Tatsuya Takahashi: we interview the brains behind KORG's most legendary designs

Interview with instrument designer and KORG Germany CEO Tatsuya Takahashi | Catalyst Berlin

A group of Catalyst film and music students and alumni recently collaborated with Tatsuya Takahashi on his Most Wanted: Music video presentation, Powers of Ten. Learn all about the project and watch our exclusive interview with the design mastermind and KORG Germany CEO. 

Tatsuya Takahashi started playing with electronics at a young age – and he's never stopped. Ask many of our students at Catalyst Music, and they'd say he has their dream career: instrument designer. In fact, his first job, aside from student bar work, was Chief Engineer at KORG Japan, an 11-year gig which he scored by directly asking the company for an interview and bringing along the eight-oscillator synthesizer he designed. He’s now the CEO of KORG Germany

When it comes to music making, Tatsuya is one step ahead of the game. His natural flair for hardware and sound meets a remarkable sensitivity to the customer's creative needs and desires. The resulting instruments are tactile, simple to use, versatile and, above all, fun. Portable builds and internal speakers are a particular revelation, allowing fellow musical devotees to “doodle” anywhere – from the sofa to the park to the train. This labour of love has led him to work on some of the most iconic synths and drum machines of the 21st century: the Minilogue, Monologue, Monotrons, early Volcas, Triggers and the Granular Convolver.

“Making a living from designing musical instruments is a funny business,” Tatsuya tells Most Wanted: Music. “On one hand they are commercial products. On the other, they are forms of expression. I'll be navigating my experience of grappling with this duality through how many times each project is manufactured – in powers of ten. From the big hit Volcas to the personal projects that are painfully close to my soul, each project has a different story to tell, but there's also a continuum that runs through them all.”

A group of our film and music students and alumni recently had the pleasure of converting the Tatsuya aesthetic into a stunning teaser video (below), Powers of Ten, which was played during his presentation on his design evolution at the Most Wanted: Music conference in November. The slick synthesizers resonate perfectly with our Funkhaus studios’ Bauhaus-inspired interiors. Full of tantalising close-ups of knobs and circuit boards, cut to a fittingly experimental, synthy soundtrack, the six-minute video is enough to induce serious gear envy.

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To probe deeper into the circuitry of Tatsuya’s creative process, the team also filmed an insightful interview, which you can watch at the bottom of this article. The videos were directed by Film Production alumnus Roman Koblov, with camera work by current student Alba Llach. Electronic Music Production & Performance students Olivia Mamberti, Max Aad and Wei Bei recorded the sound, while Wei and Mizuki Ishikawa designed the sound for the clip. The project was produced by our storytelling lead Christina Gaither. We asked Roman, Mizuki, Olivia, Max and Wei to tell us about their experience of the collaboration. 

Roman Koblov

When approaching the project, I was fortunate enough to be briefed with a clear direction from Tatsuya Takahashi himself. As a natural problem solver who enjoys working under challenging limitations, I relished the opportunity to create a video which was entirely out of my comfort zone – having had little experience shooting still life and product videos. A massive thank you to Christina, Alba, Olivia, Max and Wei who volunteered their time and effort to make it all happen. 

The inspiration for the video came from the 1977 short film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames. A groundbreaking film for its time, it succeeded in depicting the relative size of things in the universe. The film begins with an overhead shot of a man and a woman picnicking at a park, then proceeds to slowly zoom out (at a rate of one power of ten per 10 seconds), to a view of 100 meters, then one kilometre, and so on, until we are shown the observable universe. The film then reverses the motion, until we zoom in to the hand of the man picnicking, revealing the skin cells and their atoms.  

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Taking inspiration from the film and the theme of Tatsuya's keynote address at the MW:M Berlin conference, we took a selection of Tatsuya's inventions and reinforced the idea of scale and abstract beauty that can be found inside of these electronics. For this, Tatsuya disassembled the instruments and we used a macro lens positioned overhead to take stills and video clips of all the components. We then captured clips of the instruments at a greater distance until we captured the true scale of the object inside the room. The film begins with zoomed in macro shots that can appear abstract and unidentifiable. It is only when we start to slowly zoom out that we start to identify the objects. This process was repeated for each series of instruments, totaling six parts for which Wei Beh composed an original soundtrack to accompany the visuals. Mizuki Ishikawa composed the music for the trailer video.

Collaboration was an integral feature of the project as a whole. It was very important to have current students involved and spend time with Tatsuya, learning about the process of instrument design and the story behind many of his inventions.  A massive thank you to Max and Olivia who helped with the interview and also to record sound. Also a big thank you to Olivia and James Ma for editing the audio and Jonny Zoum for his guidance on this. 

Mizuki Ishikawa

When I got the concepts and images for the teaser from Roman, I made two versions of it at first. One had a very dramatic synth with some reliable kick and hi-hat, while the other was just one part of audio from my jam session. I made the first one by entirely following the reference tracks and concepts, so it was lacking a bit of freedom and randomness. It was more like doing homework rather than creativity work. Then, I came up with an idea of putting in a random audio recording from one of my modular sessions, which is a completely unintended, unbalanced, irrational composition. I sent them both versions in the end. When I got the final edition of the teaser, I noticed that Tatsuya actually chose the one with my modular. I felt the satisfaction of achieving something I can be proud of. 

Compromising in collaboration work is always a hard thing for me. Sometimes you can get a really nice result, but sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. I am learning how to get a good balance of myself and my collaborator, and my clients, through these experiments. Thank you to all involved for this great opportunity. It was fun!

Olivia Mamberti

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The Saturday we worked on this special project was truly an amazing day. Meeting Tatsuya and being able to help on the shoot was one of the best experiences I've had since I moved to Berlin. The whole team worked perfectly together and having the opportunity to see up close, and learn more about Tats’ creations and creative process, was an incredible experience that I'm deeply grateful for.

"I picked up a Minilogue he had brought along with him...I might be geeking out a bit but it’s by far one of the coolest synths I’ve seen in person."

Max Aad

The KORG interview with Tatsuya was pretty amazing in general, but my favorite part would have to have been actually getting to play around and see the insides of prototypes of synths I own. I picked up a Minilogue he had brought along with him, and it was significantly heavier than mine, and had no serial number or any KORG markings (logos, barcodes, recyclable symbol, etc) on the body, I might be geeking out a bit but it’s by far one of the coolest synths I’ve seen in person. 

Tats was also kind enough to sign my personal Minilogue, and answered quite a specific question about the PCB architecture that I’ve had for a couple of years. It wasn’t information I could do anything with, but I was really chuffed to have the insight. 

As for the project, it allowed me to work on a set, which I hadn’t done in a while, and allowed me to get another gig as the stage manager for the Cyber stage of the Most Wanted: Music festival.

Wei Beh

The working experience with the team and Tatsuya was awesome! One thing that inspired me about Tatsuya was his down-to-earth approach in communicating and telling his own story. Other than that, the session was a very beneficial and eye-opening experience for me. For instance, creative critical thinking is quite important for instrument design and development. One has to consider the fact that the machine should be functional, and also that it should manifest itself by its functionality.

Interview With Tatsuya Takahashi

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A special thanks to Your Mom’s Agency and Red Bull for helping us to bring this memorable collaboration to life.