With the passing of Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, the synthesizer world lost one of its greatest visionaries.
In celebration of Kakehashi and his lifetime of defining, and redefining, the term “musical instrument,” we have assembled a list of his most influential products and technologies—items that have had the greatest impact on popular music over the last 50 years— from his early days as the leader of Ace Tone to his legacy as the founder of Roland.
1. Ace Tone Canary S-2 (1962) One of Ace Tone’s earliest successes was the Canary S-2 Clavioline. Based on the original Clavioline designed by Constant Martin in 1947, its tube-based architecture was later replaced by transistors in the S-3 model (pictured above). An example of the Clavioline sound can be found in the solo from Del Shannon’s “Runaway” (which for hair-splitters was actually a heavily modified early-model Clavioline unit redubbed the Musitron).
2. Ace Tone R1 Rhythm Ace (1964) While the original R1 Rhythm Ace was one of the first transistorized drum machines, the FR-1 (1967) was the Rhythm Ace that made it to the mainstream. While some purists may nitpick that the 1959 electro-mechanical Wurlitzer Side Man was the drum machine that started it all, the Rhythm Ace was the unit that arguably sounds the most like the analog drum machines we recognize today. And it was Kakehashi’s patented approach to programming rhythms via diode matrices that gave us our first taste of preset drum patterns.
3. Roland TR-77/55/33 (1972) After leaving Ace to found Roland, Kakehashi’s first products were a pair of guitar effects (fuzz and sustain) and a new line of drum machines—the Rhythm 33, Rhythm 55, Rhythm 77—with the top of the line being the latter. While their sound was similar to the late-model Rhythm Aces, these drum machines are particularly noteworthy because the official product name introduced a pair of letters—TR for “Transistor Rhythm”—that would be attached to ground breaking beat boxes for the next four decades.
4. Roland Space Echo RE-100 (1973) Although Kakehashi didn’t invent the tape delay, Roland’s first tape echo units—the RE-100 and RE-200—propelled the effect further into the mainstream. The next model, the RE-201 Space Echo from 1974, is the most familiar to musicians, but it all began for Roland with these first two units.
5. Roland SH1000 (1973) The SH1000 wasn’t just Roland’s first wholly original analog synthesizer, it was Japan’s first synthesizer. Korg entered the fray just a few months later with their miniKorg 700 and thus began the modern era of Japanese synthesizers and friendly one-upmanship. You can hear the SH1000 on classic tracks from Vangelis, Blondie and The Human League.
6. Roland System 100 (1975) Although the SH-3a and SH2000 arrived a year prior as extensions of the SH1000, 1975 was the year that Roland entered the modular world with the System 100, a stunningly designed behemoth that would look right at home on the bridge of the original Starship Enterprise. It’s also the first appearance of the word “System” in a Roland product name.
As an aside, 1975 is also the year that saw the introduction of Roland’s unique ensemble chorus effect in the RS-101 string synthesizer.
7. Roland MC-8 (1977) The MC stands for “microcomposer” and the MC-8 was groundbreaking for being one of the first digitally driven sequencers with multiple discrete CV and gate outputs. Programming the unit was cumbersome and required painstaking numeric entry for each note. Its enhanced follow-up, the MC-4 (1981) used the same arcane approach, but that didn’t stop artists like Yellow Magic Orchestra, Vince Clarke and Human League producer Martin Rushent from using it to help launch the ‘80s synthpop movement.
8. Roland RS-505 Paraphonic (1978) The RS-505 wasn’t Roland’s first string-machine, but it is the first synthesizer to include the word “paraphonic.” Ironically, Roland didn’t use the term to describe multiple voices through a single VCF/VCA: Rather, it meant that you could layer its strings, polysynth and bass to create composite sounds.
