Made in Japan (Part 3)
A last visit to the land of micro-chips and rice crackers. Simon Trask pays an enquiring visit to the Yamaha organisation before waving a fond farewell to the rising sun.
The sun rises once again on our investigation into the mysteries of Japan's music industry - this time the mighty Yamaha Corporation are the focus of attention.
EVEN THE PROSPECT of a 12-hour flight passing over the Siberian wastes wasn't going to put me off. As the days grew shorter and the English weather made it abundantly clear winter was just around the corner, the Oriental sunshine, saki and shabu shabu seemed even more attractive. And then there was the prospect of getting a behind-the-scenes look at the company behind the ubiquitous DX7...
Yamaha are now 100 years old and proud of it. That was part of the reason why a party of European journalists were being afforded this unusual privilege. Eventually we stumbled through Tokyo's Narita airport and onto a waiting coach. It was to be the first of many waiting coaches. Yamaha had a lot to show us.
Yamaha founder Torakusu Yamaha built his first reed organ in 1887, production of Yamaha upright pianos began in 1900 and grand pianos a year later. The much-vaunted Yamaha Music School system was inaugurated in 1954 as a means of popularising music-making, and the company developed their first hi-fi player in the same year. The production of non-acoustic musical instruments began in 1959 with the Electone electronic organ.
Today the production of acoustic and electronic musical instruments forms the backbone of Yamaha, though the company also markets sporting goods, household products, metal alloys, audio products, LSIs and industrial robots.
However, there is more to Yamaha's centenary than a celebration of having survived 100 years in this tough world. Above all the company are looking forward to the next 100 years, and over the past three they've been gearing up for some big changes.
For a start, their name has changed from Nippon Gakki Seizo Co. Ltd (Japanese Musical Instrument Manufacturer) to the all-encompassing Yamaha Corporation.
Behind the name change lie some far-reaching structural changes. Yamaha have been divided into four Corporations: Japan, Europe, America and Asia. These will develop individual products and operational strategies, and in the long term become independent enterprises.
It's a far-reaching strategy, but one that's in line with the response of other Japanese companies to the changing global economic situation. As is Yamaha's intention to continue investing heavily in R&D in order to develop ever more sophisticated technologies. Yamaha's annual R&D expenditure currently amounts to 13 billion yen, slightly less than 70% of which is allocated to R&D in electronics.
Part of Yamaha's global strategy is to establish an increasing number of manufacturing bases abroad. Any takeovers of other companies will, they say, be purely passive - that means the company comes to them. Recently Sequential did just that, and it now looks almost certain that Yamaha will buy them out. The end of an era, but also the beginning of a new one.
OUR VISIT COINCIDED with the 6th Yamaha X-day shows at Tokyo's Science Museum. Aside from providing a first encounter with products which won't be available in Britain 'til early '88 (see last month's Newsdesk), the show was familiar territory - which is more than can be said for just about everything else in Japan. Probably the most remarkable aspect of the shows was the length of the queue of teenagers (mainly girls) patiently waiting to get in.
Yamaha have 14 retail stores throughout Japan but, unlike the Pulse music shop in the UK, these carry musical equipment from all manufacturers. Their showcase store in the Shibuya district of Tokyo included instruments from Roland, Akai, Ensoniq, Oberheim and Korg - including a second-hand Korg Polysix, a mere snip at Y80.000.
Computer music was represented by an Apple Mac (running Opcode software) sitting next to an NEC PC980IU personal computer (or "pasocom", to use the Japanese adaptation). NEC's 80% share of the Japanese personal computer market gives them such a stranglehold that even the mighty IBM has to fight for a foothold. And while Apple are currently renewing their efforts, Atari appear to have made no headway in Japan at all.
"Probably the most remarkable aspect of the X-day shows was the length of the queue of teenagers - mainly girls - patiently waiting to get in."
Yamaha are currently wondering how (or if) to proceed with MSX. Even in Japan, the standard hasn't been the success it was intended to be; however, Yamaha's computer has fared better than some through its use in their music schools for running educational software.
The dual influences of NEC and MSX put both Japanese musicians and software developers largely outside current Western developments in MIDI music software.
Early '88 will see the establishment of a Music Software Application Division within Yamaha, whose role will be to develop support software for their musical instruments, in the form of educational software and voice editors. Yet there are no plans to write for Apple, Atari or IBM computers, which means the Division's activities will largely be confined to Japan.
