Tetsuya Itani

Tetsuya ItaniTetsuya Itani is Technics’ Chief Technical Officer. Since 1980 he has been at the sharp end of an industry that has seen great change. Having joined Panasonic/Technics as a rookie straight out of university, he found himself working for one of the largest Japanese electronics giants around at arguably the most exciting time. Yet the pace hasn’t slowed, because the market is still steaming on…

A genial fellow with an obvious excitement for what he is doing – even after all these years – Itani san tells me that he began to get interested in audio during his schooldays, but his studies were centred on digital. “This turned out to be very good timing,” he says, “because the consumer electronics industry was just beginning to transition to this new technology. As you can imagine, to someone fascinated by electronics, joining Panasonic was a dream for me. I started there in the spring of 1980, having previously studied electrical engineering at university. We had almost a one-year long company training period, and sometime during the middle of that year I was assigned as an engineer for the stereo division.”

He followed the standard graduate’s route through a large Japanese corporation, being trained up and then made a junior member of a specialist team. “At that time, Panasonic/Technics had decided to support Compact Disc, and so the company asked me what I wanted to do. I replied that I wanted to do PCM [Pulse Code Modulation], and so I joined the development team for CD players. At that time, Technics was very good at turntables – and they built up a technology team inside the turntable division which I was then assigned to. Actually the technology between turntables and CD players is very similar in some ways. They had three hundred or more engineers on this, which is amazing by normal hi-fi industry standards. It was so many people, because the business was huge then.”

He found it an invigorating time of his life. “There was so much for me to learn. I was really excited. I was in charge of software engineering for system control – it was very primitive at that time. Today, software and hardware is separate but at that time they were together so I had to do everything. I was writing the code of the micro-controllers. It’s worth pointing out that in Panasonic, all the electronic components were made by our company – we developed three digital processing chips for the CD players, and I think four micro-controllers, plus maybe four or five servo systems, plus the digital-to-analogue converter, plus the semi-conductor laser. We did all this right from the basics, very different to now!”

Itani san tells me how he learnt things from the ground-up. “It was from the absolute starting level, and it was very difficult because there were no teachers at that time – even my boss couldn’t support me. We were literally doing research and development, making it up as we went along. It was of course a very big challenge. For example, the twelve centimetre optical disc was then a brand new thing, no one knew about it. On the first generation of CD players, Sony machines had a disc tray but we decided we wanted to display the disc through a vertical loading window, which shows you that we were working right from first principles during the genesis of Compact Disc. Of course, from the second generation of machines we began to follow one another a bit more as some consensus developed about how the players should work.”

The first Technics silver disc spinner, the SL-P10, was launched in Japan in the autumn of 1982. Itani san was very much a part of this, taking out many patents relating to CD player control protocols. It was a matter of real pride to him personally that he worked for Technics, which was one of the most innovative hi-fi manufacturers in the world at that time. “There was a huge rivalry between the big Japanese companies, and our senior colleagues in Panasonic were very proud of our technology for the direct turntable drive system, because it was the best.” He adds, with a somewhat pained expression, “so of course they always asked the same level of quality from their engineers for other things – and so it was very difficult!”

After the initial push to get a market-ready CD player in the early eighties, the company began to focus on more applications for the technology. Being Japanese, of course their instinct was to miniaturise things and so it was only a matter of time before the company began making portable players. “In nineteen eighty-five we began making portable CD players, which started to spread the technology into other markets such as car and personal audio”, Itani san says. “It was also around this time that Panasonic/Technics commenced the switch from analogue to digital; just three or so years after our first Compact Disc machine was launched, most hi-fi turntables had gone. This was of course with the notable exception of the SL-1200, which was a very special product. It’s fair to say that this turntable actually made the DJ culture – and so we couldn’t stop it back then because of that. It was only by the end of the last decade, many years later, that sales of the SL-1200 had become very small because many DJs had gone to digital sources, so we finally stopped production. Also, the other reason was our company policy of uniting the old Technics brand to Panasonic.”

