You'll be hard pushed to find a UK studio that isn't choc-a-bloc with Japanese studio equipment, but have you ever wondered what they use? David Mellor takes a slow boat that bypasses China, and visits two Tokyo studios to find out.
Our studios are full of Japanese instruments and effects units, but do studios in the Far East match up to Britain's standards? David Mellor visits a budget demo studio and a top-flight studio in Tokyo to find out.
In recent years Japanese firms have made vast inroads into a studio equipment scene previously dominated by American and European manufacturers. There cannot be a professional studio in the country that has not by now purchased at least one Yamaha SPX90 for instance. Whereas we in the West may sometimes take the lead in innovation, eg. the drum machine and digital reverb, the Japanese have the knack of turning out their own - often superior - devices at a fraction of the cost. Therefore we might logically expect Japanese studios to be brimful of home-grown gear and generally out-teching us in every direction, but as I found out from my visit, this is not always the case and I feel that, so far, we have the right to be proud of our studios at all levels of the market because this is one area where we Brits still have the lead.
The first thing to realise about the studio scene in Tokyo is that rents on premises of any sort are very high. This is a country where a telephone operator can earn as much as 80,000 Yen per week (about £348), and the cost of living generally is correspondingly high.
What this means to the would-be small studio owner is that he is going to have to charge clients high rates - a greater proportion of the money going towards the cost of the space the studio occupies than to the equipment budget, or to the owner's pocket! The normal practice - for demo studios at least - is therefore for a group of musicians to acquire the necessary recording equipment and set it up wherever they can hold the session. This means that there is no way you are going to look at the classifieds in some music paper and find thirty to forty studios charging £12 per hour or less. Small studios are thin on the ground and those that do exist are likely to be attached to a rehearsal studio or some other sort of business - and you will have to pay a fair whack for your session!
Japan is a very formal country so you tend not to find snappy names like 'Konk' or 'Tone Deaf' applied to a serious business like a recording studio. Nor will you find traditional Japanese names or characters. The USA is the model for modern Japanese society and although only a small proportion of Japanese people can hold an idiomatic English conversation to any degree, English is taught in all schools and many English words are understood and used in their language. (American influence does not however extend to the road system, for the Japanese very sensibly drive on the left!)
Situated in Shibuya, Tokyo's equivalent of the Kings Road area of London (although more upmarket), Sound Market is a modest complex of three rehearsal rooms and a mixing room, with one of the rehearsal rooms doubling as the studio area. The owner is Kei Tanaka, who opened the studio two years ago as an extension to his sound equipment purchasing business.
I was fortunate enough to speak to the manager Yoshiyuki Kaneda, who speaks some English, and to technical advisor Hitoshi Takeguchi. House engineer Ryoichi Ozecki was also on hand to show me around the installation.
The mixing room is a small (4.5 x 2.5m with a corner chopped off) but efficient arrangement, the centrepiece being a Yamaha RM2408 mixing console - not often seen in this country as we have so many native mixer manufacturers. As its name suggests, it is a 24 into 8 recording mixer and is unusual in that it has no group faders - rotary controls are provided instead. It does have a nice seventies-style wood finish (more about wood later) and a small, built-in jackfield however, and I suspect its Japanese price is rather less than the UK list price of just under £6000 plus VAT!
The studio's multitrack is the ubiquitous Fostex B16 - with the metering very sensibly remotely mounted over the Yamaha mixer. Stereo mastering is provided by Tascam's middle of the range model 42, with dbx noise reduction available if required. Monitoring is via JBL 4311s driven by Yamaha power amps, and I spotted a couple of graphic equalisers underneath the power amps which would seem to indicate that some tweaking had been necessary. Nearfield monitors are last year's favourites, the mighty Auratone.
As expected, the equipment rack contained very nearly all Japanese gear: REV-7, SPX90 and SRV2000 are all familiar friends. Rather less familiar is Roland's challenge to the SPX90, the DEP5 (reviewed this issue), which has the advantage of not being limited to just one effect at a time. Mr Kaneda was enthusiastic about the performance and value for money of this item, as he was about the RM2408 and B16.
Dbx 160X limiter/compressors, Roland SG2500 and SDE2000 delays, Yamaha D1500 digital delays, the old Yamaha R1000 digital reverb, Professional Music Products and Vesta Kozo noise gates, Yamaha dual comp/lim, Boss CE300 Super Chorus - all these were present in the studio at the time of my visit, not a bad effects rack for a small studio. The prize, however, goes to something which was either a Great British Spring or its twin brother - mounted horizontally! Perhaps you get a better reverb effect that way!
