One Small Voice: Shah Tahir

Published on 27 October 2015

Acoustic advice from veteran sound engineer Shah Tahir.

INTERVIEW BY PAMELA HO

The best sound I’ve experienced was when Paul Simon performed at the Singapore Indoor Stadium as part of his Graceland Tour years ago. I’ve watched enough shows there to know that managing acoustics is tough because of the echo inherent in the space. That evening, I was stunned. I could hear everything clearly. I later found out that the sound was done by award-winning sound engineers from America. It was eye-opening for me… so it’s possible!

On a very basic level, what constitutes ‘good sound’ is when the audience is able to hear what’s most important for that performance. Is it a voice? A violin solo? If that is not clear, they will complain that the sound is bad, like what happened recently with Jay Chou’s concert at the National Stadium. A sound engineer must know what’s the primary focus, what the audience is paying for.

Whether it’s a small theatre, the National Stadium or the Padang, my main concern is the same: how do I ensure everybody enjoys the best quality of sound, no matter where they sit or how much they pay? A small space isn’t necessarily easier. There may be limited possibilities in hanging speakers or the configuration may be odd. A sound engineer needs to be very familiar with audio technology and have an understanding of sound in a scientific way — how sound works and moves. If there is wood, metal or fabric around, how will it affect the overall sound?

Apart from amplifying sound, a sound engineer may be tasked to control it. For example, in a museum, where the sound of one exhibit area should not overlap with another, how do you control the sound by choosing special types of speakers with specific coverage and angle?

In Singapore, the term ‘sound engineer’ is often used loosely to refer to anyone who takes care of sound, be it for a concert, theatre, installation, museum or theme park. The distinction between a sound designer who plans the audio element of a show and a sound operator, who mixes the sound when the show runs, is sometimes unclear, though both parties are essential for a successful result.

Having said that, Singapore has very unique challenges. It’s common to be called upon to do many things beyond your responsibility. We’re a small country and venue rentals are high, so shows can’t run for long. Leading up to a show, there’s limited time allocated to sound. It’s challenging but I tell the young ones it’s due to economics, so be flexible and be a good team player.

I’ve also noticed that young people feel completely lost when they have to mix music they’re not familiar with. This is because they only listen to a very selective style of music — like pop or indie. So if they have to mix for a Chinese orchestra or a Keroncong [Portuguese-inspired Indonesian music] band, they have no idea how to balance the sound.

It’s important to educate your ear to at least know how the mix should sound. There is no such thing as one formula for everything. It’s like cooking, you can’t use one style for different dishes! Experience comes from listening to a wide variety of music.

Shah Tahir has been involved in various aspects of the audio and music industry for over 20 years. As a musician, he has played guitar on numerous albums for Singapore and regional artists such as Dick Lee, Kit Chan, Jeremy Monteiro and Sandy Lam. As a music producer, he’s worked with many homegrown talents, including Humpback Oak and Michaela Therese. From 2009 to 2015, Shah was the audio consultant/sound designer for the National Day Parade. He also lent his expertise to this year’s 28th Southeast Asian Games. He’s been recognised in Singapore theatre circles for designing and mixing audio for many major productions, including 881 the Musical, December Rains and Dim Sum Dollies.

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