As Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi celebrates his 75th birthday, we conclude our history of this innovative company (so far) by coming right up to the end of 2004...
For four months we've been charting the rise, narrowly averted fall, and further rise of Roland, from their humble roots in 1972 to the worldwide corporation they had become in 1997. In the final part of this history, I'll chart the company's course in the DSP era, and see how they coped with the retirement of their founder, Ikutaro Kakehashi. We'll start in January 1998...
1998 MAJOR PRODUCT LAUNCHES
AMPS, MIXERS & SPEAKERS
- DJ2000 DJ mixer.
- SSM151 floor monitor.
- AD3 acoustic instrument processor.
- DR202 Dr Groove.
- ME30 multi-effects.
DIGITAL RECORDERS & MIXERS
- VS1680 digital studio workstation.
- VS840 digital studio workstation.
- VS880 S2 upgrade for VS880.
- VS880EX digital studio workstation.
- VG8EX V-Guitar system.
- E300 'Intelligent Synthesizer'.
- G1000 arranger workstation.
- HP136/HP236/HP330e/HP530e/HP555G digital pianos.
- KR75/KR375/KR575 'Intelligent' digital pianos.
- SPD20 percussion pad.
- KD120 V-Kick trigger.
SOUND CANVASES & AUDIO CANVASES
- UA100 USB audio & MIDI processing unit.
SYNTHS & HI-TECH
- JP8080 analogue-modelling synth module.
- JX305 Groovesynth.
- MC505 Groovebox.
- MT80S/MT120S/MT300S sequencers with built-in sound source.
- SP808 sampling workstation.
- SMPU64 MIDI processin g unit.
- XP60 workstation synth.
- A6 Audio Station.
- A6 OP1 digital interface for A6.
- SI80S video/MIDI interface.
- V5 video mix/title processor.
It wasn't obvious at the start of the year, but 1998 was to be one of the most fecund years in the company's history, with more than 40 major product launches. None of these were particularly innovative, although all built in meaningful ways on the company's previous successes.
Consider the XP60, which replaced the XP50 released three years before. This was nothing more than a smaller version of the XP80. Similarly, the G1000 Arranger Workstation was a bigger, better version of the G800. It sported new sounds, and some nice touches such as its integrated Zip drive, but at heart it was still a GS/GM 'Arranger' workstation. Likewise, the SPD20 improved upon 1993's SPD11, the SC880 was an improved GS/GM rackmount, the JP8080 was an enhanced rackmount version of the JP8000, the VG8EX replaced the VG8, and a range of superb digital pianos replaced the previous range of superb digital pianos.
There was, perhaps, more innovation in the shape of the MC505, SP808 and JX305. The MC505 was an enhanced MC303, adding an improved sound engine, and an enhanced library of music patterns, but it was also the first Roland to accept Smart Media storage cards, and the first to boast the new, infrared 'D-Beam' controller that Roland had licensed from Interactive Light. The SP808 was a new variation on the Groove idea, combining sampling and recording in a single box designed for remixing, tweaking, warping and triggering phrases for techno music. Alongside the pair of these, the JX305 Groovesynth was derided by purists, but as a modified MC505 in a five-octave keyboard, without the D-Beam but with an additional selection of traditional sounds for playing or sequencing, it appealed to people who wanted to combine orthodox playing and Groove sequencing.
But the most significant developments were to be found in the V-Studio series, which expanded into a range of three distinct products: the VS880 S2 with its external CD writer option, the VS840, and the superb VS1680, which set a new standard for small studio workstations.
As the name suggests, the VS840 was the baby of the family. Like the VS880, it was an eight-track system limited to recording just four tracks at a time, and it lacked a number of its larger sibling's more sophisticated features. It also suffered from severe limitations when using uncompressed audio. Where it scored, however, was in the provision of a built-in Zip drive, although this offered just four minutes of eight-track recording, even without alternative 'takes'.
The VS840 garnered some positive reviews, but it was hugely limited and limiting. The same cannot be said of the VS1680, which proved that the VS format was viable for serious composition and recording. It had 16 tracks rather than eight, 16 virtual tracks per track rather than eight, 24-bit internal data resolution rather than 16-bit, a better screen and improved operating system, effects as standard, approximately four times the recording capacity of the VS880, and the ability to record directly to external drives. You could even install a second VS8F2 effects card to provide four simultaneous stereo effects units, including a goodly selection of RSS and COSM algorithms. No CD writer was supplied as standard, but you could add an external unit and use it to back up the internal drive or to create audio CDs of your mixes.
Unfortunately, the VS1680 was let down by three faults. Firstly, you could only use eight tracks with uncompressed audio. Secondly, it generated digital glitching if you tried to adjust its EQ while replaying audio. Thirdly (although this was cured in a later upgrade) there was no dithering, so if you were using the 24-bit recording modes, truncation occurred when you output to CD-R or any other 16-bit storage medium. Nonetheless, the VS1680 became a big success for Roland.
At the other end of the scale, Edirol was about to become one of the most common names in hi-tech music. In no small way, this was thanks in part to the UA100 Audio Canvas, an unassuming little box that combined 20-bit audio interfacing over USB interfacing with USB-based MIDI interfacing, and which became a one-stop solution for recording and sequencing using a USB-equipped computer. Despite its limited number of analogue inputs and outputs, it offered dual MIDI Ins and Outs, and nearly 70 digital effects, including the now ubiquitous Boss vocal transformer algorithm. Together with the bundled control software, the UA100 simultaneously let you record, playback, mix, add effects, and synchronise your audio and MIDI system.
The 1998 Edirol catalogue was stuffed with other goodies such as mixers, micro-monitors, keyboard- and module- based Sound Canvases, controller keyboards, CD burners, microphones, headphones, MIDI interfaces, and nearly 50 pages of software. But the most exciting developments were buried in the middle of the tome. These were the V5 Video Canvas and A6 Audio Station (see the box below), the release of which made Edirol the Desktop Media Production company that they had always aspired to be. No longer a minor part of the Roland group, they were about to become a major supplier in the domestic and PC music markets.
Elsewhere, the Roland Corporation opened another joint venture, Roland Portugal SA, and Rodgers was expanding further. But the founder of the company was in no position to take heart at these achievements. Following a prolonged fight against cancer throughout the 1990s, Ikutaro Kakehashi was hospitalised in 1998. Happily, his treatment was a success, although he then faced a prolonged recuperation period. However, as demonstrated in his memoirs, I Believe In Music, he was still dreaming up ideas from his hospital bed, such as the 'Organ Power Concert' that Roland staged at the NAMM show in January 1999, and which has since become an annual event.
