Made in Japan (Part 1)
The first of three personal views of a nation that's revolutionised the development and manufacture of hi-tech musical equipment. Hugh Ashton checks out the gear and the music.
The Japanese musical instrument industry has had a profound effect upon western music and in particular, western equipment manufacture, but what actually goes on behind Bamboo Curtain? We offer the first of three personal views of Japan, its industry and its music.
"MADE IN JAPAN" - words to strike terror into the heart of any Western manufacturer. For as soon as the West comes up with a good idea - the synthesiser, the polyphonic synthesiser, the drum machine, MIDI, the sequencer or whatever, you can bet your last yen that the Japanese will take the idea, refine it, add bells and climb onto the market - your market - with a better product at half the price.
I was fascinated by this - after all, what tradition do the Japanese have of electronic music and of pop music? So what makes them so successful at producing and selling such an alien form of technology? When I was invited over to Japan on a completely different matter, I decided to investigate the Japanese popular scene in general, and the electronic music industry in particular. The following is the result of these investigations, based on talks and meetings with Japanese manufacturers, retailers and musicians.
Why are Japanese synthesisers so successful? How can they be made so cheaply, and so reliably, with new improvements and models appearing every year? To answer these questions, it is necessary, I'm afraid, to go a little into Japanese society and Japanese industry.
There are those politicians (who shall remain nameless) who would have the UK emulate Japan in many ways. Though I like Japan and the Japanese, I do not believe that we should necessarily go so far - our fundamental principles are too different. The average Japanese company, for example, is a much larger affair than its UK counterpart, and will have a much more diverse range of interests. Yamaha, for instance, is known in the UK as a manufacturer of motorcycles and musical instruments (the Japanese name "Nippon Gakki" means "Japan Musical Instruments"). But did you know that Yamaha is also one of Japan's largest furniture manufacturers, and also make bathroom fittings? Neither did I, until I found myself bathing in a bathtub marked "Yamaha". Even Roland, who are one of the more specialist instrument manufacturers, make computer plotters (like the display piece at this year's British Music Fair) and Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. The non-musical product lines serve two purposes - first, they ensure a steady flow of income when musical instruments are selling slowly, and second, the low-technology items with their low research and support budgets can help to finance the hi-tech music R&D (Research and Development).
R&D itself is carried out in a way somewhat different to most Western companies. A team will be given responsibility for the design and production of a product. Within this team, all the necessary work will be done, from chip design to printed circuit board layout to software to mechanical assembly to production engineering. The manager of the R&D team will also have responsibility for production of the item. This eliminates some of the problems that may beset a product designed in a different way, such as: the circuit board will not fit in the case designed by the industrial designer, or the software designed for the hardware prototypes will not work with the production version, or even that the finished product is too complex to build to a sufficiently high standard in any kind of quantity. In case you're thinking these are absurd examples, these are ail design faults that I have experienced in my time in British high-technology industry.
The danger of this system is that a number of different groups may simultaneously be engaged in "reinventing the wheel". To avoid this, a controlling R&D group will be set up which holds regular meetings with the project groups to impose a "house style" on the designers, and to save wasteful duplication of effort - again a practice which could be followed profitably by UK companies.
The average Japanese worker is often praised for his long working hours, his short holidays, and his loyalty to the company, by those who should know more about the subject. All these things are true, but the reasons behind the truth are somewhat more complex than the politicians would have us believe. The average Japanese office worker does work long hours - factory workers not as long. However, in those long hours he is less efficient than his Western counterpart. Part of Japan's high employment rate is due to jobs being accepted which would not qualify as "proper" jobs in the UK. Five men to see one car out of a multistorey car park? One to take the money, one to wave the car on, one to wave the car onto the road (complete with baton and whistle to stop the traffic), and one on the pavement each side of the exit to halt the pedestrians. There is also a high social status to be gained from working long hours. Men will sometimes spin out their work in order to return home late.
Short holidays? True, but not necessarily from any real liking for work. Japanese people are brought up in a more group-orientated environment than Westerners - co-operation, not competition, is the golden rule, and many Japanese people claim to be only truly happy when in a group of like-minded people. The reluctance to take holidays may therefore be a reluctance to leave the group. As a result, the holidays that are taken may be taken as company trips.
This leads neatly to the last point - loyalty to the company. In traditional Japanese industry (though this is changing) once a white-collar worker was hired, he was hired for life, could not be dismissed and was expected not to seek work outside the company. In return, the company rewarded him with subsidised housing, welfare, holidays and even a place in the company cemetery should this become necessary.
