Designing The Future
Appropriately enough, MT shares its birthday with one of the companies which has helped shape today's synthesisers: Roland UK. Gez Kahan presents a view from the inside.
It was only a matter of weeks before MT's anniversary issue rolled off the presses that we discovered we shared our 10th birthday with Roland UK. Here to mark the occasion is a unique insight into one of the major players in the hi-tech field.
VERY FEW PEOPLE have the vision to live up to Roland president Ikutaro Kakehashi's slogan "We Design the Future", but a glance at the last ten years of Roland musical equipment shows how justified that phrase has been. Along the way though, there has always been a two-way flow of information. Synchronicity with musical trends has played a big part in Roland's success, but that synchronicity is in large measure down to a policy of listening to the public and trying to supply what it wants. Requests, commands and selections are passed back along the line to the R&D centre in Japan through Roland Technical Support teams the world over.
Most musicians never consider the realities of musical instrument design: the fact that instruments must make money, the possibility that the designers really did want to make the perfect instrument but were constrained by finances. I was no different, until, quite by chance, I ended up on the other side of the fence, working for Roland (UK) as a Demonstrator and Product Specialist. It wasn't what I'd imagined.
Roland UK, I was informed, believes in the "Work hard, play hard" approach, which at least offered me an interesting life. I was certainly prepared for the "Play hard" bit: that's what led to the formation of the house band, the Booze Brothers. This collection of Roland Sales and Accounts (not demonstration) staff based themselves, loosely, on the Blues Brothers; their name was not only reflected in their lifestyle, but every performance was imbued with the same spirit. The "Play hard" ethic also resulted in some spectacular beer-mat fights at Roland dinners during the Frankfurt Musik-Messe. Unfortunately, as I discovered very early on, there was no escape either from the hard work, especially when working with the public was concerned - which is why demonstrators end up diving in the deep end (usually before they've found out if they can swim), driving up and down the motorways from shop to shop and going quietly up the wall as they explain, patiently and for the 14th time that day, the precise order of button presses required to write an edited tone into the D110's memory.
To make sure that boredom never sets in, spare time is devoted to learning the wrinkles of an ever-increasing diversity of equipment. People who started out with the SH101 have had to get to grips with the D50 and D70; people who started out with a digital delay line now need a mastery of the S770 and S750 samplers (not to mention DM80 Hard Disk recording), and those who in the past were merely stunned by phasers now have to boldly go to the final frontier - Roland Sound Space.
My involvement with Roland happened by a lucky coincidence, when I had to pick up a Juno 60 synth from the Brentford offices. While I was waiting for the paperwork to clear, I popped in to say hello to a couple of mates from a previous life who were doing time in the Service Department. They suggested that I might like to try out the new HP400 home piano which had just arrived in the demonstration suite, hot off the Japanese production line. As luck would have it, this was a grey Maundy Thursday in 1983, and anything would be better than joining the mass exodus of (presumably) young men, who in celebration of the year's first Bank Holiday, had taken it into their collective head to go west and dive like lemmings into the Cornish sea. I wasn't, frankly, impressed by the looks of the instrument, which was designed to go into people's front rooms, whereas I was designed to go into rather disreputable public houses. I was staggered, though, by the tone and response (yes, I know things have moved on since, but eight years is a long time in the musical instrument business). I don't know how long I sat there playing, but obviously long enough for the Sales Director, Fred Mead, to wander past, listen for a minute or two, and then offer me a freelance job as a Roland demonstrator during the British Music Fair later that year.
I took the piano away and boned up on all its attributes and duly turned up on the Roland stand in the sweltering August heat, confident that I knew all I needed to be able to give a perfect demonstration. Confident, but wrong.
Roland UK is given to snap decisions, and at some time between Easter and August it had been decided that I would also demonstrate the new JX3P synth and the PR800 Real-Time Sequencer. All I was told was that they had a wonderful new thing called MIDI and they would link up with practically anything in the known world - but the manuals had been mislaid. I had 15 minutes to find out what MIDI was and how to use it, before I was into three solid days of demonstrations. Later, of course, I discovered that I hadn't drawn the short straw at all; Alan Townsend was dealing with the hi-tech equipment at that show, and half of it had arrived late the previous afternoon on special customs clearance from the R&D centre in Japan. He'd been awake all night trying to work out what they did, how and why they did it, how to explain what they did to a roomful of people and trying to write suitable demo pieces to accompany his demo routine. And he was combining his role as Product Specialist/Demonstrator with his position as Northern Sales Representative at the busiest trade show of the year.
THE FIRST THING to find out in any job is the form: who does what, who used to do what, and who is the most important person to listen to when three people all tell you to do different things. There wasn't too much difficulty in finding out who was who in Roland: at that time the company had only 17 full-time employees, which in itself represented a big percentage increase over the staffing level at the outset. And like most musicians, I was amazed that such a relatively high-profile company wasn't larger.
Forget the image, fostered by Dallas and the glitzy record business, of sleek executives in mirror-windowed skyscrapers, wading through shagpile and tickertape. Even after ten successful years, Roland inhabit a fairly modest, though stylish office block in downtown Fleet (in Hampshire) with a service and distribution outlet in Swansea. Hardly glamorous by Hollywood standards, this is still a far cry from the company's beginnings. In 1981, Roland's building, on a grey Brentford industrial estate, was functional and small. So small, in fact, that the service department was a Portakabin in the middle of the warehouse. Opposite was the demonstration/product training area (another Portakabin in the middle of the warehouse). In 1981 Roland UK had emerged from the ashes of a bankrupt distribution company based in Scandinavia. There was a workforce of about ten people, and the directors had gambled most of their personal possessions on what in hindsight would appear to be a pretty safe thing. But how did the picture look then?
