The music scene in 2018 is one largely consistent of festivals, consistent touring and blending genres as more and more artists collaborate in booking festival gigs. While many musicians have learned to produce music on their own, engineering and mixing audio for a live performance is a whole different ball game. Acoustics, crowd noise, as well as instrument and microphone levels are just a few of the variables an audio engineer has to be able to be able to command on-the-fly in order to create a successful performance. Experienced audio engineer and producer Varun Nayyar knows this all too well, and serves as an example of the wave of talented young audio engineers taking over the music industry. From mixing and mastering in small studios in India to engineering large festivals across the globe such as Boston GuitarFest, Nayyar has learned how make the best out of his surroundings to create the most vivid, ear-pleasing sounds. We had the opportunity to ask the accomplished engineer about his impressive past endeavors and future projects, gaining some insight into one of the more underappreciated roles in modern music.
Your work as an audio engineer for the rock band Indian Ocean’s album, 16/330 Khajoor Road, received praise from critics both in India and the US. How did you approach this project, and what was special about your work on this project, considering it was well reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone India?
Nayyar:At the time, I was working at a renowned studio in New Delhi, India, Kshitij Studios, alongside one of the top audio engineers and mentors in the city, Mr. Aakash Gupta. The band was very experienced in studio recording, making it a wonderful learning and working experience for me. The approach was to get the best sound from the band by focusing on two things. The first being the recording setup, to get the best quality of sound. That included mic setup and placements keeping in mind the strengths of the studio space and considering the style, instrumentation and genre of the band. Second was creating a comfort zone for them, and to maintain an environment where they could completely focus on the creative aspects, leaving all other details to us. I think for me the importance of any recording lies in the freedom awarded to the artist, allowing them to focus on their creativity, leaving out any other burdens during the sessions. This helps bring out the true essence of an artist. That was special to me, the fact that I helped nurture that mindset during the sessions.
Over the course of your career as an audio engineer and music producer you have had the opportunity to work with high profile artists like Cevin Fisher and additionally produce and engineer in renowned music venues such as Jordan Hall. What is it that distinguishes yourself from other producers and engineers within such a competitive industry?
Nayyar: Prior to working in the United States, I had the opportunity to gain experience in India. The approach and practices there towards production and engineering are quite different from the United States. My work now is a combination of techniques and styles of both worlds. This fusion has been invaluable for my work and has helped me catch the attention of people within the industry.
Being an audio engineer means that you have to collaborate with artists belonging to different cultural and musical backgrounds. How are you successfully able to mesh with different musicians and effectively engineer tracks for a wide array of artists like Cevin Fisher, who makes house and club music, versus Indian Ocean, a rock band?
Nayyar: I have been fortunate enough to gain exposure to a lot of versatile music and have had the opportunity to study at various music institutes and with musicians from all across the globe. I have studied and explored styles such as Indian classical music, rock, pop, jazz, Balkan music, western classical music, Bollywood, and Latin music amongst others. This has been my greatest strength and gift, giving me the means and opportunity to work and collaborate with artists from different genres and countries.
How does the experience of engineering change from working with an artist in a recording studio to then working in a large performance in front of hundreds or thousands, like your experience engineering for Boston GuitarFest?
Nayyar: It’s a different experience in many ways. For one, working with artists in the studio is more personal and intertwined. It entails not just work and creativity as an engineer, but also a lot of production and direction towards the artists, helping their creativity. It’s a relationship of trust in eachother’s abilities, and guidance, so as to reach a point where the music or the production is at the best place it can be. Working large venues has its own set of challenges. It’s more about understanding each venue. That is, how each venue sounds, taking decisions on what equipment and microphones will work best, and being creative about using the strengths of the venue. My idea is ensuring a comfortable experience to get the best sound from a venue, and enhance the experience of the performer as well as the listener.
Did you have to undergo a lot of preparation prior to working Boston GuitarFest? Given that the festival took place over the course of five days, this seems like it would be a very rewarding, yet exhausting experience.
