Interview with synth pioneer Hideki Matsutake – On YMO, Logic System, Modulars and beyond

For anyone interested in electronic music in the 1980’s is sure to have come across the Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). YMO was to Japan what Kraftwerk was to Europe. Always in the forefront of electronic and synthesizer based music. Little less known to the general crowd is the profound importance of YMO’s fourth behind the scene member – Hideki Matsutake. YMO was always fronted by the renowned artist Ryuichi Sakamoto, who even today is considered one of Japan’s biggest music exports of all time, but from the context of YMO Hideki Matsutake played an equally important role in defining the sound of YMO and the success they have retained ever since.

Hideki Matsutake was born in 1951 in Yokohama, Japan and at the age of 19 he became the apprentice of legendary electronic music pioneer Isao Tomita. Working in the studio of Isao Tomita let the young Hideki Matsutake explore machines like the Moog modular synthesizers long before most people even had the slightest hope to be able to acquire one, due to the hefty price tag. Hideki Matsutake once stated the following on the importance of Isao Tomita:

“Creating sounds that nobody has heard, in ways that nobody has done, is something I learned from Tomita.”

And continuing: In the studio YMO used to spend time analyzing how Tomita created the sounds. (Ryuichi) Sakamoto had all of Tomita’s records, and he would bring a record to the studio and say, “Today, let’s listen to this and study.” YMO’s sound is definitely rooted in Tomita’s music.




Photo credit: Resident Advisor / (C)Kohei Matsuda

When Ryuichi Sakamoto needed a producer to his first album “Thousand knifes” in 1978 the collaboration with Hideki Matsutake took off and then followed by the engagement with YMO as the fourth in-official member of the band after that. However, Hideki Matsutake not only served as the master engineer behind YMO, producing and composing for other Japanese artists but also come to release a number of own albums under the name Logic System, many of which today are seen as pure classics in the field of electronic music .

The importance of Hideki Matsutake is indisputabel, both as a producer and sound artist, but also as music engineer in pushing the boundaries of what can be accomplished with both traditional synthesizers as well as extensive modular systems like Moog and the Emu. To many people outside of Japan very little is known on what Hideki Matsutake has been up to since the days of YMO and the first three Logic System albums. He has also been quite scarce in doing interviews, at least interviews that has been available to readers outside of Japan. Stereoklang has therefore managed to secure an exclusive interview with the maestro himself where Hideki Matsutake will talk on his activities past the 80’s and 90’s, his work with the Emu modular systems, his reflections on his earlier work, and ways forward.

Photo credit: (C)Yusuke Kashiwazaki/Red Bull Content Pool

For many of us here in Europe it is not fully clear what you are up to today. Can you let us know of some of your more recent music explorations? For example we know that you have had some interaction with Plasticzooms – can you let us know a little about this project and how active you are working with contemporary bands?

Today I cannot spend all my time for music creation like I used to do. But I do recording and play live when I find time. In a near future I will play live in an outdoor festival called Asatsuyu Jam. Also during the last 1-2 years I have played live in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In Hong Kong I was able to play together with Tangerine Dream whom I have always loved. To celebrate 45th year of active playing in 2016 I released “Logic Cronical” a set of five CDs in February this year. In this you will find a wide range of songs I have been playing so far including a pure electronic music, CM music, easy listening, pops, rock, TV/movie soundtracks, and music for kids. Also in April I released “Clash 2K” and “Unit 2K” that are rearranged “Clash” and “Unit” that in turn symbolize the initial phase of Logic System. It was a bit while ago but I also released a remix called “RMXLOGIX” (Vol1 and Vol2) which both Japanese and international artists such as DJ Harvey and James Pants contributed to.

The collaboration with PLASTICZOOMS was materialized through an offer by them to play in their music video. They made me wear pieces of clothing that looked like uniform for astronauts, and I was a little embarrassed (laughs). Also last year I collaborated with a female artist Tentenko. She was originally a member of a very popular group BiS but she was very knowledgeable about a range of music from electric music, noise, to 70’s and 80’s pops. Currently she works as a solo artist and creates very original music. Recently I was also a part of remix (SWITCHED-ON OTO) creation of SUGIRO (LUNA SEA, X JAPAN, JUNO REACTOR etc). He is a world-level guitarist and at the same time a maniac for modular synths releasing songs that lean towards electronic music. I tried to satisfy such taste of his with my best efforts.

Your early career with Tomita, YMO and Logic System is somewhat known to us Europeans but from the mid 80’s much less has reached Europa. Could you please tell us what happened after Oriental Express and the breakup of YMO.

