Made in Japan (Part 2)
The Editor's Tale | Ikutaro Kakehashi
The second part of our investigation of Japan concentrates on the Roland organisation; Tim Goodyer meets mystery, "Mr Roland" and Sally.
In the second part of our investigation into the Land of the Rising Sun, Roland open the doors of their Japanese factories - but how far?
SO THIS IS Japan, the land of paradox. Stepping out of Osaka airport I'm greeted by a wall of unlit neon signs - a taste of things to come - advertising everything from a Japanese fruit drink called "Pom", to American Express. A short bus ride later I'm confronted with a view from my 30th floor hotel room that can only be described as breathtaking.
The land of paradox: where else would you find a 15' X 8' hotel room with three telephones and a fridge full of drink, geishas at £200 an hour but no obligation to sleep with you, and a manufacturer of musical instruments with international standing but a name its native employees can't pronounce? The company is Lorand - Roland to you - and it's an attempt to put a face to the unpronounceable name that's brought a party of English journalists over 7000 miles to the land of the rising yen.
Forget the stereotypical inscrutable Japanese when you meet "Mr Roland", for Mr Kakehashi is jovial, approachable, surprisingly in touch with the latest hi-tech developments and still enthusiastic about music - a trait he could be forgiven for having lost somewhere in the process of creating a financially sound company within the fickle music industry. It all began with a modest seven employees, now there are about a thousand spread around five factories, with around 20% devoted to the black art of Research and Development. And looking back over their 15-year history they've done a pretty fine job, designing some of the more characterful synths as well as guitar synths, pianos, drum machines, sequencers, samplers... What you might call a fine competitive company, but here we run head-on into another paradox.
"We don't want to fight with other manufacturers, we only want to fight with the quality of sound", says Mr Kakehashi. A commendable if unlikely philosophy.
What's less unlikely and decidedly more poetic is his attitude to hi-tech musical instruments. He speaks of music in terms of painting: floppy disks and magnetic tape become a canvas his company equip you to paint on.
Hamamatsu is a short ride on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) from Osaka. It bears a remarkable similarity to Florida, and houses the headquarters of Yamaha and Kawai. Here you find Roland's Hosoe factory headquarters but not with the mass automation you might expect. Sure, there are fascinating machines for winding springs, cutting them to length and attaching them to keys ready for fitting into scores of keyboards, but much of the work is still done by Japanese hand. A production line is still the order of the day but all the buttons on a TR626, for example, are fitted by hand. And it was at the electronic piano line that one of the age-old mysteries of the piano was unravelled for me, why the black notes play louder than the white notes: it's because they're fitted first.
ANOTHER FEATURE OF the Hosoe complex is the Sound Lab. It sounds very hi-tech and electronic but it's actually a hall with variable acoustics properties. This is achieved by lining a concrete walled hall with wooden slats that can be opened and closed by a hand-held remote. This determines the decay time of the reverb of the hall (between a dry 0.69secs and a lively 1.78secs) and is displayed on a readout at the back. The hall is used to test various pieces of equipment but also provided the natural reverb on the string and brass samples for Roland's S550, S50 and S10 samplers. To prove the point American demonstrator Eric Persing put the D50, S50 and their rack-mounted sisters the D550 and S550 through their paces for us. Impressive they were, and impressed we was. The demonstration of the S50 called on a recent innovation called the RC100: a remote editing unit involving a mouse, in this case connected to an oversized monitor for the audience's benefit. The RC100 should prove a greater asset to users of the S550 but Roland intend to make the monitor output on the S50 standard on future sequencers as well as samplers - the best proposition I've yet heard for assisting sequence editing. Another welcome announcement for sample enthusiasts is the imminent release of a "history of Roland drum machines" on sample disk; a collection of the classic sounds people are busy ripping off from the CR78, TR808, TR909, TR727 and so on. If people are going to do it unofficially, why not do it officially and make a few yen?
Meanwhile, at the Takaoka factory are rooms full of CAD (Computer Aided Design) equipment mapping out custom LSI chips and circuit boards. No need for heavy security here; anyone capable of understanding what was being displayed on-screen deserved to get away with it. Next door are the R&D rooms, a different matter altogether. Here photographs were denied with a polite smile and a wink and we were left with the distinct feeling we were being charmingly but carefully chaperoned through Roland's real plans for the future. We saw exactly what we were meant to see. Nonetheless, dismembered Fender valve combos bore witness to an ongoing interest with valve distortion sounds and a Yamaha WX7 encouraged a few "knowing" nods amongst the journalists. But any particular interest in wind synthesis was deflected towards the VP70 voice processor. A reasonable reaction when you consider the inclusion of pitch-to-MIDI circuitry and one born out by Mr Kakehashi's earlier comments.
"We have a different approach to Yamaha and Akai, we respect the playing technique of the musician - playing technique must stay the same."
He quotes Emmett Chapman's Stick as an example of a good instrument handicapped by an unorthodox playing technique. As I said, not an unreasonable angle but Roland UK haven't yet decided whether or not to carry the VP70. Curious, and my mind keeps straying back to that WX7...
Mr Kakehashi names technology itself as one of the hindrances to progress. He reckons there are so many directions it's possible to take, that focusing on specific avenues of research is very difficult. One thing that did become very clear was that, in line with a number of other major manufacturers, Roland wants to increase product life. This, Mr Kakehashi claims, is to protect the customer, but it must also surely be a reflection of the increasing R&D investment in modern instruments. This was recently given to me in "man-years" by an American company - the economics students amongst you will realise the implications of that. Meanwhile, the previous life expectancy of 18 months for a new instrument will increase regardless. No bad thing, and one that fits in nicely with the present shift towards software-intensive instruments.