An Australian design engineer working for a Japanese company summed it up: "I work the same hours as I did in Australia," he told me. "10-hour days and a six-day week. The difference is that here I feel appreciated." This is probably why employees in Japan feel loyal - it's a two-way thing.
ALL THESE REASONS suggest ways in which Japanese industry can produce the hi-tech marvels which come flooding out of Dai Nihon, but is there a domestic demand for them in Japan? You bet. Wandering round Akihabara (the electronics retail district of Tokyo), I went looking for the most highly sophisticated useless objects I could find. Prizes went to a hi-fi graphic equaliser and spectrum analyser - controlled by a light-pen (even more ridiculous when you consider the size of the average Japanese room), a cassette player the size of a Walkman which also incorporated a TV set, a pocket photocopier and a rice-cooker with a built-in digital timer.
All electrical goods cost slightly less than the average UK price for equivalent items, but the Japanese have a much higher disposable income than Westerners. So if you already have a video recorder, there is nothing to stop you buying this month's model and throwing out your old one, even if it's only six months old. And "throwing out" means exactly that. There's no market for second-hand hi-tech goods in Japan. Many foreigners living in Tokyo furnish their homes with the second-hand microwaves, TVs and videos from the rubbish waiting to be taken away. I looked, but I didn't see any musical instruments lying around, I'm afraid.
Hi-tech musical instruments fall into the same category for most Japanese as the other items - "technotoys". And like toys, they're bought primarily by and for the young. Yamaha and Roland claim that their expensive keyboards are bought by indulgent parents for their offspring, but Casio believe that the high end of the market was the kids themselves using savings and money from part-time jobs. Believe who you like - the fact remains that it's the kids who play them.
The Japanese music scene is in a rather sorry state. You all know that the Japanese make the best affordable synthesisers (hands up anyone who can afford a Synclavier or a Kurzweil), but the best synthesiser players? I'm afraid not. The reasons behind this are again, not simple (nothing about Japan ever is), but are linked in many ways to the description of industry above.
"If a certain manufacturer spent a little more money, they could make their products easier to use, hut they're not willing to do it as they're already market leaders."
Like so many countries outside Europe and North America, Japan is infected by the West-is-Best attitude, and this applies as much to popular music as anything else. In Hamamatsu, home of Yamaha, Roland and Kawai, a town of some 500,000 inhabitants (smallish by Japanese standards), there is a shop selling nothing but Beatles records. It is almost impossible to imagine such a shop surviving in Britain (unless it sold to Japanese tourists). This attitude leads to an almost absurd reverence for Western music at the expense of whatever homegrown talent may be available.
The Japanese equivalent of Music Technology, Keyboard (notice how even the title of the magazine is in English), is dedicated to much the same sort of articles as is Music Technology. There are one or two important differences, though. Reviews of new products are not reviews in the way in which we understand them. It is not in the best interests of the community to criticise manufacturers' goods. The reviews are therefore more a description of the features available than a recommendation to buy or avoid a piece of equipment. Prices are fixed by the manufacturers (at least in theory), and there is no point in looking through the dealers' advertisements for bargains - there aren't any. Everything is sold at manufacturers' recommended retail prices - somewhat different from the UK.
Alongside the equipment reviews, Keyboard also contains the full scores of a number of (usually Western) songs, complete with settings for the most popular synthesisers so that the sound of the original can be copied exactly.
Though dealers do not give an open discount, it is possible to get a discount comparable to Western figures by asking for "besto puraisu" (Japanese English for "best price"). In addition, the average Japanese dealer will provide more services than his Western counterpart. Usually at least one practice studio will be available to potential customers, complete with equipment for hire. (Who needs detailed reviews when you can hire the latest equipment to use in your band?) There may also be a small demo studio, and in the larger music stores there may also be a music school, where you can learn your favourite Richie Blackmore licks note for note and bend for bend. Singing (including English conversation) may also be taught.
As a result, the music stores build up a very strong relationship with their customers, satisfying almost all of their musical needs.
But practicing in the music store rehearsal room may be the closest that most bands actually come to playing in public as the semi-professional music scene in Japan is almost non-existent. Most musicians are aged between 15 and 23 - the age at which Japanese attend senior high school and university. When leaving university, a Japanese entering a job will give up all popular music - after all, it's kids' stuff, and beneath the dignity of a "sararyman" (Japanese English for "office worker"). The students who use the instruments may well have them bought as graduation presents or the like. These new toys may well be played in public only once or twice a year, at friends' parties, or at the annual school dance.
