April 12, 2011

The Road to Surround – Part 12: Special Interview with Mr. Keimei Asami

By. Mick Sawaguchi

Sawaguchi: As I have been issuing the articles in this series for one year, I thought I wanted to have the last round with Mr. Asami. I talked with Mr. Uchimura in the previous round. This time in the other end, I want to talk with the teacher of my life so-to-speak, that is Mr. Asami.
The other day in the column called "Me and the Microphone" of the Federation of Specific Radio-Microphone Users, you wrote about your life briefly, and I thought it would connect well with this interview. Maybe most of the readers may not be so familiar with such details even if they know your name well. So first of all, could you tell us your career from the days when NHK was in Uchisaiwaicho?
Asami: As you know, it was in 1952 when NHK began a stereo program and it was practically the world's first regular service. I think it was an indication that Japanese audience loved audio. The television had already begun then, and Hiromi Nakajima the Chief of sound adjustment at that time created a new role in the organization called "a mixer function". It had been a general engineer role before then. Therefore there existed a mixer function, and I entered NHK in 1955. However, it was only that year when the recruitment of mixers took place.
S: Was it really one-off recruitment? How many people entered then?
A: There were me and Yoshinori Ando. Mr. Ando was a graduate of the Tokyo University of the Arts, majored music theory, and later studied the flute in the Research Center, and then moved to Kyushu Art College of Engineering eventually stepped up to the President. Though he had a kind of unique educational career being the doctor of engineering graduated from a music college, and he started his job as a mixing engineer.
S: Then only two people!
A: But he belonged to the sound adjustment section only a year and then he was transferred to NHK Research Center. An electronic music studio was built for the first time in NHK when we just entered in 1955, and he was in charge of electronic music then. While investigating electronic music, he notices that one must analyze the musical instruments before synthesizing a new sound, which eventually drove him to study the flute in NHK Research Center. He was indeed a splendid senior colleague.
You like new things, Mick, but I myself wanted to do some new thing, too. Because I devoted myself to the sound analysis of the musical instruments in my university days, I thought it was great to synthesize sound electrically. In the electronic music studio of NHK at that time, we had a theory that we can synthesize any kind of sound from sine waves by processing them infinitely; and in addition, by slicing white noise through filters infinitely, a sine wave must be generated. When this is achieved successfully, we are the winner, we thought idealistically. Coincidentally, it was the time when Moog started his synthesizer concept around that period.

Masaki Sawaguchi (author, left) and Mr. Keimei Asami (right)

S: Then did you do the electronic music relations mainly since you joined as a mixing engineer?
A: Of course I was in charge of not only the electronic music but also the programs of stereo music and others. I did considerable number of drama programs, too. The mixer function disappeared in around 69 or 70.
S: Was it because the television service started or what?
A: The opinion was raised from television people that they did not like the idea of the dedicated function only given to mixing engineers. There should be similar arrangement for camera and lighting functions.
In the beginning it started with the idea of dedicated staff for camera, lighting, and audio for the first time in NHK and the hope was to gradually interchange the duties among them. In the days of your time, location productions began, and we were looking into the pattern for one engineer to be able to do anything for himself in various ways.

