Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland, was a visionary on different terms. People like Leo Fender and Bob Moog set revolutionary templates for instrument design that would define how musicians approached their instruments and, in turn, what kind of music they could make.
But Kakehashi had a particular knack for getting electronic instruments directly into players' hands, with innovation that always made quality gear more accessible. Working with this ethos, Roland directly influenced the development of rock, pop, techno, hip hop, and more.
Kakehashi’s tenure leading Roland resulted in groundbreaking designs that changed the game. The music press rightly has spent the past week extolling his drum machine innovations, culminating with the TR–808.
But talking about the groundbreaking designs is only telling half of the story, and the magnitude of Kakehashi’s influence is undercut by focusing on just one drum machine or synth.
Under Kakehashi’s guidance, the Roland and Boss brands produced and marketed a horde of instruments and devices that set out to do a simple job and did those simple jobs better than much of the competition.
We here at Reverb would like to pay tribute to Ikutaro Kakehashi, a man who made machines that did their jobs so well, for so many people.
It’s fitting that the man who started his career in electronics repairing watches would first make a splash in the music industry with a machines that keep time.
Kakehashi’s earliest drum machines were rhythm boxes that played preset rhythm patterns at varying tempos, first with his Ace Tone brand, and then with Roland. He broke the mold in 1978 with the CR–78, allowing users to program those patterns themselves. That simple development meant that the CR–78 would have significantly stronger staying power than any other rhythm box from the ‘70s, appearing in the ‘80s work of Roxy Music and Phil Collins.
Then in 1980 he introduced the TR–808, adding a step sequencer and intimate control over the qualities of each drum sound. That step sequencer would have huge implications for the drum machine’s status as a truly playable instrument. But it would also guide genres that would develop around it, specifically hip hop, by way of the short–lived electro movement and Detroit techno.
All drum machines were cast in the 808’s mold until the debut of the MPC line by Akai at the end of the ‘80s. The term “808” would become synonymous with electronic drums, and its sounds have remained a standby in electronic music ever since.
But the MPC didn’t mean the end of the 808. In fact, Kakehashi’s masterwork earned a second life when people started loading those drum sounds into samplers and VST emulations of the 808 became available for every DAW.
Seeking to make a simple rhythm machine that could accompany a practice session, Kakehashi inadvertently set the gold standard for electronic drums and fueled genre revolutions.
Even today’s most futuristic trap music puts the sounds of the 808 on proud display, with producers finding ways to make those 16 simple drum pads into a limitlessly diverse percussion palette by way of effects and other manipulation. Tellingly, one of the most hit– and taste–making production teams in rap today goes by 808 Mafia.
Solid State Amps
Roland was not the first company to produce a solid state amplifier or an amplifier with onboard effects. But Roland did produce one of the most popular solid state amps of all time: the Roland Jazz Chorus 120.
Solid state amplifiers rarely get the time of day amidst the current tube amp craze, but per usual, Roland’s design hit that elusive mark of high quality at a low cost. This was an amp as good for the stage as it was for the studio, thanks to its bright clean tone and versatile vibrato and chorus effects.
First made famous by Andy Summers on the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Johnny Marr on a variety of Smiths tracks, the Roland Jazz Chorus has maintained such demand that it has never once been taken out of production by Roland.
Sure, there’s nothing sexy about a workhorse solid state amp, but the Jazz Chorus 120 proves that the musicians of the world never loses their craving for reliably excellent, affordable gear. Roland would debut an even less sexy, but still incredibly popular amp in 2004, the Micro Cube.
The Jazz Chorus has second legacy, perhaps a more profound one. In 1976, the Roland company took the chorus circuit from the amp and put it into a stompbox. This became the first chorus pedal, the Boss CE–1.
Roland’s first successes did not come with its drum machines, but with its effects. The RE–201 Space Echo tape echo, released in 1974, gives the Maestro Echoplex EP–3 a run for its money as the most legendary echo unit.
But that CE–1 Chorus was the real game changer. Granted, when it debuted as Boss's first pedal in 1976, it was not the first effect pedal ever created. Pedals had been around since the ‘60s after all, with Jimi Hendrix famously using his Fuzz Face and UniVibe at Woodstock.
