The Journey To A Nepali Recording Studio
COW Library : Audio Engineering : Jiggy Gaton : The Journey To A Nepali Recording Studio
When I realized that I would be making Nepal my permanent base camp, I had no idea what to expect as I began to organize my professional life here. I had originally come as a well-packed trekker, complete with a 3-chip camcorder, laptop, digital camera, and a bag of lenses. Also stuffed inside of wool socks were cables, dongles, and requisite doohickeys.
I was still wholly unprepared for what I found inside my new neighbourhood cybercafé. From the outside, it resembled a Wild West telegraph office. In fact, there even was an electrical telegraph machine, although I never saw anyone pounding that key. Instead, there were rows of underpowered ancient rollyour- own desktops, with crowds of Nepalese pounding away on something a little more up-to-date.
In 2001, the fastest any Nepali cybershop ran was 56K modem speed, and that was shared with a dozen or more users. Today, we are on the information freeway with a typical top speed of 256kbps, with a residential cost of $40 per month. Dedicated and faster lines (1 MB) can be had, but run upwards of $400 per month. With the average monthly Nepali salary in Kathmandu just over $100, it is safe to say that not many folks are enjoying streaming media or multimedia chatting.
But for the entrepreneur expat, a fast Internet connection is your lifeline, unless one wants to check into a monastery and become a monk - which is exactly what I did, but that's another story. Also part of that story is meeting my now-wife and musical family, all of whom dreamed of opening a recording studio just as I did. As a writer and filmmaker who had come to Nepal to find the "story," this was seemingly a match made by Buddha himself.
So we all began to plan our home business: an A/V studio to cater to the budding recorded music scene, the documentary film crowd, and the digital media advertising market, all of which were sprouting like rhododendrons on a terraced hillside.
CyberTelegraph Café: a great place to share a modem line with 25 others, and make your long distance phone calls, as well.
TRAILS AND ATTENUATION: A HIMALAYAN ADVENTURE
While Nepal offers some of the world's most fertile soil for rice, bananas, oranges and apples, the environment is hostile to anything related to technology.
For example, once we overcame the slow-speed Internet problem, we were still "404 Not Found" until we overcame the power problem. Nepal faces a severe shortage of hydroelectricity most of the year, despite the fact that Everest glaciers are melting faster than the last of the Nepali River Dolphins can swim.
To ensure that the nation has distributed power across the grid, a system of government load shedding has pulled the plug from almost all households and businesses. From 4 to 18 hours per day, you have no juice for your TV, your refrigerator, or your A/V studio. The government-run electric utility issues an insanely unpredictable and ever-changing schedule, so you don't even know when the lights are going out - well, until they do.
As you can imagine, the market for generators, inverters, and UPS systems in this city of almost two million people is thriving. There are candle shops here like you would not believe. So, in order for us to set up our own shop and record our first job, we had to jump that dark crevice.
Loud emergency generators and A/V recording rarely mix, so instead of dealing with sound barriers and auto-size engines, we went with quick-charging inverter systems: banks of lead-acid truck batteries to power Pro Tools machines and all the rest. It's lucky that we went down that path - as soon as our studio construction was complete, Nepal was hit with an oil shortage that has not yet quit. Diesel and petro generators lie silent in the city now, but our inverter banks are humming along, and work well if they get at least a 12- hour charge.
When there is less time to charge, we seriously start counting our watts. We had to build our editing and recording bays with wattage and amperage high in mind, and we have auto-switching that powers down to just the essential services when running with the Energizer bunnies.
We also converted to an all-Apple recording studio using iMacs and MacBook Pros soon after opening, as our custom built PC desktops were using far too much juice to stay operational on such limited battery reserves. While it seems like every kid on the city streets has an iPod or jailbroken iPhone, we are the only creative business we know of that runs anything Apple-like. And just as soon as we had decided to make the transition to Macs, we actually met an ex-Apple Genius Bar employee in the middle of the jungle. What are the odds? Considering that we are 1000 kilometers from anything that resembles an Apple Store, I chalk it up to good karma.
You are probably wondering, why not solar? Well, while solar power heats all water, and for some, does all cooking, there are very few commercial or residential applications of photoelectric panels. We are looking on the bright side, however, and look forward to the day when the panels do arrive, as the sun shines here most of the year.
This set of batteries will power a large bay for 12 hours on a charge of 8 hours or so. We have 3 sets now, one each for video, sound, and the live room. Crazy, eh?