Italia Award by "Undine."
And afterward executed the first multitrack-surround in Japan
S: You won Italia Award by "Undine", didn't you?
A: That's correct. We were awarded in the 1959 Art Festival with a music poetic drama titled "Undine" music by Akira Miyoshi and lyrics by Kyoko Kishida. The following year, we made this program in stereo and entered it in Italian Award and won the grand prix. This is a music and poetic drama that displays a tangle love in the fantastic world of water. The orchestra and an electric musical instrument called ondes martenot are wrapped by dialogs and chorus through the entire drama, and in addition such electric sounds generated from white noise through various filters and fine bleeps of various pulses actively appeared in the drama. The sonic image of the bubbles to sway and ascend in the water was created by manipulating electronic pulses.
S: How did you process the electronic pulses?
A: For example, I record various pulse sound in tape. I cut the tape in some 60cm long pieces and hold both ends by hand and rub it against the magnetic head of the recorder slowly. As I play it manually by delicately changing the speed, I hear something like "hwow-wow" and send the output to the echoic chamber, then the return sound is like "bwowoon-pharr" that gives an imaginary texture of bubbles. I store them on tape from top to end one by one, and have Mr. Miyoshi choose among them. Though it says electronic music, the work was very analogous. With the sound of traditional sine waves only, the resultant sound would be mechanical and lacks with emotions, I wanted to pursue a wet sound, and it consequently led to such a process. Have you listened?
S: No, I haven't. But only heard the story.
A: When we think about the electronic music itself, the sense of direction is very important and is effective because it is an inorganic sound. There was a composer called Xenakis in Norway or Sweden in Scandinavia, and with regard to him, there was a report that said when he composed an electronic music, he made use of multiple speakers. When I pan the white noise between 2 channels, it becomes as a beautiful panning and often displays an excellent surround effect depending on its sound.
In creating sound in "Undine", echoes were effectively very important for the chorus of Naiad. I think that it was the very first time around 1959 that I did the after-recording having singers put an earphone in one of their ears. After the recording of an orchestra in old NHK hall of Tamuracho first, I output the chorus from speakers placed here and there, making it just about to cause feedbacks. Then I could capture an echo with a delicate expansion.
The chorus became very rich and I think I wanted to bring out something that was sensed as surround. We won the grand prix of Italia Award in 1960, and in the following year we did a ballet based on tape in Sankei Hall, where I realized that the sound balance of the broadcast and that in a large auditorium are completely different; therefore I fine-adjusted the mix by running dialogs and music on separate tapes. And the next was in newly completed Cultural Center in Ueno at that time. We borrowed a 1/2-inch 3ch recorder from Sony and placed it in the orchestra pit as the main unit. Left and right channels of music were recorded in Ch1 and Ch3 respectively, and Ch2 was used for echoes only. In the orchestra pit were total 10 stereo or mono recorders and also mixers and effectors that I gathered, and what I did was surround as we say today.
They did the public performance for four days, but the sound was always different and the balance, too. For the speaker system, I used 3 trumpet speakers to achieve clarity in dialogs; and for the orchestra I used 3 large-size cinema-purpose speakers. I used total 50 speakers for the ceiling, the back wall and others. I had the female chorus of the naiad spread out to the whole hall, and the electronic tones are heard here and there directionally from the ceiling or from the walls. They were really effective surround. I intended to design the sound configured considerably three-dimensional in this way. I believe that it was the very first kind of surround effort in Japan. Later on, 4ch records came to the market, and then FM Tokyo did the quasi-4ch broadcast afterwards.
S: Oh, it was a program sponsored by Sansui, wasn't it? I remember it somehow.
A: At that time the head of engineers was Mr. Fujishima, and he called me and Mr. Fujita of NHK Research Center to ask how the 4ch system by Tokyo FM was. I answered him something like "the multi-channel is very interesting, but the matrix system will affect negatively to the image of 4ch and I do not want to try it". Mr. Fujita also commented a similar thing. Taking this voice of Chief Engineer as a fair reason, we managed to buy a 4ch recorder and started a rather extensive research of 4ch recording. There are some types of music that suit with surround or not, I felt.
While the pipe organ is superb, reverberant elements only from the back sound rather poor. If the music has been composed taking surround effect in to account for example "Requiem" by Berlioz in which a trumpet plays from the back or "The Tale of Genji in Picture Scroll" by Isao Tomita at Nagoya International Expo, the effect is obviously valid as it aims surround effect from the beginning. And then you became eager to do it in radio dramas.