Roland established Edirol in 1989 to create and sell Desktop Media Production (DTMP) products such as audio and video editors, but it wasn't until 1998 (which, incidentally, was the year that Edirol Europe was born) that many of its products travelled beyond Japanese shores. The V5 Video Canvas was one of these, and was probably the most significant stepping-stone in Roland's transition from an audio company into an audio-visual company.
With a resolution of only 640 x 480 pixels, the V5's picture quality was inadequate for broadcast or film applications, so it was aimed at home-video creation, as well as low-cost production for corporate conferences, company demonstrations, and education. But despite its limitations, the V5 was a fun box, and provided many facilities that just a few years previously had been the preserve of high-end video studios. These included video mixing and effects such as wiping, picture-in-picture, solarising, and title generation. It even offered a simple audio mixer capable of mixing the sound from the two video sources, an auxiliary in, and a microphone input that let you add a voiceover. The importance of the audio facilities cannot be overstated. In most video production, audio is a very poor companion, tacked on at the last minute once the picture people have run hopelessly over-budget. By combining sound and picture preparation in a single box, Roland demonstrated that the two justified equal status within the production process.
If the audio facilities in the V5 were inadequate for your needs, the A6 offered eight-track hard disk recording and mixing, with a clip-store that allowed you to paste any of 1000 audio clips into the V5 at a touch of an assignable button (Roland even provided a library of clips and sound effects that you could use free of copyright in your productions). The A6 also provided a full selection of digital audio effects, including dynamics and reverb, plus creative tools such as the Boss Voice Transformer.
The final members of the 1998 Video Canvas family were the OP1 Multi I/O expansion option that added digital audio I/O plus a SCSI port to the A6, and the SI80S Video/MIDI synchroniser. This converted the timecode generated by some video recorders into MIDI Time Code, thus making it possible to synchronise the A6 with other video equipment.
1999 MAJOR PRODUCT LAUNCHES
AMPS, MIXERS & SPEAKERS
- CPM300 powered mixer.
- DB500 D-Bass amplifier.
- DJ1000 DJ mixer.
- DS90 monitors.
- SRA200E stereo amplifier.
- DR770 Dr Rhythm.
- GT3 guitar effects.
- PS5 Super Shifter.
- VF1 24-bit multi-effects.
DIGITAL RECORDERS & MIXERS
- ADA7000 AD/DA converter
- V7000-series 'V-mix' modular digital mixing system (VM7100 & VM7200 processors, VMC7100 & VMC7200 consoles).
- VM3100 V-Mixer.
- VM3100 Pro V-Mixer.
- VS840EX digital studio workstation.
- VSR880 digital studio recorder.
- SRV3030 & SRV3030D reverb.
- E600 arranger keyboard.
- EM10/EM20/EM30/EM50 arranger keyboards.
- EM50 OR oriental arranger keyboard.
- EM2000 arranger keyboard.
- Atelier AT20R/AT30R/AT60R/AT80R & AT90R.
- C280 & C280P classic organs.
- PK25 pedals for VK77.
- VK77 combo organ.
- EP70 & EP90 digital pianos.
- KR1070 grand piano.
- C80 harpsichord.
- HPD15 Handsonic percussion controller/drum module/sequencer.
- TD8 sound module.
- TD8K standard kit.
- MC80 & MC80EX MicroComposers.
- SK88 Pro.
SYNTHS & HI-TECH
- EG101 Groove keyboard.
- JV1010 module.
- MC307 Groovebox.
- MT300 music player.
- U8 USB digital studio.
- UA100G USB audio & MIDI processing unit.
- UA30 USB audio interface.
- UM2 USB MIDI interface.
- VE GSPro expansion board.
- XP30 synthesizer.
In 1999, there was another bumper crop of Roland products. Indeed, the company's ability to explore new markets seemed to be expanding at an almost exponential rate, but without affecting their ability to support existing customers. Consequently, keyboard players and synthesists were offered the new XP30 and the last of the JV range, the JV1010, another Groove keyboard, two more MicroComposers (the MC80 and MC80EX), a dual-manual Hammond impersonator, four more Sound Canvases, five digital pianos, five improved Atelier organs, and seven more 'E'-series arranger keyboards.
There was also a new V-Drum kit, a rather neat hand-percussion system (the HPD15), enhancements for the 'VS' V-Studio workstations, more music players, more audio and MIDI interfaces, more amplifiers, more mixers and more effects units. But there's no space to devote to any of these, because other products broke important new ground for the company.
Most curious among Roland's new products was the C280 classical organ, which concealed a surprising number of facilities behind its reversed keys and eight stops. These included two organ voicing 'types' — one for Baroque- and the other for Romantic-era compositions — plus chimes, celesta and two choirs. The C280P variant — which looked like nothing so much as a tiny 19th-century chapel organ — had an additional cabinet affixed to the top of the organ itself, and this contained two ranks of pipes. They may have looked purely decorative, but the pipes acted as resonators to make the sound even more authentic. Not an instrument for the average player, the C280 was, like the C80 Harpsichord, aimed at a specific and demanding group of players.
At the other end of the musical spectrum lay 1999's VM3100 digital mixers, the V7000 series of 'V-Mix' modular digital mixers, and the VSR880, a rackmount, eight-track digital recorder, all of which marked Roland's attempt to enter the world of serious digital mixing — a market which, in the late '90s, Yamaha dominated in the project-studio sector with their 0-series desks.
Let's start at the bottom of the range, with the VM3100 and VM3100Pro, which appeared in the middle of 1999. To call the VM3100 a '24-bit V-Mixer' was stretching the spec to breaking point. It only offered two digital inputs alongside its 12 analogue inputs, and only eight of those analogue inputs boasted 24-bit converters. With just a single effects processor, and only a sub-set of Roland's effects algorithms, its best application was perhaps as an eight-buss keyboard sub-mixer, where its scene storage and recall could be useful. However, there were cheaper ways to achieve this! The VM3100Pro was a better product, adding a second effects unit and the full set of COSM effects to the package, and digital inputs and outputs in the proprietary 'R-Bus' format (of which more in a moment). But the so-called 'Pro' shared a significant flaw with its little brother: neither offered dithering, so 24-bit digital audio was truncated when output to a 16-bit device.
