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[Artist Interview: Jack Merluzzi] Japanese Recording Industry Under COVID19

In the US, they know me as the voice of Mario Cart Arcade DX.

Here Mega Man, F Zero, and Tekken all get a good response, but I’m always surprised by how many people still love NHK’s Little Charo and I can rattle off a list of characters from that.

Oh, and I’m the voice of Fuji Q Highland for in park announcements

My main character for Little Charo was Dread. His story touched many people’s hearts, so they remember him. I also gave voice to Mimi, Johnny the Answer Guy, Seven and several one-time characters.

For other shows, I dubbed all the male voices on Cool Japan for about 10 years and lately I’ve been voicing many shows into English for NHK World: Gatten, Sugowaza, Face To Face, Have A Nice Stay, Tokyo Reborn, and several documentaries.

1. What has changed for you since Covid-19 work wise?

Right after the Tokyo “lockdown” went into effect, we went from 3 to 4 jobs on a good day to maybe 2 or 3 jobs a week. Almost all of those were Covid related news and science shows. Other than that, there was a lot of sitting around.

Now, half a year later, work has picked back up, but it’s still running about 50% compared to before.

I’ve been so impressed by the efforts of studio personnel and producers to keep us safe and try to make us feel comfortable.

It almost sounds silly now, but in the early days, when everyone was scrambling for alcohol sprays and wipes, having a spray bottle in the booth just for the narrator actually meant a lot. Realizing you’ve thoughtlessly touched a door handle and not having something to clean it with takes a mental toll that adds up.

Progressive studios and companies want to keep moving forward. They want to keep creating and have their work heard. So they’ve added fans and barrier shields, record everyone separately, schedule time to air out the studio between narrators, change seating layouts, reschedule at the last minute… so much has been done to try keep us safe.

Ultimately, though, there’s nothing safer than performing alone in your own private recording studio. Remote recording suddenly became very important to me.

2. What percentage of your jobs are now done remotely?

The number is unfortunately dropping as studios re-open, but I’m most happy about my regular monthly gigs that have become remote work.

After trying remote recording once or twice (admittedly not by choice), directors that know me have come to prefer it.

It’s difficult to find a positive in the lockdown and social distancing, but forcing project teams to work out the logistics (sample rates, secure digital delivery methods, live monitoring/talkback and all those other little details), helped them realize it’s not difficult to do once it’s setup.

Some jobs become much easier.

For example, for documentaries they often want voices other than the main narrator to “speak someone’s thoughts” or read a few lines from a diary. In the past, that would involve scheduling a 1 hour commute to the studio, reserving a 30 minute or 1 hour block of time with the editor, producer, engineer, director, translator, not to mention the studio itself! After recording my lines, I’d need to schedule another hour to safely get my next studio job on time. With commute, recording, and commute, that’s 3 hours for a few lines!

Now clients (like NHK) can send me the script in the evening, I can record it in a few minutes and send it right back. They can quickly check for any retakes that I can send back that night, but usually I give them three different takes so they have a choice. The next morning they can just paste in my pre recorded takes while doing the main narrator’s recording. It’s possible that I’m only away from my quarantine sofa for 20 or 30 minutes!

One director has admitted to avoiding those types of recordings in the past, because of the cost and hassle, but now they’re looking for chances to do it since it’s become such a simple way to improve the end product.

3. Once the pandemic is over, do you see things going back to the way things were in Japan?

In the US, a large portion of voice work is recorded remotely online. But in Japan, people like to work face to face. They like everyone in the room to discuss the project and get on the same page before beginning. And that’s easy to do in Tokyo, where every studio is less than an hour away. Even Osaka studios are just a short hop on the Shinkansen.

It’s not always pleasant, searching for a studio while sweating on a humid summer day or in a snowstorm, but it gives Japan based talent job security. Since clients want that in-person face time, they hire local voice actors instead of looking overseas.

I think Japanese directors will always want to work in the same space when possible, but studio layouts will need to change. We’ve seen it on the TV variety shows. New ways to distance talent while still letting them interact naturally.

4. What are common misconceptions/problems/ advantages about remote recordings that you’d like to address?

“Just press record and you’re almost finished!” There’s so much more work that needs to be done after the recording session. Of course some projects just want the raw audio for their engineers to work on, but others want everything edited, cleaned, and mastered so they can post it on their website asap. Luckily I have a long background in broadcast radio and TV, doing everything from directing and editing to sound design and engineering. My degree is in electronics with a communications option, plus I just like playing around with techie stuff. When I first mentioned I have a studio and do my own recordings, one engineer was surprised and asked, “Can you edit?!” Well… sure! I forget it’s not a skill other voice talent have. It’s not too difficult to learn the basics, but not everyone enjoys doing that kind of nitty gritty stuff.

Narration can sometimes be glamorous, walking into a studio, being handed an Evian (I really don’t like the taste of Evian!), reading a few lines, and then riding off into the sunset for the next job. But all of this “behind the scenes dirty work” needs to get done. And now, due to Covid-19, I’m finally doing it.

Even before social distancing, I can honestly say my technical background has improved my narration work and it’s definitely helped my career. Knowing how to edit helps me match intonation for a punch in, for example, or remember to put the slightest pause (without breath!) between phrases where the director will want to slide my vocal to match the video. I’m proud to say there are engineers who are happy to see me because they know I’ll make their job just a little bit easier.

Back in April, one of my regular clients was not able to book their usual studio because of lockdown. I’ve done five projects so far this year and just one project consisted of narrating five books, and each book was 30 chapters with multiple files in each chapter. Do the math and its hundreds of files. If you don’t have a plan for how to record efficiently, keep editing to a minimum, and maybe most importantly, organize all those files, you’re going to have a bad time. And let’s not even talk about re-takes! Thankfully the client was happy to take responsibility for final checking, because when you have that amount of material, mistakes are bound to slip through when you’re the only person recording for hours on end.

5. It’s 6 months in, what do you think the next 6 months will look like over the colder months?

With winter on the way, we’re quickly going to find out how different the “new normal” needs to be. Studios are built to keep sound in/out. That makes it very difficult to ventilate the rooms with sufficient airflow. Studios are kept dry too because humidity is bad for equipment. But some studies have associated low relative humidity in hospitals correlated to higher infection rates.

Many creative new ways of working have successfully been put into play. If a vaccine stays out of reach for much longer, we’ll be seeing radically redesigned spaces so we can work together safely.

If anyone wants to take a casual, virtual tour of my studio, here’s a link:



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