It’s fair to say that this announcement didn’t go down very well; it was unfortunate timing because in 2010, when Technics decided to stop production, both vinyl hardware and software sales were beginning to rise markedly. What then started was a mass lobbying campaign, fuelled by social media and the comments on Technics’ own website, to bring the deck back. “We began to receive many requests from DJs to begin production again”, says Itani san. “By the time that we announced the rebirth of Technics at IFA 2014, the number of requests to reintroduce the SL-1200, from all over the world, was huge. We were also aware that the vinyl market was growing, so we thought it was the perfect time to finally bring the deck back…”

Before this, Itani san had actually asked his engineers to study how to re-engineer the turntable with a view to its possible reintroduction, and they had judged that it was impossible because the dies and other tooling to make the deck had gone. “There was no technology for us to rebuild from scratch”, he said. Yet the IFA experience proved pivotal, along with a huge worldwide petition. “It was at that point that our company director Ogawa san gathered us all together and asked us how to do bring the deck back”, he recalls.

“We began to make contact with former Technics employees who had worked on our turntables and tonearms, especially the latter – because these are very difficult to manufacture. We did have some historic archived paper drawings left over from that period, but we really had to rely on the knowledge of our ‘old boys’ to get this project going again. It was very lucky for us to have them because we now do everything on CAD, and so in design terms had to start afresh.”

For Itani san, it was actually quite personal. He confides that thirty years earlier, in his younger life he felt like he was working “to change the world”, helping to popularise Compact Disc and digital audio technology. “So we were very surprised to suddenly be making turntables again; I found myself wondering why I was working on turntables. It so was strange because back in the eighties my wife was pregnant and had a baby while I was busy working on CD – and then three years ago, while I was developing our new turntables, my daughter had her baby! This was a poignant reminder to me how crazy life can be, because thirty years ago everyone agreed that analogue was gone.”

Itani san reflects upon the irony of Technics going back to analogue. As an engineer he seems fascinated by the technical challenges but finds the philosophical implications amusing. Certainly the idea of ‘technological progress’ runs deep in the Japanese psyche; it’s a country that celebrates all that is new and avant-garde. “When we started the new SL-1200 project, our ‘old boys’ – the former Technics employees who made the original deck’s success possible – told us how proud they were of their designs – and that the Technics name was based on the use of new technology. I thought about this and considered that although we could just bring the old technology back, that is not our company’s way. So I asked my engineers to develop it from scratch, utilising modern technology instead.”

“We had a good start,” he points out, “as we already have some very cutting edge technology from the field of Blu-ray. The old SL-1200 didn’t have any digital technology, but right now we have some very sophisticated servo systems so we can control the speed more precisely. Interestingly, turntables are traditionally measured only by signal-to-noise ratio and wow and flutter, but these don’t tell the whole story. In order to measure the accuracy of the platter’s speed rotation, our current model is much more accurate than the old type of measurements. We now look at the deck’s performance in ‘dynamic’, real-world conditions. We have done a lot of measurement and listening, and explored the relationship between the two. Measurement itself is a very rough and partial guide – for example the wow and flutter figure doesn’t tell us about a deck’s performance under load playing a record groove with music, not a test tone. It’s like a two-dimensional photograph when you’re working in three dimensions.”

Itani san expands on this. “Actually our engineers still keep learning about this. For example when we developed the new flagship SP-10R, we found that when we get more sophisticated in our approach, the sound quality becomes much better. For example, the drive motor has a rotary encoder with around 540 etchings for detection of the position of the device. But because the width between these isn’t exactly consistent, this normally has to be ironed out later by the servo system. But our engineers came up a very smart answer to this. At the fabrication, we measured every slot and the variation between them was recorded to the onboard computer, which then cancels this variation out in software. We found that by adopting such kind of technology, we can stabilise the unit-by-unit variation in wow and flutter.”

Itani san said this transpired to have a significant effect on the sound quality. “Because it’s a servo system so when the encoder has some kind of error, it is compensated for and this causes the drive mechanism to work harder. But by doing it more accurately the servo system can work less, so there’s less current in the motor and so less vibration. I used to say it is somehow like driving, with the driver as the servo system. When you have a big, expensive car it’s more stable and the driver has to work less to steer it straight than a smaller, less stable car. The more balanced the car is, the less correction is needed by the driver. This is one of the things we have found through the development of the SP-10R.”

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