The four '7000'-series products — two controllers and two mix processors — were to provide the top end of the range. Aimed at live sound applications, as well as recording and post-production, the larger pair were the VMC7200 console and the VM7200 mix processor. The smaller ones were the VMC7100 console and VM7100 processor.
Each console (which was merely a control surface and handled no audio other than talkback, a control-room input, and outputs for control-room monitoring) could manage two processors, and each processor could be controlled by either one or two consoles, so numerous configurations were possible. What's more, by separating the console(s) and processor(s) in this way, they could be as much as 200 metres apart, connected only by the dedicated VM-Link cables, thus eliminating the need for long runs of unreliable and potentially noisy analogue cables.
With a maximum of 94 channels, the flexibility of the system was enormous, and further enhanced by a routing system that Roland called FlexBus. Then there were extras such as the real-time spectral analysis for room equalisation, support for 5.1 surround, MIDI control, scene memory, moving faders, sample-rate conversion, and a raft of expansion options including a meterbridge and interfaces for up to 48 channels of ADAT and TDIF I/O. The processors also included a full complement of Roland's digital processes, including powerful EQs and up to eight stereo effects units derived from the previous year's VS1680, with all the expected COSM algorithms.
Unfortunately, Roland's inexperience in this area showed, and the 7000s exhibited a number of problems, such as slow screen response and a master control section that was in places poorly thought-out and counter-intuitive for anyone acquainted with existing products of this type. Furthermore, with all the add-on extras needed to bring the V-Mixers up to full specification, the final package worked out far more expensive than the initial cost suggested. Hard to learn, frustrating, and expensive... it was a combination that even excellent sound quality and flexibility were unable to overcome. So, despite its promise, the '7000' series was not a great success, and there were no more V-Mixers. Nevertheless, they did mark the introduction of a lasting technology, Roland's proprietary eight-channel RMDB2 Roland Multi-purpose Digital Bus 2, or 'R-Bus' digital audio interface. This was capable of transferring up to eight channels of 24-bit audio between products such as the V7000 series, the AD7000 and the following year's AE7000 R-Bus/AES-EBU converter, and has featured on many of the company's subsequent VS recording workstations.
Launched later in 1999, the VSR880 provided eight channels of simultaneous 24-bit recording, via either R-Bus, its analogue inputs, or its conventional digital inputs. However, the VSR was far more than just a recorder, and its internal 16-channel mixer allowed you to mix eight input channels with the eight channels of audio playback. What's more, it could also host a VS8F2 stereo effects processor, and you could connect up to three VSRs to a single VM7200 to create a fully digital, automated 24-track recording system.
The ADA7000, an eight-channel A-D and D-A converter with an R-Bus interface, allowed you to expand the I/O capabilities of the whole V-Mixer series (with the exception of the VM3100). You could even connect six of them to two VM7200s to provide 48 channels of balanced analogue I/O alongside the 20 channels provided by each VM processor, for a massive 88-channel automated, analogue system. Although not cheap, this was less expensive than a top-end analogue desk from manufacturers such as AMS Neve and SSL.
The final element in the mooted V-Mixer system was the DS90 powered monitor, a compact bi-amped speaker for which Roland claimed a super-flat frequency response. This was an overstatement; the DS90 wasn't bad, but its response was far from flat in the mid-range. Furthermore, it lacked sonic detail when compared to a true reference monitor. But the things that made the DS90 interesting were digital inputs that allowed you to drive it directly from the digital outputs of the V-Mixers. And the things that made these interesting were the COSM-generated speaker models built into the VS880EX, VS1680, VM3100Pro and '7000'-series V-Mixers. These — so Roland maintained — allowed you to monitor your mixes through a wide range of 'virtual' speakers to check mix compatibility for all environments. Of course, this was bunkum, because no small speaker can let you hear how your mix would sound when played through a set of half-ton Westlakes. All that was possible was to shape the response into something approximating that of speakers less capable than the DS90 itself...
Over the years, Roland have acquired something of a reputation for the incomprehensibility of their manuals. In truth, few manufacturers can claim an unblemished reputation as far as product documentation is concerned, particularly when it comes to manuals hurriedly translated from languages such as Japanese — but for some reason Roland handbooks have long been the cause of particular amusement amongst musicians (there was even a Sounding Off devoted to the subject in SOS April 1999). On the other hand, perhaps it's due to the fact that you can open any Roland manual at random and find passages like the following (which, incidentally, is exactly how the following passage was found): 'The [system] that is able to arrange the sound in plane space, by arranging many spakers back and forth to this, calls with a surround system. There are several method by the number and powsition of the speaker in the surround. Three most general piece of method are being supported in the VS2480.'
More seriously, Roland have also been somewhat free with the specifications quoted in their manuals and documentation over the years, sometimes verging on the downright naughty. For example, when the company claim that a sound engine offers 128 voices, and elsewhere say that every note can be built up from up to four tones, they nearly always fail to tell you that, when used in this way, most such instruments are only 32-voice polyphonic. They have been playing tricks like these for many years, but the 'specmanship' doesn't end there...
Roland use roughly 2:1 compression for their PCM-based synth samples, so when the spec tells you that an instrument has, say, a 128MB ROM, there is usually a tiny disclaimer that says 'equivalent size if expanded to 16-bit linear format', or something along those lines. Moreover, when Roland specs tell you that a product is a 16-track 24-bit recorder, it's worth checking further, as it's often the case that a product described in this way cannot offer 16-track, 24-bit recording simultaneously, but offers fewer tracks in 24-bit mode. You have been warned!
2000 MAJOR PRODUCT LAUNCHES
AMPS, MIXERS & SPEAKERS
- DB700 D-Bass amplifier.
- DS50A monitors.
- DS90A active monitors.
- PM3 personal monitor system.
- RSM90 studio monitor.
- VGA7 V-Guitar amplifier.
- AW3 dynamic wah.
- BR8 digital recording studio.
- JS5 Jamstation.
- PH3 phase-shifter.
DIGITAL RECORDERS & MIXERS
- AE7000 AES-EBU interface.
- VS840GX & VS890 digital studio workstations.
- VS1880 24-bit digital studio workstation.
- VSCDRII CD recorder.
- SRQ2031 & SRQ4015 digital graphic EQs.
- GR33 guitar synth.
- VG88 V-Guitar system.
- VA5 V-Arranger keyboard.
- VA7 V-Arranger keyboard.
- C180 classical organ.
- KSC180 classical organ.
- EP77 & EP97.
