Last year, to get a better idea of their craft, Kentaro Takaoka spoke with three veteran sound engineers: Yutaka Asada, whose credits include the Inochi No Matsuri (or Festival Of Life, considered to be Japan's original outdoor festival), Body & Soul, Dommune's studio in Tokyo and Life Force, the party he's run for over 18 years; Kohji Fujita, a soundsystem designer who's engineered at parties and venues like Tokyo's Oath and Honolulu's Asylum Afterhours; and Satoru Tochibori, a producer and soundsystem designer who's work includes the MTV Video Music Awards Japan and the Taicoclub Festival. In this translation of their wide-ranging conversation, the three experts discuss engineering as a whole, their working relationships with DJs and the state of play in Japan, where matters of sound aren't taken lightly.
- Jordan Rothlein, RA's music tech editor
Could you start by telling us a bit about yourselves?
Asada: I'm 62 right now, but the first time I came across audio equipment I was about nine years old, so that was over 50 years ago. My interest in audio equipment started around then, and even as a child I was succeeding through trial and error with things like making recordings from a record player using signals alone, or reconstructing a tape recorder to make a tape echo. I started high school around the time that Jimmy Hendrix was getting big, so back then I was all about playing in bands. But after listening to so many great musicians, I felt like I had to face the reality of my own limited abilities as a performing musician.
It was around that time that sound engineers were getting established, so I decided that if I was going to carry on working in music, I'd be a sound engineer. I started studying for it on my own, slowly starting to collect my own equipment, and I got involved with the rock scene, which was still in its early days. A short while later, in 1988, I experienced the Inochi No Matsuri, which was the hippy movement at the time. It was 8,000 people getting together at a ski resort in Yatsugatake and camping out there for a week. It was like a scene out of Woodstock, and I was so moved by it. I think it was around 1991 that I started getting involved in club music. I started off producing a bar with a DJ booth in Shinjuku. And then Masa, whom I partner with for Life Force, came back from England. With his experience of the Second Summer Of Love, we thought, "Let's make a real outdoor rave party in Japan, too." That was how Life Force started. I really put everything into it, to make it as real a rave party as possible and did things like cancelling my life insurance to raise the funds. After that I was involved equally in both house and trance for quite some time. I started getting more work in house music around 2000 given David Mancuso's coming to Japan, and with Body & Soul festival. Then I started to get offers overseeing the sound quality at bigger jobs like Metamorphose, and the salary got better, and it became more of a stable job.
Fujita: I'm 35, and I started out with going to trance parties. I saw Asada first at Vision Quest, and the first time we spoke was at Life Force. In about 1996 I was listening to a late-night radio program by Ko Kimura, and I was inspired by how he played a continuous mix of house music so seamlessly. And from there I started DJing and going to parties. After graduating from high school, I began working in a vintage synthesizer shop. We weren't able to store the huge amps and speakers in the store, so I remember buying them secretly for myself.
At the time, outdoor raves were popular in Yoyogi Park, and I started getting involved. As these parties went on, I started to lend out the speakers to friends, and then eventually more people started to say, "I'll pay this much, so please bring us the speakers." I started getting money that way every week, so I gave up my day-job around 2000. Around that time, Hiranya Access was a team of party organizers, and the main focus was trance music.
Even when I was performing with instruments, I remember being curious about the sound engineer. But I'd heard a rumor that the sound engineering world was a strict, blue-collared, vertically structured system, and that all you'd be doing for the first three years would be wrapping cables. I assumed you wouldn't have been able to go far with enthusiasm alone, but I started out from delivering a soundsystem on my own, and it just made me think that you could just go ahead and do it yourself.
Asada: There's also the fact that people were increasingly starting to throw parties in an environment where there wasn't much equipment to begin with. More and more people were trying to throw these fresh parties at the time. Genres were widening, and within a group the guy who'd been, like, the party leader would become the organizer. And from there they'd need equipment. There were a lot of cases where people had rented out restaurants or campsites.