Situated above the Shibuya store is Yamaha's Tokyo R&D Studio, which was established in May '85. Like its counterparts in London and Los Angeles, the Studio works on product planning and development, and liaises with professional musicians and producers. As well as top Japanese artists, Tokyo R&D attracts foreign musicians; Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Omar Hakim and Toto have all visited the Studio.
Yamaha see their studios as centres for collecting information which will be applied in the development of products for the 1990s. Meanwhile, December '87 sees the opening of a similar centre in New York, to be known as the Yamaha Communication Centre because it will assume a more broad-based educational function alongside its R&D activities.
Production of Yamaha's digital musical instruments takes place at two factories located in the vicinity of Hamamatsu, the site of Yamaha's World HQ. Nishiyama was set up specifically to handle production of the DX7IID/FD and DX7S synths, with 50,000 DX series synths a year rolling off the production line. And while we're talking numbers, Yamaha claim 150,000 DX7 Mk1s have been built to date.
On a more rarified level, the company have produced a limited-edition DX7II Centennial model complete with gold-plated buttons. Only 300 will be sold in the entire world: 100 in Japan, 100 in America and 100 in other markets. Yours for only Y500,000.
The Toyooka factory manufactures all the other digital musical instruments (TX, QX, RX, WX) as well as digital audio products such as the REV5, SPX90 and DMP7.
Both factories are spacious, well-lit and surprisingly quiet. In contrast, the piano factory is noisy and congested. It was here that we were treated to possibly the most bizarre sight of the whole trip: grand pianos in various states of construction sliding around the factory on automated trolleys accompanied by flashing lights and what sounded like an MSX sound chip playing the theme from Beethoven's 'Fur Elise'.
This one factory turns out 150 grands and 550 uprights a day - no mean feat. One of the most interesting aspects of all three factories was the balance of automated and human work on the production line. For instance, in the piano factory the keyboards are assembled by hand, but an automatic key-striking machine strikes each key 600 times to settle in the keyboard mechanism (another of the more bizarre sights to confront us).
"FM synthesis will continue to be the mainstay of Yamaha's synthesisers - though it seems likely that a user-configurable system will emerge."
Yamaha's MIDI grand piano (which developed out of a request from Ryuichi Sakamoto for such an instrument for his 1986 Media Bahn tour of Japan) is being marketed in America and Japan, but no decision has been taken yet on Europe.
Yamaha have also brought technology to the good old upright, in the form of an 80s update on the "player piano" - with floppy disks replacing piano rolls. The company have built up a large library of preset disks offering performances of classical, light and jazz music (anyone for a spot of Teddy Wilson?). But more importantly you can record your own efforts and then sit back and listen to every mistake reproduced with deadly accuracy. Piano lessons will never be the same again.
IN THE DIGITAL System Research Lab in Hamamatsu we were able to meet some of the staff who design the DXs, RXs, QXs and TXs of this world. Well, sort of. There was an unmercifully short Q&A session which, coupled with a mixture of language problems and company caginess, left too many questions unanswered and too many subjects unbroached.
What is clear is that FM synthesis will continue to be the mainstay of Yamaha's synthesisers. However, in what ways it will be developed remain unclear, though it seems safe to assume that more operators and some form of user-configurable system will emerge at some stage.
There were also indications that Yamaha will implement multitimbrality on keyboard instruments as well as expanders in the future, and that they will follow the general trend toward software-upgradable instruments. As for that elusive MIDI guitar which has been whispered about for some time, it looks like we'll have to carry on whispering.
More interesting news came from the Sound System division. This was initially set up to handle the sound reinforcement aspect of Yamaha's business, but is moving into digital recording and production equipment. It is the Sound System division which is responsible for the development of Yamaha's digital audio signal processors such as the REV7, SPX90 and REX50, together with the DMP7 digital mixer.
It would seem that we can expect the DMP7 concept to be developed in both directions - upwards to a full-blown digital mixing desk and downwards to a budget-version DMP7. The Division will also be moving away from the current generation of analogue cassette multitrackers to - yes, you've guessed it - a digital multitrack tape format, which may or may not be DAT-based. However, a DMP-style digital mixer section incorporated into a Yamaha digital multitrack tape machine looks like being a distinct possibility.
The Sound System division is also responsible for what Yamaha refer to as the Sound Field market, which consists of the Sound Field synthesiser, the Digital Sound Processor and the Assisted Acoustics system.
