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Can you tell us about your background?
Samir Kripalani is one of India’s leading audio professionals and, in 2014, was honored with the coveted Palm Award for Best Audio Engineer in the country. In addition to a busy schedule of gigs as a system, front of house and monitor engineer with some of India’s most popular artists, Samir works with major event companies to oversee large projects for organizations like Microsoft and Google. He also owns and runs Room Tone, a prominent AV installation company in New Delhi.
Samir was born in Mumbai, but he has lived in New Delhi for many years. After graduating university in India with a Master’s degree in economics, he attended the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe, Arizona, and then interned at Merlin Studios in New York City before returning home.
During his hectic schedule of touring, events and installation work, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Samir about his career and some of the differences he has observed between the music industries in India and the United States.
[MM] What initially attracted you to a career in audio? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
[Samir] I think what first interested me was that my parents used to listen to music on an old, really small Phillips tape deck. The music just got to me, and I was really curious about the mechanics. I liked to open up and fix broken radios and put them back together. Then, in school, I worked on all the stage events and galas, playing back music, acting and overseeing the technical aspects of the shows. After school, I became a DJ for about six years. Eventually, I got tired of it and wanted to do something else. That’s when I went to Arizona to study studio recording.
[MM] These days, your work is focused on front of house, monitor and system engineering instead of studio recording. Is there one position that is most satisfying for you?
[Samir] My favorite role is system engineering. Whenever I go to a venue or an event, I just want it to sound good. I make sure no matter who is mixing—me or someone else—that the system is set up correctly. That’s what drives me. Everything must be right. Everybody must be happy. The musicians and audience should get what they want. In India, many front of house engineers are former or current studio engineers and just like to come out and mix a show now and then. I like system engineering, because I know concert sound really well and can make sure it’s done right.
[MM] As a system engineer, how do you begin your preparation for a show?
[Samir] At a festival, for instance, the work starts long before the day of the event, usually when we receive the first call and the plans. Initially, we sit with the client to decide stage size, audience seating, speaker locations, potential obstacles, video screens and other details. I then start sending them simulation drawings as per what’s required.
[MM] What about putting a crew together?
[Samir] To be honest, India has a big challenge as far as skilled labor goes. It’s very different than the U.S. and many other places. In India, a lot of the workforce is unskilled, and we don’t have specialized jobs for each person. It’s not like the riggers are just rigging, and the audio guy is just doing audio; everybody does everything. Just to make a bit of sense out of the madness, allocate jobs and get each person to do what they should, so the show isn’t compromised, takes a lot of effort.
As a system engineer, it’s difficult, because I have to manage everybody, manage their times and see that everything gets done the way I want it. I try to maintain higher standards and have slightly higher expectations of people. When you’re engineering in India, you need to know everything—electric, drafting, staging, audio, a bit of video—literally everything. You wear a lot of different hats and the biggest is managing people. Fortunately, I worked at a rental company for about 10 years and learned a lot about management.
[MM] India’s entertainment industry is so large, why isn’t there a broader skilled workforce?
[Samir] Especially in the last seven or eight years, things have changed really quickly. While India is very good at adapting to new technology and has the capital to invest in decent gear, what it really lacks is education. There are some very enterprising engineers who have opened their own schools and are training people to work in our industry, but they are training people who are already educated and learning additional skills. The workforce, however, is largely uneducated and poses a huge challenge.
One of the things I’m most looking forward to, at this point in my career, is to help build a more skilled workforce and spend time training people to enter the industry. It’s an important goal for me.
[MM] What advice would you give people who are thinking about getting involved with the music industry in India?
[Samir] I would advise them to keep the passion, and imbibe and read as much information as they can. There is plenty of work, but so much to learn. Fortunately, the industry is doing really well. A lot of artists are touring, and there are lots of events every day. We need more interested people to join the industry.
[MM] Are Indian audiences also changing?