Fujita: For the 2002 Metamorphose, we borrowed Funktion-Ones, which were new at the time, but they blew out during the rehearsal. That was a day of massive fails, where the mixing console broke during the real thing at the crucial 3AM hour. There was no sound coming out. We were able to fix that, but we could only get the music playing through the DJ mixer, without the mixing console. It taught me a lot of lessons. I didn't even know that Funktion-One was Turbosound, but I was curious about them from what I'd heard through reviews.
Asada: The first time I saw the full Funktion-One system was at the White stage of Fuji Rock Festival. It quickly became popular for its quality.
Fujita: Besides my soundsystem delivery business, I started installing equipment at stores around 2006. It really started going from around the time me and Asada teamed up to do the sound equipment for Mixrooffice, and up until now I've set up equipment at over 35 venues. When I started out the sound quality wasn't good at any club you went to, and it was a dream of mine to make it better at all the venues in and around Shibuya. I was just thinking, "Is it OK for Tokyo, one of the three biggest cities in the world, to remain this way with bad sound quality? There's got to be a better way."
Tochibori: I'm not so concerned with sound quality to the extent that you both are, but I started listening to reggae as an influence from my brother who was living in Osaka. It was around the time that 50,000 people gathered together for Reggae Japan Splash, and reggae was far, far bigger in Osaka than Tokyo. And then when I was out here for university, I was always going to this gig where they had Rankin' Taxi's soundsystem at Yoyogi Chocolate City, and then suddenly they were saying to me, "You, you're always hanging around here. Help us carry the soundsystem." And before I knew it I'd naturally become part of the Taxi Hi-Fi crew, and I'd be invited to play or I'd help out when they were building new speakers. That was around the time when Rankin' Taxi had his soundsystem out playing in the car-free hours at Yoyogi Park.
After graduating from university I started work promoting artists and producing club tours. One year there was this project of running a club at Naeba Ski Resort, and I set up the complete eastaudio SOUNDSYSTEM by gathering together equipment from Rankin' or other guys who were working in sound engineering, and ran one season. Though there is a soundsystem culture in Japan, the reggae guys remained in their reggae world, and I wondered if there wasn't a way to spread that soundsystem culture out singlehandedly. It seemed to me like a pity that there wasn't more communication about soundsystems across genres. So around 2007 I set up a soundsystem in Yoyogi Park on my own, and threw free parties on Sundays during the day, where we mainly played jungle, reggae, hip-hop and techno. Two years later regulations got strict, and it was great fun, but we had to shut them down, so those speakers went to storage.
A while after that, a friend who is completely unrelated to music asked me, "Why aren't you throwing parties if you own those speakers?" And at roughly the same time I found out about Outlook Festival in Croatia. I heard that there would be loads of incredible soundsystems, and I made it there in 2011 and thought it was amazing. They had Martin line array speakers for the main stage, and the sound engineering was done by a company called RG Jones, who do the main stage for Glastonbury as well. I saw that with the Martin system they were using original customized woofers. For the second stage they had Mungo's Hi Fi, and they had close to ten more similar stages, where guys who were normally making a living off soundsystems were taking charge of the sound. Their own customized speakers worked really well producing a great sound, and it worked as a business. It made me wonder whether this would've worked in Japan. There wasn't a group with guys running reggae soundsystems and concert sound engineering companies, so I wondered if it was possible to make a business from that team, as middle ground between the two.
And Tochibori, you're also involved in the speaker brand agency Void in Japan.
Tochibori: At the beginning it was because Kotobiki, who develops speakers and amps with us, was checking out Void. Back then, the standard driver for the bass box was the PD1850, and then everyone started to switch to the 18-inch one made by Void. More people started to use it in Europe hearing that it was tougher and more powerful than the PD1850, with a clearer sound. So after some exchanges with their headquarters, we decided to run an agency.
