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Roland founder and music legend Ikutaro Kakehashi dies

Digital sound wouldn't be the same without him.
Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
04.02.17 in AV
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Joseph Branston/Future Music Magazine via Getty Images

It's a tragic time for both music and technology. Ikutaro Kakehashi, best known as the founder of Roland Corporation, has died at 87. The engineer turned corporate leader got his start making electronic drums and rhythm pattern generators, but it was after he founded Roland in 1972 that he hit the big time. His company quickly became synonymous with electronic music effects, and the machines built under his watch didn't just become popular -- they changed the cultural landscape.

Electronic music, '80s pop and hip-hop in particular owe a lot to Kakehashi's firm. The TR-808's unique 'sizzling' drum and hand clap sounds were crucial to genre-defining songs from the likes of Afrika Bambaataa and Nine Inch Nails, and it's so iconic that artists have sometimes based their albums or even careers around it. Think 808 State, or Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak. And that was really just the start of Kakehashi's biggest accomplishments.

He also got the ball rolling on MIDI, the standard that helped kickstart digital music composition. The TR-909 (the first drum machine to use MIDI) and TB-303 bass synth were crucial to modern dance music's early days, launching genres like acid house. And many PC gamers will have a soft spot for the SC-55 Sound Canvas, the first General MIDI sound card. It was a big step toward computer-based tunes that sounded as good as what you heard from recording studios, and represented PC music's gold standard for years.

Kakehashi gradually bowed out of his company, retiring in 2013, but not before receiving honors ranging from a Technical Grammy through to a spot on Hollywood's Rock Walk of Fame. In some ways, those accolades almost sell him short. While Kakehashi wasn't as singularly responsible for redefining music as someone like synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog, it's safe to say that the industry would have gone in a very, very different direction if he hadn't been around. He'll be missed.

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