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Founded: September 2017
Headquarters: JAPAN




Text: WOJCIECH PACUŁA / Translation: Marek Dyba
Images: Ultra Art Record | Wojciech Pacuła

No 205

June 1, 2021

ULTRA ART RECORD is a Japanese jazz label founded by two friends, HARUO USHIO-san and REIJI ASAKURA-san. Its purpose is to record and release recordings of the highest musical AND technical level. Founded in September 2017, it has so far released two titles, both on LP and UHQCD.

ET'S START WITH THE BASICS AND CLARIFY FIRST, what media publishing means:

Media publishing is a group of activities aimed at commercial use of the works of composers and songwriters. These activities include hiring talents, production, sales, or renting printed music. (...) However, in the last 50 years, music publishing has been replaced by sound recording as the most powerful sector in the industry.

⸜ Term„ Media Publishing” in the: Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Volume 1: Media, Industry, Society, ed. John Shepherd, David Horn, Dave Laing, Paul Oliver, Peter Wicke, New York 2003.

In the definition of a music publisher cited above, attention is drawn to the symbiotic relationship between a musician and a publisher, a relationship that goes beyond the usual business framework. Nowadays, the task of a music publisher would be not so much to publish/release music - although this is the ultimate goal of this type of venture - but to work with musicians to make the best use of their talent in a way that the publisher considers to be the best.

Traditionally, the point would be to record an album in a way that would guarantee the highest profits - both for the artist and the publisher. However, this type of commercial approach does not work for many musicians who would prefer to sacrifice part of their income for the sake of creative freedom. These two visions are not separate, as showcased by such artists as Billie Eilish, Lana Del Ray and other musicians who create popular music, earning lot of money, do it their own way, imposing their vision of the end result, i.e. of the albums, on publishing houses. The general course of action and the ultimate goal of the publishing houses is simple - it's about the best possible sales.

Record labels focusing on different values go against this market game. Profit is also important to them, but not the most important. They try to develop niches, that the so-called "mayors" do not want or are unable to take advantage of. One of the smallest, but for us the most interesting, ways of presenting new music is recording it in the best possible way.

What I will say is not a popular view in the mainstream and it shows the anachronistic understanding of the music industry by big record labels. However, both intuition and scientific studies - the works of researchers of music culture, anthropology and recording techniques, such as SUZANNE BENNETT, professor of the Australian national university, the College of Arts and Social Sciences, author of the Modern Records, Maverick Methods: Technology and Process in Popular Music Record Production 1978-2000, or dr SUSAN SCHMIDT HORNING, Associate Professor at St. John's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, author of - among others - the fantastic history of recording studios entitled Chasing Sound, say that recording engineers and producers have equal rights to the records as the musicians themselves - and sometimes even bigger ones.

Since the scientific discourse understands the realization side as part of the artistic process, it makes no sense to pretend otherwise. KENNETH RICHARD HAMANN, an engineer at the Cleveland Recording studio summed it up well:

During those years, mainly in the 1960s, we worked together and this work became an art form. In retrospect, I can say that it has become a real art, in which the producer of the recording and the musicians worked together as a band creating music, sounds reflecting a certain kind of sound landscapes. A bit like a painter ... with colors on a palette. We were doing the same. And we were able to do it.

⸜ SUSAN SCHMIDT HORNING, Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture, and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP, Baltimore 2020, p. 151.

Some labels see it more clearly, others seem blind to this simple truth. But every now and then a "little miracle" happens and a group of people thinking alike and following the same direction meet. I would like to draw your attention to the Japanese publisher ULTRA ART RECORDS, one of the youngest on the market, with only two titles in their catalog. But what titles these are! Recorded, mixed and mastered in analog domain for LP, as well as recorded and digitally mixed for Ultimate HQCD discs. They also offers a very unique product: 78 rpm fine-groove record.


THE ENCYCLOPEDIA CITED AT THE BEGINNING says that the largest national music market is the United States with revenues of $ 1.1 billion, followed by Germany with 750 million, and JAPAN in third place0 with 626 million. Although these numbers from 2003, not much has changed since then, at least in terms of scale and order ("The Rolling Stone" states that the so-called Big Three publishers, i.e. Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group and Warner Music Group grossed $ 3.2 billion in 2019), except that China entered the game.

