Recording in Japan - Making That Island Connection.
Written for MIX magazine in 1997 by Mel Lambert
Given its geographical and cultural position in the scheme of things, the Japanese Recording Industry remains something of a mystery to the majority of us here in the States. But, as a growing number of artists, producers and engineers are discovering for themselves, any involvement with a recording or production facility based in that Fair Island is bound to be a memorable experience. During a recent swing through the Orient, I had the opportunity for an albeit brief flirtation with the recording scene in Tokyo. and offer the following as a report of my findings.
Not that the studio business in Japan is huge, by North American proportions. For a country that dominates the consumer electronics industry - and is gaining ground in the recorder and recording media sectors of our market - Japan has a modest number of large-format tracking and remix environments: close to 250 48-track-capable rooms, according to reliable sources, of which in excess of 95% are located in Tokyo.* (Osaka, for example, is estimated to offer no more that eight rooms.) And project studios, as such, are a recent phenomenon. There are probably no more that a couple of dozen such facilities in Tokyo, equipped with either ADAT or DA-88 Modular Digital Multitracks, although there may be many more being operated on a strictly private basis, and whose address details, for obvious reasons, appear in few commercial directories.
By way of a yardstick, currently there are some 280 SSL consoles installed within Japanese facilities, including 15+ SL-9000 J-Series and seven Axiom Digital Production Systems (three in broadcast facilities and the remainder being used for video post). At the time of writing, total worldwide penetration of 9k mixers is some 60 systems, making Japan the largest single market outside of the UK and North America.
According to Susumu Kunisaki, Editor-in-Chief of Japan's Sound & Recording magazine, "The combination of an SSL console and a Sony [PCM-3348 digital] multitrack a very popular for Japanese studios, and is essential for them to be considered 'Word Class.' Also, vintage equipment is held in high regard in many of our facilities, particularly tube limiters and equalizers." Kunisaki says that, as in the West, many producers prefer to track in smaller, hard disk- or ADAT-based facilities and then use a larger facility for mixdown, during which outboard hardware comes into its own.
Regarding the choice of studio, Kunisaki offers that the role of A&R Director is still very strong in Japan, and that record labels dominate what is produced and where. "The role of the independent producer is not as strong as you are used to in America," he concedes. "Our producers rely more on the record labels for direction in what artists to record, and the production style." Also, labels normally pay the studios directly, while the producer collects a fee for his/her work on the project; points or royalties are normally only paid to top-selling producers with a reputation. So it goes.
To western ears, a lot of what reaches the Japanese charts can sound bland and very similar; there is certainly a predominance of young solo artists - both male and female - as well as bands of all persuasions. An album would need to sell around 100,000 copies to reach the top of the Japanese charts. Teenagers make up the vast majority of the Japanese buying public. "Since the labels are so powerful," Kunisaki continues, " we have a high turnover of, usually young, artists; many of them enjoy two or three hits and then are gone."
Japanese albums are produced to a formula, he says. "The composition, the way it is advertised on TV, the dramatic content . . . and whether is easy to sing along with the melody .. all [these factors] need to be calculated for maximum impact. The hook is very important in this market - [leading producer] Tetsuya Komuro is 'God of the Hook.' MTV Promotion is also very important, as is the use of chart music in TV commercials."
Such is the clout of leading producer Tetsuya
"TK" Komuro that he can call the shots on a many of his sessions, and has been
equally successful as an arranger and songwriter. TK recently produced the main theme for
"Speed II," which was recorded in mixed in LA.