9. Roland CR-78 (1978-81) Based on Roland’s earlier home organ rhythm units, the CR-78’s sound was ubiquitous in early new wave and synthpop, thanks to its insect-like percussion sounds that instantly added a sci-fi element to any track. Used extensively by artists such as Ultravox and New Musik, the CR-78 sound is immediately recognizable in the intro to Blondie’s classic “Heart Of Glass.”
10. Roland Jupiter-4 (1978-1979) Quickly following the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, the Roland Jupiter 4 was one of first polysynths to include microprocessor controlled polyphony and programmable presets. While some consider it an obscure footnote in the history of analog synths, its noteworthy feature is the introduction of random-order arpeggiation, a key component of Nick Rhodes’s synth work on many of Duran Duran’s early hits.
11. Roland ProMars (1979-1982) As a companion to the Jupiter 4, Roland introduced the ProMars, a two-oscillator programmable monophonic synth housed in a similarly folksy, home-organ-style case. Along with the Jupiter 4, the ProMars’ later serial numbers offered the first implementation of what would later become the definitive Roland filter, the IR3109 circuit, and the cornerstone of the later Jupiters, the early Junos, the SH101 and the JX-3P.
12. Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus (1979) Vocoders existed long before the VP-330 was introduced, but it was Roland’s Vocoder Plus that brought the robotic sound to the popular lexicon of electronic music. Rock and new wave acts like Styx and The Cars used it in their hits for either drama or kitsch effects. If you want to hear it up close, check out Laurie Anderson’s seminal (and still relevant) pop oddity, “O Superman.” The Vocoder Plus’ timbre is so distinctive and sought after (the original units command astonishing prices nowadays) that Roland recreated its signature sound in the new Boutique VP-03.
13. Roland SH-09 (1980) The monophonic SH-09 is noteworthy for two reasons: It was the last of the Roland synths to use the ‘70s era BA662A filter circuit and it’s also the synth that Flock Of Seagulls pretended to play chords on in their cheesy “I Ran” video.
14. The MIDI Standard (1981-1983) In 1981, Kakehashi and Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits began work on a protocol that they hoped would allow synthesizers from every manufacturer to communicate with each other.
A year later, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard, MIDI version 1.0, was announced. The historic, first public demonstration was given at the NAMM show in January, 1983, where a Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 and a Roland Jupiter-6 were successfully interconnected.
More than 30 years later, MIDI continues to be a vital part of the entertainment industry and it is increasingly implemented into emergent technologies.
Visit the MIDI Association at MIDI.org to learn more about the standard and to read an historical account of Kakehashi’s contributions.
15. Roland Jupiter 8 (1981-1984) To analog connoisseurs, the Jupiter-8 remains Roland’s premier analog polysynth. Its creamy sound, split and layered presets, flexible architecture, and random arpeggiator made it the definitive New Wave synth used by Howard Jones, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and Tears For Fears.
Rock keyboardists loved its sonic range, too, with Journey, Toto and Rush all highlighting the sound on various albums. It cannot be emphasized enough that the Jupiter-8 launched Roland into the ‘80s as a force to be reckoned with in the high-end synthesizer world. Fortunately, its soul and sound live on in Roland’s new System-8.
16. Roland TR-808 (1981-1984) The only drum machine to have a documentary dedicated to it, the TR-808 probably needs no introduction here. Even so, it is worth mentioning that at the time of its release, it wasn’t the icon it is today, largely due to the launch of the sample-based Linn LM-1 in 1980 and LinnDrum in 1982.
While the 808 was featured in New Wave tracks like “Nova Heart” by The Spoons and was a big part of the Jam & Lewis R&B sound, it wasn’t until the 808 started appearing in pawn shops around 1984 that it became the definitive Hip-Hop drum machine. And now, it’s at the heart of the current Trap movement.
17. Roland Juno-6 (1982) When synth fans say “Juno,” they’re usually referring to the Juno 106, which was the most popular item in Roland’s ‘80s Juno line. However, it was the Juno-6 that really started the “affordable poly analog” movement of the early ‘80s, with its single-oscillator non-programmable design and onboard arpeggiator.
