With a career spanning over 20 years of recording some of the loudest rock in Japan, Soichiro Nakamura is a warm, sincere and very humble jack-of all-trades. From the compact space of his Peace Music studio, located in the suburbs of Tokyo, he blasts out one high-voltage mix after another. The man behind the controls for groups like Boris, Yura Yura Teikoku, Guitar Wolf, Ai Aso, The 126.96.36.199's, Nagisa Ni te, Afrirampo, Tenniscoats, My Pal Foot Foot, Ghost's Michio Kurihara, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, and Nisennenmondai, Nakamura's busy schedule also includes mastering and live sound work, and is a result mostly of word of mouth. His take on Nuggets-era garage rock tones is represented by several bands that revolve around Tokyo's U.F.O. Club, and with his masterful exploitation of apparent volume, sounds come buzzing through mixes that smack like sonic cherry bombs. Also having played in the '90's psychedelic group White Heaven, Nakamura-san's work covers softer, more moody ground as well. From tracking basics to final mastering, he prefers to work with artists on a project from start to finish, sticking with them through the entire process of making a record. As a mastering engineer, Nakamura's ability to carry his distinct sound across several diverse genres is not only limited to new releases, but also a long list of re-mastering including several re-releases for the Captain Trip label.
How and when did Peace Music start?
The studio has been here for almost 20 years now — I started it in 1991. At first, it was called Inter-Music Studio, but after two years we changed the name to Peace Music. We wanted to choose the dumbest name imaginable, and that was it.
Does the studio still double as a rehearsal space?
We have a control room and the small live room and that's it. It's not that big of a space really. We used to use the live room as a rehearsal space at times too. In the beginning rock bands used it, but we also had an Indonesian gamelan ensemble that practiced here as well. I played the kendhang drum with them. We don't use the studio for a practice space much anymore.
You also play on many of the things you record. What would you say is your main instrument?
Mixing is truly my main thing — just being an engineer. For me that is the same as playing guitar, bass or drums. I guess I just like instruments, so in each project that I play with I feel I'm simply adding to the spaces that are open as best that I can.
That sounds like the stance of a true producer.
I just got a Farfisa for the studio. It's just come out of the repair shop. They are pretty hard to find in Japan, so I had my friend in New York get one for me. The reverb circuit is not working, but everything else got fixed.
What kind of console are you currently using?
It's a relatively small Amek board, quite unlike it's model name, the Big. It's 44-channels in-line with four stereo returns. I rarely use more than 24 channels at a time. Before that we had an American CAD console and also a Soundtracks board. I definitely prefer the Amek over both of them because of its wider range and fidelity.
What is your main multitrack recorder? Do you ever record analog?
I have a 1-inch 16-track machine here, but the last time was two years ago for Yura Yura Teikoku's Kudo Desu album. That's mostly because there isn't really any more tape stock left in Japan. It's really hard to get ahold of now, and even if I wanted to record with it, we would have to probably order it from the U.S. I'm mainly using a Tascam X-48, which is a 48-track hard disc recorder. I don't like the sound that you get with Pro Tools so much, especially the way the high end gets brittle and fatiguing. It's just too hard on the ears. I think you can really hear degradation as the number of tracks increases too. But I do have Pro Tools LE, and I think that version 8 is sounding a bit better than before. The spring reverb is fun to play with, and there are a lot of MIDI instruments too. I bought a Mellotron simulator, which is also cool. Either way, when I mix it's always on the Amek, in the analog domain. Before the X-48 I was using a Tascam DA-78. It seemed like an easier conversion from that to the X-48, and in fact the sound is a bit similar as well. I've had some technical troubles, but overall I'm happy with it.
What's your outboard setup like?
I have a Urei 1178 stereo comp, which I use for drums and things, and a dbx 160A, which I like putting bass through. I mainly use them only during mixing. For tracking, I usually stick to the Amek's mic preamps in the board.
Do you compress and EQ as you record as well?
No, when tracking I just get a level and go. The studio is pretty small, so even if you move mics around, the sound doesn't really change that much. My recordings usually make use of a lot of that natural bleed within the room. The Tascam X-48 has some stock plug-ins of its own, and I'll use the compressor sometimes. I go for a really squashed sound, which it delivers pretty well. Many people have said that I seem to love 1 kHz and that my mixes have a really boosted midrange. That's pretty accurate I think.