- HP137/HP147/HP237/HP337/HP557/HP737 digital pianos.
- KF90/KR177/KR777 'Intelligent' digital pianos.
- KR977 & KR1077'Intelligent' digital pianos..
- PD80, PD80R V-Pads.
- KD-80 V-Kick.
- TDW1 Expansion Board for TD10.
- VP9000 Variphrase Processor.
- V-Producer software for VP9000.
- SK500 Sound Canvas keyboard.
SYNTHS & HI-TECH
- Edirol U8 USB digital studio.
- EF303 Groove effects.
- PC160A/PC180A/PC300/PC70 MIDI keyboard controllers.
- SP808EX sampling workstation.
- XV3080 synth module.
- XV5080 synth/sample playback module.
- XV88 synthesizer.
The company that entered the next decade was very different from the one that had entered the 1990s. The letter 'V' had changed everything, from V-Guitar systems to V-Drums, from V-Studios to V-Mixers. The year 2000 illustrated this dramatically, with three additions to the VS series (the VS840GX, VS890 and VS1880), a new V-Guitar system (the VG88), plus numerous additions to the V-Drums series. At any other time, any of these might have been significant enough to demand extensive space in this history, but this was a year in which Roland released two new technologies that were to reshape their presence in the synthesizer and hi-tech markets.
If there was one area in which 'virtual' technology had yet to find a home it was that of sampling. However, this was to change with the arrival of another 'V', which Roland called Variphrase, and which first appeared in the VP9000 Variphrase Processor (see the box on the next page). The VP9000 held great promise, and Roland were confident of its success at the time. They must have been equally disappointed, therefore, at the subsequent lack of it.
Nonetheless, the underlying technology lent itself to numerous applications, and Variphrase soon appeared in a second Roland product, the VA7 'Arranger' keyboard, an auto-accompaniment instrument that was aimed squarely at the domestic and solo/live markets served by the 'E' and 'G' series. Inevitably, the VA7's version of Variphrase was more limited than that of the VP9000, although it had 48 vocal samples pre-loaded to allow players to add backing vocals to the type of tracks that one would expect to hear emanating from a keyboard of this sort. And, if you preferred not to embark upon a sampling career, there were separately sold Variphrase sample libraries on CD in a variety of styles such as Gospel, World music, and Jazz/R&B. There were even libraries of sax and scat jazz vocal phrases. Nevertheless, if you wanted to use your own samples you could do so, and, amazingly, the sample time offered by the VA7 was longer than that of the VP9000.
While the introduction of Variphrase was important, there were three other new products in 2000 that represented the first significant developments in PCM-based synthesis since the JV80 had appeared in 1992. The best of these was the XV5080, a nominally 128-voice, 32-part multitimbral powerhouse with a huge internal wave memory (but see the box below about manuals and specifications). This offered four slots for SRJV80 boards, four more for the new SRX-format synth expansion cards, extensive sample-replaying capabilities, a large screen, three MFX effects units, and R-Bus. Admittedly, the XV5080's effects section was still not fully multitimbral, and there were a number of shortcomings within its operating system, but many of these were overcome in subsequent revisions. In every way, the XV5080 replaced the JV2080, and it was not long before the SRX boards began to absorb the waveforms from the SRJV80 collection.
If your ambition didn't reach to the XV5080, there was a less capable (and more affordable) version called the XV3080, but it lost rather a lot of the spec that made the XV5080 attractive. There were fewer expansion slots, a two-line LCD, no sample playback, fewer I/O options, just one MFX processor, and no COSM effects.
The XV88 had much more potential; it offered a beautiful, weighted 88-note keyboard and was undoubtedly a player's instrument, but one has to ask... If Roland were going to build a flagship keyboard synth, why did they then saddle it with the emasculated synth engine of the XV3080 when it could have been based on the XV5080? It was a mistake that could easily have been avoided.
In other areas, there were some excellent additions to Roland's piano ranges, especially in the area of digital grand pianos. These had existed since the company had launched the HP7700 in 1992, but they had never been large sellers, perhaps because pianists who appreciate a nine-foot Bösendorfer are likely to be far more critical of the touch and sound of a digital emulation than those who would otherwise play Granny's 100-year-old upright. But the KR1070 and its smaller brethren represented significant advances over the earlier model, in terms of both the hammer action and the sophisticated speaker system that utilised a soundboard to obtain a more authentic timbre. The results were first-class, and although the KR1070 was never likely to be a huge seller, it deserves mention simply because it sounded great and looked gorgeous.
Elsewhere, there were more Groove products, and some rather attractive, cheaper products. One of these was the Boss BR8, an eight-track recorder that drew much of its technology from the VS880, but was presented in a simplified form aimed squarely at guitarists. At the same end of the spectrum, the Edirol U8 deserves a mention, combining USB-based audio and MIDI interfacing with a USB MIDI interface, audio effects, and a basic eight-channel control surface. Products such as this demonstrated that it was no longer possible to think of Edirol as merely a sales division of Roland.
Happily, Ikutaro Kakehashi had by now regained his health, and in 2000 he was inducted into Hollywood's Rockwalk, with his stone lying adjacent to those of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Dr Bob Moog, Stevie Wonder, Smokie Robinson and Buddy Guy. Now, there's an interesting guest list for a dinner party!
The basis of Variphrase is a combination of pitch-shifting, time-warping, and formant manipulation which, while perhaps appearing very different from one another, are really aspects of the same problem. Roland made a big deal of Variphrase, claiming (for example) that the formant-analysis and formant-shifting capabilities of the VP9000 would allow you to distribute a single sample across a whole keyboard without munchkinisation (it didn't manage this, of course). However, it did allow you to re-pitch sung vocals and synchronise phrases without worrying too much about the original pitch and tempo at which they were recorded, allowing you to shift the key and tempo of sampled phrases to fit other elements of your music.
The VP9000 offered a maximum of 136MB of RAM, an internal ZIP drive, two SCSI interfaces (although no R-Bus digital interface) plus the ubiquitous COSM and RSS effects processor. It also had the ability to read Roland S770-series and Akai S1000-series samples via SCSI (although patch and performance data were lost), plus AIFF and WAV files. But it had two Achilles heels. In an era when 128 voices and 32 parts were becoming the norm, the VP9000 was at best six-voice polyphonic and six-part multitimbral. What's more, the stretchable, repitchable samples that the VP9000 generated after its analysis processing required nearly double the RAM of untreated audio, so the maximum sample length was just 25 seconds of stereo audio. But despite these shortcomings, the VP9000 made it possible to do things that had never before been possible, or — to be more precise — had only been possible at the expense of a great deal of time and effort.
