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Feature: Banging the drum

Click to play video Feature: Banging the drum

Feature: Banging the drum

Indian drummer Sivamani once again rocked the Harman Live Arena during the recent Palm Expo India show. Caroline Moss meets the man and his FOH engineer

When it comes to microphone endorsees, you can’t do much better than sign up Indian drummer and percussionist extraordinaire, Sivamani. He channels the rhythm that courses through his body onto a bewildering array of inanimate objects, which have included water bottles, suitcases, palm leaves, kitchen utensils and metal buckets as well as more orthodox drums, cymbals and gongs – all of which need sensitive miking and mixing during his shows. No two performances are the same, and Sivamani endows each with an unforgettable sense of drama and showmanship. This is aided in no small part by the work of longtime front of house engineer, Nitin Joshi, who harnesses the large array of mics deployed on the rig and adds just enough processing to his mix to create magic out of the resulting cacophony.

Unorthodox use of a water bottle
Unorthodox use of a water bottle

‘The main challenge is feedback, because I’m working with 32 mics, all of which are open,’ explains Joshi from backstage at the Harman Live Arena. ‘I can’t mute anything because I don’t know what he’s going to play next. So I have to compensate for everything when I’m mixing a live show. When the PA is closer to the rig, as in smaller venues, that produces a huge challenge as it starts feeding into the rig. If the stage and the PA are a little distant – for example in a big venue like this – my job becomes easier, and there is no problem, but in smaller venues you can’t push the PA up.’ The intricate job of rigging up the drum kit for every live show falls to another integral member of the team, drum technician Subramanian Krishnan.

Sivamani has come a long way since his rhythm-obsessed childhood in Chennai. His father, S M Anandan, was a percussionist who worked extensively with Tamil film music composer, K V Mahadevan, and Sivamani knew from a very early age that drumming would be his life. Gaining recognition as A R Rahman’s lead percussionist, with whom he continues to work, he’s played with a host of leading Indian composers and musicians, appearing onstage before audiences ranging from world leaders and superstars to his legion of fans in the Indian villages. He’s played around the world, shared the stage with a multitude of international talent, appeared in films, released numerous albums and, in 2019, was awarded India’s fourth-highest civilian award, the Padma Shri.

The suitcase is miked with an AKG DMS 700 wireless microphone system
The suitcase is miked with an AKG DMS 700 wireless microphone system

He is also a spiritual man, and, aside from his regular touring schedule, Sivamani is often to be found playing in temples and ashrams around the subcontinent. ‘The challenge there is that there’s no budget for a good sound setup, so sometimes we have to be creative with the equipment we’re provided with,’ explains Joshi. ‘But, because he’s a Harman endorsee, he has a good selection of mics that we carry with us for our productions.’

Harman India signed up Sivamani back in 2011 and he has become a regular fixture in the Palm India performance space. ‘It’s been a symbiotic relationship in the sense that Siva’s setup has been inherently dynamic and ever-changing, and the range of AKG microphones he uses to cover this range has been equally dynamic and ever-evolving,’ says Prashant Govindan, senior director of Harman Professional Solutions, India and SAARC. ‘His application of the microphones has been nothing short of a point of reference for the limitless possibilities of use, both conventional and otherwise.’

Among the huge selection of AKG microphones supplied by Harman for the performance were C518 miniature condenser clip-on mics for snare drums, floor toms, tablas and udu (African clay vessel); D12VR large-diaphragm dynamic cardioid mics for kick drums; D112 dynamic bass drum mics for low toms, gong and duff (Kurdish frame drum); D40 dynamic instrument mics for octobans, rototoms, chendas, darbukas (goblet drums) and another duff; and a C535 reference condenser mic for a bucket full of water, into which the drummer dips wooden rain shakers. AKG C451 small-diaphragm condenser mics were used as overhead microphones.

Call and response with the R-Bharat brass band
Call and response with the R-Bharat brass band

Some of Sivamani’s favourite props include a large water bottle, which he often plays as he walks onstage or through the audience, plus a rigid suitcase that he wheels out and sets upon with his flying drumsticks. Both were miked with an AKG DMS 700 wireless microphone system with a DPT700 beltpack and an AKG C411 PP lavalier microphone. The mic was inserted into the bottle with the beltpack outside, while both the mic and beltpack were taped inside the suitcase. An AKG APS4 antenna power splitter and AKG SRA2BW active wideband directional antennas ensured consistent RF and audio between the transmitters and the receivers.

Close teamwork is vital when working on such intense and complex performances, and the sense of mutual admiration between the drummer and his FOH engineer, who’ve been working together for a decade, is palpable. ‘It’s so straightforward to work with Sivamani as he knows exactly what he wants, and this makes my job so much easier,’ says Joshi.

‘Nitin is the maestro; he understands my sound and he’s a phenomenal engineer,’ counters Sivamani. ‘We’ve had some challenges on the road, such as in Bangladesh recently where he had to go back to using an analogue desk, but he’s moved with the technology and I’m always confident he can handle any situation that he’s confronted with.’

For the Harman Live Arena show, the technology included a Soundcraft Vi3000 36-fader digital console with four Vistonics II touchscreens, supplied by Harman India for FOH. The JBL sound system in the arena comprised of six-per-side VTX A8 dual 8-inch line array speakers with six-per-side VTX G28 dual 18-inch subwoofers, all powered by Crown amplifiers. A Vi3000 was also used onstage for monitoring, with both consoles sharing a Vi stagebox with 64 inputs and 32 outputs. Gain sharing between the consoles was handled by a DOGS (Direct Output Gain Stabiliser), while the remote microphone monitoring feature allowed Ethernet control-enabled microphones to be monitored and controlled from the console. RF, mute and battery status are displayed on the channel where the microphone is patched, and the gain control of the microphone receiver can be adjusted from the console itself. Multitrack recordings of all the live acts was carried out over Dante.

Spontaneity plays a large role in Sivamani’s performances. For the Palm India appearance, for example, the show incorporated the R-Bharat brass band led by Rajasthani trumpeter Aamir Bhiyani, who typically performs at weddings. Despite the practised nature of the call and response that built up between band and drummer, with the suitcase playing a central role, this was the first time they had appeared on a stage together, having not even rehearsed the set.

‘I’m gigging ever other day; I’m always on the road,’ says Sivamani. ‘Every time I’m adding something to the rig, so Nitin will always get some surprise in every show, especially when we’re travelling.’

Sivamani with FOH engineer, Nitin Joshi
Sivamani with FOH engineer, Nitin Joshi

A wry smile crosses the face of the sound engineer on hearing this. ‘We meet people who will gift him something to play, such as a local instrument, which adds to the regional flavour,’ he confirms. ‘Every day is a different day. The positions change, the number of instruments and channels change, what he plays changes – nothing is fixed. There is some programmed content, but other than that the show is very spontaneous. Whatever he feels on that day is what will happen. Every gig is a different gig.’

And it’s not only the sound engineer who doesn’t know what to expect, as the audience reaction to his spontaneous performances testifies. When an enthusiastic crowd is dancing ecstatically to a man beating a battered plastic container, it’s hard to argue with Sivamani’s mantra that rhythm is god.



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