Kenji Nakai Talks Teaching Audio Engineering Remotely Using Sessionwire

a wall of synthesizers in a home studio

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Kenji Nakai Talks Teaching Audio Engineering Remotely Using Sessionwire

Kenji Nakai’s CV speaks for itself – not only has he worked with the likes of Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Duran Duran, Tom Scott and more, he has also worked on major video game soundtracks such as Final Fantasy IX and XII, Mario Kart 8 and TV shows including Scrubs and Grace & Frankie. Suffice it to say, Kenji is well sought after for his talents behind the glass.

Since the late ‘90s, Kenji has travelled to Japan twice a year to guest-lecture at Tokyo’s TOHO GAKUEN Sound Technology College in Tokyo. However, when the world shut down in early 2020, Kenji, together with the college, needed to figure out a way to switch to a remote format, while continuing to provide the students with a fantastic educational experience. As it turns out, with the use of the Sessionwire remote music collaboration platform, the transition has proven to be fairly seamless, a cost and time saver, and a key to helping the students develop friendships and feel connected.

Sessionwire’s Brendan Lyons had the chance to sit down with Kenji to speak about his background and how he has found new and innovative ways to teach audio engineering remotely using Sessionwire.

I wondered if you could give me a brief history of what you’ve done in the music, film and video game industries.

Okay – Briefly, it’s been 35 years or so since I got into the entertainment business — the music business actually. I was an architecture major. But I got a job at the Roland Corporation. So, after working in the digital piano design section at Roland for about four years, I found myself more passionate about music production and particularly recording and mixing music. So then, you know, I found a runner position at a small, small recording studio in Tokyo. I quit the Roland job. A big mistake!

Oh no!

Only kidding of course. So, during the next five to six years, I was working on literally chart-topping artists’ albums on a daily basis. I was so lucky. It was the second studio I was working at in Tokyo where I met one of my lifetime mentors, Mick Guzauski. I had a chance to work with him and I assisted him and I realized, man, this is surreal, you know, this is what I want! So, two years after I was inspired by working with Mick I moved to Los Angeles in 1990. I was seeking to learn from the best of the best, but it’s always hard to get started. I was so lucky with George Massenburg’s kindness and his huge help to my career in the music industry in the US. I started working as an assistant engineer at Ocean Way Recordings, a GREAT studio.

Then I found a studio called Andorra Studios. While they were building a new mixing room, at the same time they were looking for an experienced assistant engineer who could handle a lot of sessions. So, I moved to Andorra Studios and that’s where I spent most of my assisting era.

Again, I was very lucky to work with a lot of great artists including Tom Petty on [his album] Wildflowers. That’s still one of my favourites and a great album. And in fact, they won three Grammys, I believe. And I was THIS close to getting my Grammy. I did assist on the mixing and did some of the overdub recording myself, but you know, couldn’t get the engineer credit! But hey, I was working with Tom and Rick Rubin and Mike Campbell, all the guys and you know, it was a great, great experience. I also had a chance to work with Boz Scaggs, that’s my all time favourite, on an album called Some Change. And the Red Hot Chili Peppers on One Hot Minute. Those projects I was assisting mostly on mixing sessions.

Then I met legendary saxophonist Tom Scott and he was the first U.S. artist who offered me my first engineering gig for his album. So, that’s when my engineering career kind of got started. And I worked with Tom on a few of his solo albums and also went with him on a U.S. tour and Japan tour as the front of house mixer. I used to do PA mixing, you know, front of house mixing when I was in Japan very rarely. I kind of started off mixing concerts in small clubs. But the Tom Scott gig …  that was my first paying front of house gig in my life!

That’s a really great gig!

That was Tom Scott with Ray Parker Jr. on the guitar. It was like an outdoor concert tour, and we had a few thousand people. It was a great experience. So anyway, fast-forward to around 2000, I became independent.