Nayyar: Working alongside some of the greatest classical guitar maestros of our time, as well as with the many upcoming virtuoso musicians was very rewarding. The preparation for this kind of a project was immense. This project was under Suitcase Studios, LLC, for which I work as the ‘Director of Music and Sound’ as a freelance contractor. I was supervising a team of 3 interns through the course of the production. The planning phase was done along with the CEO, Mr. Elias Bouquillon. I worked closely with him to understand the needs of the event. Once I had the details about the event, we began pre-production by understanding the performance venue. Accordingly, I decided on the equipment best suited for the event including microphones, mounting equipment, audio interfaces and other necessary recording equipment. I got the opportunity to work with the Audio-Visual Services group of North Eastern University, and learned how to use the microphone rigging system of Jordan Hall. That was a treat. Each day, the performances ranged from four to six hours. And finally, I started the post-production process. I must have spent about 400 hours on the festival. So yes it was exhausting, but very rewarding.
You have worked extensively with Boston-based folk-rock band The Womps, engineering and producing some of the band’s early works. How have you helped beneficially influence and shape the band’s sound?
Nayyar: As a producer and engineer, it’s my job to make the recordings the best versions of what they can be. For this, I sat with them and discussed their influences, what kind of sound they were going for and understood how they wanted their public image to be perceived. I would say the recording techniques I chose to use for the production were in line with that and I helped shape their ideas according to their influences. I directed and advised them, keeping in mind current music and market trends, without compromising their artistic identity. Their open-minded approach to receiving direction and critique made it a joy to work with them and helped influence the sound of the recordings.
The Womps are in the midst of writing their first full album. What has the experience of producing and engineering their early singles for the band’s upcoming album been like? Do you expect be working with The Womps a fair amount in 2018?
Nayyar: It was a great experience working with them. They knew what they wanted, and were seeking to get my point of view. That kind of a collaboration is always fun and a great knowledge sharing experience. The sessions were all live with single-take recordings. The style and vision was to record the entire music in one go without any over-dubs. We were in studio for about three days and I thoroughly enjoyed the music and the overall collaboration on this production. The band and I have grown to build a great relationship. We will be working together on some singles in 2018 and maybe and album. I have also been in talks with them to bring them into one of my production’s this year. It’s always a treat working with them.
Over the next year, are there any other upcoming projects you are excited about?
Nayyar: I will be collaborating with singer/songwriter David Khoshtinant and releasing a full-length album this year. He has been in the industry for some time and definitely a talent to look out for. I am collaborating with New York based producer/engineer Derlis Chavarria on a hip-hop album featuring some very talented performers from New York. I will also be working on two of my own albums this year, and will be collaborating with artists from all across the country. These include Jovol Bell, The Womps, Mogati Labs, Kayla Jacobs, to name a few.
Looking back have there been any pivotal moments or projects which you feel have helped propel your career forward and helped you gain a better understanding of your industry in general?
Nayyar: Working with Suitcase Studios, LLC has presented me with more than a few exciting projects. Boston Guitar Fest XII was a project which helped me gain a lot of recognition in the classical world and as an engineer. It helped me understand a lot about current trends and practices in the industry. The band Indian Ocean’s album ‘16/330 Khajoor Road’ was an amazing production to work on. It was a great learning experience and definitely a turning point for me, helping me lean towards production and engineering.
In addition to your work engineering, you have also given lectures to younger musicians at Bridge Music Academy and Performers Collective School of Music. As your talents engineering/producing flourish and understanding of music continues to grow, is it important for you to impart your knowledge upon aspiring musicians and producers?
Nayyar: It’s very important to me. I have worked as an educator for almost 5 years and had the opportunity to study at some very prestigious schools, under the guidance of some great musicians. A lot of the knowledge I gathered was by absorbing the experiences of various professionals. For me, it’s essential to share both what I have learnt as well as my experiences. Many of my student have been talented, but one can only go so far with talent. After that, gathering new knowledge and constant hard work is the key to keeping up with a constantly changing industry.
Is there any key advice you would give to a young producer or engineer in regard to networking and getting jobs?
Nayyar: Creativity stems from ideas and these then make up the industry. And constantly acting on those ideas it what propels us. Keep pushing forward no matter how distant success seems. You never really fail if you keep trying your best. This kind of a professional attitude is what people remember you for and will help shape your reputation and help build a meaningful network. Don’t sell yourself on your weaknesses. Try to sell your strengths. Give your best to people. Everybody who you idolize was in your position once, so you have to question what you need to keep doing to reach that position. They worked hard and recognized where their passion lay. At the end you have to find the place you want to be at. Learn from other’s experiences and your own mistakes. You are an entrepreneur. Learn the craft, work hard and be good at it. Put yourself out there and then evolve with the scene. Don’t be afraid of taking calculated risks and never give up. Someone will eventually hire you.