Published on June 19th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
Interview: Nao Anzai
Story by BB. Top image by Kate Seabrook
Spend a bit of time around Melbourne’s indie music scene and Nao Anzai’s name soon pops up.
Nao immigrated to Australia in 2003 and is now one of the most sought-after recording and live sound engineers in the country.
Over the years, he’s recorded, mixed, or mastered hundreds of albums for some of Australia’s best-loved indie bands as well as manning the mixing desk for countless overseas touring acts, including Damo Suzuki, Matmos, Kurt Vile, Tennis Coats, and Deafheaven to name just a few.
Nao is known for a sixth sense when it comes to understanding what sound a band wants, and possesses the talent and know-how to make it happen with the minimum of hassle.
He is also a strong supporter of local music, ensuring the bands he works with get a good deal and coaching those with less experience through the minefield of recording.
BNU reached out and asked to hear part of Nao’s story. It starts with a small boy in front of his parent’s TV set, a cheap cassette recorder pressed to the speaker; traverses stages around the world with bands such as multi-platinum-selling THE BOOM, for whom he worked as a session keyboard player; takes in stints as a TV and advertising composer for companies like NHK and Nintendo; and continues today at his mastering studio Reel 2 Reel Mix Master.
BNU: Where were you born? What did your mum and dad do for a living? What music sticks with you from elementary school?
I was born in Fujisawa-shi, Kanagawa-ken, 50 km south of Tokyo. Lived there till I moved to Melbourne in 2003. My mum was a full-time housewife and my father was working in a big company called Ebara Seisakujo, which is known for making pumps.
He graduated from the top university (Tokyo Daigaku), but he chose to get a job at this company simply because their main factory is in Fujisawa. He didn’t want to get on the peak-hour train to go to Tokyo. He was a man with talent but no ambition.
My mum could have been actress or musician if she was born much later. She played old classic records every night when I was going to bed. That was my first musical experience. Then my aunt took me to the movie Yellow Submarine when I was seven. It just blew my mind. I wish I could have known the words like “holy shit!” or “fucking hell!” back then.
Also, when I was in elementary school, my grandmother was a fan of Japanese popular music and I remember some from her. Also TV theme music and some Group Sounds (i.e. Spiders).
I got my first cassette tape recorder when I was in Grade 6. I recorded most of the TV songs by putting the recorder very close to the small TV speaker.
Then I had a chance to see my high school friends’ band’s gig. They were playing Stones, Deep Purple, as well as the now-historical Japanese rock band Gedoh and Zunoh Keisatsu (Brain Police). Again, it just blew my mind.
So you would’ve been in junior high or high school in the late 70s/80s, right? How much exposure did you have to some of the underground or art-rock music of that time, like Taj Mahal Travellers, Shinki Chen, Hadaka no Rallizes? Was it easily available then? Did you want to play music at first or were you more interested in recording?
As you may expect, there was not much media paying attention to Japanese acts then. Since I went on to junior high, me and some other “musical” friends went through all the songs of Beatles, Stones, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Yes, Pink Floyd… then KISS came out and we all picked up guitar to play Detroit Rock City.
One Japanese band I really liked then was Yoninbayashi, kind a mix of prog rock and fusion music. Also Sadistic Mika Band.
My first band was a Deep Purple and Rainbow cover band when I was 15. I wanted to play guitar but there were too many “wannabe guitarists” around, so I picked up keyboard.
That was the start of my life in debt.
Then something totally new became affordable, synthesizer. I bought a YAMAHA CS30 then as-new for a bit under $2000. I needed to pay back my parents for the next few years. That was the start of my life in debt. So I didn’t recommend my daughters become keyboard players. I’m still using that CS 30 though.
I wanted to learn more about synthesizer but it was too new to find a teacher, so I taught myself. Also, at that time the sound was only monophonic, I needed to “overdub” to make music, but there was no multi-track recorder. I worked it out using two small cassette boomboxes. Probably that was the start of my “sound engineer” work.
As I mentioned, I didn’t have much money, so most of my music collection was on cassette tapes recorded from FM radio. All through the first half of my life, I’ve been a synthesizer player. I learned most of my audio knowledge by making sounds with CS30.
So when was it you decided that you wanted to be a sound engineer? Did you go to uni to study or did you study something else completely?
I never intended to be a sound engineer. In those days, to make a good sound with synthesizer, it automatically meant doing all the sound engineer work. Then when I was in university, we did some gigs and hired a P.A. It was cheaper to operate it by ourselves rather than hiring an engineer. So I started learning about P.A. systems.