It's a very rock sound for sure. Would you say you get the most volume out of the mix or mastering stage of your production process?
Mostly during mixing, I think.
How do you approach bass guitars and kick drums? That's really a key to both good phase and keeping things full sounding.
I keep all of the sound that I record. If something is too boomy, I'll just bring up other things around it louder. For the most part, I let the players make their own sounds at the amp. To me there's no such thing as sound I don't need, because there's a good chance that it may be necessary to use later on. Most of my projects here are recorded live, so having bleed is unavoidable. To me it's desirable. I don't like to cut things out. I don't like the idea of organizing sounds into separate units. Instead I prefer sounds that overlap and stay well blended and even somewhat messy.
Your guitar sounds are really great. What do you focus on when making them?
I'm not so into just straight or boring guitar sounds. In the end I think it comes down to the player's technique more than the engineer. It doesn't matter what the equipment costs, just as long as you can get a good sound. I also collect vintage fuzz pedals, so we usually will check out a few of them and try and come up with tones that are interesting.
What do you think about more recent plug-in effects and simulators?
I've tried several digital simulators, but they always end up sounding the same. I prefer to use things that are a bit more rare — mainly vintage Japanese pedals from the 1960's. I have fuzz boxes by makers like Honey, Shin-ei, Royal, and also Univox — like the wah-wah Hendrix always used. I also love old tremolos and tape echoes. I've got a tube tape-echo that sounds good on vocals. It's a rare Japanese one from an old maker called Mirano. In it's day it was pretty expensive, so I don't think a lot of people used them. It was made for guitar, but I think live PA guys also used it on vocals as well. I like big pedals — things like Boss ones are just too small. Their size says it all to me. I use a special tech called Kikuchi-san, who makes different things for me. But I personally don't have any interest in tweaking or bending things with a soldering iron.
I was watching you using a joystick to modulate Sakamoto-san's vocal at the Yura Yura Teikoku show in New York.
That is a modified fuzz box with some sort of oscillator inside. I've used it in the studio too. He made five or six of them for me.
As someone who is often involved with every step of the production process, which part would you say is your favorite or the most satisfying?
That's a tough one. If possible, I prefer to be involved with a project from start to finish. I generally like to move through each phase fairly quickly though. I get impatient with things that take too long, and it's tiring as well. I think it's best for everyone to keep moving and focused on the end result. A lot of my clients have time or budget constraints that make it necessary to finish everything in just a day or two.
How is it working with new bands that you don't know anything about?
I always tell clients when they come here that I'm just like the member of that band who knows the most about mixers and the recording equipment, but is not a totally separate figure. If it's a four-person band, I think of myself as the fifth member. I don't like situations where it's me in the doctor role and a client playing the patient. Instead, I just approach projects as helping the bands to realize their goals more efficiently. It's great when we can push each other towards new ideas. That's the most interesting part for me.
Are there examples of that in a project that you've done recently?
During a Boris session I ended up changing out a roaring 100-watt Orange amp for some tiny little 10-watt speaker and it ended up being what worked — or doing things like using dynamic mics instead of condensers for drum overheads in order to make the mids stronger and more rock sounding. I'll make suggestions like that at times. But if the band is into gear and need a more hi-fi sound, I can work with that as well. I just do whatever is best for the music, and aim for sounds that match the music. Time and time again I find that can be done with cheaper equipment, or things that aren't following standard procedure.
Is there something about the heavier music like Boris and Guitar Wolf that is more satisfying to you than the music you did in White Heaven?
That's really hard to say! Those things can change like the seasons you might say. Listening to hard stuff all the time gets tiring, and vice versa. I like having some contrast and balance.
How was it working with You Ishihara producing Yura Yura Teikoku?
He spends about 80 percent of the time sleeping! Just a joke — he spends most of the time thinking, and if someone can't play a take the way he asks the first time, he changes his mind and skips to the next thing. He likes to use my pedals, and we'll put fuzz on drums or record things to cassette first — things like that.
You two played together in White Heaven right?
Yes. I engineered our stuff then too. I was so busy, having to hit record and then run over to my guitar to do a take. Ishihara-san would also tape op for us sometimes.
How did you start working with Ai Aso?