Later in 2000, Roland announced the V-Producer software package, which allowed owners to control up to six VP9000s from a Macintosh, thus creating an amazing 36-voice, 36-part multitimbral Variphrase set-up. However, the total cost would have been more than £15,000, so it's highly unlikely that anyone ever did so!
The VP9000 suffered from being neither a traditional sampler, nor a conventional processor, nor a groove product. People weren't sure what it was, or whether they wanted one, so the street price was soon falling, and it was possible to find one in the UK at very reasonable prices for a while. But although the VP9000 itself never caught on, the technology it introduced shows greater longevity, and you'll now find Variphrase in many disparate Roland products.
2001 MAJOR PRODUCT LAUNCHES
AMP, MIXERS & SPEAKERS
- DB900 D-Bass amp.
- DS90A monitor.
- KC1000 keyboard amplifier.
- VGA5 V-Guitar amplifier.
- BF3 flanger.
- BR532 digital studio.
- DR670 Dr Rhythm.
- EQ20 advanced EQ.
- GP20 Amp Factory.
- GT6 guitar effects.
- GT6B bass effects.
- MD2 Mega Distortion.
- ME33 multi-effects.
- OC20G poly octave.
- RC20 Loopstation.
- SP303 Dr Sample.
- SP505 sampling workstation.
- WP20G wave processor.
- DIGITAL RECORDERS & MIXERS
- AR200 & AR3000 audio recorders.
- CDX1 multitrack CD recorder/audio workstation.
- VE7000 edit controller.
- VS2480 digital studio workstation.
- DA2496 audio interface.
- MA10A/MA10D micro monitor speakers.
- SCD70 Sound Canvas.
- SD90 USB digital studio.
- UA1A & UA1D USB audio interfaces.
- UA3 USB audio capture.
- UA5 USB audio capture.
- UM1S & UM2E USB MIDI interfaces.
- UM880 USB MIDI interface.
- VSC MP1 virtual Sound Canvas.
- EM15 & EM25 creative keyboards.
- VA3 V-Arranger keyboard.
- Atelier AT10S/AT20S/AT60S/AT80S & AT90S.
- KR277/KR377/KR577S 'Intelligent' pianos.
- RD150 & RD700 stage pianos.
- SPD6 percussion pad.
- TD6K compact drum system.
- CY12H/CY14C/CY15R V-Cymbals (V-Drum add-ons).
SYNTHS & HI-TECH
- D2 Groovebox.
- FA76 (Fantom) synthesizer.
- RS5 & RS9 synths.
- DV7 Video Canvas.
- DV7C controller for DV7.
The next year was a big one for Roland. In Japan, the company spent a considerable sum upgrading the concert hall that formed part of their Hamamatsu research facilities, and acquired Victor Music Technique Ltd, a network of music schools. Elsewhere, they established Roland Brasil, and Roland Electronics Suzhou Co. Ltd, a Chinese company that would quickly become an important Asian manufacturing centre. But in the midst of all this activity and growth, Ikutaro Kakehashi resigned as Chairman, and was appointed instead as a 'Special Consultant' to the Roland Corporation. Apparently, as a gesture toward Kakehashi's lifelong interest in astronomy, the company gave him a telescope to mark his retirement. Someone was heard to suggest that this would enable him to keep a close eye on things from his home overlooking Hamamatsu.
Boss had been producing single-function stomp boxes since 1976 and, by 2001, millions had been sold worldwide. Later, in 1988, a new type of Boss effects pedal appeared. The ME5 was perhaps the world's first programmable multi-effects processor in a floor-standing unit, and spawned a huge family of 'ME' and 'BE' (bass effects) products. Alongside these, there were numerous rackmount units, half-rack micro-systems, drum machines, and a plethora of smaller product ranges, but it was for its compact stomp boxes and multi-effects that the company remained best known.
Then, in 2001, Boss announced a range of effects pedals, proclaiming 'A New Era in Boss Pedals'. These were the Twin Pedals, so called because they were slightly wider than the traditional compact effects and had... well, twin pedals. Initially, there were five of these. The GP20 Amp Factory was yet another incarnation of 'V' technology, offering 22 COSM amplifier models and five speaker cabinet models, all coupled to a standard Gain/EQ/Master control section. The second was the EQ20 Advanced EQ. The third was the RC20 Loopstation, a sampling pedal with 330 seconds of recording time, sound-on-sound facilities, and time-stretching abilities. Later in the year, the OC20G Poly Octave and WP20G Wave Processor appeared. All of these pedals offered more than Boss's simple stomp boxes, but without the seeming complexity of the company's multi-effects units. It remains to be seen whether the Twin Pedals will achieve the cult status of their predecessors.
A second notable product appeared at the end of the year, but many players did not view it kindly because, while it promised much, it delivered far less. It was the FA76 Fantom keyboard workstation. Roland gave this a sleek new appearance, including a large 320 x 240 LCD, but in truth, the Fantom was — like the entry-level RS5 and RS9 — a repackaged XV synth with just 64 voices rather than 128. Moreover, while it claimed to offer 1024 patches, these included 256 GM2 sounds and 640 presets, which left just 128 memories for players' own patches. Then there was the Fantom's ability to replay samples... or, rather the lack of it. Almost all the flagship workstations from other manufacturers offered this, so Roland were at a disadvantage at the very top of the synth market.
In retrospect, the FA76 was merely a replacement for the XP80, with a similar keyboard and a similar provision of controls, outputs, and slots for expansion boards. However, the Fantom could host two of the newer SRX boards, but only a single older SRJV80 board, so many XP80 owners would not have been able to upgrade without deciding which three of their four SR boards they would have to discard. Just as with the XV88 the year before, the company got it wrong, and customers noticed; even Roland admitted that the Fantom did not sell well.
On the other hand, Edirol's Video Canvases were progressing nicely. The DV7 offered native DV import and export, much better resolution than the V5 (up to 720 x 576 in PAL), a 60GB removable drive capable of storing up to 250 minutes of video, a CD-ROM drive for loading bitmaps, JPEGs and audio files, more real-time video effects, Roland's standard palette of audio effects, and titling. With sophisticated on-screen editing and the optional DV7C controller, the DV7 could create programmes to a far higher standard than had been possible on the V5. But perhaps the DV7's most interesting feature was Roland's new V-Link interface, which allowed users to link video clips to musical events. This meant that you could use a synth or workstation equipped with a V-Link interface to control video parameters such as dissolve or playback speed, or even colour. The company suggested that this would be an exciting development for clubs, where DJs could trigger video and audio clips and effects using suitably equipped keyboards and Grooveboxes. To this end, many Roland synths and Groove products sprouted V-Link capabilities over the next couple of years.
