Shanghai Surprise

One billion people into home recording? EQ’s Craig Anderton susses out the score at Music China.
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Stepping off the plane in Hong Kong, a city that packs 6.3 million people into a space the size of San Francisco, the first thing I saw was a thermal image of just one of those people: me. Being searched. For? Guns? Bombs? Windows XP cracks? No, elevated body temperatures. Something about SARS.

But Hong Kong, the I/O port from China to the world — incredibly wealthy, occasionally decadent, and a poster child for capitalism in a communist country—and how I got here actually started at the Frankfurt Messe. At the Alto booth, to be exact. I saw their Typhoon mixer (June 2004), whose innovative shape, size, build quality, and pricing intrigued the hell out of me. I started asking lots of questions, including ones about working conditions. Eventually, a representative said “Maybe you should just come to China and see how they’re made.”

And so: Hong Kong. And beyond that China, several delightful meals that may have been of extra-terrestrial origin, nights at a Karaoke TV (KTV) “private room” surrounded by a bevy of beautiful, uh, “hostesses,” late night solo walks around town (“You want watches? Rolex? DVDs? Massage? Sex”?) and of course, audio mania. Starting with “Alto Day” where the company introduced 37 new products to their worldwide distributors, moving on to a tour of the Sekaku factory that makes the Alto gear (as well as gear for a bunch of other big music industry companies) and ending up with three days in Shanghai for the Music China trade show.

ALTO DAY

The Chinese music industry exists largely as the result of aggressive partnership arrangements: Alto is run by an Italian and Taiwanese, using European and North American engineers, with manufacturing in China and Taiwan. Much of the product line revolves around live performance, but one of the big intros at Alto Day was their “Esotar” line of high-end preamps for studio and live.

High-end Chinese? Yes.

As Gian Piero Staffa of Alto said, “Usually we decide on a price, then design the gear. This time we designed the gear first, then figured out the price.” The result: Gear that costs in the sub-$1,000 range, but competes with gear in the over-$1,000 range. First up: The MP2D stereo and MP8D (8-channel) mic pres with ADAT 44/48/96kHz outs, along with AES/EBU and S/PDIF outs with up to 192kHz sampling rates. Both units look extremely promising.

There was much other cool stuff (like the Cyclone mixers that fill the slot between compact mixers and large mixers for live use, and some tasty digital equalizers), but the Big Deal was the “Orient Express.” It looks like a Miele vacuum cleaner on super-steroids, and rolls around like a suitcase — but holds a 1,000W portable PA with satellite speakers, subwoofer, mixer, mics, cables, and even speaker stands. Two Alto guys set it up, and two minutes later, a three-piece band from the Philippines was making loud, hi-fi music. There are also drop-in modules for wireless mic receivers and an MP3 player.

Price? Under a grand. Amazing, as was the product introduction itself: A club in Shenzeng (home of the Sekaku factory), where to pounding dance music and a bunch of live dancers, the Orient Express appeared amid smoke machines and lasers. White courtesy phone for NAMM: you could learn something from this.

THE FACTORY TOUR

You’ve heard the rumors about slave labor, 12-year-olds working on dirt floors, toxic chemicals, and the Chinese version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” But I saw a modern factory with plenty of light and ventilation, top-shelf test gear, an ethic where quality control mattered more than sheer output (they even QC’ed their shipping boxes), and housing and a restaurant for the 1,500 (soon to be 4,500) workers. Like China’s economy, the factory is growing exponentially.

One China vet assured me that sweatshops do exist. But as he said, “The people here are sort of like migrant workers in the US. Many live in [sparsely populated] Western China, and come here to make money and send it to their families. But after breaks like Chinese New Year, about a third didn’t come back. Sekaku’s jobs require skilled labor; they ‘observe’ for two weeks before they even touch a product, then they undergo the actual product training. Rotating a third of your work force was a problem. So Sekaku made working conditions that are science fiction by Chinese standards. People want to work here, turnover is way down, and the quality is extremely high.”

Was this just a Potemkin showcase for gullible Westerners? I broke away from the main buildings, past some of the guards. I half-expected to be stopped and politely told to return. Instead, I got a wave and a smile . . . and saw more of the same type of facilities.

MUSIC CHINA

The attendance says it all. The first show in 2002: about 8,100 people. The 2003 show: 21,000. The 2004 show: All space sold out six months in advance, temporary tents for the overflow, a bigger venue for next year, and 34,000 attendees. China wants to be a player, and convert “Made in China” to “Made by China.” Yes, they’re going to take over the world — not by force, but by one billion highly directed people seducing the world’s consumers.

That said, a trade show is a trade show, but with a few significant differences.

First: no software. Zero. As a musician from Beijing told me, “It’s all cracks and PCs.” In a country where you can buy a knock-off $15,000 wristwatch for $25, I’m not surprised.

Second: traditional Chinese music is huge. You couldn’t go far without hearing the strains of an erhu, or Chinese flutes.

And thirdly: you know all those Chinese mixers and mics at NAMM? Well, this is where they come from, except there’s a zillion times more. Large-diaphragm condenser mics, tube mics, matched stereo mics, vocal mics, inexpensive mics, really, really inexpensive mics, mic accessories. I think there were more mics on the floor than cockroaches in NYC.

And how about mixers? 8 ins, 48 ins, with power amps, without power amps, with effects, portable, huge, cheap versions, quality versions. Anyone concerned about a possible mixer shortage need not worry.

Piano manufacturing, also from joint ventures, is a really big deal. But some companies are breaking the mold. CME, from Beijing, showed a line of USB keyboards that turned heads. They’re metal, solid, have a great UI, and are way competitive (try 88 keys for about $600). And I loved the Cnk Roll Piano, a flexible keyboard controller you could roll up into a little cylinder. I want to hook that up to my laptop and run Reason.

The bottom line: Just as Japan turned the corner from cheap knock-offs to gold-standard quality, China is turning that corner too. And they’re turning it fast, which seems to be the Chinese way.

Would I go back? In a millisecond, even though the dominant form of pop music seems to be jailbait-age girls singing sentimental songs (and I heard a disturbing amount of Kenny G). And is it really a commie police state? If it is, it’s well hidden, at least where I was. I wouldn’t want to cross that threshold where I’d be considered a troublemaker, but these days, it’s apparently a fairly high threshold.

China is opening up wide, and that’s going to change the world, and the world of recording, even more than it has already. You could see the seeds being planted at Alto Day, at the Sekaku factory, and at the show. I wouldn’t have missed this trip for, well, all the tea in China. Which, come to think of it, is quite a lot of tea.