The facility also features ISDN lines and APT Codecs for
linking the facility to studios and production locations around the world; it is often
used to enable the busy producer to check mixes while he is out of town on business, says
session engineer Akihisa Muraka. "We often use other studios to track acoustic
instruments, and then come back here with the [elements]. But the advantage of this place
is that we can work any time we want to; that freedom is very important to us. And we are
so busy with TK's sessions, that we do not have any studio time available for outside
According to technical director Hisao Yamamuro, "Almost all our sessions are for Japanese producers; we have very few overseas customers." A glance at the rate card may explain why. Published rates for Studio 1 are some ¥56,600 per hour; ¥500,000 per 12-hour day. At current exchange rates, that translate to around $480/hour or $4,300 per day! Even though these rates include an assistant engineer and a Sony PCM-3348, plus fixed equipment - and inevitable discounts are available for regular clients - there's no escaping the fact that recording or mixing an album in Japan is going to be expensive! (Overlooking, for a moment, the high cost of hotels and dining out in Tokyo.) Yamamuro attributes the rate differences primarily to higher real-estate costs, and staff payroll.
As I discovered, mastering on the vast majority of session at Onkio Haus is to half-inch, 15 ips analog or PCM-1630/U-Matic. All of the rooms feature Panasonic SV-3700 DAT machines but, Yamamuro says, "these are normally used for backup copies and/or trial mixes."
Regarding future plans, Onkio Haus' technical director says that the biggest impact is coming from private studios based on ADAT/DA-88 MDMs. "It is a similar situation to that of America," he considers. "But because we have specialized in orchestral and scoring sessions - and have recently upgraded the recording equipment in Studio 1 - we do not compete directly with these home studios. We have also specialized in high-quality remix; again we do not go head-to-head with project facilities. The key to success, we consider, is to find a market niche, and then be the best in that specialty."
And, as I was to discover during conversations with several
facility owners and operators, digital does not loom heavy on Yamamuro' event horizon.
"Aside from the high costs, processing delay means that it is impossible to use
[digital consoles] for overdubs. Even though the delay may be small, there is going to be
inevitable phase anomalies between tracks," he considers. "The ability to reset
the entire console between sessions is very useful, but we still need to face the fact
that these consoles cost a lot of money!"
Control Rooms A and B are equipped with identical SL-4064 consoles that connect into a single performance area designed by studio staff and Nitobo Design. High ceilings and a 1,600 square foot floor area are augmented by several isolation booths. Studio C is a self-contained remix suite with control room layout identical to A and B, plus a small overdub/vocal booth. As I discovered, some 30% of studio sessions are booked by Fun House Records. Studio rates are similar to Onkio Haus: between ¥29,000 and ¥39,000 per hour - $250 to $340 - dependent upon the use of Control Room A/B's live area, and other factors. Day rates are between ¥480,000 and ¥550,000 ($4,100 to $4,700).
The Mastering Suite is centered around a popular editing system: the Sony DAE-3000 controlling PCM-1630 processors fitted with Apogee anti-aliasing filters, and U-Matic videodecks. A Sony SDP-1000 Digital MultiEffector is used to enhance tracks, as necessary. Monitoring is via industry-standard Quested Q-212b cabinets.
A primary feature in the spacious recording area that's shared by the pair of control rooms is the extensive use of fir, spruce and other redwoods. As Chief engineer Takashi Ito explains, "Natural resonance was an important consideration in developing our main studio. Top-grade fir and spruce from the woods of Hokkaido were used extensively for the interior, to create an ideal natural resonance. And, through careful design and engineering, we have achieved noise levels of NC-14."
"And because of the fact that the acoustic look and feel of all three of our control rooms are identical, clients can move freely between all three areas without having to readjust to the monitoring," he offers.
The studio also boasts an enviable collection of vintage microphones, many of which are used during the regular classical-music recordings made via tielines from the 2,200-seat Orchard Hall. A number of AKG C34 units with Stephen Paul capsules and enhancements are augmented by Telefunken U47s and the like. A local vendor, Studio Systems Laboratory, specializes in the rental and maintenance of vintage microphones and accessories. A neat touch is the use of a special temperature-controlled humidifier, set to 30%. It houses the most precious of the studio's collection, and helps maintain optimal operating conditions for their capsules.