Most of my music collection was on cassette tapes recorded from FM radio
Until the early ’80s, the biggest P.A. system we could hire for normal gigs up to around 300 capacity was a 12-channel desk with a couple of wedge monitors, no graphic EQ. Much smaller systems than the Pony or The Old Bar. So it was not the thing you could go to school to learn.
Then, after uni, I was fortunate to get a job as a paid musician, so I stopped doing sound engineering. Next time I started working as sound engineer was when I built my own studio in my parent’s old house in Fujisawa.
At the start, my engineer friend was in charge, but not full time. Then he got too busy so I stepped in and started operating a 16-track analog recording studio. It was 1988. There were no affordable digital recording system, no affordable, good-quality condenser mic yet. So I needed to be creative with what I had.
It was after I moved to Melbourne that I switched from my main job as a synthesizer player/composer/arranger to a sound engineer, simply because it was too hard to start as a musician in a new place where no one knows you.
I was planning to do mastering only, but soon I realised that in Melbourne, “sound guy” is just one job that includes P.A., recording, mastering… everything about sound. That was great for me as it was just what I’ve been doing since I got my first synth.
In Japan, there are too many walls between jobs. P.A. engineers don’t work in studios, recording engineers don’t even go to see gigs, musicians are not recognised as professional sound engineers.
I’ve never thought of myself as mainly a sound engineer.
Then one day I was watching a band at Cue Bar in Fitzroy. The sound was terrible and there was no one at the small sound desk. So I fixed the sound better. Then at the end of the night, the bar manager gave me $30. That’s when I thought it might be a good idea to get my P.A. skill back.
So in general, I’ve never thought of myself as mainly a sound engineer. If I have to describe what I am in one word, I always prefer to be called a “NOISER”.
I’m thinking you must be a very resourceful and determined person. You say you were in uni but you were also hiring out P.As., you set up a recording studio by yourself… How does a 20 year-old kid DO that? That’s a business. How’d you get the money to start it up?
I am not a resourceful person.
As I said, I’ve been always in debt since I got my first synth. I meant I hired a P.A. when I was doing gigs while I was in uni.
I borrowed some money from my parents to build small studio in their house (actually it was my grandparent’s house as three generations lived together).
I also got $70,000 worth of equipment on a five-year lease. So basically all the money I earned from the studio went to pay off those debts.
I’m good at music and sound but bad at business and tax
There are few things I learnt from that studio: One, I’m good at music and sound but bad at business and tax. Two, recording studios need lots of mics while a mastering studio needs none. And three, anything digital gets cheaper every year. If you buy the first generation, you’ll lose money (my first Mac, an SE30 with a massive 40 MB hard-drive, cost me $4,000.)
What sort of bands did you record in your first studio? Was it hard to build a name for yourself in the beginning?
I mainly used my studio for recording my band or my project as a composer for TV commercials, video soundtracks and so on. When I built my studio, I was in a band called Haru, later renamed +B (Plus B). It was ’80s experimental pop/rock with a taste of Japanese traditional music. Then I went onto another band called Edition Deluxe and recorded a debut full-length at my studio with me as keyboard player/recording engineer.
Edition Deluxe became “indie big”, winning a late-night battle-of-the-bands TV show, but unfortunately there was no indie scene or indie media (and no internet yet) and we couldn’t go so far. I also recorded some other friend’s artists at my studio. All sorts of music: indie rock, acoustic jazz, ambient piano.
Also my music partner and I, AO, were creating music for surround systems. We hoped that the music media would get interested in what we were doing, but not really. Even the publisher I was writing many books for (I sold more than 100,000 copies in total) didn’t even come to see our surround shows, which we did constantly from the late ’90s till I moved to Melbourne.
What I learned technically from my studio, one of the most important things, is to trust your ear. The mic is equipment for capturing the sound your ear can hear at the mic position.
I also learnt how important the gain structure is to record less-noisy tracks with all analog gear. And the last but the most important thing I learnt was that I record music, not sound. It means if you cannot capture a good performance, good sound means nothing.
What I learned technically from my studio, one of the most important things, is to trust your ear.
It was much more than HARD to build a name in Japan unless you had a HIT SONG. There was no media to praise you for the quality of your music work. Imagine if there was no RRR, PBS, Beat, Mess+Noise in Melbourne. Imagine you have to promote yourself to FOX FM to get your name out.
