Beyond Time and Jagjit Singh’s Incredible Resonant Voice

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Ajey Pandey (Photo: Facebook)
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By Ajey Pandey

BOSTON–We owe the sound of ‘90s Bollywood music to Jagjit Singh’s album Beyond Time. It was first released in 1988, but in keeping with its name, it sounds modern, even today.

I could talk about the way this album mixes percussion, or how its subtly built on synthesizers and drum machines, or how Singh was among the first artists to embrace digital audio. But I’ll stick to the way vocals are recorded and mixed in Beyond Time.

For comparison, let’s listen to “Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin,” a classic song from the 1975 film Sholay. The now-nostalgic sound of classic Bollywood vocals (mid-80s and earlier) comes from a phenomenon called “clipping.” If the vocalist sings into a microphone at a higher volume than the microphone can accurately capture, the vocal track starts to distort, providing a crackling, resonant sound.

A clipped vocal track cuts through the rest of the audio mix and sounds like it’s trying to escape from your speakers. It’s a beautiful sound, but it’s difficult to work with. If a song has a clipped vocal track, then there’s not a lot of space in the final mix for anything else.

A tabla can make itself heard behind the singer, but if the strings want to play a melody, they must either wait for a break in the vocals or fight the vocalist for dominance. And then, only three years later, we see how Jagjit Singh approaches vocals.

Let’s listen to “Yeh Karen Aur Woh Karen,” the first song on the album. The vocals on this song achieve the same resonant sound as “Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin,” but in a completely different way.

Jagjit and Chitra Singh’s vocals are recorded as cleanly as possible, but they’re layered into a delay effect. That delay is artificially added in the recording booth, and it makes the vocal track ring like they’re singing in an auditorium.

However, that delay affects no other instruments, which otherwise remain tightly recorded for the sake of audio clarity.

Additionally, Jagjit and Chitra Singh are panned slightly in the mix—Jagjit Singh to the left, Chitra Singh to the right. They sit in different locations in the audio, so they can sing together—and even sing in harmonies!—while again maintaining audio clarity.

There’s some more trickery behind the scenes. For each song, Jagjit Singh would sing multiple takes, cut out the best parts from each take, and stitch them into a “perfect” take. This is exhaustive work.  Singh famously spent days on mixing alone, and the effort shows.

And two decades later, the sound of Bollywood takes the same approach as Jagjit Singh did. Listen to “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from the 1998 film Dil Se, and the vocal recording technique is pulled from Beyond Time: even though Sukhwinder Singh and Sapna Awasthi are singing as loud as they can, the recordings are crystal-clear and layered into a delay.

Like the old crackling sound of older songs, the vocals sound like they’re trying to escape from your speakers, but now, there’s space in the audio for a far more complex mix: louder drums, more detailed fills, clearer duets.

Ten years later, everyone recorded music like Jagjit Singh. The most important part of Singh’s recording skill is that the final product sounds effortless. You don’t need expensive headphones or experience in a music studio to appreciate his work. You can play Beyond Time through a tinny radio, or Walkman  headphones, or iPhone speakers, and the lyrics remain clear.

Above everything, Beyond Time is accessible. The vocals are easy to make out, even on low-quality speakers or loud bus rides. The melodies are simple enough to sing at a karaoke night. And the poetry is simple enough that even a young New Englander with mere scraps of Hindi can follow along.

My mother has been a fan of Jagjit Singh for years—but now, I am too.

(Ajey Pandey is an engineer and energy efficiency analyst working at a municipal utility.)

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