After the release of “Touhoukaishin” I could not release new song for about 5 years. This was not intentional rather the reason was that my schedule got filled with recordings. At the same time it was the golden time for Japanese pops, and I became suddenly very busy. After that Logic System welcomed a new member Irie Jun and re-started its activities starting 1990. Logic Systems created many songs also in the 90’s.

What was the reason for starting Logic System – what was it that you wanted to achieve with Logic System that you could not do in the context of YMO or released under your own name?

Above all I had a strong will to create my own music. I did not have any intention to create music different from YMO. Rather I wanted to create music that have been based on my experiences and learnings with them.

The Logic System albums, even the 3 first, covers a wide range of styles, e.g. the first Logic System album was mostly with straight and a bit stiff  “computer” rhythms where the following albums includes much more groovy in many different styles like soul and jazz. Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the first Logic System albums?

I created “Logic” together with a partner called Ryo Kawakami. At that time I was working with him for different projects and we got along together well. So he agreed to collaborate with me. In Logic also his taste has been reflected. At that time I only had Moog IIIc, Oberheim 8 voice, TR-808, EMS VCS3 so the concept actually can be said to create music with these limited instruments.

The album “Venus” had a completely different approach than “Logic”. There was a theme that asked “how much does the humanity of the computer match with humans?” The recording was done in LA, and the album was created together with Michael Boddicker known as the programmer for Michael Jackson’s Thriller etc, Roger Powell from Utopia, and Don Grusin etc. international artists. The sound has a strong taste of fusion, jazz and rock. Since the recording of TokiMeki by Akiko Yano in NY when we got along I had asked him to work together again. Beside Roger both Michael Boddicker and Don Grusin were one of the best musicians of the era. So the recording was truly fun and inspirational. Also I have a wonderful memory of the recording by Jermaine Jackson in the next studio.

The third album “Touhoukaisya” also has a completely different identity than “Logic” and “Venus”. The concept of “Touhoukaisya” is the long-distance night train Orient Express that run between Paris and Istanbul before the wars. Actually I liked trains since I was a child. I have also read biography of George Nagelmackers who is the founder of Wagon Lee, the international over-night train company that was the origin of Orient Express. I have always admired Orient Express. So in “Touhoukaisya” I have fantasized a trip in Orient Express that I could never experience. I heard that Nagelmackers actually wanted the terminal station of Orient Express be Tokyo instead of Istanbul. He also said that if Orient Express was connected all the way to Tokyo, it should have been possible to receive resources from the Continent leading Japan to have been able to avoid the wars. The last song in the album “George Nagelmackers’ dream” had an inspiration from his words.

The 70’s was and era of music experimentation in Japan as well as in Europe and in the US. Pop, rock, latin and jazz was mixed up with influences of folk and traditionalism at the same time as multi-track recording studios and synthesizers developed. E.g. in 1978 Haroumi Hosono engaged Sakamoto and Matsutake on his fictional soundtrack Cochine Moon made in experimental Bollywood style.

Could you please tell us a bit about the music environment in Japan in the late 70s that you were part of? There seem to a lot of experimentation, collaborations and mixing and matching with different music styles.

The first half of the 70’s there was almost none musician who used synthesizers. For me it can be said that the 70’s was the era of practices and challenges. I started at Tomita’s studio and learnt lots of things through trial and errors many times. It was an era when I touched a synthesizer for the first time, learnt it and put it into practice. The first time I received my first reward with synthesizer was with Yoshitaka Minami’s “Heroine of the skyscraper”. Just like “Heroine of the skyscraper”, lots of the Japanese pops of this era was an active mix of music from different genres, and there were many experimental and ambitious sounds. Akiko Yano’s album Tokimeki (released 1978) that I also worked with is a refreshing album even listening now. I think that it was an era when stimulating music was born in the field of pops. Because of that there were a variety of need in the recording studios as well. Jazz, fusion, electronic music, enka etc. To be able to create the sound that musicians were looking for, it was necessary for us to listen to a wide range of music as well. It was likely the era when I listened to music the most. It was a very busy but also stimulating era.

The fact that it was possible to experiment in the field of the pops – does it mean that record labels also had some financial abundance then?

Exactly. The majority of the Japanese record labels have electronics manufactures as parent companies. The era was a middle of the high-growth era for Japan, and the electronics manufacturers were abundant with financial resources having huge budgets unimaginable today. Record labels created the software and the electronics manufactures sold the hardware – this cycle was well established, so the parent companies gave money to record labels to create the software constantly. The growth of the Japanese pops in the 70’s and 80’s does reflect this background as well. Today this kind of cycle has been destroyed, but I hope that another form of positive cycle can become established in the future.

You started working on others synthesizers like Tomita’s Moog modular system. At what point did you start to get your own instruments and what was that?