"Today a sound source is not enough", states the venerable Japanese. Exactly what that means in new-instrument terms is a matter for conjecture, but one thing it's unlikely to mean is a fusion of sampler and drum machine technology. In spite of marked similarities between the two, Mr Kakehashi regards the software differences as too fundamental. He'd even go as far as to suggest the Linn 9000 would have been a success as three separate units - sampler, sequencer and drum machine. The answer to that one may not be too far away with the Linn-Akai MPC60 nearing release.
Another thing Roland are anxious to avoid is the very hi-tech end of the market. The reason? It's already saturated by the Fairlight and Synclavier - and besides, you can do just about all the same things by combining more modest pieces of gear. With the current exception of hard-disk recording, I agree.
Across the corridor we found Sally, sorry SALY. The Sound AnaLYsing system that was responsible for the stunning SA (Structured Adaptive) synthesis of the RD1000, RD300 and RD200 pianos. Like almost all of Roland's computerisation this runs on an NEC 9801 computer except this one has a co-processor to facilitate 32-bit calculation. The system analyses recordings made on digital tape through a purpose-built 16-bit D/A converter. As an example of the power of the system we witnessed the noise of an air-conditioning unit removed from a biwa (a peculiar Japanese guitar) sample. We was impressed once again.
When all the clever technical stuff is done Roland invite professional musicians to come in and compare the system to the Steinway that sits across the room from SALY - the personal touch.
ON TO TOKYO and the Music Plus school. For the last two years Roland have been running a series of music courses covering everything from the synthesiser to advanced jazz. Here the first thing that hits you is the cost. In a land where you pay around a fiver for a glass of beer a weekly course in advanced computer music will set you back £25. It transpires that the courses are run for research purposes as well as the education of the students, but twenty-five quid...
There's a system here called "ISM" - the Intelligent System for Music. It's a teaching aid that utilises one of the Roland pianos in conjunction with a PR100 sequencer and an MT32. The secret's in the software which takes the form of a course allowing you to interact with it and take part in various exercises and arrangements. Roland are quietly confident it will become an accepted part of piano study in the not-too-distant future.
The Music Plus School is also Roland's answer to Yamaha's in-store music schools. Confidentially they reckon they've trained a lot of Yamaha's instructors; I wonder what the big Y would have to say to that.
But Roland are not Roland alone; that is, Roland are also Boss. Set up to handle all those indestructible footpedals that brought affordable chorusing and flanging to amateur and pro musicians alike. Boss have done very nicely, thank you. They've now produced a total of over five million pedals - I've got two. They also make a neat line in studio effects units and mixers. Not quite as cagey as Roland, this lot, they told us what they're up to: three new pedals, the PS2 pitch shifter, the RV2 reverb and the NS2 noise suppressor, and a couple of new mixers, the BX16 and BX8. One of the mixers is a 16-channel affair... One thing I won't let you work out for yourself is that they're both well suited to the keyboard player whose pocket won't stretch to a Neve or SSL desk.
WHATS IN STORE? Let's start with the "definites": Roland are definitely already working on an automated mixing system. Not a new idea, just one that's going to become increasingly important in the coming years.
On the synth front things are somewhat more vague but the key came from one of Roland's British employees: "Put it like this", he said "a company can't survive on one synthesiser, can it?" Looks like the D50's due for some company. More than that he wouldn't, or couldn't, say. The MT32 - criticised for its lack of individual outputs and user memory capabilities - also looks set for a partner.
Roland were adamant that the MT32 was a crossover from the home-market (a point well-proven by ISM) and are soon to take the bait and produce a rackmounted version better tailored to the stage and studio.
"MIDI is a very good compromise", said Mr Kakehashi. "I believe in today's MIDI standard."
He is adamant that nobody in Japan is talking about updating MIDI but, at the same time, he can see a place for a much more specialised and expensive system for certain applications. He can foresee the time when SMPTE will be built into mid to top-price drum machines. I reckon it's here.
Listen to the studio techs and you'll hear that the right analogue signal paths are far superior to 16-bit digital. In contrast, Roland are keen to avoid analogue signal paths, placing their faith in digital-to-digital - as they've already implemented within the D50.
A more curious development is the DSP2000 Hi Presence Audio Processor. Remember the old quadrophonic systems, QS, SQ and CD4? Well, the DSP2000 uses Digital Sound Processing technology to pursue vaguely similar aims. DSP technology facilitates very fast mathematical calculations to take place in real time. The '2000 uses them to create different listening environments by manipulating reverberation characteristics and pushing them through a second amplifier and a second pair of speakers. Unlike quad, these sit in front of you but face the corners of the room, using the walls to reflect sound. And it's yours for a grand.
I don't know about you, but I don't know about this. What I do know is that it's going to provoke some pretty strong reactions from producers who don't want their creations interfered with, to yuppies who want absolute freedom to distort their music as they wish.
The system has wider applications than this as, if it works in real time, it'll work as an instrument processor or an acoustic simulator.
Mr Kakehashi's answer: "In Japan the recording studio and high end of hi-fi are the same thing - digital audio is the right word." And freedom seems to be the name of the game.
We didn't see much actual music in Japan. In fact we caught two bands in a Tokyo nightclub called The Golf Club. One was a Japanese comedy act who derived some of their material from a group of unusually presented westerners in the audience. (But it's difficult to be offended when you don't understand a word.) The other was a very tight and professional sounding funk band.
Both acts shared a lot of the equipment - DX7s, Roland pianos, and so on - and sounded much better than their average British counterpart. But what was strangest of all was that we'd come 7000 miles to watch one Japanese girl, one Japanese man, one English girl and four black Americans play funk.
I write it off as just another Japanese paradox, but if you're ever in Tokyo look them up - I will.
Feature by Tim Goodyer