That's the next thing, learn the history. Forget the last ten years have happened. Look around and what do you see?
TEN YEARS AGO some people were still wearing flares from the first time around. I know they were secondhand car dealers and dodgy agents, industrial cleaning fluid salesmen and cabaret singers, but even they aren't wearing flares or sideboards this time around - yet. Ten years ago people didn't have faxes or filofaxes and they couldn't interrupt your meal in the same way as they interrupt Norman Lamont's meals now because there were no mobile phones and nobody, even in Hampstead, knew more than one restaurant that served Thai food at all, let alone a really good one just round the corner.
The world was a different place. Men were men, the West Indies were invincible, and computers were either great big things that had to have a special room all of their own, or else they were quite big things boasting the power of a modern solar-cell calculator. Worse still, Adam Ant was at No. 1.
"Take the modular System 100 synthesiser - no single part of this beast did anything, and you didn't have to be a keyboard player to use it."
In 1981, therefore, success for Roland was anything but a foregone conclusion. The microprocessor revolution was only just beginning to hit the music business, and synthesisers were still largely gimmicks, still largely monophonic and still largely expensive. Roland UK's Roadshow that year gave a public showing to many of the elements that make up today's catalogue, but many of them were crude and primitive by modern standards.
Take the modular System 100 synthesiser: no single part of this beast did anything, and you didn't have to be a keyboard player to use it. Instead you had to be a rich Meccano freak with a penchant for wiring up telephone exchanges. You bought a non touch-sensitive, monophonic keyboard, an oscillator or two - analogue, or more correctly Voltage Controlled, and therefore beset by horrendous tuning problems - bought Voltage Controlled Amplifiers, Voltage Controlled Filters, Envelopes, LFOs, you name it, all as separate components, and then set about wiring the whole thing up (whilst your wife filed for divorce) just to make the sort of noise she could have made by trying to tune the radio into Hilversum on a summer's evening.
Then there were the guitar synthesisers: a similar story. These could be used if you wanted to produce some fairly unpleasant noises (when has a guitarist ever had to resort to electronics to do that?). Under no circumstances, however, could they be described as machines which sympathised with the player. As for the guitarist's bugbear, fast and accurate tracking, forget it.
Roland did have an ace in the hole, though, in the shape of Ikutaro Kakehashi, president of the Roland Corporation, whose vision really began to pay off during that year. There were already SH-series synths, Jazz Chorus amplifiers and Boss effects: an even greater influence on popular music was being exerted through the development of the MC Microcomposers and the CR-series Compu-Rhythms. There was, however, nothing really big.
During this time the first polyphonic synthesisers were appearing, and for most people the Sequential Circuits' Prophet 5 or the Oberheim OBX were the dream machines. Roland had had the four-voice, eight memory Jupiter 4 since 1980, but it was the release of the Jupiter 8 the following year which really put the company into the first division. What was required now was the depth of equipment to back that up, and to allow young, aspiring musicians to make the same sounds as they heard from their idols.
In 1982 came the last of the SH line - the monophonic SH101, at a price which put synthesis, albeit monophonic synthesis, within the reach of almost anyone. Hard on its heels followed the Juno 6 (polyphonic and programmable, but without memories) and then the Juno 60 (which did have memories) and the JX3P, which also had presets.
The classic TR808, announced at the 1981 British Music Fair, was followed by the first generally affordable drum machine, the TR606 Drumatix, at the end of that year. Advances in micro-processing, allied with MC8 and MC4 technology, also produced the low-cost TB303 Bassline and the MC202 sequencer/synth. And while MIDI appeared in 1983, and mainstream instruments continued to get bigger and better, at least in terms of power and parameters, these instruments became "sleepers", waiting to reappear, first among the classified ads in Music Technology, and later as the backbone of the house music scene.
I was lucky enough to come in at the beginning of MIDI, to watch the instrument line burgeoning with new wonder-toys, and to see things which I'd always thought impossible not just come to life, but quickly become commonplace - and then obsolete. Having been wowed by the multitrack MSQ700 sequencer, I was completely knocked out by the MC500, which let me do with music what a word processor could do with prose. Better still, I could hear entire arrangements, with a minimum (say half a ton) of equipment, and hardly any time (say half a day at most) wasted on setting up. At one demonstration (in 1987, only four years ago) I had to use five separate MKS100 rackmount samplers to play the strings, brass and woodwind parts for a reasonably simple orchestration, and even then I needed to put in program change messages like they were going out of fashion - which of course they were, because two months later I was shown the multitimbral MT32.
Throughout that time I was bombarded with advice on how almost every instrument, even those which were described in the same breath as "absolutely perfect", could be improved. Fortunately, like my counterparts in Roland UK and abroad, I was equally bombarded with requests for information and suggestions from Roland's R&D department.
Practically every musician can look at an instrument and criticise some aspect of it, and musicians are not noted as being shy about giving their views. Some of them are misguided or misinformed - who, after all, wouldn't prefer a machine that does the same (and more) as the latest hot synth for half the price? And human nature being what it is, satisfaction tends to be a short-lived lapse from type.
What's less usual is to find a design team who will good-naturedly listen to criticism (however diplomatically couched) of their latest brainchild. Roland's R&D team do listen to the criticism, and even to suggestions which border on the ridiculous. Just as in the face of requests for the reintroduction of the Jupiter 8, they patiently listened before pointing out the impossibility of reconciling nostalgia with economic reality, and then went back to the drawing board to see if there wasn't some way they could do it...
And if you doubt that, just pop into your local dealer and check out the JD800. Who do you think told Roland's R&D department that it should bring back knobs and sliders?
Feature by Gez Kahan
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