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Ikutaro Kakehashi (1930-2017): a tribute

808, 909, 303, 101.. numbers that changed the course of music

Synthesiser collector and Roland devotee Martin Swan of much-lauded dark-pop duo Vile Electrodes commemorates a true electronic visionary who has died, aged 87

There have been a fair few ‘shocked and saddened’ moments in my house over the last year or so, as some of the music world’s greatest and best left this Earth on their final journeys to meet the great A&R man in the sky. Bowie, Prince, Cohen, Sir George Martin, many others. Last week, Ikutaro Kakehashi joined the list, but his legacy is arguably greater than any of those great names.

Everyone and their dog know that Robert Moog was the guy who, if he didn’t actually invent the synthesiser, certainly did a lot towards making it a recognisable product and a musical instrument. But, whilst Moog’s name is rightly legendary, he is associated with a small number of classic electronic instruments. It is Ikutaro Kakehashi that really changed the way music is made.

Whilst Moog was building prototypes of his first synthesiser in the early 1960s, Kakehashi was attempting to do the same in a slightly different area of music. His Ace Electronics company revolutionised the fledgling organ auto-accompaniment business, and Kakehashi helped the Hammond Organ Company produce the Piper Organ – the world’s first organ with a built in rhythm section.

Like Moog, however, Kakehashi was an engineer first and a businessman second. In 1972 he lost control of Ace Electronics and left to form the Roland Corporation; and that’s when things really begin to happen. The Roland SH-1000 emerged in 1973. It was the first Japanese synthesiser. The herald for what was to come.

And what came was innovation. Product after product in every area of music technology. Guitar amplifiers. Effects. Guitar synthesis. Polyphonic synthesisers. Digital sequencers. Sample-based synthesis. Samplers. Electronic percussion. Oh, and along the way, a little thing called MIDI (with the help of a few other visionaries, particularly US-based Prophet V designer Dave Smith). For at least 20 years, Roland was often the first; and when not the first, they were usually the best and the most reliable.

In short, Roland has a pretty reasonable claim on the title ‘Most Important Music Company Of The 20th Century’, based solely on the breadth and depth of their innovation.

But that’s not the most important thing that Ikutaro Kakehashi achieved with the Roland Corporation (who, in recent times, lovingly referred to him as ‘Mr K’). The significant thing is that those products – synths, drum machines, effects, samplers – were cheap and accessible. Anyone could learn how to make squelchy bass sounds on a Roland synth. Anyone could punch some buttons on a Roland drum machine to make a beat.

Roland – probably more than any other company – made products that helped to democratise popular music. Roland took instrument ideas and designs that were the preserve of millionaire musicians and professional recording studios, that were used in laboratories or in University music departments, and made them attainable and understandable and affordable to anyone with a couple of week’s wages in their back pocket, an imagination and an ability to stab a finger at a plastic button.

Roland got those products on sale in high streets, malls and catalogues. Music technology went from being an elitist pastime to being something punks from Sheffield or Manchester, or DJs from Detroit or Chicago, could do.

If punk was the social phenomenon that said ‘anyone can do that’, then Roland (along with Korg, Yamaha and Casio) were the companies that actually made it possible. To paraphrase (variously) Phil Oakey of the Human League, Dave Ball of Soft Cell and Daniel Miller, head of Mute Records – punk music required you to learn three chords. Synthesisers only needed you to be able to play with one finger.

And there was more. Even before MIDI, Roland pioneered ways to synchronise electronic instruments together. Without any ‘traditional’ musical skills, a bedroom composer could create a drum track, along with a melodic line (or several); then, not only write a whole song this way, he or she could then take those devices out to a club or gig and play them live without any other band members.

Until that time, live music was pretty much all still played live (well, unless you were Tangerine Dream, or an academic).

From that point on, ‘live’ music could mean ‘programmed’ music being tweaked onstage.

And music will never be the same again, thanks to that democratisation. Name almost any style of popular western music that has developed since about 1977 and the chances are that a Roland product will be integral to the sound of that genre.

The products have been so important to some styles of music that the names themselves are legendary. Bands name themselves after them. Artists name albums after them. 101. 202. 303. 606. 707. 808. 909. You don’t even need the full product name to know the sound and the style of music.

And one more thing, for those of you under the age of 30 who wouldn’t know your fake teak end cheeks from your CompuRhythm. The Roland technique of programming a drum machine using a grid or a set of 16 buttons, first seen on the TR-series drum machines in the early 1980s, is still how pretty much every DAW, every app and every future piece of music technology you can think of operates. And they all use protocols developed for MIDI. These things are now as much a part of the fabric of music as the steel strings on a electric guitar, the catgut on a violin bow or the hammer action on a piano.

Back in the 1980s, Roland had a tag line on its adverts: ‘We Design The Future’. Well, it actually did.

The strange thing is how close all this came to not happening at all. In 1950, the 20-year-old Ikutaro Kakehashi was diagnosed with tuberculosis in both lungs. Had he not been chosen as a guinea pig, due to the severity of his condition, to receive the new drug Streptomycin, he may well have died. Who knows how different the musical landscape would be now? It’s such a cliché to say “From humble beginnings he went on to change the world”, but in this case it’s really true.

My first monosynth was a Roland SH-101. My first drum machine was a Boss DR220a. My first sequencer was a Roland MC-202. My first polysynth was a Juno-60. My first digital synth was a Roland D-50. My first sampler was a Roland W-30. I’ve never written a piece of music that doesn’t have a Roland on it.

Thank you Mr Kakehashi. I never met you, and I never knew you, but you changed my life forever.

(Photo courtesy Roland Corporation)