In Tokyo, however, there is a wide boulevard that is closed to traffic on Sundays, and hordes of formation disco-dancers, "punks" and rock bands set up along the roadway and do their thing (using generator-supplied electricity). Rock music in Japan is not considered a social protest, it's "just a phase kids go through". This social attitude, combined with the worship of the West and the stifling of individuality, makes for a strange mixture. How else can you explain an immaculately turned-out Japanese punk, in designer-ripped "Anarchy in the UK" T-shirt, listening to a CD of the Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen'?
As a result of all these factors, most of the Japanese groups that I saw performing were very talented, very stylised, superbly-equipped, and crashingly unoriginal. I was told that a Japanese child's practical musical education would start at about four or five years of age, and that about 30% of high-school students would play guitar. The most striking example of this syndrome came when I attended some of Yamaha's Band Explosion (Yamaha-ese for "rock contest"), and saw a three-girl band called Tone Tone. None of them were more than 18, and they had on stage three DX7s, an Akai S900, QX1, RX5, Roland Juno, electronic percussion and so on. Was all this equipment theirs? Yes, it was. How long had they been playing together? About six months. Were they thinking of turning professional? Giggles... They played extremely competently for 15 minutes on stage, had a fair degree of stage presence and were totally boring - a good copy of Western pop.
I'm not advocating that Japanese musicians rediscover original Japanese music, but surely there is room for some experimentation. The few Japanese (Sakamoto, Tomita, Yamashita) who are known in the UK are exceptions to the rule, as they have broken away from the stifling mentality of the majority of Japanese musicians. The talent's there, and if two countries as similar as the UK and USA can produce different styles, there must be some hope for Japan.
SO WHERE DOES this leave the Japanese instrument manufacturers on the home market? There is no essential difference in the domestic and export product ranges, only computer programs are sold extensively in Japan and not in the West. They command a domestic market for two reasons - Japanese language, and the problems of porting software to a Western language, and also, Japan is blessed with a universal computer, the NEC PC9800 series, which is used for everything from games to business. Only one set of software needs to be written for the Japanese market, whilst in the West the Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, BBC, Spectrum, Macintosh and IBM PC may all need to be catered for. I have a feeling that any Japanese software which comes over will be ported to the IBM PC clone marketplace. Though not as good a machine as others around, it may well prove a good standard workhorse for the next few years at least.
All preset noises on instruments are the same as in the UK - in fact, most manufacturers seem to have these sounds developed for them in the UK and USA as well as in Japan. Samples may be developed either in Japan or in other parts of the world - one room in Roland's R&D labs contained a technician, a Steinway, a sampler, and a lot of computer equipment - I didn't ask if they provided a Stradivarius and twenty years' violin tuition for the technician doing the violin samples. There's not much difference in the choices of sampled sounds between Japan and the rest of the world, with one or two manufacturers providing traditional Japanese instrument samples - but then they also provide Indian instrument samples, so perhaps we can't read too much into that.
"'Throwing out' means exactly that; many foreigners living in Tokyo furnish their homes with microwaves, TVs and videos from the rubbish waiting to be taken away."
One thing that did strike me about most of the companies in Japan, which ultimately has a bearing on the final quality of sound, is that they all used the same monitor speakers. Without naming the speakers in question, I can tell you they have all the subtlety of an elephant tap-dancing on a tin roof outside your window at three in the morning. Any monitoring done with them is bound to affect the brain after a while, and may account for some of the names produced as presets. Of course, there are those who like them, and if any of you are out there, all I can say is that loudspeakers are a very personal preference - I'll continue to listen to music.
MIDI is important in Japan, but in a different way to the UK. Obviously there are advantages to a standard bus system, but the more esoteric functions of MIDI are held to be for specialists and professionals. There are more commercial television channels and radio stations than in this country, and hence more opportunity for advertising jingles. In addition, piped music is more prevalent in Japan than in the UK, and hence the opportunity for "one man MIDI bands" is greater. Most companies I talked to felt that MIDI was limiting, but of course, without agreement from other manufacturers around the world, no MIDI II seems to be on its way.