I did some research and found that the developer Rog is the owner of speakerplans.com, a site popular worldwide with speaker customization enthusiasts, and he's kind of like a god in the speaker design industry. His developmental capabilities are extraordinary, and he's also very speedy. So I thought that spreading the brand to Japan would contribute to the scene out here. When we started contacting Void, I really felt that sound quality in Japan and the festivals and clubs here was somehow struggling. It made me wonder how it would be possible to start changing the scene in Japan like that.
Fujita: [The way people party] changes by the time it reaches Japan.
Tochibori: I think that there will be improvements if we change the conditions of sound quality. I've heard people say, "The sound quality improves the moment a foreign DJ plays," and accordingly that "the voltage at editing was different," or that the "mastering sound is different." But the foreign DJs are just used to a better sound, and they'd come here and mix tracks as though they were in the environment in which they'd made them. So you have these Japanese kids making music right now, but if it remains as it is their output sound isn't going to change. I think that in order to nurture artists and creators in Japan we really need to work on their sound environment.
Fujita: We need to raise the standard of that environment.
Tochibori: And that standard won't ever improve unless parties and sound quality get better alongside each other.
Fujita: It's a communication problem. Because you build this relationship of trust in one second. The DJ should always talk to the engineer before they play.
Tochibori: I've recently been going to workshops with Gunhead from Habanero Posse, and we've been discussing how to get bass music kids to sound better. What Gunhead said was, "Before everything else, go say hello to the sound engineer, and stop practicing mixing during your soundcheck." As in, pick your basic tracks in your soundcheck, and as soon as you think, "This club doesn't have so much bass," change your track selection. If the club environment is different yet you're still sticking to the same tracks, it won't be any fun for the audience.
Asada: That's true—a soundcheck is the time to say hello to us [sound engineers]. At the same time, a DJ should take in the organization of the venue. They should be checking, with this soundsystem in this space—I can play up to this point, but the sound collapses if I go any further. If there's anything that concerns them during the soundcheck, I think it's great to ask, "Can you please bring out more of these parts?" It's great when we can work together to create an environment where they feel comfortable.
In that sense I'm putting a lot into making the DJ's monitor speakers better, and I've been advocating subwoofers for them for over ten years. The better monitoring a DJ has, the more they mix with the music playing, rather than with headphones. If the monitor sound is unbalanced, there's a tendency to adjust the sound in the venue to correct for the monitors. For example, if the monitor sound is hard, you'd naturally, subconsciously, reduce the hardness to get a softer sound. But though the monitor sound gets better, the sound on the floor will just change to a flat one. Ideally you'd want to listen to a flat sound to start making tweaks in comparison, but if that sound itself sounds unnatural then you'd need to adjust it. So in order to avoid that situation, what I do is to adjust the monitor sound closer to that on the dance floor. This kind of thing wasn't possible back in the day, so you used to get some people saying, "DJs shouldn't be relying on the monitors, they should be listening to the dance floor."
Even if the sound is projected flat, it can change according to the particular venue, correct?
Asada: The sound in the DJ booth and on the dance floor is naturally different, so they need to be adjusted in order to match more. But it's very difficult to tweak a sound which has been changed for the worse once it has gone that way. If you add the sound engineer's changes over the DJ's, the sound becomes mechanical and unnatural. It loses energy and it becomes lifeless. There's a very obvious difference between a full sound and a flat one. In order to get a party going, naturally you need to tweak the music so that it can be felt in a 3D way.
If you think of it in terms of vinyl or CDs, there's a process where top engineers have put their all into getting a great sound. Then the musician approves it, and then finally the stereo is produced after it has gone through mastering. In other words, there's a "picture" in the final product. And a system that's unable to replicate that final picture is no good. Ideally you'd get the sound from the studio's monitor, but that's difficult in practice. The systems are different in clubs and studios—they operate differently, and their output power is also all different. It won't be the same sound as that in the studio because aeroelasticity and unit inertia will have an effect. And it's our job to make the adjustments.