Released around the same time as Korg’s programmable Polysix, the Juno-6 was quickly supplanted by the Juno-60, which offered 56 presets. It also included the same IR3109 filter as the Jupiter-8, which is another reason original units are so highly prized today.
18. Roland TR-606 (1982) Based on a slimmed-down 808 drum kit, consisting of kick, snare, two toms, cymbal, and hi-hats, the TR-606 Drumatix was Roland’s entry-level analog drum machine in 1982. In addition to its two trigger outputs (one for each tom) the 606 was Roland’s first battery-powered portable drum machine and was designed to be paired with…
19. Roland TB-303 (1982) The TB-303 Bass Line was designed as a companion to the 606, with Roland’s proprietary DIN-based protocol as the clock that synchronized the two. It’s a simple one-oscillator synth with a unique 18dB/oct resonant filter that was supposed to simulate the sound of an electric bass, and its arguably opaque sequencing method was designed to allow simple bass lines to be quickly entered and reproduced. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, everything. The 303 was quickly discontinued due to lack of sales, and it found its way into thousands of pawnshops. Consequently, like the 808, the 303 was scooped up into the rigs of working-class synthesists and later, DJ setups, where it became the definitive sound of Acid House and 1988’s Summer of Love, courtesy of the UK rave scene.
Since then, the 303 has become as important to the history of synthesizers as the Minimoog, with numerous analog and digital re-creations available, including Roland’s own Boutique TB-03, a synth that recaptures the entire experience of the original.
20. Roland SH-101 (1983) Arriving shortly after the 606 and 303, the SH-101 was a monosynth—essentially a cross between the SH-09 and the Juno-6/60, but with the surprising inclusion of battery power and a detachable modulation grip that allowed it to double as a keytar. It also included a 100-note sequencer and the same IR3109 filter as the Jupiter and Juno, making it an incredible sounding synth to this day.
21. Roland JX-3P (1983) The JX-3P (in tandem with the Jupiter-6) holds the distinction of being the first result of Ikutaro Kakehashi’s collaboration with Dave Smith on the invention of MIDI. Consisting of a pair of DCOs (digitally controlled oscillators) that could be synced or cross-modulated, the IR3109 filter, clever use of basic modulation, and the classic Roland ensemble, the JX-3P quickly became a workhorse among young musicians thanks to its affordability. It was followed in later years by the equally popular JX-8P and JX-10. The JX-3P sound also lives on in Roland’s current Boutique series.
22. Roland MPU-401 (1984) Kakehashi saw the future of the MIDI protocol intimately tied with computers in a more direct fashion. This led to the creation of the MPU-401, one of the first MIDI interfaces and, remarkably, one that was compatible with almost every computer on the market at the time. By pairing the unit with the proper cable and card, it could be used with Apple, Commodore, PC and even early NEC computers.
23. Roland TR-909 (1984-85) Another Roland sleeper hit, the TR-909 was a bizarre combination of ultra-punchy analog drums combined with sampled hi-hats and cymbals, in an effort to create the best of both analog and digital during a time when sampling drum machines were becoming increasingly dominant. Like the 808 and 303, it found new life in the hands of the early house music scene and has since become an integral component of both house and techno.
24. Roland S-50 (1986-1987) As the first era of analog synths came to a close, Roland entered the digital world with the S-50, a 12-bit sampler with 16-voice polyphony. While its tiny fluorescent screen made audio editing difficult on its own, Roland did something extraordinary and included a video output and optional DT-100 digitizer tablet, which allowed both sample editing and the ability to draw your own waveforms. Because this was normally the domain of samplers costing five times as much as the S-50, the sampler was an instant global hit.