I put up my own studio. This (gesturing around) is my own studio. And after I opened up my studio, I had a chance to work with Al McKay of Earth Wind & Fire and I mixed his album called Al Dente, then Bill Champlin of Chicago, he’s a former Chicago singer. I mixed his album called Hip Little Dream – great album! So, the projects started coming in – and then I also set up my studio for 5.1 surround. So, I got some video game projects. I started off with Final Fantasy 9 – although “9” wasn’t mixed here, that was [in another studio]. And Final Fantasy 12 and another one called Romancing Saga. Then Mario Kart 8 – that was a great project.

Sorry to interject – you know, stop the story, but I’m curious, because mixing for a video game as opposed to mixing a piece of music or a film – what is that workflow like? Do you get little chunks of the game at a time? Are you mixing the music for the game or are you mixing all of the effects? The environment?

My territory is music mixing for video games. And a difference between a film or TV soundtrack and video games is that the video games are always associated with a loop point. We use the soundtrack with a loop that loops repeatedly. So, each piece is not that long, it’s pretty short. Sometimes less than a minute but then they loop it and use it indefinitely. And around the mid 2000s, 5.1 surround mixing was kind of becoming popular so that was challenging. And I really like it! To me, it was easier to mix 5.1 than stereo because in stereo you have two speakers, and you have to try to create the three dimensional space between two speakers. Sometimes you try to put something outside of the speakers by using phase and some delays and stuff. But with 5.1, if you want to put something behind you, you put it behind you, that’s it! And then if you want to put something right beside you, you adjust the panning right there. Well, it’s not that simple, but basically, it’s something that you will have a difficult time doing in stereo and in 5.1 you can do it whenever. For 360 panning, it’s easy to just pan a sound, put a little delay, a little bit of effects to smooth out the five speakers, point-to-point. We tried to make 360 panning work in stereo by using phase effects, but you know, 5.1 surround, it’s just easy. Just assign it in the panning.

Are there any plans for you to start mixing in Atmos?

I’m thinking about it and I’ve been kind of getting inquiries for that. If the budget is right and I feel I can go to a studio with Atmos, I would love to do it. But at this moment, frankly, I’m not sure if my investment to the facility will be worth it – if I want to set up Atmos in my studio. Realistically, it’s very hard to foresee the volume of projects that you can get. I know there is a substantial amount of work, but at the same time, there are many commercial studios setting up for Atmos. So, I don’t know how much a personal studio Atmos setup would cost. Probably 50- to 100-grand maybe, if you set up correctly. So, I’m technically very interested, and I would love to do an Atmos mix but maybe not in my room.

I think the financial investment is definitely a stopping point for a lot of people, though with Apple just announcing that the new version of Logic has Atmos capabilities, and Apple Music now with their Spatial Audio and VR technology, it’d be interesting. 

The hard part is the hardware you have to have – so many speakers!

12 I think, minimum.

Yeah, and you have to hang speakers. In 5.1, it’s very easy to set up, and usually my studio is set up for stereo mixing. But when I get a 5.1 project, I just add some speakers and re-calibrate my room. Easy. I can do it in probably an hour or so. Atmos is not that simple – you have to have a fixed setup.

Yeah, and you have to pay for certification and everything as well.

Yeah, I would love to do it, but I would go to a studio nearby. Capital Studios is like five, ten minutes from my place, East-West Studios is about the same distance and Westlake Studios is like 15 minutes from my place.

You’re right in the middle of it! Could you describe your involvement with TOHO College in Japan? You had a project that you worked on with them, remote tracking drums. How did that all come about – your relationship with TOHO?

I’ve been doing some special lectures for TOHO College since the late 90s. So, it’s been over 20 years and for the last 15 years, I started regularly visiting the college in person to teach and to do some work. Twice a year, every year. So, naturally when they asked me if I could do online or remote classes during the pandemic, my answer was yes. All of my class material is PowerPoint, so I don’t use whiteboards, blackboards, and writing. So, it wasn’t that hard to convert from a face-to-face class to the remote classes online.

