ten years, Edison further developed this machine and the most important step he took was to change the recording medium from fragile tinfoil to more durable wax. The wax cylinders had playing times of 2 to 10 minutes and they became the permanent medium for capturing sound.

Jesse Walter Fewkes(1850-1930) took this opportunity and he was the first who used wax cylinder phonograph in the field to record the speech and chants and songs of the Passamaquoddy Indians of eastern Maine in 1890. These cylinders are preserved at the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress, USA. This machine had a wind-up clockwork motor; it needed no outside power source, which made it perfect for fieldwork. John Lomax and other folklorists also started using the Phonograph and the era of the Phonograph continued till the early 1930s. Meanwhile Emil Berliner had invented another machine called the Gramophone, in 1887. This machine worked on the same principle as the Phonograph, but it cut the grooves on a flat disc. For about 30 years these two machines competed in the market and finally the disc won, because discs were easier to carry and store and, above all, allowed longer recording time than the cylinders. They could be recorded on both sides, about 10 minutes per side. John and Alan Lomax had started using disc recorders from 1934.

These recorders were large and bulky. Alan Lomax used his car batteries to run his Presto recorders. Some folklorists even used converted ambulance cars to carry them to the field!

The first generation discs were made of solid aluminium. Alan Lomax started using another disc coated with some kind of lacquer by the mid-1930s, which allowed deeper grooves and, thus, better recording. But the whole recording process was still very difficult and the recordist had to be busy to brush or blow away the thin spiral of aluminium or lacquer throughout the recording time as the needle cut its groove onto the blank disc.

Around the late 1940s the scene had changed when the portable tape recorders became available. Magnecord tape recorders were state-of-the-art equipment for field recording. These machines recorded magnetically on an oxide-coated plastic tape. The tapes were easy to carry and much more durable than any other medium. Depending on the length of the tape and speed of recording, one could make hours of recording. This kind of open-reel machine continued to be improved, becoming more lightweight and compact and delivering better quality sound till the 1970s, when cassette tape recorders replaced them. Then came the digital age and from the 1990s folklorists started using DAT (Digital Audio Tape). Then the compact disc (CD) recorders and mini disc (MD) recorders came up for a few years. These recorders are almost obsolete now and hard disc recorders are dominating the market at the moment.

Getting the groove

A portable mini disc recorder, Sony MZ-NH700 and a stereo electret condenser mic, MS957, were our equipment in the beginning, but as I came from the world of Neumanns and Sennheisers, I was quite sceptical about what we had. One of our teachers in film school used to point to his head and say, “Sound mic diye record hoy na, ekhan diye hoy,” suggesting that you record using your intelligence and ingeniousness and not so much with the finest equipment. Yet, as we were completely overwhelmed by the shiny black and slick Sennheiser shotguns and steel-gray, matte-finished, cold Neumann studio condensers, I couldn’t really get his point till I was thrown into a situation of recording music almost anywhere but the studio.

It took me some time to understand that what I initially thought was the weakness of our equipment was, in fact, its strength. That’s because equipment might not have brains, but they sure have a dominating personality! They start to silently take over a situation. For example, when we go to a village or small town for recording, there is always a lot of curiosity and questions to be asked and resolved on both sides. This definitely depends on the community and its exposure to the wider world, but this is also generally true of most places. Here if I were to take out shotguns with furry windshields on them and a bunch of cables running to my mixer and a four-track solid state recorder, the curiosity and queries, and in some cases also fear, would mount and affect the natural ambience and the originality of singing. Since Moushumi and I always work together, it’s slightly easier for us to handle the situation. Moushumi answers the questions and takes a role in the conversation while I concentrate on the recording. Even then, sometimes it is very difficult to hide myself and become unimportant. This, I believe, is the most challenging part of recording in the field and one needs years of practice to learn some tricks. But it has certainly helped me to have such non-aggressive and non-intrusive equipment. Our machine is small and simple. So, now I know that as a beginner I actually got some support from my equipment without realising it.

Now I use a TASCAM HD P2 hard disc recorder and have a couple of more sophisticated microphones, which are certainly more conspicuous, but still small enough to not overwhelm the performer/interviewee. Besides, now I have also gathered more experience in the field which gives me easier handle over situations.

It is not only a question of size, there are also certain other related issues. Not using an elaborate setup and not micing every source of sound means that we are theoretically compromising on the quality of sound. But theories need to be built on real situations and “quality” is a complex and contentious issue when we see it in the context of recording and listening to folk music. Thus it becomes a critical decision for the field recording engineer—at which part of our work are we compromising and whether or not we should do so?

Here comes the question of the texture and quality of sound one wants. And there is often a gap between what the musician wants and what the recordist achieves or wishes to achieve. All music has its own timbre. But the sound one wants to capture is relative and depends on one’s choice, taste and experience of listening. I remember once Kartik da (Kartik Das Baul of Guskara) played me a CD of his songs recorded in Korea. He said he didn’t like the sound. “Mixing bhalo hoy nai,” he said. He was unhappy with the mix. But the quality of sound, I remember, was very good. You will hear full dynamics, nicely balanced, good separation and perfect lows in the mix. Keeping aside these technical details, I played it back a couple of times and tried to hear the missing part of the mix and then realized that the mix had failed to create that timbre of “Rarh” Bengal’s baul songs -that sharpness of tone- and so Kartik da was missing the fun he gets when playing the music.

