On April 1, 2017, the music technology world lost a true legend: Ikutaro Kakehashi, founder of globally popular instrument manufacturer Roland. He passed away at home in Japan, at 87 years of age.
The contrast between Kakehashi’s humble beginnings and the success he would mine from hard work and inherent intellect resembles a real-life Horatio Alger story. Losing both parents to tuberculosis when he was only two years old, his interest in engineering was first piqued by working in the shipyards during World War II, beginning when he was 14. At 16 he started his own watch and clock repair business, but at 20 faced his own bout with tuberculosis. Three years later, participating in a clinical trial for the then-new antibiotic Streptomycin restored him to health.
Mr. Kakehashi with Dave Smith, Bob Moog, and Tom Oberheim.
Courtesy Dave Smith Instruments
Bob Moog’s work would inspire Kakehashi’s early sonic experiments, but he gravitated towards designs he saw as more immediately musically useful. Ace Tone, the company Mr. Kakehashi founded prior to Roland, was known for the Rhythm Ace series: auto-rhythm machines meant to be placed atop a piano or organ. (Kakehashi’s perennial love of theatre organ finds modern expression in Roland’s Atelier instruments.)
Under Kakehashi’s watch, Roland’s contributions to music technology were vast, and some—such as the TR-808 and Jupiter-8—are now hunted to near-extinction on the used market. Visit emusician.com to read our list of 30 Roland instruments that changed the world.
In 2013, Mr. Kakehashi and synth designer Dave Smith received Technical Grammy awards for their 1983 co-founding of MIDI, the digital language by which electronic instruments talk to one another to this day.
“‘Taro-san’ was a good friend for many years,” says Dave Smith. “Though we were competitors, we were always able to connect via our common passion for designing electronic musical instruments. MIDI was a great example; we were both able to put aside our individual company interests in favor of a common interface, given away free to the entire industry, for the benefit of the artist. A rare true visionary, he will be missed.”
“I felt that he genuinely wanted me to succeed, perhaps because drum machines were special to him,” recalls Roger Linn, inventor of the Akai MPC, LinnDrum, and other sampling drum machines. “He never seemed to care about money, but seemed driven more from a deep desire to create beautiful products that helped people make better music.” (Read Roger Linn’s full tribute at rogerlinndesign.com/ikutaro-kakehashi.html.)
Eric Persing, founder of soft synth developer Spectrasonics, rose to sound design prominence while working at Roland and regularly interacted with Mr. Kakehashi. In a public Facebook post, he referred to him as “sensei, mentor, and friend” and as “the Walt Disney of electronic music.” Persing further praises: “Uniquely prolific amongst the pioneers of our field, he had an insatiable curiosity and an endlessly playful mind.”
Mr. Kakehashi inspired respect even from competitors. Athan Billias, now director of strategic product planning at Yamaha, says, “Kakehashi-san once told me that competition is a great thing because no one wants to watch a one-horse race. A very wise man!”
At press time, Roland had simply placed a lead slide on their homepage reading “All of Roland quietly reflects on the passing of Ikutaro Kakehashi” in both Japanese and English. Those who worked with him most closely, after all, best understand that no amount of words is adequate.