Big In Japan
Is what Yamaha do. Our brave and selfless editor finds out how, first hand.
Yamaha's influence on the sound of 80's rock has been remarkable. To see where, how and why it started, Paul Colbert joined 20 of Britain's top dealers on a unique trip to Japan.
Peasant farmers grow DX7s, did you know that? Well, that's not quite true. They're actually ex-peasant farmers. Very ex.
In the midst of the farming district of Hamamatsu, central Japan, one large section of an even vaster factory complex builds DX7s, DX21s, SPX90s and a cross section of other Yamaha hi-tech products. The scrupulously attentive labour force is drawn from local landworkers. Yamaha took them, retrained them and instilled a thorough devotion to the products and company.
The production team is almost religious in its concentration on the passing components. At the far end of the conveyor belt hangs a board, spelling out the target number (DX21s today, 250 of them) and the running tally (181 by 3.30). It's not unknown for the team to stay behind in its own time to reach that figure, should they be a few under the score.
The Yamaha factory is a sobering and silent outing — the workers are not encouraged to talk — but is an illustration of how seriously Japan and the Japanese take music, particularly western music. A job producing Yamaha keyboards makes you a celebrity in out-of-town Hamamatsu. Or central Hamamatsu, for that matter. Or Tokyo. Or just about anywhere else.
Quite apart from the triumphs Japanese industry has had in producing outstanding musical instruments — with Yamaha's share being arguably the grandest — they all want to play the stuff.
Japanese kids are taught it at school, adults study it during music store evening classes, even drunken businessmen harangue you with Eurovision selections in every corner bar. Karaoke sets — which thankfully never caught on in Blighty — contain backing tapes unfolding the full arrangements of popular ditties minus the lead vocal which you deliver, at full scream, through the purpose built reverbed / echoed / ADT-ed mike. While British musicians may pick up their first guitar to break out of the system, Japanese musicians do it in order to belong.
It's hard to believe that Japanese instruments could become even more important in the UK. But they will. For those who follow the markets — and a shade of inside knowledge never hurts — the next couple of years will witness some titanic struggles between the major Japanese instrument companies, much of the campaign being fought in Britain. Those manufacturers who have already done well in one area will bring the weight of their R&D departments to bear on other instruments, converting the whole band to their wares. Guitars, drums, amps, keyboards, effects, mikes, PA, stage clothes even... to Japanese companies it makes sound commercial sense for every item to spring from their production lines.
So today's geography lesson involves a tour round Japan, and its music shops, to make some sense of what may be hitting us in not so many months time.
Yamaha's own Tokyo store is the guiding example for their plans for a central London R&D shop. The four floors are divided into the R&D studio, digital gear (the keyboards and computers), acoustic gear (drums, guitars, basses and brass), and a wide range of musical score. Just about every heavy metal band has its solos rendered in dots and tramlines — another indication of the Japanese learning curve.
You will find other manufacturers' gear (Roland, Korg, Casio) but in small amounts and principally, you might suspect, to show off the Yamaha stuff in comparison. Nothing secondhand, and most of the shop assistants are girls — Japanese pop and rock have nowhere near the degree male dominance found in Europe.
The R&D floor is at the top, with its own coffee bar and studio attached. Musicians can try gear in the studio, and offer opinions on prototypes or views on forthcoming Yamaha projects. Whether that's by invitation, or open to anybody wandering in from the street is a matter for consideration.
By the end of the year London, Paris and New York will also have R&D stores acting as showcases for all the gear, and a chance for Yamaha to demonstrate the power of their band collection. It's not certain how much actual selling will go on. The shopfloor techniques of Tokyo may not function in W1, but if they do some crystal ball gazers are already predicting a dozen Yamaha centres scattered up and down the country, and perhaps a reduced number of local dealers handling the gear. But that's purest conjecture.
Incidentally, the Tokyo store was excellent... clean, polite and crammed with gear, though with less emphasis on MIDI interconnection than over here. Strangely, it was awash in cardboard boxes. Japan's population is 120 million, but 70 per cent of the country is unusable mountain. Land prices are astronomic (£41,000 for one square metre in Tokyo), so shops can't afford vast storerooms in which to dump boxes.
