Music

All aboard: the art of sampling Japan's railways

by Russell Thomas

Contributing Writer

In the rest of the world, trainspotting is something of a niche hobby, but in Japan it is much more mainstream. Combine a natural predilection for hobbies with a massive proliferation of railways and you naturally get train enthusiasts.

It’s easy to see why. Japan and trains go hand in hand. Everybody uses them. They’re part of the daily makeup of life. From student to commuter, baby in a sling to old friends laughing on a day trip, trains are a constant in everyone’s life. The Japan Railways Group and a cavalcade of other giants operate a tight schedule of networks from the Siberian coasts of northern Hokkaido to the shores of Kyushu. No one is left out.

Trains in Japan bulge, burst and bristle with nostalgia. But aside from their unchanging aesthetics, their smell and warmth, there are the sounds: incredible audio cues that leave Japan’s metro systems and rickety, one-carriage services as veritable vehicles of reminiscence.

There are the hassha (departure) melodies. The hurried announcements crackling through the PA systems. The sounds of the trains themselves — their doors, movements, brakes. The familiar gatan-gatan noise of the carriage on the rails, like a mechanical lullaby.

And fans of Japan’s railways don’t just take pictures and videos of trains, stations and little-ridden routes: They also preserve the very sounds that make these journeys what they are. So if you find yourself in that Venn overlap between loving trains and loving sounds, you may find solace with the oto-tetsu scene, which takes its name from the Japanese words oto (sound) and tetsudō (railway).

“When I get on a train, I feel the joy that my favorite train will take me to see scenery I’ve never seen before,” says “Ikameshi,” the pseudonym of one such creator, who declined to give his real name. “It’s the feeling of being magnetized to someone you love and running to meet them.”

The music that dozens of oto-tetsu producers like Ikameshi create is filled with the sort of bubbling excitement you could attribute to a love of something. On a bed of hyperactive beats and intense, cartwheeling instrumentals, upwards of 160 beats per minute, samples taken from trains and stations are lain in gabbering, garbled stutters, huddled in bouncing clusters. Chopped and skewed station announcements, the mechanical sounds of the trains — everything audible is harvested from the soundscape of train travel in Japan.

“In order to neatly take a sample, you stick a small microphone on the speaker (in the train) with masking tape,” Ikameshi explains. “Connect the microphone to the recorder and put it on the luggage rack. Take care that you don’t interfere with station operations. Even after getting off at the station, record announcements flowing out of the station’s speakers and take pictures of trains that are leaving. The trip is over. Return home, open the computer.”

It is this recording process itself that seems to be the crux of the oto-tetsu creators. It is about the sourcing of ingredients, rather than the cooking, so to speak.

Another anonymous creator, “Shirakaba,” lets me in on the hyperspeed game center-friendly music that acts as the canvas to the tracks. Themes from video game series Touhou Project were once very common, but nowadays, he explains, songs from music video games like Jubeat are mainstream.

“I personally like fast-paced music because it’s easy to make it without changing the playback speed much,” Shirakaba says.

Creators use Reaper, an easy-to-use digital audio workstation, to make their tracks, allowing them to match the pitch of the sampled station or carriage announcements with the backing song. Shirakaba also utilizes a “door drum” — additional beats made using the opening and closing of the train doors.

While the output is far from the whimsy you’d pair with trains and lovers of them, it’s not difficult to feel the obsession, the fascination and the speed in oto-tetsu’s wild and colorful hyperactive sonic world.

Ikameshi, who admits he knew nothing about making music before he started making oto-tetsu, uses fast-tempo music to “give a feeling of running.”

“It’s both because I want to express the speed of the train and also because I like fast-paced songs,” he says

Hakodate-based Ikameshi, a fan of trains since the age of 5, got into making music from the sounds of trains thanks to Google’s algorithms. “I watched a lot of railway point-of-view videos on YouTube,” he says. “Once, a ‘tetsudō MAD’ (railway enthusiasts’ music) video appeared as a related video. I watched it and felt that it was interesting.” And he never looked back.

On the other hand, Shirakaba, a high-school student, was directly into the scene itself. More interested in the mechanical sounds of the train than the station announcements, around two years ago he started making his own tracks, influenced by pre-existing oto-tetsu producers.

As a whole, oto-tetsu began with videos on the Niconico video sharing site. Which was the first? Who knows. But the one with the most views is a video posted in 2008, or so Shirakaba tells me. There’s even a “Post Festival” every July 13th, based on the anniversary of this video, which the community celebrates.

“We have quite a few exchanges,” he says, “like collaborations and offline meetings — that sort of thing.”

Fellow creator Ikameshi confirms that creators meet up and take videos of trains together to gain knowledge of railways, and also the scene as a whole. They can also learn more about each other.

At the heart of what oto-tetsu creators do is love. The love of trains, the love of making tracks about trains. They are well-known only by each other; they’re not fame-seeking because it’s a scene that feeds itself.

Ikameshi tells me more about this love; about how he paid a special visit to a town that was depicted in an anime, station and all; about meeting a high school friend by chance and spending hours catching up on a local train.

He goes on to detail a certain mark on his local station platform where a train door stops, or used to.

“This particular train was taken out of service three years ago,” he tells me. “If I stand here, on the mark, I get immersed in such a nostalgic feeling that I could get on this train again.”