An inside story of a mixing console installation
S: What about after "Uchisaiwaicho"?
A: When the Broadcast Center of Shibuya was established, I think I made a considerable effort for the adoption of vertical attenuators, but the drama engineers were absolutely against it in the beginning saying the transitional sensitivity of the round shape attenuators was unbeatable in our questionnaire. Consequently in the end, they agreed to compromise with 50 mm wide and 100mm stroke faders.
Though I wanted to use 30 mm width to allow more faders for music mixing, the attenuator which I produced experimentally for electronic music was 150 mm long with 35 mm width. Therefore it looks very graphical when the attenuators for music purposes line up in use.
You recommended 50 mm, too.
S: I suggested 50 mm wide and 120 mm long for post-production purposes. The stroke was the key. 50 millimeters for post-production and 40 millimeters for music. And 100 mm stroke for 40 mm faders. It was because the music is always critical in this neighborhood of the reference level. But the post-production goes down to the bottom and it will preferably need 20 mm more.
A: in June, 68 the department structure was renewed from traditionally-classified radio/TV /film by media to single drama /serial drama /entertainment /music according to the programs, and we became responsible for TV and film in addition to radio that we used to have to be only in charge, and so we had to manage a 1200 square meter CT -101 studio for big music purposes that had, my God's sake, only 12 channels in the console! Coincidentally, it was about the time when I was thinking of becoming a freelance mixing engineer out of NHK.
With the resignation letter in my pocket, I went to see Director Toyota accompanied by my boss to present my request for a bigger console, and if it did not work, then I thought I would hand him my resignation. The reaction was "okay I will leave it to you if you say so much about it"; and I lost the chance to quit NHK!
That's how the first console came in from a foreign country that was 24ch Neve as the sub-console next to the main 40ch. You did so much love foreign consoles, too.
S: I had a lot of criticisms for it being foreign-infective.
A: No, I had more above and beyond. I kept being accused. High-level managers of those days had a concern in the microphone because only this was not made locally while all the other equipment for the TV were fully Japan made. They felt they had to bring up domestic manufacturers in Japan. But later on, it became fairy easy to use foreign products soon.

Sprashing Drinks on Hot Argument
A: By the way, when did you move back to Tokyo?
S: It was 1976. I was originally supposed to move to a master function. I thought that it would take longer time for me to become a mixing engineer if I follow this assignment, and I expressed that I wanted to go to the production section. My director went upset asking "are you declining my preliminary notification?" Then he said "can you tolerate a little more while in this local station?", and I answered "I would" expecting to be stuck for around 3 more years.
Then it was December, I recall, I was told that there was a department that could transfer me in a position, and I moved to Second Audio department where they did radio dramas.
A: Did you want to do the dramas from the beginning? Wasn't it music that you were interested?
S: I did jazz myself as a hobby, but I thought that I did something related to the sound in a difference world as my work in the broadcast. The radio drama is like the world of movies only with sound, isn't it? It involves music, sound effects, and dialogs, too. A wide range of things are there. I was wondering where I could find such a post, and heard that Second Audio department worked on the drama in Production Technology Center, so I applied. When we deal with audio only, don't we enjoy more freedom to consider lots of approaches because it allows various ways? I thought the audio-only media would be appealing. Naturally, I was often asked why I did not target TV toward the age of television.
A: In those days, the time when I got to know you was when I had a project to decide the direction of our future mixing consoles in NHK.
S: That's right.
A: There, we argued a lot.
S: We had never worked together with you. It was not the master-student relationship with us in terms of the works in NHK at all. But I was taken good care of by you, probably because our wavelength matched in various directions each other. It was mostly after 6:00 p.m. for me to learn from Mr. Asami. When it was about 6:00, the telephone rang and it said "Pronto, Sawaguchi!" And I was like a secretary carrying your brief case.
Utchan and I talked about this in the last issue, but the thought not to be a person totally settled in the place like "Shibuya" was something that you always had been stressing for some time, too. I think that it was a big leap for me that you dragged us out in the night and opened the door to other broadcasting stations, music industry and manufacturers, all outside our organization in front of us.
A: One thing I was not able to achieve is related to my inability of language handling. In your case, you improved your English significantly in Singapore. And you built international acquaintances that I could not manage. I really think that you did it very well.
S: I was not good at the language at all from a beginning, too and almost hated it. But I made an effort of going to school for 3 years, a private Sunday school run by a church with hospital near Ogikubo. It was the basis for me to visit Singapore. And it served me as an extensive training there because I had to complete the work for myself. In contrast, my opponents handled Queen's English fluently. I seriously realized at that time that such a chance would continue to expand once you trigger an opportunity.

