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Roland Newslink — Frankfurt Report

Designs On The Future

Ikutaro Kakehashi

Article from International Musician & Recording World, April 1985

Ikutaro Kakehashi, President and design inspiration of the Roland Corporation sees his work less in terms of individual products than as a master plan for the development of electronic music. In this interview he looks at the current Roland range — and beyond it.

Kakehashi: instruments with warmth and emotion

Roland means, first and foremost, innovation. With an annual R&D budget equivalent to some 30% of world turnover, the company consistently pushes back the frontiers of musical instrument technology. Some ideas were Roland inventions widely imitated by others — Chorus effects and variable accent rhythms come into this category. Roland pioneered the entire concept of MIDI in association with other forward looking companies, and have exploited its potential more than any competitor. The Roland guitar synth is the only one that has stood the test of time and developed from strength to strength. And where Roland have not been first in a particular field, they have very often been best. Synthesizers from the SH-101 to the JX-8P show a rare understanding of the sounds and control required to make creative, sophisticated music. Perhaps more than any others, Roland products come across as members of a single family and a single system. Five years ago, Ikutaro Kakehashi was one of the first to start talking about interface as a way of creative sound production. Today, he still talks the same language.


'When products interact together it is possible to get into very subtle areas. Many people just discuss products on their own, but at Roland we see further than that. With a system we gain, musicians gain and everybody gains. For example, the guitar synthesizer. We could have kept it to ourselves but we have made all our information and technology available to other manufacturers. Now Steinberger, Hamer and Gibson will all be making guitars with the electronics to control Roland Guitar Synthesizer modules. We work with these guitar companies because they are very serious about installation and quality control. They can contribute to the future of the guitar synthesizer, and we would rather have that than a manufacturer who cares only about numbers and production volume. We prefer to work with the best.'

The interface between Roland's electronic know-how and the guitar making skills of Gibson, Hamer, and Steinberger will create a new generation of guitar synth controllers to take their place alongside the progressive G-707. The guitar synthesizer itself is, of course, a, guitarist's gateway to the world of MIDI which now extends to drums, keyboards, MIDI module systems, digital delays, pianos, sequencers, recorders, audio and video synchronisation units, digital reverbs, home computers, and even non-MIDI equipment through devices like the Roland MI10 interface introduced at Frankfurt. Roland have done more than anyone else to popularise this versatile link. But there's another kind of interface — perhaps even more important, that Mr Kakehashi considers vital to the success of the Roland music system.

'To make good music it is necessary to have a very close, very subtle interface between the player and the instrument. Look at it this way. When you sing, or when you blow something, you have very close and intimate control. With a keyboard the interface is not so close — especially if it has no touch sensitivity. That is why for example the JX-8P has very complete touch response including after-touch on many parameters. Because of the lack of closeness between a player and a keyboard, electronic music was originally very cold and clinical. Now with products like the JX-8P and the Roland PD-10 and PD-20 percussion pads the player can communicate emotion by direct touch. This makes the music much warmer and more human. I personally like instruments that can express warmth and emotion!'

The concept of a guitar synthesizer became successful because of Ikutaro Kakehashi's insistence that the product had to retain all the subtleties and expressive nuances of the guitarist's technique.

'The finger control of a guitar is a direct interface and is much closer than the finger control of a keyboard. We would never ask the guitarist to change or lose those techniques. If we had used string and fret contact it would have been very easy for us to make a guitar synthesizer. But instead we preferred to devise a system that would accept all the techniques of the electric guitarist.'

Because he's done this, Mr Kakehashi has given the guitarist a way to complement and harmonise with keyboard players, not replace them.

'A guitar synthesizer can give much more delicate sounds than any keyboard — not so much when you play it hard, but especially when you play it softly. There are many nuances with the guitar synthesizer. On the other hand a keyboard is very pitch stable and so it is an easier instrument to create harmonies. The keyboard is good for creating strong, definite, stable sounds, whereas the guitar synthesizer must sing.'


Paradoxically Mr Kakehashi is both the man who put the keyboard player in the guitarist's role with the now-imitated SH-101 and Axis, and the man who put the guitarist in the keyboard player's role with the Guitar Synthesizer and its powerful, layered harmonies. His reason was that he intended to offer both of them greater freedom, the keyboard player in terms of movement, the guitar player in terms of sound.

Of the Axis itself he says simply 'Videos need action' — capturing in a phrase the impact of video recording on the way bands present themselves, and summing up Roland's response to it. Today the guitarist, the keyboard player and, using Roland percussion pads (as opposed to their full electronic kit) even drummers can strut their stuff on the front of the stage. Not only that, but while they're doing it, they can be linked to a whole bank of programmed sounds by MIDI. Tomorrow's stage show need not be restricted by the need to play.

Whichever way you look at it, Roland is about knocking down barriers, pushing back limits. They've done it in terms of sound, in terms of control, in terms of stage presentation, in terms of composition. The next barrier to go may well be concerned with blown instruments, the interface between human breath and an electronic sound. A saxophone synthesizer, you ask? Wait around a year, and see, Kakehashi says mysteriously. Meanwhile, he's turning his full attention to amplifiers.

'Today's amplification must accept a greater variety of sounds than ever before. Ideally one might have, for example, a specialised string amplifier for string sounds. We have improved Cube amplifiers and Super-Cubes are more responsive and more powerful. But JC-amplifiers like the new JC-77 are very suitable for modern sounds. With JC amplifiers you can create a true stereo sound — you have an 'acoustic mixer' which will give a unique stereo effect. We thought that many people would copy this idea but at the moment you can still only get a JC type amplifier from Roland, and there is nothing else that produces that sound.'

It is possible to mention other areas that Ikutaro Kakehashi and Roland's design team are looking at, but fundamentally they're examining just about every possibility to get better control and better sounds. They don't particularly care how this is done. Questioned whether he intends to develop an all-digital system in the future, Kakehashi laughs.

'Talking about things being digital is just — fashionable. The important thing is to get a good sound, it is not important how. Also some people don't realise that it is misleading to talk about a completely digital synthesizer or a completely analogue synthesizer. The Roland JX-8P is eighty percent digital and twenty percent analogue. Everything is really hybrid. What we need are the best sounds. That's what we aim for. We don't mind what technology we use.'

Since we spoke to Mr Kakehashi after he had just toured the Frankfurt show looking at what other manufacturers had to offer, it was a good time to ask him how he saw Roland's position in the market. He was understandably confident. Roland started this year in a dominant position and showed an increase in sales of some 10% over the last twelve months. They're not the only ones with good products and Mr Kakehashi is the first to give credit where credit is due. What he does emphasise is that Roland offer a powerful system of instruments and equipment developed over ten years of working with top musicians and pioneering the most adventurous ideas. There, he brings the interview to a close. He has, after all, a future to design.

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Frankfurt Review - This Year's Models

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EP-50 - 76-Key MIDI Piano

Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Apr 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Roland Newslink — Frankfurt Report


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> EP-50 - 76-Key MIDI Piano

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