Japan is a special market in this group. As all available sources say, it is a place where physical media, especially CDs (!), still dominate the sales and where technical advances still take place, thanks to which such new CD formats as Blu-spec, HQCD, SHM-CD and SHM-SACD were introduced. This approach stems from the work ethic, which says that a given problem should be explored as much as possible, no matter the cost or time.

Only there such labels as Japan Audio Laboratory (1969), which changed its name to AUDIO LAB RECORD in 1971, founded by Mr. OKIHIKO SUGANO, THREE BLIND MICE (1970), founded by Mr. TAKESHI FUJII, and in modern times BRIPHONIC (1992), the life's work of Mr.MASAMICHI OHASHI could have come to life.

One of the newest, if not the newest label with a similar approach to music is ULTRA ART RECORD, founded by two friends, HARUO USHIO-san and REIJI ASAKURA-san.


A few simple words…

Co-founder, president

WOJCIECH PACUŁA Could you please tell us something about yourself, your education, carrier and so on.
HARUO USHIO My name is Haruo Ushio. I am an audio visual critic, Ultra Art Record president and the Ambassador of the Yonago City Tourist Association. I was born in Yonago City, Tottori prefecture, and graduated law at Kanagawa University.

While performing a wide range of activities such as writing for audio-visual magazines, information magazines, and music magazines from 1980, I was also involved in the production of theatrical releases and CD software as a sound director of films and also animated films from 1997. I have a deep friendship with Hollywood movie makers which gave me access to information regarding movie production. In September 2017 together with Reiji Asakura, I established the Ultra Art Record, a high-quality jazz label, and started releasing packaged software and high-resolution music. As an Ambassador of Yonago City Tourism Association I am popularizing information regarding the beauty of the Yonago City in Tottori Prefecture. Since August 2020, I have been running the "Jazz Park" program in the BSS radio (TV and radio station in Yonago City).

WP How did you start your carrier in the pro audio industry?
HU I have been a sound supervisor for Japanese movies and Japanese animation movies from 1997. The following are the main works that I was involved in in the past as a sound director and sound engineer:

• Movies with actors:
1) GONIN, dir. Takashi Ishii, 1997 (sound remaster)
2) Open House, dir. Isao Yukisada, 1998
3) Goodbye Jupeter, dir. Sakyo Komatsu, 1984/2003 (sound remaster)

• Animation
1) Tenchi Muyo in LOVE, Hiroshi Negish, TODD/AO mix
2) Midsummer Dream,Tenchi Muyo
3) Tenchi Muyo in LOVE 2, TODD/AO mix
4) Visitor, dir. Atsushi Tokuda
5) Sol Bianca, OVA
6) A•Li•Ce, OVA
7) Armitage III, OVA
8) Perfect Blue, dir. Satoshi Kon, sound remaster

• Others
1) Dolby Digital Experience, screenwriter and director
2) Home Theater Reference, screenwriter and director

⸜ Mr. HARUO USHIO’s audio system | photo Haruo Ushio

WP Do you have a high quality audio system at home?
HU Of course :) See below:
• Analog: EMT-930st and Technics/SP10R turntables+SAEC and WE-4700 tonearms+Mutec and RM Kanda cartridges
• CD Player: Accuphase DP-950 transport+dcs 955 DAC
• Amplifiers: Mark Levinson No.32L, Marantz Model 7, Pass XA-100
• Loudspeakers: ATC/SCM-100P
• UHDBD Player: Panasonic DP-UB9000
• AV Receiver: Denon AVC-110
• Projector: JVC DLA-V9R

WP What is your favorit format – physical carriers or music files?
HU I prefer physical carriers. I listen mostly to CDs, LPs but also watch movies and live concerts from UHD BD.

⸜ Rear of Mr. HARUO USHIO's listening room - you can see a microphone there, used to records his programs for BSS radio | photo by Haruo Ushio

WP Could you please name three albums you have been listening to most recently?
HU It is a very difficult question as I have so many favorit albums. But if I have to name three these would be:
• The Beatles i Abbey Road,
• The Dave Brubeck Quartet i Time Out,
• The Pink Floyd Meddle.