A: What we studied the least was English because I was in the third grade of junior high when the war was over, and for these three years we had student mobilization to factories. We were near Sagami Bay on the verge of enemy's landing, so we were busy building tochka pillboxes.
It was so heavy for two of us to carry the packs of cement.
Without learning English, I always had an inferiority complex toward English. Therefore for the entrance exam of the university and of NHK, I chose German through the study for myself. When I joined Otari, it was inevitable for me to handle English conversation, and I decided to visit the church just as you did. I went there for about 2 years, but anyway it was a mere beginner at 60.
You know, I was in charge of the program called "World Music" in CT-101 studio from 1966, and the world's top entertainers came from overseas every time. I really thought it would have been marvelous if I could talk a little more with them. I actually did a little with my broken English.
S: Asami-san belonged to Department 3 while I was in Department 2, and how did you find me interesting among various young people in your Department 3?
A: Because I thought you were unique and I enjoyed making fun of you! After having drunk in Shibuya with you and Toru Ishizuka from my department, we said "good-bye!" and at the door of my home you guys popped up saying "welcome home!" You were extremely talkative all the way until morning in those days, and once you've done with what you wanted to say, you went to sleep immediately! I was just being told... But you were not like others.
S: You had an apartment house. A hideout in Shibuya.
A: We often drank and stayed there. I remember that I made apology calls to your wife politely when you were a newly-wed.
S: Drank a lot and argued a lot.
A: In my age, learning was through drinking. Wasn't it the style everywhere? In those days, when I went to see the work of our seniors, they got furious asking me if I came to steal their skills.
S: There is a cable TV channel running old archives, and I happened to watch "Sound in S" by TBS. It brought me back to the days and was quite interesting.
A: Taku Kato was indeed the guy who succeeded in realizing a sync of VTR with 24ch multi-track recorder in "Sound in S".
S: That was phenomenally a cultural shock for me. In contrast, the equipments of Shibuya village in those days were totally miserable. It was as if bamboo weapons in the war, relying on manpower. Such a situation was sp regretting to me. I heard repeated criticisms by session musicians when they came to the Broadcast Center. "How could this work?" I think it was one of reasons why I always challenged you in hope for an improvement.
In the arguments, it was an established knowledge that when it boiled up Mr. Asami threw the liquor over the partners. In one occasion, I got sake thrown which was when I insisted on audio dramas with surround sound exactly like movies using Dolby matrix because it was good enough. You were from purist music school, and said it degraded the sound quality. No rush and we should wait till a better solution would be available. This was somewhere in Shimokitazawa, and the result was "damn it!" And came the shower of sake. I thought "oh, yes, this is the liquor that everybody talked about." You really dump it on us!