As quiet as our battery banks are, it was still a challenge to construct a RWAR (room within a room), as well as the rest of the studio, with just the materials at hand. There is no QuietRock™ in Nepal, unless you count concrete walls that never say a word. Nepali architecture is a mix of mud & brick technology from the 5th century, with a little 20th century earthquake-proof concrete and rebar technology thrown in.
We were lucky to start with 12" poured exterior walls and 8" interior walls, which we fitted with independent plywood and studded walls on each side. Insulation was used to fill in the cavities, and the control room and live rooms were finished off with diffusion/absorption material.
To our advantage, carpet and labour is dirtcheap, about $1/sq. yard and $1 per hour for the labour. We are also a bit off from the rolling 10- ton Tata byways, and far enough away from the constant blaring of motorbike horns.
Yet, if someone forgets and leaves the front door open, we get Tata air horns and wild cow bellows recorded in with our music and video. But all in all, we managed to achieve a sound environment of about STC 75. This Sound Transmission Class score indicates that we have been able to reduce outside levels of up to 75 dB down to zero, very good indeed.
We were lucky to have power for the opening night party of Phoenix Studios in Kathmandu. (Our home is on the top floor.) It's a one-stop shop for arranging, composing, recording, mixing and mastering, as well as a place to get your website and album covers done. As we say, "Come in a singer, leave a star."
Our studio musicians in Damak Nepal, playing for a crowd of 6000 Bhutanese refugees, who have been living in temporary quarters for over 15 years. The event was organized by the United Nations High Council on Refugees.
ON GETTING OUTFITTED WITH THE RIGHT GEAR
My Nepali wife Jessy exclaims every time we go trekking, "Every step is a torture!" This also accurately describes the beginning of our business climb. For example, we imported most of our equipment from Singapore with no joy, as customs duty for electronics ranges from 30-40%. There are long and unexplainable delays that you just have to live with.
We are allowed some quota of personal electronics when returning from vacations abroad, so we are always humping hard drives and computers instead of seashells and duty free booze like everyone else.
We also make a lot of our own equipment for lighting, booming, and dollying, and do most repairs ourselves. If you are Nepali, it's not like you can leave the country on a business trip and gather the goods for your new business, as travel is severely restricted by the government.
Living within sight of the Chinese border, you would expect that electronics would be easy for us to find for pennies on the dollar. However, prices for Chinese imports into this part of the world do not compare with prices for the same items when shipped to more affluent centers in the west.
A note on product (un)safety: no one within 1000 kilometers of our Studio has heard of Underwriters Laboratories® or ETL SEMKO - especially not the Chinese manufactures of our electric sockets, power strips, and other electrified gear.
In fact, while there is a resemblance on the outside of products to quality brands (sometimes even an exact match), there is nothing reliable on the inside. This goes for instruments, amps, compressors, soundboards, and all the rest. I can't even remember the number of times I've been thrown across the room while plugging something in, or how many times a power brick has vaporized in a puff of smoke.
I've even gotten used to the idea, and am now living proof that shock therapy is no cure for insanity.
REACHING THE SUMMIT AND PLANTING THE FLAG
Six months and just $20,000 USD later, Phoenix Studios went online and began producing materials for both local and international artists, as well as for local businesses and development organizations - all with the only all-Apple studio in the country, and with a western-style environment, complete with a dressing and shower room, full kitchen, and a space for clients to relax.
Our clients are split between musicians, and corporate/ Non-Government Agency (NGO) types, all wanting to use our A/V services to get a message out. The climate here for rock musicians is stormy, as the market has not developed much over the past several decades.
The premiere Nepali band, 1974 AD, sounds like a jazz-fusion rock band from the 1980s and has been widely popular for decades. The boys in that band are like family to our studio, but like most other successful music ensembles in Nepal, they have their own recording studio.
That really leaves our studio to new musicians not yet on a label, and some very alternative types, like the once underground, now aboveground Alt-F4, Nepal's version of Audioslave meets Linkin Park.
AXIS is a band that reminds us all of Bon Jovi. This style of rock is beginning to explode now that the civil war is over, and artists are free to express themselves without fear. These are the artists now lining up at our door.
Of course, we get our share of traditional Nepali folk music, which makes up the lion's share of recording sales. Nepathya is a folk-pop client that is unique, as they hunt the hills of Nepal in search of traditional village tunes which they then transform into pop hits for the iPod generation. Their "Bhedo Ko Oon Jasto" is not only a song, but a hilarious documentary on Nepali music making.