In terms of mastering, Ito says that most sessions are
recorded to DAT or half-inch analog; the studio sees little call for PCM-1630, despite the
fact that its Mastering Suite is equipped primarily to handle that format. "We also
have a pair of the PCM-9000 [magneto-optical mastering recorders], but I'm dubious about
the [sonic] quality of the units' [built-in] A-to-D converters. We prefer to use outboard
DB Technology converters. But the cost [of PCM-9000 systems] is very high!"
During a conducted tour throughout the 20-year old complex by Kimio Hamasaki, deputy director of the Broadcast Engineering Department, I saw a number of studios equipped to handle HDTV and NTSC formats, including CD807, which features a TOA iX-1100 Digital Console linked to a PCM-3348 digital multitrack and a Fairlight MFX3 workstations/recorder. Other rooms house a mixture of Japanese-built- and designed Tamura consoles, utilized in a number of customized formats, plus offerings from AMS-Neve (8100 Series, VR, Logic Series and AudioFile workstations), Amek (including a 9098 utilized regularly by the radio division for large-format orchestral recordings), Solid State Logic (SL-4000, -6000, -8000 and OmniMix systems) plus other household names. According to Hamasaki, the complex employs some 5,000 staff, of whom 200 are involved with audio. Competition is stiff; the organization hires two or three new staff a year from a total of over 1,000 applicants. NHK also operates its own training school.
Opened in March of this year, CR5094 Music Recording Studio features a TOA iX-5000 digital console, one of three such units in use throughout NHK. As I discovered, digital audio and video figure prominently in the organization's day-to-day and future operations. A fiber-optical network carries AES/EBU-format digital signals around the complex, at a standardized sampling rate of 48 kHz. The center is also looking closely at standardized digital-audio file formats, and developing a centralized server for its radio networks. (The latter should have been installed by late October of this year, and on the air by the Fall of 2004.)
Multi-channel audio is also of great interest to NHK's TV and radio production divisions. The organization has been broadcasting stereo programming for many years, including Dolby Surround-encoded LCRS material. There are plans to offer 5.1-channel soundtracks for High Definition TV broadcasts. NHK Radio is planning to install a new Tamura digitally-controlled analog console in Studio #1 early next year, equipped to handle a total of 250 inputs during classical music and related sessions.
And the organization recently took delivery of a new mobile vehicle for use by its radio and TV divisions. The new A-1, which first say action in late April while recording a symphony orchestra in Suntori Hall, Tokyo, is equipped with a pair of consoles: a main 48-channel SL-9000 J-Series, and a "sidecar" Euphonix CS-2000 equipped with 56 channels. (Incidentally, Euphonix has also supplied NHK with a quartet of CS-2000 consoles with moving-fader automation for use within the World Broadcast Center being provided for the 2004 Winter Olympics in Nagano.)
Recording duties in A-1 are handled by a pair of Otari
RADAR hard-disk units, or analog/digital multitracks, as required. Designed by NHK's
Engineering Department, and constructed by Keisei Body, the new vehicle will be used on
its own for music recording and similar dates, or in conjunction with a video truck; a
side section opens out to provide more space in the mixing area.
As in Hollywood, Maeda uses a custom-designed console fitted with both analog and digital signal processors, linked to a workstation for editing and sequencing. "We have the same custom consoles that are built in-house [in Hollywood] with all discrete electronics and 10-band graphic EQ." Digital mastering is handled with a Harmonia Mundi BW102 system. Monitors are modified Tannoy two-way cabinets driven by extremely rare Crown CD-300 amps.
"Japanese clients are a little different from American producers and artists," the mastering engineers explains. "They like to hang out with me, and work through an entire project. In the States, we are more used to cutting a [CD-R or DAT] reference, and then discussing what we like - or don't like - about the balance, EQ and so on. Here, our clients often like to stay with a project - and see it through in one session.
"But, the client is always right; we work the way they
want us to!"