The ULTRA ART RECORDS IS A REALLY YOUNG COMPANY, we are almost witnessing its birth, and that is why so far they have only released two titles: MIE JOKÉ ETRENNE, with the 11 Songs for Music and Sound Lovers subtitle and MICHIKO OGAWA’s Balluchon, each in two formats:

⸜ MIE JOKÉ, ETRENNE, Ultra Art Records UA-1001, Ultimate HQCD (2018)
⸜ MIE JOKÉ, ETRENNE, Ultra Art Records UA-1005, „Numbered Edition | № 1016”, 180 g LP (2018)

⸜ MICHIKO OGAWA, Balluchon, Ultra Art Records ‎UA-1002, Ultimate HQCD (2019)
⸜ MICHIKO OGAWA, Balluchon, Ultra Art Records ‎UA-1003, 180 g LP (2019)

As Mr. Haruo Ushio and Reiji Asakura say, they founded the Ultra Art Records label with the goal of "providing the fans with high-quality music". During the recordings, they do not use the so-called "overdubbing", that is, they do not overdub the next tracks, and they record the band playing together at the same time. As they say, it's about capturing a "chemistry" that takes place during a live performance. In order not to kill this interaction, the gentlemen do not use any compressors. The recordings are therefore similar to direct-to-disc ones, but in this case actual recorders are used for recording.

MIE JOKÉ The Mie Joké session took place in August 2017 at Yoyogi Studio in Tokyo, owned by the PONY CANYON label. This is an extremely interesting place, mainly associated with sound recordings for anime movies, for example for the phenomenal series called Shingekino-Kyojin (Attack of the Titans) and for most Studio Ghibli soundtracks. Studio Pony Canyon was originally owned by Mr. Joe Hisaishi (music composer for Studio Ghibli) and was bought by Pony Canyon after his death.

The first half of the album, Side A, focuses on jazz standards, such as Cheek To Cheek, a track popularized by Ella Fitzgerald, or Fly Me To The Moon once masterfully interpreted by Nat King Cole (Nat King Cole Sings / George Shearing Plays album) and Frank Sinatra (It Might as Well Be Swing album). The other half, Side B, is a mix of pop songs with jazz arrangements, trying to bring out "new shades of this music". Let me add that TSUYOSHI YAMAMOTO, a veteran of the Three Blind Mice label, plays the piano on the side A.

In the case of the CD, there is no distinction between the A and B sides, but in order to create a "colorful work", as we read in the press materials, it was divided into two parts, which is easier to notice on the analog disc.

The studio is equipped with a beautiful Steinway piano. Sound was recorded simultaneously in analog and digital domain. For the analog recording they used a 24-track STUDER A-800 tape recorder with a two-inch tape (30 ips), and the digital one was recorded using DAW ProTool system in 32-bit, 192 kHz PCM files.

The UHQCD (Ultimate Hi-Quality CD) was the first format to be released, and hi-res 32/192 files were offered via the e-onkyo streaming service (available in Japan only). Later, however, a copy of the analog master tape was made in two formats: DSD 11.2 MHz and DXD 384 kHz / 24 bit, and these versions are also available. In addition to the CD, there is also a 180 g LP version, with a different cover, for which the material was mixed in analogue domain to a ¼ ”master tape.

MICHIKO OGAWA Michiko Ogawa currently serves as Executive Director of Panasonic Corporation (since 2015) and Vice President of Appliances Company (since 2018), as well as President of the Japan Audio Society. She is also an experienced jazz pianist, a vocalist with - as the publisher informs us - "impeccable technique" and "soulful mind".

She started playing the piano at the age of three and played classical repertoire - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, but also contemporary music. She graduated from Keio University in Science and Technology, then joined Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. and was assigned to the Audio Acoustic Laboratory. She recorded her first album in 2003 for the American label Arbors Records - it won the first prize of the Jazz Journal International magazine.

Ms Ogawa's experience in interpreting classical music ensured her "clarity of touch, allowing to create chords of beauty" (source - press release). Balluchon is the 15th album in her career and was recorded after a nine-year hiatus. It focuses on the work of George Gershwin, whose 120th birthday was celebrated in 2018, and Duke Ellington, whose 120th birthday was celebrated a year later, as well as Cole Porter, The Beatles and others.