Digital Sound Processing is the next stage on from the digital audio signal processors we have all come to know and love. Well, maybe. Essentially it's a way of imposing a natural acoustic environment, or sound field, on pre-recorded audio material (a CD, for instance). This is achieved first of all by analysing the reverberant characteristics of a real location recorded using what is known as the "single point quad miking" technique, and then storing these characteristics as digital data which can be recalled at a later date and applied to the audio source. The effect is conveyed through a four-speaker system, with speakers facing inwards from the four corners of a room which should preferably be acoustically dead.
Yamaha's second DSP model, the DSP3000, comes with 20 preset soundfields including several famous concert halls, Freiberg cathedral, the tillage Vanguard jazz club, Anaheim stadium, the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles and a New York disco. You get the picture. Add sound effects processing derived from the REV7 and SPX90 and you've got some very interesting possibilities.
"Yamaha see Digital Sound Processing technology changing the role of the listener from a passive to an (inter)active one."
On first encounter the results are disconcerting to say the least, unreal - or hyper-real depending on your point of view. Perhaps that's because digital sound processing is a quantum leap up from stereo, or perhaps because it's just a gimmick looking for an expensive home. And maybe it'll work better for some kinds of music than for others - I wouldn't like to say on the evidence of one hearing. But if it takes off there are going to be a lot of arguments about who should be creating the effects: the producer or the listener. Yamaha's attitude is quite clearly that they want the listener to move from passive listening to active sound creation. All I want to know is: when Ella Fitzgerald was singing in the Village Vanguard, where were the clinking glasses and the background chatter?
The DSP3000 is scheduled for European release in January '88, and will probably retail in the £1000-1500 bracket. Add on the cost of a quad amp and four speakers and you've got an expensive system.
The Sound Field Synthesiser's original purpose was to simulate the acoustic of a hall environment on the basis of design coordinates derived by computer-aided design (CAD). This allowed hall designs to be tried out and any faults corrected before the hall was actually built. The subsequent development of custom highspeed VLSI chips has made real-time simulation of sound fields possible. Using the single point quad miking technique to "record" whatever you play, the SFS will simulate the selected sound field for you through multiple speakers (bringing the Taj Mahal into your bedroom). Not only can the SFS also simulate audience density, but you can switch in a mode which allows you to hear your performance as if you were seated in the audience. Weird. Overall, the soundfield was much more convincing in this context, however.
The Sound Field Synthesiser is also utilised in another Yamaha development: Assisted Acoustics. Essentially this uses controlled acoustic feedback from a set of speakers in conjunction with the multiple reflection generation capabilities of the SFS processor to adjust the reverberant characteristics of a hall. Typically this system uses four quadra-mic clusters positioned away from the stage area so as to pick up the sounds of the audience and performer alike.
ASSISTED ACOUSTICS HAS been developed for the multi-purpose civic halls which are becoming increasingly common in Japan, the idea being that the natural acoustic of the hall can be tailored to specific uses. It doesn't come cheap, however: a 16-speaker system costs Y30 million (around £150,000).
Yamaha are very proud of their Digital Sound Processing system in its various guises, and seem much keener to talk about it than about their musical instruments. But then they see their technology as having important implications for the way in which music is consumed - specifically in changing the role of the listener from a passive to an (inter)active one. The relevant technologies (Digital Sound Processing, LaserVision, Compact Disc Video, "Hi-Vision" monitors) are converging for the creation of a complete audio-visual system.
Oddly enough for a society which traditionally places the group over the individual, Yamaha are championing the needs of the individual. (All the following quotes are taken from Yamaha's glossy book on their first soundfield processor, the DSP1).
"We are entering an age in which we enjoy individuality more than ever. These days people are doing it themselves - movies, home-made audio, even clothes - while the recording industry is releasing only finished or ready-made products, and complaining about the pirated versions.
"There can be little doubt that in the future the versatile creation of acoustic environments will become a major part of the fun of home audio entertainment.
"Housing design will change entirely. Rooms will be made with dead foundations and speakers will be buried everywhere. The concept of a house may change from a space for living to a living system for producing our own environment."
Digital technology equals integration, and that is what Yamaha seem to be aiming for:
"The age of the 'home studio' is coming, when we will be able to do everything from composing, playing and singing to listening at home."
And who's going to produce all the equipment for this mega home/studio? Why, the company that the Japanese press call "Digital Yamaha".
Feature by Simon Trask
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