2002 MAJOR PRODUCT LAUNCHES
AMPS, MIXERS & SPEAKERS
- M1000 digital line mixer.
- VGA3 V-Guitar amp.
- DS30A monitors.
- KC60 keyboard amp.
- BF3 flanger.
- BR1180 & BR1180CD digital recording studio.
- CE20 chorus ensemble.
- DD6 delay.
- GT6B bass multi-effects.
- MD2 Mega Distortion.
- OD20 Drive Zone.
- PW10 V-Wah.
- RV5 reverb.
DIGITAL RECORDERS & MIXERS
- VS1824 digital studio workstation.
- VS2480CD v2 upgrade.
- HQ orchestral software synth.
- Hyper Canvas HQ software synth.
- MA5A & MA5D micro monitors.
- SD20 USB/MIDI Studio Canvas.
- SD80 USB/MIDI Studio Canvas.
- Super Quartet HQ software synth.
- UA20 MIDI/audio interface.
- UA3D USB audio interface.
- UA700 USB audio capture.
- UM550 USB MIDI interface.
- V4 video mixer.
- RSS303 RSS ambient system.
- GK2B divided bass pickup.
- V-Bass modelling bass system.
- EM15D/EM25D creative keyboards.
- EM55 interactive keyboard.
- VA76 V-Arranger keyboard.
- VK8 virtual tonewheel organ.
- HP11 mini grand piano.
- CY12R & CY12C ride & crash V-Cymbals.
- RMP1 rhythm coach pack.
- TDA700 monitor system.
- TMC6 trigger MIDI controller.
SYNTHS & HI-TECH
- MC09 phrase lab.
- MC909 sampling Groovebox.
- MMP2 mic modelling preamp.
- SH32 synthesizer.
- SI24 studio interface.
- XV2020 synth module.
- XV5050 synth module.
In 2002, Ikutaro Kakehashi received a Musikmesse International Press Lifetime Achievement Award (MIPA) in Frankfurt for his contribution to the music industry. However, he was no longer at the helm of Roland, and, as had happened briefly 10 years before, it was beginning to seem that the company had lost their way; there were more new products than ever, but without much in the way of the groundbreaking developments that had forged Roland's reputation. The year's VA76 V-Arranger keyboard was simply a development of the VA7, and the big news for V-Drum users was that you could now buy systems in three colours! More interesting was the VS2480CD, with its motorised faders, 64-channel mixer, dual R-Bus connectors, optional meterbridge, CD-RW drive, 80GB drive, support for a VGA monitor, plus improved editing and waveform editing. But while impressive, there was nothing actually new here.
The AX7 strap-on MIDI controller keyboard was similar; it added a D-Beam controller and improved MIDI capabilities to a design rather like that of the AX1 launched 10 years before, but again, this was evolution, not revolution.
The VK8 organ was another problem child. It should have been the more powerful, more useable successor to the VK7, but it proved to be both less powerful and less useable. The main problem was the lack of a screen, which meant that you had to learn the most impenetrable key-presses and control combinations to get any editing done. Even if you managed to find the right parameter, the instrument offered almost no feedback about the existing value, nor any about the new value that you were programming. The VK8's organ generator sounded authentic, but its other sounds were inferior to those of the VK7, and it even lost the VK7's performance controls. In the view of many of its potential players, the VK8 had not been thought out properly.
Elsewhere, the XV5050 was a more affordable, if somewhat compromised, sibling for the XV3080 and XV5080. Then there was the XV2020, a neat replacement for the JV1010. This made XV synthesis (of the 3080 variety) available at an affordable price, as long as you were prepared to work with a computer-based editor. On another front, the V-Bass brought modelling to our low-frequency brethren. Here at least was something new: Roland had developed a new branch of COSM that they called COSM Bass, and a new pickup — the GK2B — specifically for four-, five- and six-string bass guitars.
An attempt to look both backwards and forwards, the SH32 resurrected the 'SH' name that had last appeared on the SH101. A quick glance at the controls confirmed Roland's intention to market this as a return to its classic era, although the connection between an analogue monosynth and a four-voice, four-part multitimbral 'virtual' analogue with pretensions of Groovedom was rather tenuous. The engine at the core of the SH32 had a very silly name... (Wave Acceleration Sound Generation, or WASG), but it was at heart a conventional modelled analogue synth with lots of vintage-style waveforms, a multi-mode filter, a couple of contour generators, a couple of LFOs, and the now-obligatory effects section. To this, the company added a rhythm sound generator, and an arpeggiator that included four-part pattern generation. Unfortunately, despite an appealing sound, the SH32 was built to its affordable price, offering a diabolically impenetrable two-digit display, and a number of unexpected limitations. In consequence, what should have been a neat, successful product did not achieve its full potential.
Perhaps the neatest product of 2002 was one of the smallest. The MMP2 took the front end of the V-Studios, and converted it into a neat little preamp with COSM microphone modelling, EQ, and dynamics. But this was hardly new, either. So where was the highlight of 2002? For me, it was the Boss BR1180CD digital recorder. A cut-down V-Studio, this was an affordable alternative for players who had no need for the power of the latest VS-series recorders. Nevertheless, the thing that made it special was neither its form nor function. It was Roland's description of the 1180CD's simplified recording and mixing system. In a year otherwise bereft of excitement, anything based on the "manual shmanual concept" gets the vote for Product Of The Year from me!
2003 MAJOR PRODUCT LAUNCHES
AMPS, MIXERS & SPEAKERS
- AC60 acoustic guitar combo.
- Cube 30 bass amp.
- KC150/KC350/KC550 keyboard amps.
- AD8 acoustic guitar processor.
- BCB60 pedalboard.
- BR864 digital eight-track.
- DD20 digital delay.
- DR3 Dr Rhythm.
- GS10 guitar effects.
- ME50 multi-effects.
- OC3 Super Octave.
DIGITAL RECORDERS & MIXERS
- VS2400CD digital studio workstation.
- MV8000 production studio.
- M100FX mixer/USB audio interface.
- M10E battery-powered mixer.
