Roland founder shaped how music is created

File photo of music producer Jean-Michel Jarre playing a Roland keyboard. Ikutaro Kakehashi, founder of Japanese electronic musical instrument maker Roland which defined much of the sound of 1980s pop, died on April 1, 2017.
File photo of music producer Jean-Michel Jarre playing a Roland keyboard. Ikutaro Kakehashi, founder of Japanese electronic musical instrument maker Roland which defined much of the sound of 1980s pop, died on April 1, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK • Ikutaro Kakehashi, an engineer and entrepreneur who used a defective transistor to generate the distinctive sounds of the Roland TR-808, a drum machine that transformed contemporary music, died last Saturday in Japan. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by Mr Scott Hunter, a project manager at ATV Group Corp, USA, the American division of Kakehashi's company, ATV.

Kakehashi's drum machine - officially the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, but known to musicians and listeners as simply the 808 - was by no means his only accomplishment.

He built Roland, which he founded in 1972, into a company that makes hundreds of widely used instruments and audio devices and led it as chief executive before founding a new audio and video electronics company, ATV Corp, in 2013.

He also helped revolutionise the way music is conceived and produced when he collaborated with Mr Dave Smith, the president of a competing company, Sequential Circuits, to develop Midi, the musical instrument digital interface that allows the vast majority of electronic instruments built since the early 1980s to interconnect.

The impact of the 808 was loud and lasting. Roland claims it is heard on more hit records than any other drum machine, including tracks by Michael Jackson, Prince, Marvin Gaye - whose 1982 album, Sexual Healing, was largely constructed with an 808 - and Kanye West, whose 2008 album, 808s And Heartbreak, was named after it.

Beyonce, Madonna and Eminem, among many others, have mentioned the 808 in lyrics.

The 808 was widely embraced in hip-hop, particularly after the release of Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force in 1982. In 808, a 2015 documentary about the device by Alex Dunn, Public Enemy's producer Hank Shocklee, said: "It's not hip-hop without that sound."

Introduced in 1980 and discontinued in 1983, the TR-808 - TR stands for "transistor rhythm" - was an analog device that made artificial drum and percussion sounds: tinny handclaps, hissing high-hats and a dinky cowbell.

But it was portable and could be programmed by untrained musicians and, with circuits that included the specific defective transistor, the 808's bass drum sound held thunderous low frequencies that could shake up clubs.

The sounds of the 808 continue to be heard in R&B, pop and electronic dance music and they are starkly in the foreground in the current production style called trap.

Those 808 sounds, however, are likely to be sampled rather than generated by an original machine. Only 12,000 TR-808 Rhythm Composer units were made because as semiconductor manufacturing improved, the distinctively defective transistor became unavailable.

Roland moved on to the TR-909, which added Midi control.

In 2013, Kakehashi and Mr Smith received a Technical Grammy Award for their work on Midi three decades earlier.

Kakehashi was born in Japan in 1930. Drawn to engineering from a young age, he built his own shortwave radios while in high school during World War II. After the war, he started a clock and watch-repair business that moved into radio repair.

He began experimenting with making musical instruments in the 1950s and eventually his Kakehashi Radio Shop became Ace Electronics, which started making electric organs in 1960.

In 1964, he developed the FR-1 Rhythm Ace, an early drum machine.

He started Roland in Osaka, Japan, in 1972. Its first product was its TR-77 rhythm box.

The company introduced the first compact synthesizer in Japan, the SH-1000, in 1973 and went on to offer a vast assortment of keyboards, guitars, drums, amplifiers, speakers, effects and other devices under his leadership.

Kakehashi marked his 30th year at Roland with an autobiography, I Believe In Music, in 2002.

His second book, An Age Without Samples: Originality And Creativity In The Digital World, was published this year.

There was no immediate word on survivors.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'Roland founder shaped how music is created'. Print Edition | Subscribe