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Digital Music Pioneer and Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehashi Dies

Posted April 06, 2017 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: 808 drum machine kakehashi roland

Ikutaro Kakehashi, an electronic music legend who founded the Roland Corporation in the early 1970s and pioneered digital music standards in the ‘80s, died last week at the age of 87.

Kakehashi started his musical career in Japan repairing electronic organs while running his own electrical appliance shop. In 1958 he decided to devote his career to designing an ideal electronic musical instrument and founded Ace Tone in 1960. Ace Tone primarily manufactured electronic organs and guitar amplifiers, but Kakehashi’s passion was developing an electronic drum. After a few prototypes, he patented an “Automatic Rhythm Performance Device” in 1967. Kakehashi used a diode matrix circuit involving a number of inverted circuits connected to a counting circuit. The circuits’ synthesized output became the desired rhythmic sounds. He commercialized the design as the FR-1 Rhythm Ace, essentially the first drum machine, featuring 16 preset rhythms and four manual percussion sounds.

Kakehashi left Ace Tone to start the Roland Corporation in 1972. He continued to improve his drum machines and introduced several new models before releasing the iconic TR-808 in 1980. By this point drum machines were becoming popular in New Wave and electronic music, and several rival manufacturers were already making digitally sampled models. The 8-bit Linn LM-1, which debuted that same year, was the first device to use digital sampling of acoustic drums and also one of the first programmable drum machines, but it retailed at a whopping $4,995. (Here’s a video demo of the LM-1, showing its superior sounds.) Despite the fact that microprocessors were becoming more common, the TR-808 used analog subtractive synthesis common to synthesizers of the previous two decades to reduce manufacturing and retail costs.

The TR-808 had an odd design history. Kakehashi hired rogue American musician and engineer Don Lewis, who was known to extensively modify electronic instruments for his own use, to design Roland’s drum machines. In the spirit of Lewis's unconventional approach, Kakehashi deliberately ordered faulty transistors to give the drum machine a characteristic sound. The unique cymbal tone was supposedly discovered when a Roland engineer spilled tea on a breadboard prototype, and the design team had to work for months to recreate the pssh sound.

Despite retailing at less than half the price of digital drum machines, the TR-808’s unrealistic sounds made it a commercial flop and production ceased in 1983. It picked up a cult following, however, and is heard on many hit songs starting with Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” in 1982. Most hip-hop groups of the ‘80s used the TR-808 to create their beats, and it’s still heard regularly in mainstream pop and hip-hop. Rapper Kanye West's 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak is an ode to the device, and West used it on every track.

During the TR-808’s run, Kakehashi began promoting the idea of digital music standardization. Talks with other electronic instrument manufacturers led to the introduction of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard in 1983. MIDI allowed interoperability between any type of digital instrument, provided a standard voice library for digital keyboards, and allowed a single controller to play several digital instruments at once. Over 30 years later, MIDI is still the dominant technical standard for digital music.

Kakehashi retired from Roland in 2013, and the company still manufactures keyboards, synthesizers, stage pianos, recording equipment, and digital music software. While his name may never be a household one, his influence and legacy are felt and heard throughout the digital music world to this day.

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#1

Re: Digital Music Pioneer and Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehashi Dies

04/06/2017 8:31 AM

Joins the other pioneer legends in the music industry such as Les Paul.

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#2

Re: Digital Music Pioneer and Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehashi Dies

04/06/2017 5:13 PM

Sad news. He was a real pioneer. I've always like Roland's gear. I currently have a Roland RD-700SX stage piano. One of the best keyboards I've ever owned.

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Re: Digital Music Pioneer and Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehashi Dies

04/06/2017 7:36 PM

Interesting, You play much?

About 4 years ago, I got back into playing and I bought a Yamaha YPG-535 keyboard.

I picked it up just for my own as well as close friends entertainment. When I first got it, took a little time to get back because I never really played since college. When I did started playing, friends never knew I played.

I love it. It's not that I have a lot of experience with different type of keyboards, I just always felt comfortable with Yamaha.

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Re: Digital Music Pioneer and Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehashi Dies

04/06/2017 7:41 PM

Right now? No. I haven't space for my keyboard where I'm living at the moment. Otherwise I play a great deal but, like you, just for my own enjoyment. Nearly all my music is stuff I've written myself; mainly neo-classical.

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Re: Digital Music Pioneer and Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehashi Dies

04/07/2017 9:24 AM

I have a Yamaha keyboard as well--I've never heard of a bad Yamaha instrument, whether a keyboard, brass instrument, or recorder.

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Re: Digital Music Pioneer and Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehashi Dies

04/06/2017 11:18 PM

Yes it is sad news. Most of my gear I have is Roland. I only diverted from Roland when the Access Virus TI came out. Still use it to this very day.

Sadly though, most sounds these days are software and keyboards are only a controller. Yes, I have gone down this path too.

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Re: Digital Music Pioneer and Roland Founder Ikutaro Kakehashi Dies

04/07/2017 4:20 AM

Recently, I recently read an musical artist saying or making a prediction (20-25 years ago) something to the effect of how the music is made electronically that the skill is more into the electronics than the individual... I can't recall who said it but it was likes Freddie Mercury or Steve Tyler or the likes of.

which reminds me of this...

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