The first synthesizer I purchased was Moog IIIc. The parent company of my company at that time (Interpack) invested in it for me saying that “try to become successful with this like Tomita”. Of course it was the amount not attainable for me, so I was blessed with connections and luck. Next I purchased OTARI 8ch teleco and E-mu Modular System and created a simple studio.

Following the growing interest in electronic intruments Dave Rossum and Scott Wedge established EMU Systems in California in the early 1970s and announced in 1972 their EMU Modular. However very few systems were ever sold it was very innovative including extreemly stable oscillators, micro processor controlled keyboard and sequencer. EMU would then move on to sell components to Dave Smiths Prophet 5 and then digital samplers.

You are one of very few owners and users of the EMU modular. Could you please tell us how did you get it the first place, how you used it and what’s so special with it?

I purchased E-mu Modular System in the autumn of 1980 before the start of the second YMO World Tour. It was because I needed new quality of sound that is different from Moog III. Compared with the thick, soft sounds of Moog III, E-mu Modular System has a distinctive solid and metallic sound. It produced very good contrast used together with Moog III. Other reason to have chosen E-mu Modular System was at that time the development team of E-mu consisted of world-class experts. These developers contributed to the development of synthesizer in a great manner later (including Dave Smith). The design was also futuristic and sophisticated, making me feel excited just by looking at it.

How did you get the Roland MC-8 sequencer, you must have been one of the first user in the world – how did that happen. What did the MC-8 and then MC-4 mean for the composing and production?

I used to know Ikutaro Kakehashi who is developer and founder of Roland. So I got information already at the development stage, but I purchased it on the day of public commercial launch at an ordinary music instrument shop. At that time I could not play a keyboard so I had been looking for something to replace it. MC-8 was exactly such automated instrument. I think that it was revolutionary to create the unambiguous, incomparable exact rhythm patterns. It created the sound of the future.

Hideki Matsutake is explaining what is MC8 and how it was used in the Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO)’s concert tour in ’80.

In this video, he says as follows
0:00 “Is there anyone who has this?” (laugh)
0:06 “There’s someone raising his hand….must be our staff.”
0:12 “This was VERY expensive in those days….as much as you could buy a car.”
0:17 “You could have bought two Carola.  ‘Cause it was 700000 yen then.”
0:24 “We’ve experienced many things with this…”
0:27 “As for YMO, it was MC8 and the combination of units after all.”
0:31 “Ah yes…it was… really….. beyond human power.”
0:38 “But it wasn’t perfect.”
0:39 “Yeah.”
0:40 ” As you know, it sometimes became out of control.”
0:50 “Today, it has data in it.  In those days, the data was transferred from cassette, but since it is not stable, I used MD.”
1:03 “We went to Masayuki’s office to test it the other day.”
1:15 “We worked on the original data cassette at that time.”
1:20 “That’s right.”
1:21 “And then, we really had a hard time.”
1:25 “The cassette, this one as well as the other we brought, the pinch roller was gone. So it didn’t read data…and it was hard after that too.
1:33 “But we were able to read it anyway.”
1:35 “As for *****, did it take about 3 minutes to read the data?”
1:39 “Well….yeah, it did. It took as long as the playing time.”
1:50 ” From here, automatic playing is sent.”
1:55 “Now, let’s listen to the sound in it”
2:06 “Which tune is this?”
2:10 “You don’t know, right?  It is playing backwards.”
2:22 “Today you’re going to run this MC8 here.”
2:28 “Right.  With this one called Immu(???) and sequencer, I will play ****(a song title?) live.”

The Roland MC-8 MicroComposer was introduced in early 1977 and it was one of the earliest stand-alone microprocessor-driven CV/Gate music sequencers. Roland called the MC-8 a “computer music composer” and it was considered revolutionary at the time, introducing features such as a keypad to enter note information and 16 kilobytes of random access memory which allowed a maximum sequence length of 5200 notes, a huge step forward from the 8-16 step sequencers at the time. It also allowed the user to allocate multiple pitch CVs to a single Gate channel, creating polyphonic parts within the overall sequence. Due to the high price, only 200 units were sold worldwide, but it represented a huge leap forward in music technology.

You have continued to release music and albums all the way back since the 1970’s. How would you say that your approach to music production has changed over the years? For example what did the introduction of the DAW mean?

With time tools and methodologies have changed, but the fundamental to want to move people by music” has not changed. I think that this fundamental will never change. In this way the arrival of DAW did not cause any big change for me, either.

How involved are you today in working with your former YMO colleagues; Sakamoto-san, Takahashi-san and Hosono-san? Are you still collaborating on any projects?

Not particularly. It was a while ago but I worked with Sakamoto for “Schola, Sakamoto Ryuuichi Music School” directed by Sakamoto Ryuuichi after such a long time. It was a lot of fun to create sound together with him after such a long time.