Company Report - Roland
the Roland story
Most unusual endorsee: Oscar Peterson
Most common mod: Adding individual outputs to a TR606
Most distinctive synth features: Loyal adherence to the control slider and left/right pitch bend lever
Just under a dozen years ago, Ikutaro Kakehashi slipped off the headphones connected to his favourite home organ and strolled to a volume-laden shelf. He was foraging for a name, plausibly European yet with international overtones, and like any band stuck for a thought, he thumbed out the encyclopedia and leafed through the pages. They dropped open at a period of French history concerning Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and his talented nephew... Roland. A Charlemagne polyphonic?? Perhaps not.
The former expert television engineer had found himself with his first musical instrument after building his own home organ. He saw the wisdom of expansion and turned the hobby into a product, Acetone organs. Acetone rhythm units arrived around the same time, including the Rhythm Ace, comfortably locked in timber, which, following the encyclopaedic consultation, magically transformed into the Roland TR77.
Mr Kakehashi still plays the home organ (with headphones); a hundred bar-room pianists still polish the mellowed circles of beer glass rings on their TR77s, and somewhere in Papua New Guinea, there's a Dr Rhythm or maybe a JC120 in service.
That, in 11-plus years, is how far Charlemagne's pal has reached. Roland's international headquarters is in Osaka, Japan but there are major branches in most of the musically aware European countries and... er... America, and the furthest flung pins in the HQ's sales map will be Papua and Moscow.
From the beginning, 15 per cent of the Roland work force has always been dedicated purely to research and development. As you'll agree, it was commendable that the company rapidly expanded in size and staff otherwise Mr K would have had two arms and a foot tied up in developing new synthesisers. In 84 the ratio was increased to 20 per cent. In 85/86 it will likely rise to 30. Imagine if that was a record company of 200 people — 60 would be in the A&R department looking for new acts instead of the average four or five souls. Makes you think.
Research teams may be planning as far as five years ahead — any more is unrealistic. Chip and memory technology in particular can change sufficiently in a year to make your original plans seen woefully unambitious. Contrary to the popular belief of a brain production line, research teams will stick with their projects from start to finish. Once passed, the new blueprint will stay in their laps from first breadboard stage to completed package.
It's also said that when Roland finalise a product they can get the first customer response within 48 hours. One reason for this, ironically, is that land in Japan is so expensive, no shop can afford space for storage. A continual Wells Fargo of Roland delivery vans act as warehouses-on-wheels, visiting each store maybe twice a day for deliveries. Hence, word gets back fairly speedily.
In fact the first Roland products began appearing in Britain very shortly after they began appearing in Japan. Danish executive Alfred Jorgensen secured a distribution deal for Europe. He contacted Brian Nunney, now Managing Director of Roland UK who in turn teamed with Fred Mead, now Sales Director, and, after having cleared a sizeable space on Brian's kitchen table to start the paperwork, they began distributing TR77s, SH3s, SH1000s, SH2000s and so on. No, there isn't a blue plaque above the kitchen table. It's the turnover that went up, now standing somewhere beyond £6 million a year. Imagine if that was a record company, they'd have to sell 5,000,000 copies of your single and, yes, well, you get the drift.
However it's not singles but largely synthesisers, effects pedals (including the Boss division), amplifiers and guitar synths. Elsewhere there's a timetable of developments which will cite the milestones more clearly. However the contribution a brand of products has made can sometimes be more accurately gauged by the words it has added to our vocabularies. Think for a bit where you first heard or saw these terms: chorus, chorus amp and chorus echo, step time, rhythm composer, arpeggio, guitar synthesiser, DCO... it would be churlish to claim that Roland did single handedly for the synthesiser what Sir Walter Raleigh did for the Condor moment, but if you want to pin any medals for popularising synth and associated technologies, it's a difficult chest to miss.
Roland's main thrusts for the future will be in several clearly defined areas — synths, group gear in general (amps, rack equipment, etc), Boss with the emphasis on a steady variety of new pedals coming onto the market, contemporary keyboards (the substantial home market for electronic pianos and their offshoots), guitar synthesis and "at a relaxed pace", the digital applications of music.
The quotes are Brian Nunney's. In '85 there's a strong possibility that many companies dedicated to the computer-music philosophy will discover, unnervingly, that they're travelling not on a skateboard, but a ski-slope. Success is dependent on software, sensible supporting software. In some cases it's become clammily apparent that the men building the skis are still at the top of the run, hastily bowling them down the ice in the hope that one passes closes enough to the ski-er for him to jump on board.
