Sound Inn: Surrounded by the Future
By Yasuo Matsunaka


Located in the heart of Tokyo, Sound Inn has become one of Japan’s leading music studios. Since it was founded in 1979, numerous hit songs have been recorded and mixed in this studio — and in December 2004, the studio went through a major renovation for its 25th anniversary. Now, each of Sound Inn’s seven rooms features Pro Tools|HD Accel systems with Power Mac G5s, and its Studio F became the first music recording studio in Japan to install an ICON integrated console environment.

In January, the studio hosted the DigiWorld Tokyo 2005 event, which attracted more than 400 attendees in just two days. Visitors were impressed by product displays by Digidesign and its developers, seminars by famous engineers, and — especially — the studio’s new Studio F, where a capacity crowd gathered for an ICON seminar that demonstrated dubbing and mixing with the ICON D-Control console.

Renovating Studio F With ICON
Sound Inn was originally started as a studio for Nihon TV Music, according to Yoichi Aikawa, sales division chief manager of VAP, Inc. “Sound Inn has always been a hardware-oriented studio,” Aikawa adds. “When digital delays were not popular in the industry, we designed them ourselves. As we renovated the studio, we also developed equalizers. We developed discrete remote mic preamps, and even developed and introduced the original console. Sound quality has always been the highest priority for the studio.”

When Sound Inn underwent a major renovation and expansion last year, the goal was to enable the highest possible sound quality for the next ten or even 25 years. The central player in this renovation is the ICON integrated console system, which replaced the traditional combination of digital MTR and large-format analog console. With Sound Inn’s rebirth, the ICON system now offers its immense production power to the Japanese music production scene.

“With ICON, we can
fine-tune the surround mix,
just like on an analog device.”
Sound Inn describes its new Studio F as “the studio closest to the future.” Studio F is furnished with blue and silver décor and ambient lighting. The ICON system, which resides in the control room of this modern-looking studio, features a 32-fader D-Control worksurface, a Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel mix engine with an additional Accel card, an Apple Power Mac G5 with dual 2.5 GHz processors, three 192 I/Os, SYNC I/O, PRE, and MIDI I/O.

“One of the main reasons we decided to install an ICON system is that the surround mixing capability is very important in this studio,” says Nobuyuki Murakami, Sound Inn’s house engineer. “When we were using a SSL 4000G, we didn’t sub-mix within Pro Tools. Instead, we sent the output from each track to the board, and then mixed these tracks in surround using SSL’s Quad Bus and aux. The work was a nightmare. We had to decide how we’d use panning before we started mixing each time. We couldn’t adjust the surround panning on the console, so we needed to come up with an alternative way to imitate the panning — by applying a different delay to each channel, for example. With ICON, we can fine-tune the surround mix, just like on an analog device. Also, ICON provides total recall capability, which the old system did not have. I like the improved monitoring with XMON, and the direct access up to 7.1, too.”

Superior Surround Mixing
Mikio Obata, a freelance engineer who has done some surround mixing in Studio F, also believes in ICON’s superiority for surround mixing. This experienced engineer has won many awards, including “Best Recording Engineer” at JAM advertisement music. He booked Studio F right after the ICON system was installed.

“I started using Pro Tools intensively only about two years ago, but now, I do all the 5.1 processing within Pro Tools,” says Obata. “With Pro Tools, you can set the positions very easily. I was supposed to use a studio with ProControl, but after I heard that Sound Inn remodeled its Studio F with ICON, I decided to use this studio instead.”

Obata used an analog console when he did the stereo music mix for the Japanese version of the Richard Gere movie Shall We Dance? in 1996. But for the new DVD version, Obata remixed the music in 5.1 surround. Obata transferred the 24-bit/48 kHz session data from a Sony PCM-3348 to Pro Tools|HD, and did the surround mixing completely within the ICON system. Working on ICON made a big difference on this project: “First of all, I was impressed by ICON’s design. I like the faders too — they are very easy to use. I learned how to use Custom Faders from my assistant. It is very convenient to be able to access all the controls I need to — and they’re all within easy reach.”