25. Roland D-50 (1987-1989) With increasing competition from the Yamaha DX7 and Korg’s hybrid/wavetable DW series, Roland came out of left field with the D-50, which had actually been in development for several years at that point. Based on a new form of synthesis called “LA” (Linear Arithmetic), the D-50 was the first synth to combine samples with virtual analog synthesis and stunning reverb and modulation effects. The result was absolutely breathtaking, with complex, airy patches that found their way into innumerable pop tracks, including several appearances on Michael Jackson’s Bad album, thanks to Eric Persing’s legendary Roland preset “Digital Native Dance.”
26. Roland JV-1080 (1994-2001) In the years following the D-50, Roland stuck to expanding their line of LA synths, samplers and affordable ROMplers such as the U-110, democratizing digital synthesis for countless keyboardists and producers worldwide.
While 1992’s JV-80 was a big-seller, thanks to its 28-voices and logical progression from the D-50 architecture, the next truly big hit came in 1994 with the JV-1080, offering 64-voice polyphony, 16-part multitimbral operation, a massive bank of 640 patches and dual card slots for expanding its onboard library of samples and waveforms. Taken as a whole, these features made the 1080 an indispensable component for producers, tours, major recording studios and soundtrack composers—basically everyone with a sequencer between 1995 and 2000.
27. Roland JP-8000 (1996) The JP-8000 signaled a return to the sound of analog, which had remained popular thanks to the Big Beat and budding Trance movements of the late ‘90s. Its virtual analog sound is a tad “crisp” compared to today’s technology, but the JP-8000 was the synth that immediately popularized the sound we know as the “supersaw.” Consisting of seven detuned sawtooth waves, the supersaw defined the sound of Trance in its day, returning again in 2010 to quickly dominate the EDM movement as the power/pop chord sound (and yet another way that Roland defined the direction of dance music).
28. Roland V-Synth / XT / GT (2003-2007) In 2001, Kakehashi transitioned to an advisory role at Roland, while staying actively involved in his vision for the company. Thus, Roland remained focused on keeping hardware synthesis on the cutting edge of technology.
This led to their V-Synth line, including the XT and GT models. Its tone sources included analog modeling, a huge bank of sampled instruments, user sampling, and an external audio input for processing live signals. From there, Roland added VariPhrase, which allowed complex pitch, time and formant manipulation, in addition to their COSM approach to filtering and processing the results.
As if that weren’t enough, Roland added both video sampling (in conjunction with the separate DV-7PR Digital Video Workstation) and hands-free performance control via their D-Beam technology. In every way, the V-Synth truly felt like “the future.”
29. Roland SH-201 (2006) As the modern analog renaissance began to take shape with synths from Moog Music and Dave Smith Instruments recapturing the limelight, Roland’s management doubled down on digital in a bold way. The SH-201 and 2010’s Gaia SH-01 kept virtual analog both affordable and compelling (though there was a bit of controversy and a few whispers surrounding the direction, especially from fans wanting analog reissues of the original classics).
And although these two synths were a definite step forward in virtual analog’s evolution, it would be another few years before Kakehashi and Roland’s overall vision finally came to fruition.
30. Roland AIRA (2014) While the JD-XA and JD-Xi are smart and relevant concessions to analog purists, the Roland’s AIRA series proved that devotion to a digital future was the right move for Roland.
With their surprise arrival at the start of 2014, the AIRA line immediately captured the attention of even the most stalwart die-hards in the analog world. When the TR-8 arrived, I took it to an 808-owning friend’s studio and we sat slack-jawed at the two units side-by-side. In my own studio, I compared my vintage SH-101 to the Plug-Out version for hours and could barely detect any difference.
When the AIRA-like Boutique synths launched, I took all three to my local Austin synth shop, Switched On Music, and compared them to the originals with the shop staff in attendance. We all agreed: Any subtle differences between the vintage units and Roland’s Boutique models could easily be attributed to the decay of analog components. If anything, the Boutique’s sounded like the originals when they were new. Mission accomplished.
So, farewell Ikutaro Kakehashi. May you rest well, knowing that your legacy will continue to have a positive effect on music, forever.