However, the Japanese do love gadgets and controls, and these are the sort of things that we will see more and more of in the coming months. A musical instrument with an interface to a television screen with some sort of pointing device (a mouse or a graphics tablet) seemed to be on the cards for a number of manufacturers at the time of my visit. Now we have the version 2.0 software for the Roland S50 and the DT100 digitizer tablet. Though we may have to wait for developments in this country due to PAL/NTSC incompatibilities. It was commented by a Japanese journalist that if a certain manufacturer were to "spend a little more money, they could make their products easier to use, but they're not willing to do it at the moment as they're already market leaders". Roland, however, in particular, are very concerned that they should be seen to be producing musical instruments which have a real musical value and are easy to operate ("we are producing instruments for the musician"), and not just electronic gadgets for the technically-minded. It's difficult to guess what's going to come onto the market, but I'll make a few informed guesses.
A KEY WORD in Japanese electronic marketing is the word "digital". This can mean almost nothing or it can mean exactly what we would take it to mean. In other words, sound generated by non-analogue methods. The world's first "affordable" all-digital mixing desk will come from Japan - if I'm wrong, I'll eat a whole Neve desk with chopsticks. A manufacturer who shall remain nameless rather gave the game away: "the 'digital' desks around at the moment are not really digital, they're using VCAs or motor-driven faders, and you've got the same problems that you've always had. We're waiting 'til we can produce a completely digital desk". But for how long?
DAT (Digital Audio Tape) is gaining ground as a consumer product as well, and I don't think it'll be long before we see a digital equivalent of the cassette multitracker - though probably still with an analogue mixer.
Methods of synthesis may well change, but I wouldn't like to guess how. After all, FM was very little more than laboratory paper before Nippon Gakki took it up and unleashed the DX series on the world. Roland's LA synthesis (seemingly) appeared out of thin air, and may well prove to be preferred in the long run to FM.
One glaring omission from the current market is a Yamaha sampler. I was reliably informed by Yamaha that one was being developed (no surprises there), and that it would be "different" from anything currently available (again, no real prizes for working that out in advance). I'm afraid I was told nothing, however, about timing or pricing, so all of you who want a Yamaha sampler will have to hold your breath and wait. Personally I think it may be some time yet.
I feel that MIDI will come to be relevant to more and more things. I once fancifully designed a system called DADI (Domestic Appliance Digital Interface), which could control the central heating, microwave, water heater, and video, possibly by means of a hand-held modem. I now realise the Japanese are starting to implement it, and from what I could gather, it's based round MIDI (though it's not called DADI, which is a shame).
Rather than Japanese manufacturers producing a cut-price Fairlight or Synclavier, I foresee a move towards what in computer terms would be called "distributed processing" - one box that does everything is an expensive and, in many ways, an inefficient way of achieving results. Better to have a number of less powerful, but still intelligent boxes which communicate with each other using MIDI System Exclusive messages. The software to do this will probably not be held in ROM, as at present, but downloaded from a central mass-storage device over MIDI. We are beginning to see this development in equipment such as the Roland Micro Composer which is "booted" from floppy, and in Yamaha's MIDI Disk Filer - a central storage unit (albeit only Quick Disk at present) to hold tunings, program change tables and so on.
Mass-storage devices will obviously become more and more powerful - there are advances in computing technology which are forcing the price/performance ratio of these gadgets more and more towards the customer's favour. It probably won't be too long before we see a Winchester (or similar) disk with MIDI interface as a central filer capable of accepting and transmitting System Exclusive messages to and from any pieces of equipment.
The small, cheap LCD TV displays currently available in Japan as entertainment gimmicks may also come into their own as interfaces for such devices (though a 40X24 display on a 3½" screen may be a little on the small side for some applications).
I also have a feeling that the minikeyboards which plague us at the moment on cheaper instruments may well disappear from the scene - or at least from one maker's range. This manufacturer was amazed that these keyboards were bought as instruments - expecting them to be bought simply as tone generators.
Alongside the gimmicks, consumer demand in Japan will also force higher standards of excellence. I was told by Yamaha that the microtuning on the DX7II and TX81Z was introduced at the request of those Japanese customers who wished to be able to play baroque music in true tunings rather than equal temperament, as well as those who wished to experiment with quarter-tones and other ethnic tunings. Whether this is true or not, the Japanese customer is a good deal more fussy than the Western counterpart, and part of the policy of continuous improvement is a result of customer interaction with the manufacturer.
All in all, though there are no glaringly obvious differences between the domestic and export markets to the Japanese manufacturers, there are enough subtle discrepancies to make me realise just how and in what way developments take place in technology. Far from reaching the limit, I think that Japanese manufacturers are now beginning to see the potential of electronic musical instruments, rather than other products, and this move can only help us western musicians to create music more effectively and at a price we can afford.
Feature by Hugh Ashton
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