I tried hard, then when I turned 40, I called it a day and got out of there.
What were your books about? And it’s interesting that you were working with surround mixing in its infancy and that it was embraced for movies but less so with music. Same with the quadrophonic experiment in the late ’70s. Why do you think listeners seem to prefer stereo?
My books are all about sound. Everything You Should Know About Synthesizers [シンセサイザーの全知識], Handbook to Record Good Demo Tapes [デモテープ制作ハンドブック] and so on. All from Rittor Music Inc. I recently wrote a 2nd Edition version of Everything You Should Know About Effectors [エフェクターの全知識] that has been used as a textbook in some major music colleges in Japan for more than a decade.
My latest one is called Recipe of Delay and Reverb [ディレイ＆リバーブ レシピ] released last year. Regarding your second question: the answer is simple.
People get the idea of “stereo” quickly as they have two ears. But they don’t really understand why four is better for two ears.
Movie surround is a bit of a different concept. I once met Isao Tomita and talked about this. I totally agreed with him. He has made probably the largest amount of 4-channel and 5-channel music. But he never intended to set any particular channel as “FRONT”. It is surround. Where you are facing should be your “FRONT”.
Sounds like you’re knowledgeable about audio electronic theory too! Are you able to take apart equipment for repair? Does this knowledge come in useful for your day-to-day work?
I’m not a hardware audio engineer. I can solder simple cables but not more than that. I thought I should learn more about it but I’ve been too busy using machines rather than repairing them.
What made you decide to immigrate to Australia?
My wife is from Sydney. I met her when I played at Manly Jazz Festival in 1985. So when our older daughter became school age, we wanted her to go to school in Australia.
Also at the same time the Japanese economy went very low and it got much more difficult to get enough music jobs in Japan. So I thought, it’s time to get out of Japan. Never been to Melbourne before I moved here. I had only visited Sydney and Brisbane.
My wife’s younger brother Aaron South, who was running Cumbersome Records in Collingwood then, recommended we move to Melbourne rather than Sydney. He also brought the first EP of the band Laura and asked me to remaster it while I was still in Japan. There’s an unreleased multi-track version as well. So AO and I did a remix of it as a bonus track for this remastered version. Then we found that remix had been played a lot in RRR and PBS. I had never had my own track played on FM radio in Japan. So I was surprised and thought it might be an interesting place.
Where do you work currently? Do you do mastering freelance at different studios or do you have your own place?
I’ve been working freelance. My small home studio is called Reel 2 Real Mix Master. It is mainly for mixdown, overdubbing, and mastering.
I don’t have big studio space to track bands so I use other big studios for tracking. My favourite studios here are Sound Park, Head Gap, and Toyland. They are equipped with good-condition two-inch 24-track analogue tape machines. I need tape to record drums.
Who are some of your favourite bands you’ve worked with? Why did you enjoy working with them? What work are you most proud of?
Laura is the most important band for me. They are no longer going at this stage. Hope they will restart someday. I made all their records including the first single We Should Keep This Secret, which became the Single of the Year in Beat magazine in 2004 and won many more local awards. It’s still one of the very few (or might be the only) Single of the Year that’s an instrumental.
Since then I have worked with very diverse artists from comedy to experimental noise and from Country & Western to Mexican punk. Some important artists are: Vampilia (Japan), Kim Salmon, T.T.T. (Tic Toc Tokyo), Tripod, No Zu, Gosteleradio, Rat Vs. Possum, David Bridie, Cash Savage and the Last Drinks, Graveyard Train, Danny Walsh, Jimmy Hawk, Because Of Ghosts, KES, Bush Walking, Hotel Wrecking City Traders, Fourteen Nights At Sea, Montero, The Night Terrors (Miles Brown), and my recent two masterpieces Naked Bodies and TTTDC.
There are many more great bands I recorded, mixed and/or mastered, but to list them all I’d need a week. If I also included the bands I only do live mixing for, there are many, many more important artists including some from overseas. Here’s less than one percent of them: Mushroom Giant, Kurt Vile (USA), This Will Destroy You (USA), Cass McCombs (USA), Beaches, Love Of Diagrams, Archie Roach, Ross Wilson, Lost Animal, Tennis Coats (Japan), Deerhoof (Japan/USA), Matmos (USA), Dan Deacon (USA), and Presence of Soul (Japan).
A very recent big live mixing job was Tripod with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Hamer Hall. Four big digital desks with four engineers.