The owner of the record shop Enban in Koenji, Taguchi-san introduced us. She started out as more of a listener who didn't really perform. When she went to other studios she used to get pretty nervous. Since I kind of knew her already it was just a natural progression. That was around 2003. I play guitar in her band now.
I really love the Chamomile Pool record.
Aso-san's music is really simple, and with that album I made it a bit more pop than usual in order to reach out to a wider audience. That album was also done with Ishihara-san as the producer. I released it on my label, Pedal Records.
How would you describe working with Aburadako, the '80s Japanese punk outfit? Or Afrirampo and Nisennenmondai?
They are all pretty weird folks! At first Aburadako was a hard-core punk act, but they made really complex and intricate music. I used to think they were more like Captain Beefheart, but they turned out to be more like Pere Ubu. It's really difficult music for sure, with difficult lyrics. In fact before we actually worked together I turned Aburadako down a couple of times, the main reason being that the singer wanted to start working at 7 am. He gets up super early and goes to bed very early apparently. They only record once every four years, so after eight years we finally worked together. They were pleased with the sounds we got using the vintage instruments I have here at the studio, like a beat up old '70s Pearl drum set and my early-'70s Fender Precision Bass.
So what time did you settle for in the end?
Something like 11 am, but the singer was sitting in the car waiting for me in the parking lot to arrive all morning. It was fun overall. I hadn't really heard their older albums at that time, but they are very loud and broken up sounding. I tried to put more of a softer spin on their sound, and the singer and manager were very happy with the results we got. As for Nisennenmondai, I had first heard them on a U.F.O. Club compilation, and also when they played together with a band on my label Pedal Records called Stars. I was doing PA at that show and was impressed by them. So we talked, they asked me to master some stuff and then we recorded together as well.
Have you done any major label work in other studios in the past?
With Afrirampo, they had recorded the tracks in America, and Sony asked me to mix them. Their manager was the same as Guitar Wolf's, so he suggested Peace Music to them. So we recorded some songs here, and I also mixed the ones from America as well. That became Urusa in Japan.
So Boris was just back in the studio?
Yes, they did music for a film called Kokuhaku. We just finished mastering it the other night and I think it came out pretty well. We are heading to Sydney together to the Vivid Live festival later this year, which is being curated by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. I'll be doing their live sound at their show there. The last soundtrack they did was for Jim Jarmusch's film, The Limits of Control. Recently the singer from The Cult, Ian Astbury, has also been here to record vocals for them.
What is your mastering setup like?
I use Sonic Solutions' new soundBlade software, and before that I run things through a T.C. Electronics Finalizer. I just stick with the 3-band compressor in that, and rarely use its digital EQ.
You work on a wide variety of music, so how much does the amount of compression that you use vary?
For softer music like the Tenniscoats or My Pal Foot Foot, there wasn't any need to crush things — in fact leaving the dynamics intact was a priority. They seem to like the sound of things with a less compressed sound, and kept closer to how it was recorded.
How often do your mastering jobs require further changes and fixes?
Usually we spend about three hours, but some sessions can be just an hour or two. Other people need to redo things a few times before we call it finished. Sometimes I will check things out in the car while driving. The worst time was when a band had me go through about five versions, and then went back and chose the first one. They kept on thinking that it would get better, but in fact the first time was the keeper.
Do you approach your re-mastering work any differently — for example, the reissue releases you've done for the Captain Trip label?
Depending on its era, I prefer to listen to the music on the media it was actually first created for. Music which was first made for analog LPs still translates best to analog LP. But for more modern music or projects that I've recorded, I already know that the end format will be CD, and so I sort of mix and master bearing that in mind. For my mastering work on reissues, I try and bring things more out in front with gain and EQ, while being careful not to stray too far from the original sound. As a media, CD definitely lacks something in the mid-range. So I usually add a boost there deliberately to make up for that. Today there are less people buying records, so that's the state of affairs. However, the results I often look for usually seem to translate better to records rather than CDs as a whole.
Do those older masters come to you as open-reel tape?
No, more often than not as just a CD-R!
What about the recent trend of music being listened to as MP3 files on cell phones through tiny ear-bud headphones? Does this affect the way you work now?
I don't take that into consideration at all. I am just continuing the way I've always worked. If people want to hear good music, they will take the time and effort to get decent speakers and listen that way. Anything else right now just can't be helped really. We engineers can't make that our problem.