For example, what a compressor does is to suppress many irregularities which may occur from things like aeroelasticity, moments of inertia or heat diffusion. By adjusting a small part of frequencies which rise and fall in waveforms, it's easy to get back the groove which is inherent in the track. Equalizers will remove the reflected sound or resonance caused by the building or walls at the venue. With the channel dividers and processors, the physical walls of the speakers themselves are being removed. So like that, we are going back to the original sound by removing the unnecessary elements that come with it. It looks like we're using a lot of equipment, but what's important is to get back the original sound. And that's the most important job of the sound engineer.
However, there's also the individuality of every sound engineer. You hear sounds not with your ears but with your brain, because in the process of growing up you use it to deduce the sounds you hear, and those interpretations are very different between people. It's a basic human instinct to work out and understand the meanings conveyed in sounds. And that's why we now have words, and music, which is so valuable to us. Ultimately we are processing what we hear in our heads, so what you interpret from a particular sound will differ according to your own experiences and the environment in which you grew up. It follows that that makes up the preferences and the individuality of a person. The preferences of the people who come to the venue and their mindset towards the music also play a part.
Fujita: In other words, it's an understanding of the scene.
Asada: I think each sound engineer has their own individuality and areas of strength, and experience that builds up over those things. Even if they're working on the same music, ultimately it will start to change according to the selected range they are giving most attention to. For example, it might be vocals, bass, guitar, drums, or their preferred genre. For me, an ideal dance floor would be one where you wouldn't have to pay attention to anything, where you'd just be able to enjoy the music.
Fujita: The kind where before you knew it the dance floor was going strong. And you were so into it you'd forgotten you were dancing.
Tochibori: The party itself has got to be good. When you just swing by to a party, even if the sound is great, if there aren't many people it's not going to leave a good impression. And bad rumors spread quickly. It's not only about the sound quality, but for a party to get going it takes the audience, the organizers, the party and the soundsystem all connecting together. Then there's also being used to it as well. Take your mother's cooking. It's not about tasting good or bad, but it's a taste that you're used to and therefore it's comforting. The way I see it, Japanese people often reject things that they're not used to. So even if you improve the sound where it's usually bad, you'll get some reactions like, "It's different from usual, so I don't like it." If they're not used to good sound quality and it's suddenly thrown at them, they won't be able to take it in. If someone says they like the music to have been at a level so that their ears are ringing when they get home, even if you tell them that's not right, they're probably going to say, "I don't like it because I'm not used to it. I don't like it."
Have there ever been occasions where your ears have been ringing almost painfully but you've found it exciting?
Asada: Generally, yes. It's like there are different chakras interacting with different sounds going from the low to the high. There's a range of sound from the bass to the treble. And within that range, the trebles, the metallic-type sounds become the uppers. What's important there is identifying whether it's a distorted sound or whether it's a high-quality sound. Pay attention to that. Distortion itself could be intentional, the same way you get it in guitar music, but I try and avoid it as much as possible during a gig.
Distortions in the bass and trebles have a strong energy to them, and you'd feel it on the eardrums. The eardrum won't break, but the nerves dealing with the vibrations coming from the eardrum will get tired. And when the nerves get tired, you get temporary deafness. And a part of our mission is to make sure that doesn't happen. It wouldn't be right to be damaging the audience's ears.
Tochibori: I think the output volume is the biggest in Japan. There are strict regulations in Europe, with France having a 100 decibel policy, and some sound engineers have been caught out for it. New roots and dub guys are working through that legally without problem. The only other option really is to do it illegally. People from abroad might be surprised when they come across the club scene in Japan.
Are there any trends in terms of sound output?
Asada: These past few years the bass has been strong. Tracks are being made with several strong basslines regardless of genre. And in response there's been an increase in soundsystems which deliver the bass clearly. I think they began with the Infrabass from Funktion-One. In the live music venues ages ago, they used have speakers which looked like dice, the 4560 by JBL. With these the sound pressure would fall from 100 Hz, and from 50 Hz and lower there'd be nothing coming out, so bass music wouldn't even have been possible.
Fujita: The Funktion-One was a turning point. A lot changed when a speaker which could handle below 50 Hz became available.