[Samir] Audiences tend to be a little more mature than they used to be. They know what they want. The only issue is that audiences here refuse to pay big-ticket prices to see music events, so shows can’t pay for themselves.
Selling the show on tickets is very difficult. The current model in India entails getting major corporate sponsors to underwrite everything. In America, you can go on a 10-city tour and make money on the box office, without anyone sponsoring the shows. To make money in India, all large music events need to be underwritten.
[MM] Who are some of the artists that you work with?
[Samir] There have been many. But in 2000, I started touring with an indie band called Indian Ocean that I still work with today. Bollywood drives the Indian music industry, but Indian Ocean has always stayed away from it and done their own thing. They have a huge following and were the first Indian band to release an album on iTunes. The band primarily plays large venues with 500–2,000 people, and we do a U.S. tour almost every year. I handle all the engineering positions—system engineer, monitors and front of house.
Another band I have toured with for the last 15 years are electronic artists called Midival Punditz and music producer Karsh Kale. They’re not EDM, though; they mix electronic music with Indian folk or Indian vocals and were one of the first electronic Indian bands on Billboard charts.
I have also worked as a system engineer for big-ticket artists, like Enrique Iglesias, Guns N’ Roses, Korn, David Guetta, Lady Gaga, Fat Boy Slim, Bryan Adams and others, when they tour India.
[MM] Are you currently touring?
[Samir] Yes, with a Bollywood band called Salim-Sulaiman. They are actually composers who make music for films. In India, we have lots of songs in our films, and the band writes and performs songs and background scores. On tour, brothers Salim and Sulaiman Merchant perform songs they have written for films.
I’ve been with them for three years as a monitor engineer, which has been an interesting change for me. I have enjoyed learning everything about RF [radio frequency] and had to relearn everything from a stage and RF perspective. It was fresh and got my inspiration going. On this tour, I’m mixing 17 in-ears.
[MM] What kind of rig do you typically tour with?
[Samir] We send out a technical rider and usually, depending on the job, the vendor or client sends it back with all their technical notes, and then we approve or disapprove what they send us. That’s how it starts. It’s not fixed. The only things I carry with me on all the tours are microphones. For Indian Ocean, all of the microphones are mine, I know exactly what I’m using and have used them for many years.
In terms of line arrays, JBL is one of the most popular and widely available systems available in India. Wherever you go, across the length and breadth of the country, you will find JBL VerTec systems, so I have a lot of experience with them. A lot of people are also investing in the JBL VTX V20 and VTX V25. I’ve done a couple large festivals on the VerTec and VTX, and a lot of EDM on the VerTec. I especially love the JBL VT4880A subwoofer. You get exactly what you predict and what you need. Set them up right, and you don’t need to think about it. They deliver exactly what you simulated and are perfect for electronic dance music!
[MM] You work with quite a variety of artists, what do you listen to when you’re not working?
[Samir] At home, I listen to contemporary jazz. It’s one genre of music that’s not very prevalent in India. We need a lot more of it. There are very few jazz venues where you can just go and listen. Currently, I’m listening to the Neil Cowley Trio, Natalie Merchant, the Tord Gustavsen Quartet, and Angus and Julia Stone.
[MM] What do you do when you’re off the road?
[Samir] I run Room Tone, an audio and video installation company that keeps me busy when I’m not touring. I started doing home theater installations in 2002 and saw it as a growing business. At the time, there were very few people doing surround sound installations. It just took off, and now I have a full-service company that does installations for bars, clubs, restaurants, networked audio and audio distribution. We also do lots of high-end residential audio and video installations.
We recently did a complete HARMAN install at a new restaurant with a small performance space in Mumbai. We’re using four JBL AM7315 for the main PA and JBL ASB6118/AL7115 subwoofers and JBL AC28loudspeakers, all processed out of a BSS BLU-100 and a BSS BLU Break-out Box. It’s going to be a great space!
Many thanks to Samir for sharing his insights on a fascinating career! Do you work in tour sound and perform multiple roles? Share your experience in the comments.