- MA10 speakers.
- MA20D desktop reference speakers.
- PCR50 MIDI/USB controller keyboard.
- PCR80 61-key MIDI/USB controller keyboard.
- UA1000 USB 2.0 audio interface.
- UA1X USB audio interface.
- UA3FX USB audio interface with effects.
- UM1X/UM1SX/UM2C USB MIDI interfaces.
- UR80 USB recording system.
- GI20 MIDI interface.
- VG88 v2 V-Guitar system.
- Discover 5 & Discover 5M real-time orchestrators.
- VK8M module.
- KR11/KR15/KR15M/KR17M grand pianos.
- RD170 stage piano.
- PCK1 practice conversion kit.
- RT7K kick trigger, RT5S snare trigger, and RT3T tom trigger.
- SPDS sampling pad.
- TD8KV V-Drum kit.
SYNTHS & HI-TECH
- Fantom S/S88 workstations.
- RS50 & RS70 synths.
- V-Synth software upgrade.
- VariOS (including VariOS8 & VariOS303).
- VR760 V-Combo.
Roland followed the previous couple of 'quiet' years with an explosion of important releases in 2003. Moreover, they made a serious attempt to regain their reputation for producing innovative and desirable synthesizers. Among many other notable products, it was the year of the Fantom S, the V-Synth, and the VariOS module.
The 61-note Fantom S and its 88-note sibling, the Fantom S88, were important because, for the first time in well over a decade, they gave Roland a chance to co-exist alongside Korg, Kurzweil and Yamaha at the top of the keyboard pecking order. The S-series Fantoms looked the part, and although they offered just 64-voice polyphony (which, in practice, meant as little as 16 notes!) they included the full complement of MFX processors, a handful of innovative new COSM and RSS effects, a new buss structure, and some new programming functions. They also incorporated an enhanced ROM with some improved multisamples and some completely new ones. The S88 even offered a dedicated piano mode that allowed you to get the best from its weighted 88-note keyboard.
If you wanted to expand the S series still further, they offered four SRX slots (the SRJV80 slots were finally consigned to the dustbin of history). You could also increase the sample RAM up to 288MB, although you couldn't access both the boards and the full memory simultaneously. Hang on a second... sampling? Indeed. Both Fantom S models were powerful samplers, and their audio outputs were routed internally to their sampling inputs, meaning that you could sample your musical performances (whether sequenced or played from the keyboard) in real time, and then manipulate these in all manner of interesting ways. Unfortunately, although they could import individual samples, the Fantom Ss were unable to import existing sample libraries and multisamples, whether in Roland format or otherwise. Once again, as far as an important aspect of their spec was concerned, Roland's flagship S&S synths were less desirable than those of their competitors.
Three more releases made use of the XV sound engine, COSM effects and V-Link. These were the low-cost RS50 and RS70, and the rather useful VR760, the last of which combined the VK-series organ generator with some very useable pianos, some excellent electric pianos, and a limited selection of synth sounds. But the second big synthesizer of 2003 was the V-Synth which, at the time of writing, is still a current model, and perhaps the natural successor to the Jupiter 8, the Super JX10 and the D50. It makes few concessions to polyphony (just eight voices if used to the full), few to multitimbrality, and none to being a workstation. The V-Synth is, above all, a synthesizer, in the grand tradition.
In short, the V-Synth combines powerful S&S and virtual-analogue synth engines with sampling and Variphrase. The last of these is implemented in its full form, and you can use the encoded Variphrase samples just as you would use PCMs from the synth's permanent memory. Not that the memory is permanent in the conventional sense; the factory PCMs are held in a backup ROM which is loaded into RAM when you switch on. If you want to use only your own sounds (or a selection of factory and user sounds) you can do so, using a combination of PCM samples, your own samples, encoded Variphrase samples, and VA oscillators. Oh yes... and you can use the external input as a real-time sound source, too.
With its configurable oscillators, COSM filters, COSM effects, a powerful arpeggiator, extensive performance controllers, and even a touch-sensitive screen, the V-Synth should be sweeping the world by storm. So why isn't it? In part, this may be because the polyphony is simply too low for the 21st century. I hope that Roland might one day deal with this by combining the Fantom and V-Synth architectures into a single, world-beating super-synth. But for those players prepared to take the plunge, the existing V-Synth is already a remarkable instrument.
The third major synth released in 2003 was the curious VariOS, which Roland described as an 'Open System Module'. This was not, strictly speaking, a synthesizer, a sampler or an audio processor, but a DSP engine that performed no tasks until you loaded the appropriate software, and then controlled it from your PC or Mac. It arrived with three such modules: V-Producer, VariOS8 and VariOS303.
V-Producer provided sampling, a limited implementation of Variphrase, sequencing and effects. However, it was not the VariOS itself that performed the sampling... it was the computer. But it was not the computer that produced the audio... it was VariOS. While the concept of a computer-based controller for a software-configurable instrument is not new, this division of tasks is uncomfortable, and undoubtedly contributed to the VariOS's lack of immediate success. The VariOS8 and VariOS303 modules emulated the Jupiter 8 and TB303 respectively. Like most other 'virtual' software renditions of older instruments, these offered additional options that improved the functionality in sympathetic ways but, in my view, Roland missed the point with both of them. For me, much of the appeal of the original instruments was the way that they responded to real-time reprogramming of their sound parameters (slider-pushing and knob-twiddling, in other words), to the extent that the VariOS implementation was unsatisfying, no matter how accurate it sounded. Nevertheless, there's an even greater reason why VariOS has been unsuccessful. By late 2004, when this was written, Roland had released no further modules for it, nor opened the platform to external developers. I suspect that VariOS — at least in the form in which it was originally released — may already be a dead duck. If it isn't, the last quack can't be far away.
By the end of 2003, it was clear that the music industry had gone into decline following the collapse of the dot-com boom, and sales of hardware musical instruments in the project-studio sector were being undermined by software instruments, which were themselves failing to turn respectable profits due to rampant piracy. Roland, who had made a respectable profit of 32 million dollars on a turnover of $580m in 2000, were not immune to the effects of these changes. In 2001, their profits deteriorated to 6.4 million dollars, in 2002 to $2.3m, and then, in 2003, the company made a loss of $9.9m on a turnover that had diminished to $528m.
With a turnover of around £350,000,000 per annum and around 2000 employees worldwide, Roland are one of the most highly respected manufacturers in the music industry.