Yamaha's HQ is in Hamamatsu itself where you will see not only keyboards but Yamaha hi-fi, bikes, sportswear, golf clubs, bathrooms and kitchens. A broad based company. They also run a chain of hotels and sports/leisure complexes. In the midst of our trip, we had a chance to quiz the captains of Nippon Gakki (the musical instrument division). Cautious on specifics — especially new synths — but forceful on philosophy, they promised an immediate major push on electric guitars, and the introduction of budget drumkits. The first — the PYD 422 Power Road series — will have deep shells and Yamaha standard fittings and finish for around £500.
• Yes they are working on a guitar synth, two in fact: the first pitch-to-MIDI, and the second using electrical fret contact à la Synthaxe. They haven't decided which one to run with.
• Yes they are working on a keyboard sampler, but are keen for it to be their own system with FM taking part.
• Yes, they do realise some Yamaha rack effects are noisy due to the problems of digital/analogue converters, but they think they've got it cracked.
• Yes, they are devoting time to the study and production of more electronic percussion.
• Yes they are considering digital multitracking, maybe even digital four-tracking, but not for the near future.
• No, they're not keen on hard disc recording. Tape is better.
• No, they don't really think they're missing out on analogue possibilities by sticking to digital synths.
• Maybe one of the first projects set for the London R&D centre will be discussions with musicians to find an easier way of programming DX synths, the 7 in particular.
Of the new gear we saw on demonstration the FB-01 multi-timbral FM module looked the most sly. The eight voice, four operator unit has 240 preset sounds but each voice can be assigned its own MIDI channel and own sound to be run from a connected sequencer or CX5 computer. It's much like two SFG-05s (the plug-in CX5 expander) in one box.
Less dramatic, but essential backroom additions are the programmable MIDI foot controller to instruct your MIDI gear from afar, and a tape MIDI sync unit which can put a clock down on one channel of your four tracker to control sequencers.
If Yamaha are surprised at anything, it's the slowness in the guitar market. In March 1985, they had 7 per cent of the guitar sales in Japan. Not enough. They pushed and by September 1986 had 15 per cent with plans for 21 per cent by March 1987. The guess is that they've got similar plans for Britain, and are dividing the brand into four sections — traditional guitars (the SGs, BBs etc), Contemporary (the budget axes), Super Live and the more nebulous New Concept where lives the new guitar technology. No models yet, just aims.
Who do Yamaha consider their main rivals, we asked: "As manufacturers we don't see a serious rival," assured Mr Hasegawa, Digital Export Manager, "but some of the scientific musical institutes may be more advanced than us in some specific (research) fields".
And your aim? "Not to leave an inch to anybody else. That is the idealistic view." He sounded confident, but he has good reason to be.
Japan is stacked with odd contradictions which don't seem to bother the populus. Buddhism forbids its followers to drink, a rule they stick to at work until 6.00 when they swap to being Shintoists who co-incidentally, have no such restriction.
In a country associated the world over with labour saving hi-tech, you'll find that each tourist coach has a whistler — a girl who gets out when the coach is reversing into a parking space, and blows a whistle so everyone knows. Then she gets on board again. That's it.
With the present muscley strength of the Yen (we could see some Japanese products going up in price if it continues) a beer will cost you £3, and an hour long talk (seriously) with a geisha girl is £200. Most restaurants fill their windows with perfect wax replicas of each dish they serve so you know exactly what you'll get. The realism is uncanny.
And the land which filled a thousand arcades with Space Invaders has turned its back on the bleebs and bloobs to play Pachinko. It's a national craze bizarrely based on a game Space Invaders virtually extinguished — bagatelle. Japanese fun-seekers will buy themselves handfuls of steel balls and roll them down the noisy metal course in the hope of winning a small prize.
Seems the people who gave us the silicon chip are neither frightened nor fascinated by the thing. Perhaps that's why they're doing so well with it.
Feature by Paul Colbert
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