His innovations, including the iconic TR-808 drum machine, still influence music today.
Ikutaro Kakehashi, founder of electronic instrument maker Roland Corporation, died on April 1, 2017 at the age of 87. The synthesizers, pianos and drum machines Kakehashi brought to market radically reshaped the sound of popular music and Roland gear continues to exert a big influence today. While relatively few outside the music industry might know his name, nearly everyone has heard Kakehashi’s innovations used on countless recordings and performances in everything from hip-hop to grindcore and beyond.
Over the decades, Roland gear, in particular the celebrated TR-808 drum machine and the company’s well-regarded synths, have provided the pulse and sweetening for some of music’s biggest names. Series such as the Juno and Jupiter synths have greatly expanded what electronic music can accomplish. But perhaps Kakehashi’s most enduring legacy was his promotion of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or, more simply, MIDI, the standard that allows electronic music gear and software to communicate. By advocating for MIDI, he helped stem the chaos stemming from non-compatible gear and, later, software.
For some musicians and music producers, however, it was the Roland TR-808 drum machine that marked a turning point in electronic music never equaled. Beginning in the late 1970s and using newly developed microprocessors, Roland began developing electronic percussion instruments. They radically departed from the earlier (and highly unreliable) devices that used pre-recorded sound samples made by other companies. Instead, the TR-808 generated its sounds using solid state circuitry with microprocessor-programmed rhythms.
Although the resulting sounds were nothing like real percussion and the TR-808, marketed to audio pros was a commercial flop, over time, it developed a cult following. With 16 acoustic percussion sounds and programmability that allowed up to 32 patterns using a step sequencer, music producers belatedly began using the Roland beat box. Since then, everyone from Marvin Gaye to Madonna to The Beastie Boys and Kanye West have put TR-808s to work in their productions.
Artists reflect on the legacy of Roland's groundbreaking TR-808 (Source: Roland U.S. YouTube Channel)
Under Kakehashi’s stewardship, Roland continued to build on the technology ushered in with the TR-808, producing more sophisticated drum machines as well as synths, interfaces and recording gear aimed at both audio pros and enthusiasts. Roland’s recent celebrations of its vintage gear with the introduction of their AIRA and Boutique lines brings the company’s efforts full circle. Kakehashi retired in 2013 after being awarded a Technical Grammy and seeing his company solidly positioned at the cutting edge in electronic music gear development.
As tributes have flooded in around the globe Roland has put out a statement on their website which reads simply, "All of Roland quietly reflects on the passing of Ikutaro Kakehashi."