It wasn’t even the first effect pedals that the Roland corporation released, with specimens including the AD–50 Double Beat and Jet Phaser (early versions of the multi–effect and flanger, respectively) predating the CE–1 by a few years.
But Boss did figure out, like few others, how to design high quality effects and produce them at such a high rate that they became the de facto face of guitar effects for decades to come. It's brightly colored boxes would become the identifiable icon of guitar effects.
It’s hard to tell how instrumental Kakehashi was in the development of Boss and its pedal line, but his paw prints are all over the company's move to over a huge variety of versatile, durable gear at a low price tag.
The Boss pedal’s ubiquity in guitar stores across the country meant that many musicians throughout the decades would get their crash course in sonic experimentation directly from Boss. Imagine how different music may be today if only the Roger Waters types, not the scrappy SST bands, could afford their Boss pedals.
Arguably Kakehashi’s most profound effort was also one of his most mundane. At NAMM in 1982, Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits was trying to rally every synth builder in the industry behind a universal protocol for controlling synthesizers and other electronic instruments.
American companies were by and large uninterested, as Smith recounts, in the simplicity of his proposed MIDI protocol. The only companies who showed interest in Smith’s idea were Japanese ones including Roland, Yamaha, and Kawai.
Again, Kakehashi’s Roland was not the innovator, but it did help MIDI become the universal protocol that it is still today in its original 1.0 form.
Smith needed a manufacturer like Roland in his corner. While Smith’s company had a relatively small production scale and generally only produced high–end, feature–packed synthesizers, Roland made produced a wide array of products that could benefit from MIDI connectivity, including drum machines, synthesizers, and more.
The first two instruments featuring MIDI were the Prophet 600 produced by Smith’s own Sequential Circuits in late 1982 and Roland’s Jupiter 6 in early 1983. Compromised MIDI implementation would appear on the Yamaha DX7 later in 1983.
Roland committed to doing MIDI right, putting the connectors on its TB–303 bass synthesizer and the successor to the TR–808, the beloved TR–909. The ability for these machines to sync over MIDI is a huge part of what made them prevalent in dance music from the ‘80s forward. The last Juno analog, the 106, also included MIDI.
Roland was early to the synthesizer game, with Kakehashi harboring a lifelong obsession with the electric organ. What resulted was an onslaught of synth designs, and an impressive number of home runs.
Perhaps Roland’s most notable early synthesizer was the SH–3A, released in 1974. It was an audacious monosynth that offered both subtractive and additive synthesis techniques, as well as a filter inspired by the EMS VSC 3. It would be most famously used by Throbbing Gristle and by Blondie on “Heart of Glass.”
Roland would go on to make a series of sleeper hit monosynths in the SH line, including the widely sought–after SH–101, but would really make its mark with two lines of polyphonic synths. The Jupiters line comprised the premium, feature–rich options that appeared on film soundtracks and chart–topping albums.
But in typical Roland fashion, a more budget–friendly and incredibly resilient line was introduced as well. Its Junos were cheaper to make and kept easily in tune thanks to their innovative digitally controlled analog oscillators, or DCOs.
The vibrant ‘80s stylings and aftermarket ubiquity of the Juno synths years down the line would position them as some of the defining analog synths in the public’s ears and imagination. They also prove popular and affordable today, hovering around $1000 on the used market.
Of course, Roland was also responsible for the TB–303, a sequencer–based bass synthesizer that would be the literal hallmark of the acid house genre and heard on a huge amount of Detroit techno and British rave music from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Again, here was a relatively cheap synthesizer that found its ways into the hands of the everyday musician, allowing people on the streets, not in the studios, to define what electronic music could be.
And then, of course, there was the D–50, widely considered one of the finest hardware digital synths of all time. A response to the Yamaha DX7, this was Roland’s incredibly popular digital/analog hybrid synth that applied subtractive synth techniques to sample waveforms. This made the D–50 a lot easier to program than its FM rival, which helped the D–50 finds its way onto music by artists as diverse as Aphex Twin and Enya.Roland