How a Small Sound Studio Gained Mainstream Success in Indian Television and Cinema
Entrepreneur Aditya Mehta thinks he’s encashing his father Nikhil Mehta’s good karma — and Mehta Sr has a Swiss bank account worth of the stuff. If you were a musician, music composer, producer, or just about anybody who had a career in music in the late 1970s, you would have hung out at Sudeep Sound in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri. “There were two draws to recording at Nikhil bhai’s studio,” says musician Uttank Vora, who has directed the music for such popular TV shows as Sarabhai vs Sarabhai and Khichdi. “One was Nikhil’s mastery over the ‘running punch’; and the other was their puri-bhaji. I would accompany my father, the late Vinayak Vora [a tar-sitar and dilruba exponent] there in the early 1980s, and Aditya and I would hang around waiting for lunch. I would ask Nikhil bhai questions like, ‘Reverb kya hai [what is this reverb?],’ and he would explain patiently or even let me fiddle with the equipment. Other studios had a serious atmosphere, while Nikhil bhai was ever willing to guide you. Nobody could insert a ‘running punch’ into magnetic spool [this was the time of magnetic tapes] like him, saving the musicians’ time.”
Set up in 1977, Sudeep Sound was a home studio, independent of big movie studios, which functioned out of the second floor of the Mehta family home in Andheri. The studio was a manifestation of Nikhil’s hustle. In the mid-1970s, Nikhil had connected an out-of-town friend — who wanted to record an album — with a recording studio in Mumbai. “That studio backed out, and it became a prestige issue [for my father],” says Aditya. “In three days, our house was converted into a recording studio.” Nikhil knew what he needed, and equipment was hired or borrowed immediately. “Somebody had a cassette tape machine. We got microphones from somewhere. My mother helped put mattresses on the walls and doors for soundproofing. Later, he built a more professional set-up, with curtains and proper equipment — all on his own. Who would he turn to? There were no consultants then.” Thus was born Mumbai’s first home recording studio. The time was ripe — it was the mid- 1970s and artists were interested in recording personal work, and the devotional music market was also on the upswing.
“On Sundays, if there was a recording, everyone [the musicians] would come home and see Mahabharat first,” recalls Aditya. “My mother would cook for everyone.” “It was this homely feeling that relaxed us,” says National award-winning music composer Rajat Dholakia, who started visiting the studio in 1982, when working with sound engineer Mujeeb Dadarkar on Om Dar Ba Dar, a cult film. “Musicians need that to perform at their best. You could meet [Marathi pop star] Nandu Bhende here, or a classical performer. Nikhil bhai was also fond of buying new devices, so he was the first one to have an Acolyte [a tape-based analog system] or an 8-track magnetic recorder. He would let us experiment with the new equipment and tell us all about it.”
Music for TV shows such as Chanakya, Aa Bel Mujhe Maar and Amol Palekar’s Kachchi Dhoop were recorded at Sudeep. Nikhil became one of the most sought-after sound editors in Mumbai. “So much so that the sound engineer of Sunny Super Sound — owned by Dharmendra — Satish Katuria would send Bappi Lahiri’s work to my father to edit,” says Aditya. “Then, editing used to be done by ear, not visually as it is done now. When you recorded something, it had to be spliced. Then you had to move the spool and cut it to the beat. It was a very skilful and precise art, which my father mastered.”
Though set up in a home, Aditya says their equipment was world-class, most of it imported from Singapore. “The customs duty then was 400 per cent, and we had to take loans from State Bank of India at a high rate of interest. Not too many banks gave loans. A mixer today costs Rs 25,000; forty years ago, it would cost Rs 4 lakh. Relatively, it’s like having Rs 50 lakh worth of equipment today,” he says. “You also needed a licence to import it.” Most of the old equipment is still functional today. Recording charges back then were Rs 40 an hour, and Nikhil often forwent fees from broke musicians. “Nobody was funding anybody. You were using your own money to build a studio; the musician was using his own money to make a record. My father had the attitude of ‘fine, pay when you can’. So he was gypped a lot, but he’d say, ‘Chalo, kissi ka toh bhala hua [At least someone was helped].’” This is probably why Aditya now wants to start financial advisory services for musicians, but more on that later.
In the mid 1990s, Nikhil moved — studio and all — to Ahmedabad. “It was time for retirement, and the Mumbai he knew was changing.” That didn’t mean he stopped working. As a sound engineer, he last recorded two Gujarati folk artists. “It was for the movie [Goliyon ki Raas Leela] Ram Leela, and they played an instrument called a daklu, which is like a kanjeera, and a bhugal, a piped instrument with no holes that stretches across the room,” says Aditya. “He also did archival work for Geeta Sarabhai, digitising almost 2000 hours of recordings into CDs. She had a collection of private spools of classical and folks singers who had performed at jalsas and in homes.”
Meanwhile Aditya, fresh out of college, tried a few marketing jobs. But, later reverted to the family business. “I decided to carry on what my father was doing and set up an online store for audio equipment. I thought that whoever had recorded in our studio as a budding artist would be a professional now. Plus, more and more people were recording at home and in smaller set ups. This would cater to them.” He called the outfit Sudeep Audio. “A musician never forgets their first stage performance and first recording. Many people would come up to me and ask if I knew about Sudeep Sound, and I would say it belonged to my father.”
Sudeep Studio’s most successful reincarnation has to be its YouTube channel, which has just crossed a million views. If you are a professional musician today, you’ve probably bought a piece of equipment from SudeepAudio.com, and if you are considering a career in music, you’ve probably logged on to its YouTube channel to get advice from those who have already made it. “Musicians are not respected in our country. You are respected only if you are seen on TV or if you appear on Page 3. There are so many people who slog behind the scenes — technicians, engineers and arrangers, who give colour to the song,” says Aditya. “Only recently are they being recognised at awards shows, but there, too, you only see them for three seconds. Nobody knows their face — in the industry, too, forget outside it.”
This channel has become a prospectus and address book for those who want to join the field. Aditya’s focus during the interviews is two-fold — the personal story and the technical stuff that can serve as a guide for parents of budding musicians, because they know how much their children can expect to make and the different streams within the industry. “Recently, a cousin, who was fresh out of college, wanted to get into the industry,” says Aditya. “He went through the channel to understand the different kinds of work options available and then was able to zero in on the people he wanted to work with — music directors, sound engineers, composers.”
Aditya’s big future project is to advise musicians on how to plan their finances. “Their wives hate me because [they say], ‘Whenever you go to this guy, you end up buying something.’ In this stream, you could be out of work for six months and then get work that takes care of you for the next six months. Musicians have no clue about investments — they will buy one LIC policy or some gold. Nobody is advising them correctly. They don’t get retirement or medical benefits. I want to do seminars for them with financial advisors so they don’t have any tension about money. When they don’t have money, they’ll play anywhere to get it — on a ship, in the street.” His father’s son, Aditya, too, is thinking, ‘Chalo, kissi ka toh bhala hua.’
Photograph by Maharshi Jesalpura