Tochibori: With the bass, the trends have been changing since I started using both the super low Funktion-One Infrabass and the 18-inch subwoofers. Like our original eastaudio system, and Void's Incubus, European soundsystems feature two-way bass systems. The kick bass and the lower bass are completely separate, and now we're starting to see genres which fit that system. For example, in juke/footwork tracks, the kick from the top part of the speaker and the bass from the lower are delivered separately. These genres are emerging using these features to their advantage, and it really is like they've been born from the soundsystem. Without that part it's not interesting, and it won't gain popularity in Japan. It's the same reasons why drum & bass or jungle didn't get big in Japan—because the systems weren't able to recreate that interesting part.
It's also a recent trend that there are a lot more DJs playing digital files.
Asada: There have been many incidents where we've had trouble with bad sound quality. MP3s go through a process called data compression. This removes part of the data so that it is incomplete, and MP3s will not sound the same as a CD. Still, there have been advancements in psychoacoustics, and we've reached a stage where the quality is no longer so inferior. However, in our work we are using audio equipment which is comparatively high-grade, and it's no surprise that ultimately the difference can be heard. Still though, it's little by little, very gradually, that DJs are starting to pay more attention to the digital equipment and the sound sources.
Fujita: The overall quality has gone down. In terms of getting the music in the first place, there are only originals in analog. And there are levels of originals with analog, which is defined according to choice in selection. With data, it isn't about choice but a question of where you got it. CDs and computers are digital and vinyl is analog, but if you connect both to a mixer you'll inevitably get a difference in the feel. And to fix that, we look at the cable work. We're largely able to minimize the difference by selecting the right cable for CD and computer signals. Rather than using a cable delivering a clear sound, in some cases it's better to use a more indistinct one in the end for a better blend.
Fujita: Sometimes people pursue worn out cables purposefully, and they also do that in recording. I don't go that far, but I applaud you, master Kohji [[laughs].
What do you look out for most when a DJ is playing?
Asada: The important thing is to see whether the levels are stable, and further to see whether those levels are being maintained. DJs are the same as sound engineers in that everyone has their own way of hearing. Even if different DJs play the same track, it won't sound the same. So you have to try out different things to address it. For example, you go and find out why it sounds so different when you move the speakers just five centimeters. Also it sounds different from the control booth and the DJ booth, so at times you'd go over and check. It's about frequently checking the dance floor. If you can't grasp the problems in the sound output, you aren't able to do this job.
Fujita: I think it's about not staying in the same place. If you stay in your seat, you're only able to improve the sound there, so I make sure to walk around. Maybe dance, too.
Asada: Also how calm the DJ is. Sometimes you have guys who are playing with the meters in red and they haven't noticed. Sometimes they're not sober, or when they're flustered or messing up, they lose sight of adjustments. So then I go up to them and whisper, "Turn it down a bit," and they calm down.
Fujita: Generally there's a high chance that sound engineers will be disliked by DJs when meeting for the first time. Because we're the ones saying, "Turn the volume down." That's why I try to gain their trust at the beginning when working together. And I also try to talk to them in a way so that they don't think I'm too stubborn.
Tochibori: As in, you're on their side. So when they play a good track, I'd say, "Nice one," or dance a bit, things like that.
Asada: They love it if you go out onto the dance floor. Also, it requires concentration when the DJs are changing between sets. You can basically be asleep if the sound is spot on, but when the DJs are switching it's time to readjust everything again. By and large everything changes when the DJs switch.
So there's a big variation in the sound even for an event in the same genre.
Asada: Especially for DJs who play analog—in that case it'll be record by record. The audio engineer's monitor would be all over the place if the date of production is different, so the sound quality can differ with each track.
It must be challenging if there are DJs of many different genres.
Fujita: It's important to not tune the system so that it only delivers one genre well. It's important to first fulfill the major principles, like getting the bass to output smoothly no matter what genre is played. Also to check on what the DJ is doing.
Asada: Then there's also things like making sure drinks aren't spilled onto the speakers. The sound engineer is vital on the hosting side, and DJs are the guests. We need to be taking care of them.