Take another example. Recently I mixed an album, a compilation of songs by various folk artists and Lakshman Das Baul of Joydeb complained, “Mix ta ektu dry lagchhe“. Now, my idea behind this “dry” mix was to give the songs a kind of field recording feel, though they were recorded in a studio. I realized Lakshman was missing the normal shrill reverb and repetition of his voice when he cries “O bhola mo-o-o-o-o-o-n…mon re aaaaaamaaaaar…” on stage

Listening is a very culture-specific thing. It’s an interesting study to see how an artist’s singing, listening and perception of sound evolves with changes in the market, over time. We have seen silent footage shot by Arnold Bake in the 1930s, of bauls singing and dancing at Joydeb mela, and there are no instruments other than the dugi, dubki and ektara that the musicians are playing. His audio recordings of baul music from that time are similarly sparse. If you take recordings of Purna Chandra Das done 20 or 30 years later, in the 1950s or 60s, you will hear the sound of the dotara and a different singing style, emphasising the komal swar and the “bhola mon…” cry. And now most of the bauls can’t even think of singing without a harmonium or a flute, which was unthinkable in the past.

So, the sound of folk music has changed and will continue to change, since this is a process of evolution that is linked with evolving technology and dominant trends in the music market and also with the proximity of the artists to urban society.

Now, it is our concern to get the texture we want. Of course as folklore and folk music researchers we must remember the importance of documentation. Archives insist on ‘provenance’, on maintaining the authenticity of time and space during field recording. But I think that however true we are to the actual sound, we are also intervening in the music through our recording and documentation work and we are ‘creating’ our own recording of a place and its sound at a particular point of time.

I think that during our own recording sessions, what we try to do is not mere documentation, but we try to capture the mood and the ambience of a particular place. For me, in field recording of folk music, quality comes from the energy and performance of the artist, and I believe that it is more important to capture this energy of the performance through sound than go for ‘high quality’ sound. And that is what gives sound recorded in the field its own quality. It is a very complicated, tricky and interesting balance between the quality of performance and the quality of recorded sound that we try to achieve, and that is what makes a successful recording. When this blend is perfect it adds flesh and blood to the body of the sound and then the soul triumphs.

It really doesn’t create any problems for me when an artist like Jainuddin (Faridpur, Bangladesh) singing a jari, cries in ecstasy for Ma Fatema and the shrill sounds from his ragged voice fill up the space of the open courtyard of Sadek Ali‘s house; then Jainuddin dances and turns his back to the microphone and his voice drowns under the loud beating of the bangla dhol and the high-pitched juri or cymbals and the chorus of the dohars. When an artist like Gosai Das, in his broken voice, sings kirtan with his team of villagers like a man possessed, or when the whole of Sadhushree village,with Biren Das leading them, cries out the joys of prabhati, ushering in the dawn, how much does it matter that Gosai Das or Biren Das are not facing your mic? It is the emotion and energy spurting from the music that makes it sublime and I think that a field recordist’s primary job is to recognize this and react with the sound. The rest will be done by your microphone.

Am I not being biased as I have specific memories of these recording sessions? Listeners who will hear these recordings for the first time, isn’t it important for them to hear well balanced sound? I think the answer lies in one’s experience and practice of listening. Someone with no memory of hearing folk music in its original place of performance and one with only a background in listening to urban sounds such as Kishore-Hemanta-Manabendra or Abbasuddin, recorded and mixed in the studio, might not like this sound of field recordings. On the other hand, this sound can create interest, curiosity and love for the music in the mp3 and iPod generation, who usually have a wider range of listening and can thus appreciate different kinds of sounds more.


I always wait for the moment to see the faces of the musicians and other people while I play back their music to them after a recording session. It’s the pure pleasure of listening to their own music that is reflected in those faces. After all these years of history of recording, when almost everyone has an FM radio or mobile phone, a variety of mp3 players and a pair of earphones, even now people love to listen to music recorded and played back right there, in the field.

During a recording session at Shaspur village, Birbhum, I was playing back a song to Golam Shah Fakir. He was so delighted that his pale, wrinkled face lit up with pleasure. He was very sweet and generous to me, “First-class,” he said, while handing back my headphones. Sudheer Palsane was shooting that session; he teased me, “Chal, tujhe diploma mil gyaya,” as I hadn’t yet completed my film school diploma. I feel a reciprocation of this pleasure and it motivates me in my work as a field recordist. I can walk mile after mile to have similar experiences.

Alan Lomax once wrote, “. . . making it possible to record and play back music in remote areas, away from electrical sources, it gave a voice to the voiceless…the portable recorder put neglected cultures and silenced people into the communication chain. The performers were heartened when they heard their own music…

Now the times have changed. A portable sound recording machine doesn’t have the same kind of socio-political power any longer to give a voice to the voiceless. But the stream of pleasure still flows, as it started one day in 1877, when for the first time on this planet, Thomas Alva Edison recorded a short message and played back to himself: “Mary had a little Lamb/Whose fleece was white as snow. . .”