Joining Otari/Otaritec after NHK
S: It was slightly before your retirement age when you joined Otari, wasn't it? What kind of opportunity was that?
A: I went in Otari on October 2, 1985. On December 17, I would be 55 years old, and they could settle this as a proper retirement. Otari was in the process of deciding DASH or PD, and they chose PD for their digital recorders. And they wanted to make an announcement in about November. I was only focusing on the digital area at that time, right? Therefore it was considered best to be in time for the announcement. Though I decided to move because I thought I would be better being younger and more ambitious in the next company, and I chose Otari as I felt it would be more exciting to be able to actively challenge various things in a relatively small company.
S: Eventually, it was the substantial second life of yours. You really did various things there.
A: Oh, there were so many things. We start working in manufacturers right after the graduation from university in Japan, but there seems to be a difference between Japanese and foreign manufacturers. Because the American society does not follow the lifetime employment, there exist many out-of-the-track examples such as those who want to do the equipment after gaining the experience of mixing engineer. Therefore I saw their quite high recognition of users' needs in talking to them, which was a significant difference. It was same with Otari American staff, too.
S: What do you recall interesting in dealing with foreign manufacturers?
A: If I name the people, Mr. Martikainen of Genelec and Mr. Hoehestrasse of Studer.
S: What kind of opportunity was it with Genelec?
A: We sold some 200 Otari recorders to the Netherlands. And they brought a monitor speaker called S-30 at that time. It was terribly outstanding piece. Most foreign speakers designed for music use fail with voices. We broadcasters have a custom to judge the quality with human voice, you know. And S-30 had an excellent voice reproduction. That was the point I liked most.
S: In your days in Otari, the one of my memories is you introduced me to Mr. Yoshiaki Shimizu.
A: He is truly splendid! BBC was always open for his visits, and his sales of multi-track recorders to BBC exceeded Studer's at that time. He is now in another company selling consoles.
S: He represents Euphonics Japan now.

Always Create Opportunities for Us
S: The overseas deployment system was revised in NHK around that time to find a desired place where you can study at least for three months or possibly as long as a year, and I wanted to apply as one of the first explorers somewhere. When I consulted it with you, you told me to contact Mr. Shimizu of Otari UK with your introduction because he had a close relationship with BBC. Mr. Shimizu introduced me to Mr. Jeff Baker who was Director of Sound Department in BBC at that time. When I met him and talked face to face, as many people around him described, he was so soft and nice; one and only guy opposite to typical BBC character. He also had a sense of humor.
And my point was an exchange project. I made a proposal not just I stay with them and learn but to do an exchange program because there should be a few things that they could learn from NHK. I always go for 50:50 principle. Then Jeff responded to try it as it looked interesting.
I was the first to visit BBC for three months in 91. This opportunity was seeded by Asami-san.
There are two types of seniors when consulted: one to dump it and the other to offer an even slightest trigger, and Mr. Asami was always the latter. The rest is that I dig it further and further to hit something underneath.
Regarding my translation works, you made the opportunity. It was regarding Studio Sound, wasn't it? You told me to translate it for JAS publication. I really worked hard on 7 or 8 serial project of "The Mixing Console Design" regarding which you said that it would be an extensive lesson for me and at the same time readers could learn, too. But you in parallel had a friend of yours check if my translation was appropriate. A well-considered follow-up action! A lot of learning through this because both speaking in English and translating to Japanese have some focal points that require your sensitivity.
A: It is only in Japan now facilities-wise where you can see so much advanced broadcasting stations. If I should add more, Europe is different. In the USA, most of the programs are not produced by themselves. Nobody elsewhere takes the radio programs so seriously. BBC does some and Germans do more or less, too, but TV programs are basically done by outside productions. Japan is now in the same direction, too unfortunately. At any rate, everybody will be amazed to see our studios in NHK.
S: Exactly. But such an advancement started from 1983 or 84. The situation began to allow us to execute untraditional facility updates and we managed to bring in some latest systems.
Before this paradigm was a long effort of fighting in your times, and then we had this revolution. Today foreign country friends joke that NHK is a department store of sound and one should visit there to understand all at once! The density is particularly high there when we take surround productions in account.
A: Europe still holds some status.
S: True. In foreign countries, and Europe in particular, young people can learn things visiting there. I think that there are some in USA, too. They are very quick to make business models.
For example, relations with the Internet and non-conventional broadcast models. We never feel relaxed.
A: That's true. For the next generation
S: Our conversation used to be endless, but before closing, can you please say a few words to the next, young generation people through your experience as professor in Nippon University and chairperson of JAPRS regarding what to challenge?