I also still remember well when I made the first demos for Children Collide and Temper Trap. Or when let Wally use the studio room I had then in Collingwood for a very cheap rate in very early days for RH of Gotye.
Somehow I learnt that everyone here can be very important. There’s not much of a wall between indie and major, and actually it’s getting close to nothing in recent years.
Having worked with many Australian bands, what differences in approach have you noticed when compared to Japanese bands? Is it possible to identify distinct differences that give both countries’ rock music a unique flavor or characteristic? For example, it seems that a lot of indie bands in Japan like recording all together in the same room that gives the music a kind of “live” feel.
I’m surprised that you said Japanese artists like to record live. I thought it’s the opposite. When I was there, most of the artists prefer to record track-by-track using click. I was not a big fan of that.
In Melbourne, many artists prefer to record live and I like it.
Japanese artists don’t usually have a bigger community outside their specific genre.
The biggest difference between Japanese and Australian artists is that Japanese artists try to become good before they start, while Australian artists just do it then might become good. As a result, the technical quality of Japanese artists is way better than Australian artists, but sadly fewer “interesting artists” come out of Japan.
Also, Japanese artists don’t usually have a bigger community outside their specific genre. I was surprised when I asked bands from Japan about other Japanese artists from the same region, and they weren’t aware of them, while Australian artists (particularly in Melbourne) know each other regardless of genre.
Probably it’s because music venues here are also pubs, places to drink and talk.
Masaki Batoh said in an interview that he’d completely ditched Pro Tools, which he used a lot with Ghost, and went back to tape for his new band The Silence. It seems to be a trend. A lot of bands seem to want to take the more expensive route of recording to tape. What is your opinion on this? Is there really that much of a difference? Having been an innovator and early adopter with digital equipment, what is your personal feeling and preference?
I learnt recording before digital. So I know all the bad sides, limitations, and frustrations of all the analogue systems. On the other hand, I love the sound of analogue.
It was when the first UAD Powered Plugin card came out that I decided to change to digital for mixdown. But I still record on tape. The best part of digital is convenience. Not sound quality. Digital makes the workflow much better, but the sound is not as good as analogue for me. But as a musician, a creator, we can make lots of things more easily possible that were totally impossible or very costly with analogue. That is more important than the small difference (after UAD) between plugins and hardware.
Recallable is another factor. I experienced lots of frustration when I noticed that something small but important had been done wrong after the mixdown session finished. In the analogue world, it’s basically impossible to redo mixdown unless you start from scratch again.
My workflow now is: (1) Record basic tracks with all analogue (2) Bounce all tracks to digital (3) Overdub with analogue outboard but to DAW, 4-Mix with digital and 90% no hardware outboard (5) Master with digital. Recently I’m going all-digital mastering unless the artist wants to have a very dirty sound, in which case I use hardware EQ and/or ¼” tape machine.
My goal is to release my own album with all of my music friends on it.
I can hear the difference between a real tape machine and tape machine emulation. But it’s mainly because you use it before/after AD conversion I guess.
Mastering with analogue produced better quality till 2013. Then a newer generation of analogue emulation plugins came out. I did an AB check and decided not to use hardware for mastering anymore.
Also, it’s already impossible to get good quality Ampex or Quantegy tapes, I have got pretty much last dead stock of Ampex and Quantegu 456 ¼” tapes. But after 15 or more years since they were made, they’re already a little bit degraded when I opened them and tried them as new. Again, still very useful if you really want a more dirty analogue feel, but if not, I choose UAD AMPEX emulation.
There are some big factors not many people are talking about with tape emulation. When I’m using a real multi-track tape recorder, of course, all tracks will be recorded on to the same tape at the same speed. But when you are using tape emulation (I’m specifically talking about UAD Studar A800), you can choose the tape and speed track by track, which is simply physically impossible for hardware.
Same with mastering with AMPEX master tape recorder plug-in. I can AB check which tape or speed is better for this track. With real tape machines, every time you change the tape or speed you need to recalibrate the machine, so it’s impossible to do an AB check.
So what would you like to achieve in the future? Do you still play music, and would you like to come back to performing again? What do you enjoy most about going to work?
My goal is to release my own album with all of my music friends on it. Also I’m getting there with another goal as an audio engineer, cutting vinyl. I can share more info soon, hopefully.
Do you ever get homesick for Japan? Or do you consider Melbourne to be home?
I call Melbourne home. Japan is the place with better ramen!! That’s the only thing I miss. Although in the last few years we’ve gotten many more and better quality ramen shops in Melbourne.