A successful work of music in the Iranian community is often known via the name of its singer or in the best case scenario, by its composer. In this context, the production process starts with the signer and instrument players and after it is finalised, there is not much known about the other collaborators. However, the fact is that the sound engineer who does the recoding, mixing and mastering, as well as the producer, have a crucial role in the process. In the digital era where editing and simplification has become widespread, the role of sound engineer is becoming even more bold. Ramin Mazaheri is one of the most prominent Iranian sound engineers who has been collaborating with a wide range of musicians from different genres. Ramin started his career in recording traditional music in 2005 by recording an album for Homayoun Shajarian. His portfolio includes albums like "Zoljenah” by "Rasoul Najafian”, "Ghalbe yakhi” (Ice cold heart) by "Maziar Fallahi”, Series such as "Mokhtarnameh”, "Shamsol-emaareh”, "Shoukhi kardam”, films such as "Raeis” (The Boss) by Masoud Kimiaei, "Se zan” (three women) by Manijeh Hekmat, and concerts like those of "The Kamkars” and "Rastak”, and also collaboration with maestro Shajarian. In the following, Ramin has expressed his opinions regarding the digital technology and the opportunities and challenges it brings about from the perspective of a producer and music arranger.
Q: Tell us about your first computer.
A: I used to have a 8086 Hyundai PC in the 80s, while many others were happy with Commodore 64 and gaming consoles. I was 6 years old at that time. My PC had a 5-1/4 inch floppy disk reader, and a 9inch monochrome display monitor.
Q: Could one use such computers for recording music too?
A: Although working with the early music recording software seemed challenging, but it was possible. One of the challenges was that the software had only one channel. However, after a while this issue was resolved with the introduction of the multitrack feature. Among the first software packages that I could use for recording my own work were Cool Edit, Cakewalk, Cubase VST, and Sonar. Gradually through learning more from the professionals of the field, I managed to convert this passion to a career in studio recording.
Q: Considering your experience in both traditional and non-traditional music in Iran, how do you evaluate the interaction between the digital and the analogue technology in the field of recording and arranging music?
A: In the field of recording, everything was going great in my opinion, while digital was being used as a complement to the analogue core. But at some point, the analogue was put aside and the digital took over. This led to a decline in the quality of music, in my opinion. However, after a while analogue became popular to be used alongside with digital, to the extent that currently some professionals in the industry are creating their basis in analogue and music production on cassette tape and vinyl has become popular again.
Q: What advantage do you think cassette tape has, over mp3 or audio CD?
A: In addition to a higher sound quality, one characteristic of listening to a cassette tape was that you listened to the music continuously without jumping to the next track. Another specificity of the cassette era was that there were few cassettes accessible to the user at one time, so all the music had the chance of being listened to. While now, you can simply have a thousands of tracks on an ordinary flash memory, which are most often not listened to. From the technical viewpoint, dynamic range in the digital won’t be equal to that in the analogue. Besides in the digital era, when you are working with software packages, you constantly need to update the software. This wasn’t the case for analogue.
Q: But not everything about digital is disappointing, right?
A: Well in any case the synthesising technology has helped reduce the prices and the time taken in the production process, but the identity of the synthesised sounds is still far from the actual analogue sound. You just record one take and then do the editing digitally, while in the analogue times you would have recorded numerous takes to obtain the best one.
Q: Could we say that if it wasn’t because of the digital editing techniques, not everyone could become a "singer”?
A: This is actually one of the problems with the digital. Another drawback is that by relying on these features, some singers and players have become lazy and careless, because the recordings can be saved and edited in the post production phase. In the past, the singer or the player would pay the utmost attention to the performance in order to create the best results possible. But now with the extensive digital editing features, it is possible to apply any changes to the voice, so the singer wouldn’t really put the effort to perform with precision.
Again, to defend the analogue, I need to mention the special sound which comes out of an analogue system. It is as if the analogue sound has its own signature, not equal to any other sound. As a visual analogy, one can consider the vintage negative films where each brand had its own colour nuance added to the image. For example Konica films had red nuances, Kodak, yellow, and Fuji Film, green. After the emergence of the digital these effects disappeared, which from one side means having a good standard unified vision colour became possible, but also from the other side, those specific analogue characters were lost. Still, there is another drawback to analogue equipment, and it’s that the mechanical parts need maintenance and repair and the sound quality would change after the repair or replacement of parts. This problem doesn’t exist in the digital.
Recently, I have invested in a Studer reel, in order to be able to get an analogue-like quality especially for instruments like bass guitar. The main reason for this is the different frequency response it has compared to digital. In a 30 c/min tape there is a frequency response from 35 Hz to 50 kHz, while in the digital recording this range is limited to 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Although the ear can ideally hear the latter rage only, but the human body can feel the rest of the vibrational range too. This is the main difference between the digital and the analogue sound in my idea. In analogue tapes all the harmonics are saved, while if you analyse an mp3 file you have only up to 16 kHz, depending on the sampling frequency. All other harmonics are cut out, although they can really be perceived by the human body.
Q: So, are you suggesting that digital has both made life easier and harder?
A: Post production editing is a feature that digital has provided musicians with. But the main question is, why is it necessary to have the post production option? Most of the best iconic songs have been recorded analogue, although you might even hear some weird noises in them. The emergence of digital features has made many good musicians to become lazy. This effect is not limited to Iran. But the difference is that in many countries, these effects are used as an addition to the value of the artists’ good work, while in Iran where music is almost stagnating, it is just a replica of the good work. The argument here is that since the music is going to be played back from a cheap earphone and in mp3, why bother and spend much on expensive high quality recording equipment? The spreading of this attitude has led to the destruction of the music quality and even bankruptcy of many recording studios.
The digitisation process has somehow led to a decline in sales of musical works too. Releasing albums are usually about having yourself recorded and known, while in order to monetise your work, you need to hold concerts. The reason is even if an album or a single sells well, the income is usually not comparable to the expenses of the recording process and making of video clips and other promotional features. That’s why the expenses are tried to be covered by doing a tour or putting concerts on stage. This is what happens in Iran too, for singers, who do the same concerts over and over in the same venues for the same audience.
Q: So in your opinion, digitisation has not led to an incline in album sales?
A: It has. But not the digitisation of production, instead, the digitisation of consumption. Take for example the songs that are put online for free.
Q: But from another side, there exists the option of buying songs online, for example on platforms like iTunes etc. Doesn’t this factor affect the album sales?
A: This problem exists worldwide, I suppose. But the main issue in Iran is the absence of the copyright law. Outside Iran, you might spend a small amount of money to buy a track, but in Iran, you don’t even spend that amount. The problem is serious: even though the digital tracks are very cheap, people just copy them easily, since there is no implementation of any copyright law. One main guilty party in this issue are the producing and publishing companies themselves, who have helped eliminating the music shops and instead, have promoted selling music CDs in grocery stores along with crisps, yoghurt and cheese. This has encourage the closure of many cultural stores. There was a time where for example Alireza Eftekhari’s Album "Niloufaraneh” reached the sales record of three million cassettes. Some other best seller cassettes were produced in the last decade, such as "Dahati” (Shadmehr Aghili), "Gol-e Aftabgardan” (Arian band), "Gharibeh” (Fereydoun Asraei). But today, it is almost impossible for even the most popular musicians to reach a million sales.