A: At first I think, if you are going to be music mixing engineer, you have to master at least one musical instrument at a considerably high level. You will find how to make of the tone for yourself if you learn playing an instrument. In America, 90% of mixing engineers have background of studying music now. Anyway, music and mixing work together so closely to create music. Japan is much behind in this respect. Therefore I want mixing engineers particularly those not in broadcast continue to study music extensively despite the fact that many of them are from the field of music. In Europe, conservatories in Berlin, Detmold or Den Haag offer a course for tonmeister and I feel envious of their educating engineers thoroughly.

Then of course you need to know computers, and to be really international like Mr. Sawaguchi, the language should be not only by English but also by French or German preferably. It is for a good communication. You seem to be the ideal type in this sense, don't you think?
And the rest, I want people enjoy more "analog" character. I may have taken too much part in the digital, and therefore the young engineers have not listened to acoustic music sufficiently.
They do very little. They may not have many chances to hear. I want them to listen to music more. I think it is time for us to get tired with music through inputs soon, and less people will create music in this sense. After all, music should drift with delicate atmosphere. With a sense of atmosphere. Such waves should be more prominent.
S: I think a good combination is the mind in analog and the tools in digital. People are digital-and-digital today, and I hope they become aware of it soon. Thank you so much today.

Time flies and this one-year series have now been concluded. In these 12 sections, a few matters may have not been covered, and I appreciate any comments and requests from you to the editor, Mr. Matsui (matsui@kenroku-kan.co.jp).

Keimei Asami
1930: born in Kugenuma, Kanagawa
Took piano lessons from childhood, and in the college student days, addicted to the cello in stead of studying, and became active as a semi-professional musician in the drama broadcasts of NHK and other commercial stations, music accompaniment in the ballet, and local music classrooms.
Having realized the own ability, decided to go back to school giving up the ambition to be a cello player.
1955: graduated from Gakushuin University, department of science physics subject (acoustics specialty)
Entered NHK as a mixing engineer.
In charge for the promotion of "Three-dimensional Music Hall" (NHK had the world's first regular stereophonic program by using two AM waves since 1953), electronic music, FM stereo, TV stereo, HDTV, and PCM recording.
1960: Italia Award by "Ondine" (Akira Miyoshi's composition) in charge of audio mixing. This work is a music poetic drama performed by orchestra, chorus, nodes martenot (French electrophone) and electronic music.
1961: 4 day performance of the above title in ballet in Ueno Cultural Center
In the orchestra pit, a 3ch tape player, a 2ch tape player, 5 monaural players, various mixers and effectors were brought in, and 7 staff manipulated them following the conductor, Mr. Miyoshi.
Everything was all manual work with no multi-track recorders nor synchronization system in those days. It was the first multi-channel surround performance of tape media in Japan using 3 speakers for music, 3 speakers for dialog, 3 large speakers on ceiling and 3 speakers on walls.
1962: Salzburg Opera Award by "Aya-no-tsuzumi" (Yoshiro Irino's composition)
1968: Salzburg Opera Award by "Orpheus of Hiroshima" (Yasushi Akutagawa's composition)
In the mean time, in charge of such performances as Italian opera, Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Boehm/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Celibidache/London Philharmonic Orchestra ...
Associate Editor of Broadcast Technology and Japan Audio Society

1985: Retired NHK
Chief Engineer of Otari and Executive Director, Marketing of Otaritec
1993: Retired Otari/Otaritec
1994: Lecturer, Nippon University, Art Department Broadcast Section
2000: Resigned Nippon University
2002-2005: Chairperson of Japan Music Studio Association chairperson.

2006.12 Broadcast Technology

Part 1: To acquire the skill for writing, listening, and talking >>>

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