I am sure you will agree that, for a 16-track demo studio, Sound Market's control room is fairly well-equipped. What I was less happy about was the positioning of the mixer and monitors. From the floor plan (Figure 1), you will see that the Mixing Room looks out into the Count Studio, which is the recording area, through the diagonally orientated window. Having the monitors situated above the window means that while two people (one being the engineer) can sit at the mixer and get a reasonable listening position, the rest of the band have to sit or stand well out of the firing line of the speakers, where it is impossible to form any valid judgement of the quality of the recording. At Sound Market, therefore, group mixing sessions are definitely out. (Maybe they designed it this way on purpose to avoid precisely that situation. I for one have been present at many control room arguments extending into the wee small hours purely because each member of the band wanted to be louder than the rest!)
Action, Break and Count Studios are all very similarly set up to be effective rehearsal rooms, with the mixing room only coming into action when a recording session is booked.
The equipment in Count Studio is as follows: Roland RD1000 piano, Tama electronic drum kit, Yamaha acoustic kit, Yamaha EMX200 powered PA mixer, Fender, Roland, Yamaha and Marshall backline, and Bose speakers for vocals. I appreciated thoughtful little touches like having several music stands available, a small Bose monitor firing down the drummer's right earhole and a shelf-mounted cassette recorder for taping work done in rehearsal.
Acoustic treatment was satisfactory, considering the class of the studio, and isolation between rooms was pretty good. (There was a band rehearsing at the time in Action Studio which provided a good test.) I felt that the atmosphere was let down a little by poor attention to decor. This may be unfair criticism as Japanese priorities will obviously be different to British ones, but I doubt whether anyone could ever find hospital-green walls conducive to creative thought!
My overall opinion of Sound Market is that it is well-equipped and well-organised with just a couple of shortcomings which may appear greater to British eyes than to Japanese. By all accounts it is very busy, and is available 24 hours a day according to demand.
But how much does it cost? I have already supplied a little insight into the cost of living in Tokyo, so how would you believe an average hourly rate of 8,000 Yen for half-inch 16-track recording? At around 230 Yen to the Pound, that amounts to just under £35 per hour! Whether this is purely because of the high cost of the premises or whether it reflects a lack of comparable competition I cannot say, but I am sure it will give studio owners here some food for thought.
At the other end of the scale from Sound Market are the prestigious CBS/Sony studios at Shinanomachi, Tokyo. Shinanomachi is the Mayfair region of Tokyo and if you had a million pounds to spend on a flat, you might just afford a small one here!
The CBS/Sony studio complex was opened around eight years ago and comprises three studios, two mixing rooms, two disc mastering rooms and no less than eight editing rooms - all designed by Tom Hidley when he was with Eastlake Audio. The Eastlake design may not be as fashionable now as it once was, but certain changes have been made since the complex was opened, and we must remember that the Japanese are attuned to American styles rather than ours. CBS/Sony is a place where you are more likely to meet Herbie Hancock or Weather Report (who have both recorded here), Frankie Goes To Hollywood or the Art Of Noise.
There is something friendly and reassuring about a Neve mixing console, in contrast to hi-tech SSLs and Harrisons, and indeed I found this to be the case with the 40 channel Neve in Studio 1. I especially liked the large EQ controls you can grab in handfuls, rather than having to put your fingers in a pencil sharpener before making a tactical approach. The desk has 40 channels into 24 groups, with 32 separate monitors - which are, unusually, on the left side of the channel strips. There is no automation here as Studio 1 is purely a track-laying facility and the uncluttered faders help the purposeful appearance of the desk. My guide, Tomo Suzuki, was at pains to point out that this model was a special for CBS/Sony, the EQ units having received particular attention.
The main control room monitors are the TAD brand - a change from the original Westlakes (TAD is the professional arm of Pioneer who make these monitors specially for Eastlake Audio). Although the speakers gave a good account of themselves both at high and low levels, I found them to be just a touch old-fashioned compared to the latest studio monitors with soft-dome tweeters rather than horn types. If CBS/Sony ever chuck them out however, I wouldn't mind a pair for the car!
Multitrack is courtesy of a Sony 3324 digital. CBS/Sony have a total of seven of these, two of which live at their other site in Roppongi (Tokyo's 'red-light' district!). There are five Sony machines at Shinanomachi and five analogue 24-tracks which are mobile between the studios and mixing rooms, so you have to order your favourite multitrack when you book. Stereo machines are either Studer A80, of which there are 32 to choose from (!), or Sony 1600 series digital. They have a mere 15 of these! Interestingly, in the land of TDK, when I asked what brand of tape they used for the analogue machines the reply was "Agfa - made in Germany".
One point that Mr Suzuki made was that they can cope with 48-track operation but with difficulty because of the size of the console. It would appear that the Neve, as much as I liked it, is to be replaced in the not too distant future. It remains to be seen whether they will stick to British or buy Japanese.