What are the differences between working in indoor and outdoor environments?
Tochibori: First and foremost I increase the subwoofer level by three times. A veteran engineer once said to me, "Since way back, you can't recreate the indoor atmosphere with the same volume unless you increase the woofers threefold." It would be insane if we increased the volume threefold on our Void, but bass enhancement has always been an ironclad rule.
Fujita: With no walls, there's that much less reverberation. Also, it's necessary to keep updated on rain-sheltering techniques. How do you set up a simple, smart environment that's easy to take apart? Sound engineers who only work indoors may not have any knowledge on these aspects.
Tochibori: They recently made some completely waterproof line array speakers.
Asada: Largely because once they're set up, you can't bring them down again. Waterproof speakers are becoming mainstream now.
So they didn't used to be made waterproof.
Asada: Well speaker cones were actually primarily made of paper. Today there's the development of polymers, and weather-compatible systems are increasing. In terms of speaker durability, today's speakers use a lot more power than they used to, and the input for one speaker has multiplied so the development of materials is flourishing. Also, in comparison to rave events, clubs are really long stretches. For outdoor events, 12 hours would be the minimum.
Tochibori: It can't be done without someone who can take over in shifts. The organizer only has an idea of an all-night party as that time duration, so they wouldn't have taken this into account. There are areas where we need to ensure we make the proposals as sound engineers, otherwise they'd get overlooked.
Asada: The sound starts to get dull when you've been listening to it all the time. Especially in clubs, you start to feel oxygen deprived, so I always take a walk once every two hours.
Fujita: And you need to draw the audience along, so you should try to hear the music in the way that the audience would be hearing it.
What do you think of the future of clubs in Japan?
Asada: Well there is the Fueiho law. And because of it I don't think the scene has developed yet. In Japan, it's not the case that it's the music or audience that is lacking, but the venues themselves which are in a poor condition. Then there's all sorts of other things like the entry prices being expensive. But I also think that in these difficult conditions they're really doing their best.
Tochibori: If the Fueiho law is amended then you'd get big-money companies coming in, and money would be handled differently towards clubs. What I noticed when I went to Ibiza was that the buildings of clubs themselves were independent, and not in multi-tenant buildings like Japan. When installing clubs, I think it's necessary to have a soundsystem designer from the layout stage. I think it must be that way in most Ibiza clubs as well. In Japan, it's largely the case that the venue is established first, and then the speakers are installed. There are too many restrictions like ceiling height regulations, and it dulls the interest you feel as an entertainer. A multi-tenant building is fine, but I'd like to have club owners who'd pay attention from the skeletal stage and ask where the speakers should go from there.
Asada: The role of architectural coordinators may increase. Their role is establishing and applying what is most in demand for the particular building. It would be ideal if these coordinators would study architectural acoustics and then specialize in it. The speed of sound is the biggest problem. Positioning is crucial because sound travels only 334 meters in one second. You can't see it in an architect's sketch. You can't point at it saying, "That's the ideal position." We need to know the foundations to make those kinds of demands.
Fujita: Club management and interior planning people tend to be visually-minded as well. And consequentially they don't consider things like the materials of the walls. They spend money on the things that are visible, but not on things that can't be seen.
Tell me about about your future plans.
Asada: I wonder when I'll be retiring [laughs]. I think I'll still be working on-site for about the next ten years or so, but this is a question I think about. I think about what I can do with the time I have remaining, how I can offer a good sound with good faith and how I can spread that. But I still want to carry on helping out with the venues I've set up in other areas, too. Also, there's the outdoor Life Force party, so please come check it out.
Fujita: I'd like to research efficient electrical energy management, in light of the opening ceremony for the upcoming Olympics. But first, I will be taking on solar sound engineering on a 10,000-person scale next year.
Tochibori: I'd like to reform equipment as part of a selected team with manufacturers, things like that. I also think that the sound engineering skills that I've gained from experience could in the future be applied to fields that aren't directly related to music—in medical treatment, for example.