August 2, 2021

How Japan’s Musical Instruments Changed the Music World

You’ve been dancing Japanese music since 1990 without knowing it and I’m not talking about the series’ opening song Knights of the Zodiac. Okay that the Brazilian version of the series on the late TVManchete network had its theme song re-recorded, but still you heard, as in so many other themes, sounds with a lot of “Japan stuff” in your recording.

Ponyo Studio Ghibli

If you like electronic music but aren’t too fanatical, you might not understand it very well when you see someone celebrating the “TB day” on March 3rd. Or maybe you don’t know what that nerdy clubber friend of yours is talking about when she meets her nerdy clubber friend and they start talking about TB, TR, DX7, Electribe and stuff like that.

Roland TR 808

Roland TR 808 electronic drums – photo: disclosure

All these names mentioned above have something in common: they are electronic musical instruments produced by Japanese brands such as Roland, Yamaha e Korg. And the fact is that in the 80’s, 90’s these instruments “dominated the world”!

After World War 2 Japan was somehow reborn. The country came out of the conflict very weakened, with cities destroyed, and the following decades were of reconstruction.

Despite all the difficulties, at the end of the 60s the country was already responsible for the second economy in the world and the prosperity that lived there circulated among an emerging middle class, hungry for consumption, which made the country a favorable environment for growth of some sectors.

In order to fill this demand of this highly consumer market, the country’s industries “copied” many imported consumer goods including in their design better ones with a touch of Japanese perfectionism, a characteristic that was largely responsible for the island’s economic growth: if the Swiss watch was the best of the time, the national industry started to produce a similar and even improved one, and this happened with several items. With synthesizers it was no different (and here I use the term “synthesizer” to call drum machines, samplers, etc.).

To say, therefore, that the country’s engineers “copied” may actually sound very simplistic. Japanese industry improved production processes, maintained research and development teams, and the result was the uninterrupted launch of good products at competitive prices.

Add all this to the favorable exchange rate and Japanese products have become very competitive in Western countries.

yamaha dx7

A-ha, Phil Collins, Kool and the Gang… the list of songs that have the sound of Yahama DX-7 is huge – photo: disclosure

In fact, Japanese synthesizers were good and cheap and conquered in Europe and America. They became so popular that the American pioneers Moog, Sequential and ARP ended up closing their doors in the 1980s.

Then Japanese electronic instruments invaded studios and also became popular among the “ordinary people”, as they became very accessible.

Roland’s iconic bassline, TB-303, was originally created to accompany a guitarist, or other instrumentalist, in need of bass automation, as was the TR-808, a Roland drum machine that had the same purpose. These two instruments ended up not being successful in their target audience, however they fell in the taste of artists who were creating beats or similar, because they were cheap. They gained notoriety in the second-hand market, stranded in instrument stores for not having pleased their target audience.

TB and TR were very important to the creation of techno, for example, and are closely linked to the culture of this electronic music genre, which has Detroit as one of its cradles. And here it is necessary to open a parenthesis and the story becomes even more interesting: the “Motor City”, as Detroit became known, was prosperous and famous for housing the factories of American car brands and with the arrival of Japanese cars in the US , in a process similar to what happened with synthesizers, left the city literally bankrupt. There was a massive emigration from Detroit: those who could, left the city that no longer had much to offer in terms of social welfare. it was in this context (very succinctly explaining) that Detroit techno was born.

However, it wasn’t just in techno that Japanese synthesizers were present, but in almost all electronic music and in the post-production of organic music. In a short time, much of what was heard in the 80s and 90s passed through some Japanese electronic instrument.

From the beginning of the 2000s until now, the scenario has changed, the industry has changed a lot, Japanese instruments are no longer “so” Japanese, as they are often assembled by components from different regions of the globe, in addition to the fact of the popularization of DAWs (software production) have taken much of the process into computers.

However, there is no studio even today in this world without Japanese equipment in the set up. The easy access to these instruments changed the direction of music in the world.

You’ve heard (and danced) Japanese music.