Obata also used Studio F to mix several other tracks, including music from The Phantom of the Opera and the soundtrack for the movie Gyakkyou Nine, due for release this year.

An ICON D-Control system is the centerpiece of Sound Inn's
newly renovated Studio F.
According to Murakami, 80% of the work in Studio F is done by external engineers. Some of the experienced engineers are not very familiar with mixing in Pro Tools yet, but most find the ICON system very easy to work with once they begin to use D-Control. For engineers who are accustomed to the feel of conventional console faders beneath their hands, the D-Control worksurface feels instantly familiar and is far preferable to using a mouse and computer keyboard to control pans, sends, and levels.

Murakami particularly likes the ICON system’s Custom Faders modes, which he feels significantly improve workflow. “Once you create the basic settings, you can recall only the necessary parameters on hand, which makes your work very efficient,” he says. “After you get used to ICON’s operation, you can set basic EQ settings at the EQ panel, while controlling faders, pans, and sends.”

Kazuo Ishino, chief engineer at Sound Inn, also sings the praises of ICON’s Custom Faders functionality. “One of ICON’s best features is the Custom Faders modes, which allow you to control various parameters freely. For efficiency, it is very important to have the freedom to set these assignments.”

Another fan of ICON’s user-definable features is Akira Fukada, senior engineer (Production Operations Center) at the broadcast engineering department of NHK, the national Japanese broadcasting corporation. “Even when compared with ProControl, the ICON system is much more flexible,” he says. Fukada used ICON at Sound Inn for the surround mix of the program The Tale of Genji, Symphonic Fantasy Resurrection Beyond the Millennium, composed and directed by Isao Tomita.

This symphony concert was performed on the eve of Expo 2005 Aichi, in late March. Fukada himself recorded this concert using Pro Tools. “I mixed each song separately, but final mixing was done continuously with automation for 90 minutes,” he explains. “I added plug-ins such as EQ and dynamics to almost all of the 64 tracks recorded live. Thanks to Studio F’s many HD Accel cards, I could finish my work without any stress. I have used many kinds of digital consoles, but I felt comfortable with ICON on the very first day. And from the second day, ICON was already my tool. I have never felt that way with any other console I have ever used.”

“F” Is For Future
“I felt comfortable
with ICON on
the very first day.”
Thanks to the ICON system, Sound Inn’s Studio F now has extra space. “All the ICON system components fit in the control room,” says Aikawa. “We no longer have to put devices in the machine room, which stored lots of gear, patch cords, and cables before. Now the room has a sofa, so people can use it as a meeting room. Clients like it. Some modern studios provide guest rooms in advance, but in our case, it was very hard to accommodate such a space because of the traditional studio design. Thanks to the ICON system, we can now manage it.”

Sound Inn is looking forward to using the many cutting-edge new mixing features that Pro Tools 6.9 software introduces for ICON D-Control systems — for example, nondestructive AFL/PFL solo, inline console emulation mode, and additional automation functions.

“Studio F is designed for dubbing and mixing, and this studio is often used for recording vocals too,” says Murakami. “Before Pro Tools 6.9, when you switched to solo in the control room, the vocalist’s monitor was also switched to solo. It was very inconvenient. With Pro Tools 6.9, a convenient AFL solo feature has been added. Also, the inline console emulation mode and the capability to use Custom Faders on two sections of the console are perfect for the work we do in this studio.”

Surround projects are increasing at Sound Inn, and a number of movie-related projects have recently been completed at Studio F. “We are very positive about doing surround projects with motion pictures,” Murakami says. “Right now we only do the basic work by outputting QuickTime DV from FireWire. Since we used to use AVoption, we are considering switching to Avid Mojo. Also, for our work transferring files to and from overseas clients, we have already installed DigiDelivery. It is going to be very handy in the near future.” <<