A five-minute walk from Gurgaon’s Huda City Centre metro station, on the first floor of the Sushant Lok shopping arcade, crowded between mini-businesses and halfway shops, a room no bigger than half a cricket pitch stands out for its peculiar innards. Beyond the sound-proof exteriors, on the inside, a Rajasthani folk song, in the messianic voice of Lakha Khan, is ushering in the revival of a lost musical tradition. This is the workshop of Amarrass Records, the indie label founded by childhood friends Ashutosh Sharma and Ankur Malhotra. The song we are listening to is being played on a vinyl record, cut and made in India.
“Call us the exception or just being a little old, we have always wanted to have the ability to release albums on vinyl. So when we went searching for the material or the machinery, there was simply nothing in India. So we decided we’d get the machine, and start cutting records ourselves,” says Ankur.
Learning how to do it
To enable the making of vinyl in-house (something that hasn’t happened in India since the 80s), the duo travelled to Germany, from where they imported the raw material as well. The machine that is used to cut the record now sits in their workshop, where they began production about a month ago. But the process isn’t as straightforward as installing an editing software. “We trained first. From running the equipment to monitoring grooves that are being laid in, we had to learn all of it. We spoiled a lot of records to begin with. But now we have a better understanding, and can decide by simply looking at a record, if it has been done right,” Ashutosh says.
At no stage in the process of making a vinyl record, can the human involvement be forgone. From laying a nascent disc on the machine, to monitoring temperatures on a handy meter and the grooves as they are being inscribed from the sound source, to the post-write checks that involve viewing the disc’s surface with a photographic microscope, the whole process is as much human input as it is the machine’s nuts and bolts. Which begs the question, why vinyl?
What vinyl does better
“Firstly, the analog sound is much better than the digital. Digitally engineered MP3s are an approximation. Analog is just natural, more organic. The song you were hearing from Lakha Khan was recorded on a mobile device, in his home, as his son played an instrument in a corner of the room.
“We came here with the recording,” Ankur says pointing to the console where volume, pitch and amplitude can be checked. “Within 24 hours we were ready with an album,” he says. Lakha Khan’s At Home, and albums by the Rajasthani group Barmer Boys and the Palestinian-American band Painted Caves, will be the first three to be released on vinyl by the label.
The organic process of making a vinyl album resonates most with the organic folk scene of India that both Ankur and Ashutosh, through Amarass records, have been channelling for years now. One of the key problems here is the utilitarian nature of folk music in India, and the way it is perceived - not for the sound alone, but the whole pagdi-to-chappal dressing. “It is in a way similar to what happens everywhere in the world – local artists are discovered abroad. These folk artists are now better known outside India than they are here. They tour with us, but the problem is that while the music is known as something as open as ‘Folk’, the artist himself has no identity. Even a stalwart like Lakha Khan could be replaced by a man in a pagdi and not many would be able to tell. Not to mention the problems of caste and creed these artists face,” Ashutosh says.
Can vinyl change their fortunes, for the simple reason it makes recording and production simpler, at least in terms of creating their identity, given we live in a world where music is free? “That is, in fact, our biggest motivation. Folk has to remain organic. It loses its nature if you lock it inside a studio. Everyone makes money, and a name, except the artist,” Ashutosh says.
For vinyl in general, the numbers have been increasing manifold around the world. In both Europe and the US, vinyl is still a big way to release albums. In India, though there has been a revival in interest, it is still limited to a third-generation phenomenon. “To put things into context, it is important to understand that the first and second generations abroad (the 60s and the 80s), never really left Vinyl. They have stayed with it. Yes, in India it is largely a third generation thing so far, more of a hippie interest in the antique and in heritage, but it is slowly growing,” Ankur says. In an attempt to keep the production organic throughout, even the covers for the jackets that the records go into have been painted either by a student from NIFT or the man who has painted Amarass’ hoarding that hangs outside the workshop. “It is all very human. Even while we are cutting records and monitoring it in different ways, at the end of the day, there is no way to assess the pace of the grooves being set in – the rhythm. It is down to listening, the human ear, as all music is and should be,” Ashutosh says.