Feature: Full stream ahead
Feature: Full stream ahead
Japan’s live music production industry has been hard hit by Covid-19, forcing the cancellation of more than 150,000 concerts in 2020. Caroline Moss finds out how production rental company, MSI Japan, has adapted
Founded in 1979 and changing its name to MSI Japan in 1992, the company has played a major role in establishing touring standards in the country. “I wanted Japan to experience the same high levels of production that existed in America,” MSI founder Shuzo Fujii told Pro AVL Asia when we interviewed him for a profile in 2018, and this modest statement underscores the genuine love of music, good sound and live production that drives the company.
Having introduced L-Acoustics to Japan in 1998 by becoming a V-DOSC partner, MSI has continued to raise the bar for live audio production across the country. Early adoption of similarly groundbreaking technology, including d&b audiotechnik’s J-Series loudspeakers, Martin Audio’s Multi-cellular Loudspeaker Array (MLA) technology and the Avid S6L console, has seen the company building up a vast inventory of products to ensure international touring standards and riders are upheld across Japan. Offices in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan extend the service across neighbouring countries and in 2007 a sales division, Audio Brains, was added to the mix.
Recently, MSI turned its attention to the USA, setting up MJ Sound Entertainment in November 2018 with the aim of bringing Japanese engineers over to work in the US, thereby extending their experience to worldwide touring.
“In order to create more opportunities for our company and staff, we set up a base in Los Angeles,” explains Moto Yamasaki, who transferred to the US to head up the new division. “We were also considering supporting and coordinating concerts by Japanese artists in the United States.” For a year and three months, red tape replaced console faders as Yamasaki set about preparing for his work visa, officially setting up the company and hiring office staff. Until the visa was granted, he couldn’t begin work in live production, aside from a stint coordinating the Chara Expo 2019 Japanese anime event at the Anaheim Convention Center in December 2019.
In a cruel twist of fate, Yamasaki’s long-awaited work visa was finally granted in February 2020, just in time for the Covid-19 pandemic to begin closing down all forms of live entertainment and ruining the company’s carefully constructed plans, including the arrival of a second engineer to expand the US business. Returning to Japan in April last year, Yamasaki began work with the rest of the team to figure out what was salvageable. At this stage, MSI Japan had hundreds of tours and concerts of all sizes scheduled, almost all of which were in the process of being postponed or cancelled.
However, all was not lost. As Japan fought to contain the initial outbreak of the virus, concerts began to cautiously resume from the end of May, with permitted audiences of 200 people outdoors and 100 indoors, or 50% of the capacity, whichever was smaller. By late June this was increased to 1,000 people or 50% of capacity, and by mid-July regulations were further relaxed to 5,000 or 50% of capacity, again adhering to the smaller figure. In the last few months of 2020, venues that could accommodate more than 10,000 were limited to 50% or less, while those with a capacity of 10,000 or less were allowed a maximum of 5,000 or 50%, whichever was the fewer. An exception was made for classical concerts, where 100% capacity audiences were allowed due to a presumed absence of loud cheering.
From May, MSI Japan started to work on livestreamed events, including those taking place without an audience in its own live music club, Vi-code in Osaka, as well as from other existing venues and rehearsal studios. “Livestreaming for large-scale concerts is carried out by specialised video and audio recording companies, although some of the small-scale live music clubs and rehearsal studios purchase their own streaming equipment,” explains Yamasaki. Some of the equipment being used for livestreaming includes the Roland VR4-HD HD AV mixer, Blackmagic Design Atem Mini Pro camera switcher, 4K cameras including the Panasonic HC-VX992M and Sony HDR-CX470, and OBS Studio streaming software.
Yamasaki drew on immersive technology from German company, Klang:technologies, to enhance the livestream for audiences watching at home. “It’s difficult to experience the realism and excitement of a live concert just by streaming with a stereo mix,” he says. “We wanted to give the audience a more realistic experience by reproducing the position where the performer is playing in 3D sound, using Klang:fabrik from Klang:technologies. This was originally created for use in IEM applications, as it was thought that artists could play better by obtaining a clear sense of localisation without raising the volume.”
The technology was felt to be particularly effective in Japan where, according to MSI’s research, high-density accommodation means that more people listen to music through earphones or headphones than through speakers. “We used more audience microphones for the mix than we would normally use in an IEM system, to make the venue more immersive,” continues Yamasaki. “We told the livestream audience that we’d be using 3D sound technology, so it would be best to listen with earphones and headphones. Feedback has shown that audience members felt as if they were hearing the music it was actually being performed.”
MSI Japan has also supported some shows livestreamed from the Tokyo Dome, which has a normal capacity of 50,000. Most of these were only able to accommodate a maximum audience of 5,000; however, restrictions were relaxed from September to November as the pandemic abated for a few months. This saw MSI Japan carrying out its biggest show of the year on 3 November, before an audience of 19,000.
The company flew main L-R arrays of L-Acoustics K1 and K2 line source cabinets per side, with side arrays also comprising of K1s and K2s. Six KS28 subwoofers were flown and nine were ground-stacked, and L-R delay towers were equipped with further K2s. The system was powered by LA12X amplified controllers, and an Avid Venue S6L-24D handled front of house duties, with a Yamaha Rivage PM7 on monitors and Wisycom MTH400 wireless handheld transmitter for vocals.
The half-empty venues present a challenge for sound crew. “Even if we’re working at a venue where we’ve put on concerts many times before, it’s often very confusing because room acoustics such as sound reflection and reverberation are completely different if only half of the audience is present,” explains Yamasaki, adding that the same thing applies to stage monitoring. Even with reduced attendance, MSI has still needed to provide around 80% of the usual sound coverage for an audience spread out across the venue, separated by empty seats. However, system control has been a different matter. “Since it’s been forbidden to cheer or sing loudly, we’ve been installing speakers towards the stage in the delay tower and playing back audience recordings from this system, for the benefit of both the performing artists and to add ambience for the audience. This is a method that is widely used, not only in the Tokyo Dome but also in arena-sized venues in Japan during Covid-19.”
As well as adhering to national Covid-19 safety regulations such as observing a quarantine period when returning from overseas, MSI Japan has implemented its own rules. All equipment is thoroughly disinfected before and after concerts with particular care paid to microphones, which are prepared for each performer and not reused. Ozone generators are installed at several locations throughout the warehouse, disinfecting equipment by night when the premises are unmanned. Crew members are obliged to wear a mask, have their temperatures checked each morning and remember to wash hands frequently. MSI staff are also vigilant in ensuring all premises they are working in are regularly ventilated.
Over the Christmas and New Year period MSI staged some hybrid theatre shows at the 1,496-capacity Nissay Theatre with reduced audiences, which were also livestreamed. Three Yamaha CL and QL consoles were used for the Wisycom wireless mic system with RF Venue Diversity Fin antenna, the sound effects and music mixes, respectively. Two immersive systems – Astro Spatial Audio's Sara II rendering engine for the Martin Audio PA system and Klang:fabrik for streaming – were patched via a Dante network.
“Audio Brains has the knowhow to synchronise and control the 3D localisation of Sara II and Klang:fabrik at the same time, so the immersive sensation experienced by the audience at the venue could also be reproduced by the streaming system,” explains Yamasaki. “The immersive presentation at the venue was wonderful, and people who watched the livestream said that they felt as if they were at the venue.”
At time of writing, most of the world including Japan was experiencing a further tightening of restrictions as the pandemic flared up again. However, by using its considerable technology and expertise, MSI Japan has been able to successfully diversify, continuing to bring live experiences to music fans across the country.