April 3, 2017 2:00 pm JST

Digital music pioneer, Roland founder Kakehashi dies at 87

Instrument developer and MIDI godfather changed the way music is made

SHOTARO TANI, Nikkei staff writer

Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi speaks in July 2013 at the beginning of a concert commemorating his winning the Technical Grammy Award in the city of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, where the company is headquartered.

TOKYO -- Without him, rap, techno, hip-hop and house music would hardly have sounded the way it does today. Synthesized bass lines and electronic drum beats are possible because of something called MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a global technical standard that allows a variety of electronic musical instruments, computers and related devices to connect and interact with one another, regardless of manufacturer.

MIDI was proposed by Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of the iconic electronic musical instrument manufacturer Roland, in the early 1980s. He is known as the godfather of MIDI and is enshrined in the Rock Walk Hall of Fame in Hollywood. Kakehashi died on April 1 at the age of 87.

Born in 1930 in Osaka Prefecture, the Japanese engineer started his career repairing clocks and radios, later pursuing electronic instruments after he was asked by a church to repair an electric organ. He founded Roland in 1972 and went on to create popular drum machines, including the iconic TR-808, which are staples for the creation of club music such as techno and electronic dance music.

Among the fans of Kakehashi's creations was the Japanese electronic music band Yellow Magic Orchestra, which counts Academy Award-winning Ryuichi Sakamoto as one of its members.

MIDI paved the way for musicians to compose music on computers, something commonplace nowadays but a rarity back in 1983 when it was standardized. MIDI is also what allows cellphones to ring their tones and karaoke machines play their music. 

Kakehashi shared the Technical Grammy Award with Dave Smith in 2013 for contributions to electronic music technology.

"Ikutaro Kakehashi, founder of Roland, father of the TR-909, TR-808, Godfather of MIDI ... passed away at the age of 87," Tommy Snyder, drummer for the popular Japanese band Godiego wrote on his Facebook page. "He was a super funny, wonderful and gifted human being, and his contributions to the musical instrument world, and music, touched millions of people worldwide."

Roland is also known for its group company BOSS, which produces effects pedals for electric guitars, a popular piece of equipment among many rock legends like Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page.

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