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How Is Voice Recording in Japan Adapting to COVID-19?

by Kim Morrissy,

For the past few months, we've been hearing about one delay after another in the entertainment world. There's no doubt at this point that the pandemic has affected production and voice recording, among other processes integral to the creation of anime and other entertainment media, but how are production companies adapting to the new normal? We interviewed Seiichi Nakayama, head of sound engineers at the production company G-angle, to gain some insight into the voice recording process post-COVID.

Could you describe what kind of company G-angle is and the work you do as a sound engineer?

G-angle is a digital production company founded in 2002 with the core principle of quality as our top priority. We provide voice recording services, music production, promotion, design, video production, and much more. I am the chief engineer in charge of our recording studios. Our six recording studios are mainly used for recording for video games, but we also do professional narration for commercials and other media. We can record, edit voices, and even do surround mixing with DolbyAtmos.

In general, how much has COVID-19 affected the amount of work you're able to do in a day?

Originally, G-angle spent a total of 500 hours per month recording for clients, but after the local government declared a state of emergency in Tokyo, we made the tough decision to cut our recording activities in half in order to protect both our clients and voice actors. Now that we've implemented stringent methods of remote recording, we've finally gotten back to running at 80~90% of our original capacity.

Voice directors are still struggling, though. We established a localization department in February, right at the peak of the coronavirus panic. Our primary goal has been to provide Japanese translation and voice-over services for video games outside of Japan. We were originally planning on attending various conventions around the world to promote our services, but this has been put on hold indefinitely. Our localization director and marketing representatives are instead attending online conventions and connecting with clients online through video conferencing services such as Zoom. We are still currently on the lookout for new projects, but we plan to continue working remotely as long as necessary because the safety of our clients and voice actors is paramount.

What kind of countermeasures have you implemented at the studio to avoid the “Three Cs”?

We've implemented a number of measures including having all company staff who aren't directly involved with the voice recording studios work from home, restricting areas in which active staff can work while at the company (to avoid cross-contamination), and new procedures for remote recording sessions. Remote recording sessions allow our clients to connect through Zoom, SourceConnect, and other programs from the comfort of their own home or office to observe recording sessions that would normally be conducted in person. We've introduced special studio equipment allowing us to stream non-compressed vocal audio to our clients in real-time. This allows for clients to directly monitor and coordinate the recording session with little to no delay while ensuring the highest quality recording at a safe distance.

The Yamaha AG06, which captures and streams audio

How have the voice actors been reacting to the measures being taken?

At first, many voice actors were torn in two. Of course, as professionals, they wanted to work, but they also had to consider taking a brief hiatus to decrease the risk of infection. Obviously, the safest place to be is at home, but there are few, if any, voice actors with the proper set-up for recording in their house. The majority of these actors wanted to work in a safe studio environment with measures taken to lower the risk of infection, and they've been very satisfied with our studio's preliminary measures, as well as our efforts to decrease the total number of people in close proximity throughout the recording process.

An air cooler being used at the studio

Do you think that any of the measures you've taken to ensure public health and sanitation will become permanent even after the situation returns to normal?

I believe that we will continue offering our clients a remote recording option for most future projects. This recording method not only helps to reduce the risk of infection, but also has several other merits.

We originally invited clients to our recording sessions to both ensure that they were satisfied with the recording quality and to allow them to make all final recording decisions. Now our clients can safely confirm that the recording quality is up to par without ever having to step foot in the studio. This also potentially saves a lot of time and money on logistics and lodging.

Most projects can run smoothly with a single sound engineer, and in some cases an additional casting or voice director. Most video games are recorded with only one actor in the booth, given that there is no particular need for simultaneous recording. Decreasing the number of staff also helps to cut overall production costs while ensuring the safest environment possible. I believe that we should keep this policy, and that many studios that cannot offer this type of service will mostly likely go out of business in the not-so-distant future. Studios with exceedingly large control rooms will also become obsolete, and probably go out of business as well.

Do you feel that voice acting for animation has been affected differently compared to recording for video games (which you mentioned are recorded with only one actor in the booth at a time)? For projects that are typically recorded in groups, was it necessary to shift to recording the actors one at a time? I am also wondering how much extra time it typically takes to record, because according to this report, it has been taking "three times as long" for television anime projects. How much does the recording time vary nowadays depending on the project and the needs of the client?

I think that animation has been more negatively impacted by COVID-19 than games have been. However, we recently had a recording project take four times longer than usual because we couldn't have multiple actors performing in the same booth simultaneously.

I have also read reports that ad-libbing is difficult for voice actors right now due to the current arrangements. Would you agree with that?

I think that it's been particularly difficult for actors that usually record in the same booth together, as they can't immediately react to each other's performances, and ad-libbing has become increasingly difficult with no one to bounce off of.

The comment about how a shift to remote recording is convenient and beneficial in the long run is particularly interesting to me. Did you ever think about making these kinds of adjustments to the recording process before the pandemic, or do you think of it as more of a positive side effect of the circumstances?

Before the COVID-19 crisis, working remotely didn't even cross our minds. Why? Because there was simply no need for it. On top of that, our internet connection wasn't fast enough to support high-quality audio for remote recording sessions at the time. Originally, we had no choice but to ask that clients attend the recording session in-person to provide the voice actors with directions. Back in 2016, we even had a client from a Taiwanese game company requesting casting and recording for a Japanese voice-over project come all the way to Japan for an entire week just to participate in the recording session. This would have been a non-issue with our current remote system.

This same client is currently working at a game company in the United States, and we recently had a successful remote recording session with them this past April. Even though the client was on the other side of the world in Seattle, audio lag was absolutely minimal and the recording session went smoothly. Not to mention the amount of money that they saved in travel expenses! However, time difference is always an issue seeing as it was 4 a.m. in Seattle during our recording session.

Luckily, we have managed to remain relatively unscathed thanks to our new remote recording system in spite of the global crisis. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has brought hard times for everyone in the entertainment industry, which means the amount of work brought to us has decreased. However, I think we've taken a step in the right direction by employing remote recording methods to keep staff, clients, and actors safe.

For more information about G-angle, check out the official English website and Twitter account.

Thanks to Sarah Nelkin for facilitating this interview.

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