Most effects units at CBS/Sony are mobile, those in Studio 1 on the day of my visit included two SPX90s (of course!), Urei 11760N limiter, REV-7, Roland SDE3000 and SDE2000 digital delays, plus Roland SRV2000 digital reverb. If that is not enough, you can always turn to one of the eight EMT plate reverbs available via tie-lines to each control room, or one of the four AKG units, or - if there's a power cut - the acoustic chamber! Another fixed rack, covering more basic studio equipment, held an old Quad 8 limiter, Kepex gates, Fostex 4030 synchroniser, Urei comp/lim and an oscilloscope for monitoring phase information. There was also a prototype Sony digital reverb, which will apparently be priced in the same bracket as the Yamaha REV-7. We wait with interest!
A matrix patch panel is provided to link the 65 studio lines to the mixing console inputs, and two Dolby 361 units are present just in case - although all recordings are normally done at 30ips with no noise reduction, and to round off the rack there are a Sony cassette and CD player.
Not unnaturally, in contrast to the Sound Market demo studio, the seating accommodation at CBS/Sony was spacious and plush. The standard of decor and finish, although a little too 'woody' for my taste, was absolutely grade A plus - and showing few signs of eight years hard wear and tear.
Moving into the studio, I was greeted by the welcome sound of the piano being tuned. The piano, like the Neve mixer, is another CBS/Sony special. They managed to persuade Steinway's of New York to supply them with a piano made by Steinway's of Hamburg - there's nothing like a little attention to detail!
The main studio area is approximately 13 x 10 x 4m and floorwise is half carpet, half wood tile. There is a live area of around 10 x 5m with sliding glass doors into the main area. There are also vocal and drum booths. Once again, the decor and surface acoustic treatment is mainly wood with cork trim, but it was certainly a very pleasant acoustic environment in which I would be very happy to work.
Studio 2 and Studio 3 are similar but rather smaller than Studio 1, Studio 3 dispensing with the live area and being more suitable for overdubs. The control rooms of each are practically identical to that of Studio 1: same size, same Neve mixer and same monitoring, so there should be no problem changing studio mid-project if necessary. Once again, there is no automation, the theory being that you will record in a studio and then progress to the purpose-built mixing rooms.
Entering Mixing Room 1 was a little like having spots before the eyes! I don't think I have ever before gone into four different rooms that were fully fitted out and virtually identical - size, shape, everything. The mixer, Neve once again, is slightly smaller as it does not need the full 24 groups or 32 monitors. It does have the Necam automated mixdown system however, which I would expect in a studio of this class. Mixing Room 2 is identical.
I could go on to describe the mastering suites, editing rooms, recreation area and restaurant, but I think you are probably aware by now that this is a very well set up organisation so, aside from just mentioning the CD mastering facility, I shall leave it there.
Although the studio was not specifically designed for 48-track operation they can arrange it without much trouble and I would still rate CBS/Sony as a world-class facility.
With around 50 employees, including 18 engineers and 5 maintenance engineers, situated in a high rent area of Tokyo, you might expect CBS/Sony's studio rates to be totally out of order, but as competition at this level is international (and fierce) then the studio must be seen to give good value. Studio 1 goes out around 27,000 Yen (£117 approx) per hour at the all-day rate, although if you want digital multitrack you must pay 9,000 Yen (over £39) per hour extra. Mixing Room 1 is a mere 19,500 Yen per hour (£85). Certainly healthy rates, but still competitive. In short, CBS/Sony are doing OK, and I have a feeling that they will make some interesting moves in the future.
After a hard-fought match, with Japan doing a lot of the running, Britain's studios still come out on top in my book!
But look at the British camera industry (yes, there used to be one), the British electronics industry (yes, there used to be one) and the British motor industry (yes...). Past performance suggests that the Japanese are capable of making great strides very quickly and that if they wanted to they could build studios that would make ours look like Toytown relics. Seriously though, I do not think they will do so. We have a lot of advantages here, diversity in our musical culture for one - and our studios reflect this. The Japanese are a very homogeneous people and there is, for instance, no Afro-Caribbean influence in their society, nor the proximity to other modern musical cultures that we have in Europe. So therefore there is no need for the range and the quantity of studios we have over here, especially in London, and they will never match London studio rates. A Japanese reader may disagree with my opinion, but the point I am really trying to make is that if we pat ourselves on the back too soon we will find others ready to take the initiative, and lose our lead.
Japan is a country that takes some getting to know and the four weeks I spent in Tokyo did not amount to much more than sniffing the air and I have written about just two studios from some 50 in the capital. Tokyo is an exciting city with a lot happening and I look forward very much to going back there someday. So if I suddenly go very quiet, you know where I'll be!
My thanks to interpreter Kzvijung Kim for her help with Sound Market, and to Takahiro Ono for arranging my visit and accompanying me to CBS/Sony.
Here are the addresses of the two studios for when you suddenly get the urge to record in Tokyo:
Feature by David Mellor
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!