A place to buy shirts and Adobe CS4 software.
Phoenix recording artist Shubu Thapa.
A place to buy shirts and Adobe CS4 software.
Then there is our staff and close friends, all recording artists in their own right. For example, Shubu Thapa is poised to become Nepal's Avril Lavigne, and also acts as our customer service rep.
For the most part, our role in the recording biz here is mostly behind the scenes, even though we are now offering music video productions and other promotional services to our clients - web work, packaging, etc. The reality is that most Nepali artists self-produce, using studios like ours. The money for recording comes from the artist's own limited pockets.
On the other side of the house, we help NGOs with public service announcements and other forms of what they call ICT (Information Communication Technology). For an A/V shop, that means multimedia, and educational courseware that influences social change.
SURVIVAL IN THE HARSH HIMALAYAN ENVIRONMENT
Whether you are delivering aid or A/V recordings, operations are a bit of a problem.
I often feel safer swaying on a flimsy bamboo and rope bridge crossing a 500 ft. gorge, than I do sitting in our studio's control room chair. At least when you are 5000 meters up and on the back of a Royal Enfield motorbike, you don't have to worry about being caught in the middle of a communist revolution.
We actually survived the last communist revolution during our getting-started phase. In the spring of 2006, the capital's streets, usually awash with cows, sewage, and cheap Honda motorbikes, were full of Nepali youth burning tires and demanding an end to the royal monarchy. Lots of red hammer and sickles waving, as the Maoist movement marched from the hills into the metropolitan hub of Kathmandu.
That spring, the People's Movement ended a bloody civil war in a matter of days, a conflict that had been raging for years in the most impoverished parts of the country, and in one of the poorest regions in the world. I actually feel privileged to have witnessed the outcome, and my love for all things Nepali has deepened after my observation of real democracy in action. Heck, we even got to record some of it. Now that the war is over, and the constant Bandhas (worker's strikes) have stopped, we can finally get back to work.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
Vendors openly (and quasilegally) sell the very latest PC software in street stalls and in Kathmandu's newest shopping malls. I am left wondering if anyone really sees this as a crime. The government has not signed on to the WTO, and respectable tax-paying shops (which are also government licensed) sell working, pirated software ,like Adobe CS4 Suites and Maya 2010, for less then $1 a disk.
This is all very bad news for all of us in the Nepali recording industry. Up until last year, there was not a judge in the land that would hear a case of copyright infringement for Nepali folk, pop or rock music.
However, this year, one case was brought to the courts over a lyrics/music remix, where an artist blatantly rerecorded someone else's hit single - down to the very note and word - and made a bundle of cash to boot.
The case was settled out of court, but the court made a landmark decree. Artists now have protected rights over their work - forever!
While some see this as a blow to the social sharing of classic national treasures, others feel relieved that producers of the next Bollywood movie won't steal their work for their next soundtrack, and legally get away with it!
Nepal is catching up with the rest of the world in IP rights in other regards, albeit slowly. In fact, for expats, the major appeal of Nepal is that this country is so very far behind the rest of the world. Anyone who remembers 50s America, when every shop was familyowned, and every business owner would offer a cup of Joe and a friendly chat - right along with some real customer service - would wax nostalgic here.
WE WILL BE LANDING SOON. PLEASE RETURN YOUR TRAY TABLE TO THE UPRIGHT POSITION
Anyone who has ever been on a Himalayan trek will tell you that the ending of the journey is always bittersweet. On one hand (and one foot), you are sore all over and feel like a herd of angry yak has trampled you. But on the other hand (and on the last foot not blistered), you feel like you have achieved a tremendous accomplishment, against all odds.
(You would be surprised by how many trekkers in Nepal turn back early, or hitch rides with passing mule packs.)
This is pretty much how our team feels. We did not turn back, despite dribbling electricity, non-existent petro, dry water wells, horrible public infrastructure, high hardware costs with import hassles, low profits, and an even lower-than-bad economy. We are exhilarated from the journey, and happy we made the climb.
After all, the songs of struggle and triumph will always play on, and we are right here doing what we love: recording them.
For more of Jiggy's adventures in Nepal, visit the blogs section at Creativecow.net and search on "Jiggy" for more insights and reports from Our Man in Nepal.
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