The Roland route is to build on what already exists rather than gambling on the possibilities the next chip in the line might hold. "Fortunately the technological leapfrogging has slowed down in the last six months," considers Brian Nunney. "We should find rather more refinement and less escalation or devaluation of the musician's product which is something we've always regretted. Roland are very keen on producing systems that you don't have to scrap each time something new arrives... you shouldn't have to scrap CV products because MIDI is here." Roland interfaces that will teach the language of MIDI to old control-voltage keyboards are already here.
And what about the infamous Musical Instrument Digital Interface? Roland were one of the prime ambassadors in promoting the idea for a universal connection system among the world's synth manufacturers. The system has undergone several revisions and there are still notable discrepancies between different makers' MIDI specs... has the grand plan really worked?
"If you have a committee organising something, yes there will be some compromise. There are different degrees of development — for example some keyboards will take velocity attack information, others won't. But in comparison nobody has managed to agree on a unified mains plug for Europe — just one plug and socket — so what MIDI has achieved is remarkable."
Roland have produced more MIDI products than any other manufacturer since the system was finalised. Whether Mr Kakehashi has one fitted to his home organ, maybe synced with the Nunney kitchen table, is a different matter. When Telexing Japan on a number of questions, one of those asked was "if you had to make predictions on technological equipment advances in the next five years, what would they be?". In time the answer chattered out, and the Telex machine performed the electrical equivalent of a shrug and a rueful sigh... "not enough time to say them all."
Address: (Contact Details)
Product enquiries: Alan Townsend
(Engineering: John Bright, Boss: Larry Cummins)
Early on the TR77 drum machine arrives, formerly the Rhythm Ace. First synthesiser to materialise is the SH3 a simple, one oscillator monophonic job with the minimum of knobs. It's followed by the SH1000 which has some preset tabs — the first realisation that players on stage might have to tweak more than one control at a time — and by November there's the fully preset SH2000, its tabs ranged along the front of what is, prophetically, a second touch keyboard that introduces filter growl and vibrato when pushed down. The 2000 claims to recreate acoustic instruments such as flutes, violins, popcorn, woof and frog... monophonic, natch. The RE-201 Space Echo is already out (Oct) to help it along with tapes and reverb.
Guitarists encounter a strange new switch called chorus, and in September it appears on the JC120 Jazz Chorus combo.
Everybody encounters a strange, etc, etc... chorus in a box, and called the Boss CE-1. Roland burst into modularity with the mighty System 700 that takes apart the VCO, VCF, VCA synth sections for a growing legion of keyboard players wanting to carry out their own patching.
In September, the GR500 guitar synthesiser descends, converting the pitch from the special, hex output guitar pickup to a voltage that a synthesiser can understand. It can produce three different sounds at once — bass notes, from the E and A strings, string machine chords from the D, G and B, plus a solo melody line on the top E. First to own one is Mike Rutherford of Genesis.
Combos don't have to be built to classical proportions any longer. The ground-hugging, squared-up profile of the Cube amps hove-up in September.
By August, chorus has taken on Albert Hall proportions in the SDD320 Dimension D rack unit (currently enjoying a revival).
Drum machines grow up in the shape of the TR808. No longer are they just aids to songwriting but with song programmability and chaining plus individual outputs for each sound, they become genuine recording and performance tools.
Incredibly important year for synthesis. The Jupiter 8 is unveiled in April... programmable, polyphonic, featuring unimagined aids to live performance (patch presets) it becomes an industry standard. Unbeknown to anyone, the first MIDI discussions are already four-months old! Music breaks down into manageable numbers with the introduction of the MC4 — not Roland's first attempt at dedicated microprocessor control of note sequencing (the MC8) but a sign of its growing affordability.
Polyphonics take a savage drop in price and become realistic instruments for the likes of the boy next door. The Juno 6 and then its programmable brother the Juno 60 land on the shores.
MIDI materialises on the back of the Jupiter 6 — it looks around, but sadly can't find many other rival MIDI synths to talk to for several months. The MC202 completes the budget Microcomposer philosophy.
Guitar synthesis gets to shakes hands with the rest of the world in the GR700 the first programmable, MIDI-equipped guitar synth, based on the sound circuits of the JX3P poly.
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