So, that was last year, and as we experienced the remote classes, production, class organization, we started talking about doing a real workshop remotely and started the research to find the best possible combination of apps and hardware. Then we got the video switcher, and we got some applications and software and we started preparing the workflows, infrastructures and possible technical issues to get it right. It took us many hours and I remember we had at least three remote meetings of three to four hours. So, it took substantial time to set up and rehearse, especially the workshop we just did, a drum recording workshop. We called it a virtual workshop. We simulated all of the possible issues and problems then we found all of the solutions to them. So, we were well-prepared but you know, it took some time.

And what were some of the challenges you prepared for?

The day before the class we set up the drum set and the microphones in the studio and we tried to recreate very specific ways that I would mic [the drum set]. I was limited to using the mics they have. They do have a pretty good selection of mics, so we tried to recreate my unique miking setup precisely in the school’s studio before the class. It wasn’t too easy to get the precision remotely in the beginning, as you can imagine. But you know, that was interesting. We were using Sessionwire to communicate among the team. The Sessionwire communication channel quickly helped them get better at translating my instructions. They are very quick learners – their staff is very knowledgeable and technical.

I did see a photo of a student with their phone as a camera to get a good picture of the microphone angle on the toms – you had a pair of AKG 414s – so you could see what the placement was like.

Right – we set up three stationary cameras – one right in front from the centre and from both sides left and right. But the fourth cam was portable. So, I don’t know if it was an iPhone or some other, but it was a smartphone and they remotely/wirelessly fed the video signal from the smartphone to the second computer. And the video out of the second computer went to the video switcher. So, that was the process  and it was very helpful. And I realized the remote setup is actually a little bit better than an in-person class because in a real class with 15 to 20 students around a drum set — and I’m in the middle of it and I’m moving microphones around — not everyone can get the best angle. If I set up a mic for the snare bottom, the students on the floor tom or right side [of the drum set] can’t see it. But with the camera, we can share the same angle, same point of view together. Everyone can get the best possible angle and we know how to set up the mic. So, that’s one advantage.

So, you had a group of students and staff in the studio helping move microphones, making adjustments in the control room, and then another group of students online?

Precisely — it was on YouTube. Many students don’t have a laptop. They take the class with a smartphone or sometimes a tablet. And if you use other software on the smartphone and tablet, the apps don’t allow you to listen to the audio in stereo. And because this is an audio engineering class, we really wanted the high-quality audio in stereo. Sessionwire, with its high-quality audio feature, was perfect for that.

It’s fascinating how you were able to monitor through Sessionwire in LA what was happening in Japan while setting up to record a drum kit. You’ve told me that your drum recording technique is quite unique. Can you explain a little bit of that if it’s not a secret?

No, no, no it’s not a secret! And you know, just telling what kind of microphones I used doesn’t reveal anything!

For kick, I use an Audio Technica AE2500, which has two capsules in one housing. One is a condenser; one is dynamic and physically they are time aligned. I started using this microphone probably 10 years ago, and the first time I used it, I said, “hey, this is it – perfect!” You don’t need too much EQ; you don’t need a subkick. I’ve never used a subkick because when you have a condenser and dynamic mic at the right position, the impact due to the phase coherence has so much low end, impact and tone.

That’s where the placement comes in, it’s really important right? Can you talk a little bit about the placement that you typically use?

First of all, I put heavy, heavy padding in the kick, and if the drummer allows, I ask the drummer to remove the front head. Sometimes drummers don’t like to play without the front head off, and if that’s the case, that’s okay. I ask them to place the sound hole in the front head at the 12 o’clock position. Usually, the hole is at like a three o’clock or nine o’clock position, something like that. With the hole at the 12 o’clock position, I mic the hole downward at 45 degrees. Try that, you’ll be amazed at how great it sounds!

And with the combination of the dual capsule microphone with that placement, you find you get everything you need from there? 

Yeah – and in mixing it’s easy, 50/50.