The material was made according to the "One Take Recording" philosophy using a Pyramix DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) recorder in 384kHz 32-bit resolution. The sound engineer (mixer) was TOSHIYASU SHIOZAWA-san, an award-winning sound engineer working for Nippon Columbia (Denon). Mr. HIDEAKI TAKASE was responsible for recording in the DAW system, and the varnish was cut by Mr. SHIGERU BUZAWA from Nippon Columbia. The recordings were made at Yoyongi Studio (Pony Canyon).

The LP disc is two tracks shorter, and on its cover one can find an information that a 2 x 45 rpm version including all tracks is being prepared, which, however, is not available yet. However, a true rarity is available a maxi-single - I think it should be called - with two tracks from this album, pressed as a fine-groove 78 rpm disc (!). You do not need any special equipment to play it, all you need a deck capable of spinning a record with 78. r.p.m. Some Pro-Ject models offer this function, as well as Transrotor turntables, after replacing a drive pulley with another one. Let me remind you that the Audio Lab Record, that is Mr. Sugano's label, had a similar disc in their catalog.


HOW WE LISTENED I listened to two LP 33 1/3 discs and two UHQCDs; unfortunately, I did not manage to get a turntable to play the 78 rpm maxi single on time.

⸜ Transrotor ALTO TMD turntable
⸜ SME M2 tonearm
⸜ Shelter HARMONY cartridge (custom made for HF)
⸜ RCM Audio SENSOR PRELUDE IC phonostage

⸜ Ayon Audio CD-35 HF EDITION SACD Player

To put their sound in context, I also listened to the records from the Three Blind Mice label, Audio Lab. Record and direct-to-disc by Toshiba ("Pro-Use" series). You find their list below.

Recordings used for the test | a selection

⸜ Fred Jackson, Hootin’ ‘N Tootin’, Blue Note Records/Analogue Productions AP-84094, „The Blue Note Reissues | 45 RPM Limited Edition #1557", 2 x 180 g LP (1962/2008)
⸜ Hank Mobley Mobley’s Message, Prestige/The Electric Recording Co. ERC023, „Limited Edition | No. 263/300”, 180 g LP (1956/2016)
⸜ Takeshi Inomata and his Friends, Get Happy, Audio Lab. Record ALJ-1030, LP (1975)
⸜ Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio, Misty, Three Blind Mice/Cisco Music TBM-30-45, „Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Limited Edition | No. 0080/1000”, 45 RPM, 2 x 180 g LP (1974/2004)
⸜ Tsuyoshi Yamamoto, Autumn in Seattle, First Impression Music FIM LP 004-LE, 200 g LP (2001/2011)

⸜ Count Basie, Count Basie and the Kansas City 7, Impulse!/Esoteric ESSI-90137, SACD/CD (1962/2015) w: Impulse! 6 Great Jazz, Impulse!/Esoteric ESSI-9013/8 (2015)
⸜ Mayo Nakano Piano Trio, MIWAKU, Briphonic BRPN-7007GL, Extreme Hard Glass CD-R (2017);
⸜ Nakano Mayo Piano Trio, Sentimental Reasons, Briphonic BRPN-7006, Direct Gold CD-R (2017);
⸜ Takeshi Inomata, The Dialogue, Audio Lab. Record/Octavia Records OVXA-00008, SACD/CD (1977/2001)
⸜ TSUYOSHI YAMAMOTO TRIO, Blues for Tee, Three Blind Mice/JVC TBM XR 0041, XRCD2 (1975/2000)



FIRST WHAT I NOTICED AFTER THE TRANSITION FROM Audio Lab. Records (ALR) vinyl records and Three Blind Mice (TBM) to Ultra Art Records (UAR) albums was a slightly lower average sound level. It does not have to mean anything special, just that the mastering engineer cutting the acetate could have set the gain a bit lower, but it may also indicate a different setting of the compressors - in the case of UAR at a lower level (i.e. they reduced compression).

This material is closer to what I heard with TBM discs, and this is due to a similar studio situation, different from that on the Audio Lab. Record release. During the recording, Mr. Okihiko Sugano recorded material in concert halls directly onto stereo tape, so the reverbs are distributed differently there, the ratio of direct energy to reflected energy is different. In turn, the reverberation devices used by Three Blind Mice and Ultra Art Record during studio recordings add more air to the sound, but also - you must know - the sound has a different expression. Not better or worse, just different.

