Monday 3 January 2011

Veena And Acoustics

(Published in The Hindu, issue dated 31/12/2010)

Veena and acoustics
E. Gayathri
Photo : R. Ravindran

E. Gayathri —

The primary aspect of concert acoustics is the microphone. Very often, veena artists are faced with the outcry, “Why do you need a contact mike? It distorts the tone of the veena.” For a veena concert to make an impact, the instrument should have the throw and power of a human voice. Whether in a closed auditorium or in open air, the music should basically reach out. Veena being a soft string instrument, a voice mike would make it sound feeble especially in a large concert hall. Even worse, the nuances that bring out the beauty of the instrument do not reach the audience in totality. This is the reason most veena artists resort to a contact mike.

Choosing the right contact mike can be a difficult task since its technical specifications and placement on the surface of the ‘ kudam' or inside the veena are the key factors that determine its compatibility with the instrument. Compatibility of a mike with the instrument can be defined in terms of the ability of the mike to amplify the true tone. With the advent of digital mike-mixer combinations, it is possible to increase the bass or treble content causing the veena to sound either like a bass guitar or a sitar. It is also possible to introduce distortion, leading to the lo-fi type of jarring electronic sound. These techniques can be used cleverly to alter the veena's tone. The need for conveyance of the true tone of the instrument is more of a personal prerogative and a question of artistic integrity.

While the onus of good acoustics in a concert is on the contact mike, the final amplification provided in the concert hall also bears considerable significance. In the older “valve” type of amplifiers, which only had a volume and tonal control, there was little room for dramatically changing the way the veena ultimately sounded although the amplification was feeble. Now that high performance processors are available, while very solid amplification is possible, the sound engineer might inadvertently tamper with the instrument's tonal quality by setting the wrong controls.

Other contributing factors are the construction of the hall for minimisation of echo, maintenance of optimal temperature and illumination levels. Very often, the temperature in the hall is reduced, increasing the tension and hence, the pitch of the veena strings. In contrast to this, the high intensity lighting loosens the strings. Both of these factors do not cancel out each other but cause vacillating shrutis in the veena, making it possible to produce errant notes every now and then thus demanding extreme concentration.

The choice of the right microphone for the veena brings out the vocal or gayaki style of presentation, in other words, the instrument gains the capacity to equal the power of a voice. In such a case, the popular notion that the accompanying percussionists (such as mridangam artists) need to subdue their performance in order to avoid drowning out the sound of the veena becomes antiquated. The accompanying artists are able to use the same vigour as in vocal concerts due to the enhancement of the tone of the veena with the help of the right type of contact mike.

(E. Gayathri is a noted

veena exponent)