Really? You’re not deciding on more of one or the other capsule?

When I mix, sometimes I do. Say if the song starts softly but the drummer didn’t. For example, he played kind of steady throughout the course of a song. Then I may take the dynamic side a little bit lower, because usually the dynamic side gives you more attack and aggressiveness. The condenser side gives you the tone, warmth and …  weight.

Can we talk about the snare drum next?

Yeah, on the snare drum I usually use my Royer R10 ribbon mic. But they didn’t have any of these mics. Luckily the school had the Audio Technica AT4080. It’s a ribbon microphone. We miked both the top and bottom of the snare with this ribbon mic. It gives you maximum leakage control and tone. There’s a science to it.

Do you find that being that they’re ribbon microphones, they’re fairly delicate, so on something like a kick drum front head, you have to angle them particularly? Do you find you have to be careful with the placement on a snare drum with the ribbon mics?

Ribbon mics are very delicate to wind or air movement — not the SPL. So, exactly what you said. You need to avoid getting the direct wind or air movement. But the actual sound wave, especially with modern ribbon mics, can handle high SPL.

How about the toms?

Old AKG 414s in cardioid with the pads in.

Capture them and there they are, I guess! So, we’re getting to the overheads then.

Overheads this time I intentionally asked them to put up two pairs of microphones. The first pair was Neumann M149 – big mics and they had a pair. I wanted the students to be able to compare later how the overhead microphones get different sounds at the same position, so the second set was a pair of AKG 451’s, kind of a standard. And I put an AKG 451 on the ride. You don’t always need a ride cymbal mic, it’s kind of an option. Sometimes you don’t even use it, unless the drummer plays the ride cymbal quite often and it’s important musically.

Fair enough!

You missed the hi hat mic by the way!

I did! Let’s do that one!

I had a Sony C38. The C37 is going to be very expensive, and you don’t want to use it as a hi hat mic. But the C38, you can use that.

That’s a pretty unique microphone for hi-hat – I’ve never heard of that before. In the mix stage, how would you say your balance between close mics and overheads is? Do you lean quite heavily on the overheads for an overall image of the drums and blend in close mics? Or are you fairly close mic heavy and use the overheads for cymbals and the sheen? What’s your preference?

You know, there are two major schools of thought. The first says that overheads are the entire drum sound. The second says that overheads are the cymbal mics. I’m in the first one. It’s very, very important to get all the mics right, and when you put up the overheads, I want to hear all the parts of the kit in a good balance. I want to hear the kick and the snare right in the middle in the overheads and the second tom right in the middle, or close to right in the middle and the hi hat on the left side. I record drums and piano from a player perspective. So, it’s not that easy to get the overheads as I describe. If you take a look at the drum set physically from right in front with the kick right in the middle, the snare is shifted to the right a little. Would you put the snare off the centre?

Absolutely not!

Maybe not! Mostly not! So, you can’t just put the overheads like you are taking a picture of the drum set from right in front. You’ve got to find what I call the “recording centre” instead of the physical centre. Or “image centre.” That’s actually one of my themes and a main part of the workshop. It takes time.

Well, we’re coming up on an hour, and I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. I really appreciate you explaining your involvement with TOHO College and your philosophy on drum miking. Could you leave us with something you’d like to impart on students just beginning their education in the remote education landscape?

I would say that even though we are not physically in the same room, I would like to have all of my students not only gain knowledge but also the feel and experience, and to get inspired in my classes. That’s what I’m trying to do because that’s what they need. They don’t come to the school to only gain knowledge; they need to get inspired. And I don’t know if I’m good enough to inspire them, but I’m doing my best. And one of the challenges is to create interaction between students joining the class – I would like to give them an environment online where they can actively participate in the class and interact with each other. So, physically they are apart, but they can feel each other and it feels like they’re making new friends.

It’s a new frontier!

I really appreciate your time Kenji. Thank you for joining me all the way from LA, and I hope to be talking to you again soon.