The presentation on the records of the label in question is placed close to us, has a very high energy and timbre, which I would describe as warm. The incredibly sonorous strokes of the TSUYOSHI YAMAMOTO piano on TBM records were achieved by strong compression and bringing this instrument to the fore, and here it is positioned a bit further away in the mix. The mixing engineer clearly wanted to show the ensemble as a whole, as a "machine" in which individual elements have a role to play, but are not independent in it.

So we get a very resolving, warm presentation with a close foreground, not as selective as on TBM and ALR discs. With Ultra Art Record LPs, the presentation has a larger volume, with bigger mass and it is more full-bodied, which resembles the approach of the Briphonic label. Mr. Sugano-san let some instruments sound a little further away, they were not as focused as the ones in front, but that was the technique he chose. In turn, Mr. Takeshi Fujii from the TBM label focused on selectivity and clarity, which gave incredible energy, but also set all the instruments on the same energy plane.

UAR recordings are characterized by greater softness and at the same time greater warmth and - I would say - "stickiness". There is a low, dense bass in them, maybe without a clear "body", but more "real" in the sense that these recordings resemble more what we hear on stage during an acoustic concert, without amplification, than studio recordings. Even the vocal of the pianist, which we hear, for example, in Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me from the Balluchon has similar features, i.e. it has a large volume, warm timbre and it is not specifically "clarified" to show a clear body.

With curiosity I compared both albums released by Ultra Art Record and, apart from the obvious similarities, I saw an evolution of understanding of "absolute sound" in them. The older album resembles recordings known from Blue Note, Impulse! etc. from the 1950s. and 60. In turn, the newer disc sounds warm and very "analog", in a similar way to Naim Records discs and the way the material is remastered by Mobile Fidelity.

It's mainly about greater dynamics of the older album and a much more open sound. The cymbals in the ETRENNE are fast, strong and dynamic, just like the piano sound. Do you remember what I said about the comparison to the records of the Three Blind Mice label? - With this album the difference was much smaller. But it also lacks the warmth that on Balluchon "hugs" us nicely with a soft bass and a "plush" piano.

Perhaps the win some loose some rule applies to everything. With Mie Joké's 11 Songs for Music and Soud Lovers we get a dynamic and direct, tangible presentation. You can hear better dynamics and higher selectivity, I have no doubts about that. Perhaps in the future, however, it will be possible to add the softness that characterized the second album to it. These are still world class recordings, though. Both albums climb above average in their incredible musicality - the performers are great musicians, and the sound quality is also excellent. Nowadays, such good recordings are more and more difficult to come across!


Interestingly, the mix of the digital versions turned out ot be a bit different, at least that's how I heard it. Mie Joké's vocals were more up front, the drums, which in the vinyl version had strong cymbals and were placed quite close, were slightly pushed back, leaving more space for the piano. The whole thing seems a bit cooler, but also better defined. Vinyl offers a broader perspective, but with less differentiated layers/planes. The CD, on the other hand, also shows the depth of instruments, while narrowing the panorama at the same time.

This remark applies to both reviewed discs, but it is clearer with the newer one, the Balluchon. On vinyl it offers a warm expression, it is soft, and the CD is clearer, more selective and dynamic. So while in the case of the 11 Songs for Music and Soud Lovers album the vinyl version would be closer to what I heard from the TBM and ALR albums, when it came to the Balluchon the digital version was the one sounding more like that.


The Ultra Art Record discs offer high quality sound, these are ones of the best jazz recordings I have recently listened to. They differ one from the other, one can hear an evolution of the approach to sound, but it is difficult to say which one is better, or maybe it would be better to say - the right one. The Balluchon by Michiko Ogawa in the vinyl version has a more relaxed sound that I know from Mr. Okihiko-san's recordings and which I can hear on Briphonic's first album, Nakano Mayo Piano Trio’s Sentimental Reasons, in Direct Gold CD-R version. On the other hand, the 11 Songs for Music and Soud Lovers by Mie Joké sounds more like TBM recordings.

They are both highly enjoyable and allow us to feel as if we were participating in an important musical event. It is still an ascending curve, but the artists - I think about both musicians and sound engineers - start from such a high level that others can only dream of getting there. Hereby both albums are awarded the BIG RED Button.