Created in 1973 to keep Kakehashi's staff occupied, Boss were formed as a separate entity to enable Roland to market diverse types of products independently to keyboard players and guitarists. They have notched up sales approaching 10,000,000 units.
Edirol's brief is to develop and market Desktop Media Production products. They develop their own audio products and computer music peripherals, and their low-cost video-editing systems occupy an important niche in a rapidly growing market.
Rodgers are one of the world's leading manufacturers of pipe organs and, thanks in part to their adoption of Roland's RSS technology, are perhaps the leading exponent of digital church organs and digital/pipe hybrids.
ROLAND ED CORPORATION
Not to be confused with the transitional 'Roland ED' brand name which adorned early Edirol products, Roland ED Corporation were formed in 1977, and are distant descendents of Roland's guitar product group. In recent years, they have been responsible for manufacturing products such as the V-Guitars and V-Studios, which now generate a non-trivial proportion of the Group's income.
ROLAND DG CORPORATION
AMDEK Corporation were established in 1981 to take advantage of the burgeoning market for home-computer peripherals. In 1983, their name was changed to 'Roland DG Corporation' and today they are world leaders in the fields of graphics, engraving, milling, 3D scanning and 3D modelling.
ROLAND IP CORPORATION
A largely unseen wing of the Roland Group, the IP Corporation license the Group's intellectual property to develop and manufacture equipment for companies in the wider entertainment industries such as public address and karaoke.
ROLAND TECH CORPORATION
Established in 1987 to develop cabinetry and new finishes for Roland's piano products, Roland Tech now design office equipment and third-party products for computer manufacturers.
2004 MAJOR PRODUCT LAUNCHES
AMPS, MIXERS & SPEAKERS
- CM30 Cube monitor.
- Cube 60 guitar combo.
- CB100 bass combo.
- DM10 and DM20 digital monitors.
- DM2100 2.1 monitor system.
- DS5 DS7 & DS8 digital monitors.
- Micro Cube guitar amp.
- BR1600CD digital recording studio.
- DB60 Dr Beat metronome.
- DR880 Dr Rhythm.
- FS6 dual footswitch.
- ME50B bass multi-effects.
- RC20XL phrase recorder.
- SYB5 bass synth.
- TU80 chromatic tuner and metronome.
- FR5 & FR7
DIGITAL RECORDERS & MIXERS
- MV8000 v2 update and MV8 VGA expansion option.
- VS2000CD digital recording studio.
- VS2480DVD digital recording studio.
- VS8F3 plug-in effects expansion board.
- DV7DL Pro and DV7DL video-editing systems.
- FA101 Firewire audio interface.
- LVS400 video mixer.
- P1 photo presenter.
- PCR1 USB MIDI controller/audio interface.
- UA1000 USB2 audio interface.
- UR80 control surface.
- V1 video mixer.
- VMC1 video optimiser & video media converter.
- GK3 divided pickup.
- GK3B divided bass pickup
- GR20 guitar synth.
- EXR3/EXR5/EXR7 interactive arranger keyboards.
- Atelier AT45, AT60SL, AT80SL & AT90SL.
- HP101/HP103/HP107 digital pianos.
- HPi7 digital piano.
- CY8 trigger pad.
- FD8 hi-hat pedal.
- KD8 trigger pad.
- PD8 trigger pad.
- PD105 and PD125 V-Pads.
- TD3 V-Drum module.
- TD3 V-Drum kit.
- TD6V V-Drum module.
- TD6KV V-Tour Series kit.
- TD20 V-Drum sound module.
- TD20K V-Pro Series kit.
- VH12 hi-hat.
- SYNTHS & HI-TECH
- Fantom X6/X7/X8 keyboard workstations.
- Fantom XR synth module.
- Juno D synth keyboard.
- SP606 Groovesampler.
- VC1 D50 card for V-Synth.
So, finally, we arrive at the last complete year of Roland's history (so far) — and it was a challenging one for the company. But as we've seen throughout this story, Roland have been through similar difficult or fallow periods before and recovered. And despite the share of unsuccessful products released over the previous few years, there was much to praise in 2004. According to Roland, the V-Drum systems continued to be a major source of revenue for them. This isn't surprising, as none of Roland's competitors have yet developed better electronic drum kits. And then there were the still-current video products in Edirol's DTMP portfolio. The DV7DL Pro offers many new video-editing functions when compared with its predecessor, while the LVS400 adds four-channel real-time video mixing, transitions and picture-in-picture functions. A simpler unit, the V1 Video Mixer, offers similar facilities, while the P1 Photo Presenter allows users to trigger still images using V-Link or MIDI. If Roland prove right, and video production one day becomes as accessible as audio production is in the project-studio market, the company will be perfectly positioned to take advantage.
Another source of encouragement lies in the 2004 release of the Fantom X6, X7 and X8 workstations. One can summarise the evolution of the Fantoms as follows: the original was poor, the S models — though suffering from the odd inexplicable flaw — were much better, and the recent X models are really rather good. They offer improved PCMs, double the polyphony, almost double the sample RAM, a larger sequencer, improved I/O, and a colour LCD that makes programming clearer and easier than before. The rackmount version, the Fantom XR, loses the colour screen, the sequencer and half of the user memory, but gains another two expansion slots, allowing it to host no fewer than six SRX boards. Unfortunately, it seems that the X-series Fantoms are still unable to import Roland or Akai sample libraries directly, being limited to WAV and AIFF files. To be honest, the Fantom X needs a fully developed sample-loading system, plus the V-Synth's touchscreen — though the first of these may be on the way in the form of a sample data conversion tool that will apparently be supplied with the bundled editor/librarian.
At the other end of the keyboard spectrum, Roland have also announced the Juno D, resurrecting another revered name from their history, just as they did with the SH32. Looking like nothing so much as a black RS50, this is Juno-esque in the sense that it is low-cost and simple to use. However, contrary to expectation, it eschews the virtual-analogue technologies of the V-Synth and VariOS, and is a PCM-based synth. With lots of useable sounds, good effects, an arpeggiator, and bundled PC and Mac editing software, it appears to be good value, but I think that Roland have made a mistake by raising people's expectations ('It's the return of the Juno!') and then dashing them again ('No, it's not!').
More interesting, although unheard at the time of writing, is the VC1 'D50' V-Card for the V-Synth. This purports to recreate the D50 as a virtual synth within the V-Synth itself, even to the extent of being able to load original D50 patch data via MIDI. If it truly recreates the feel and sound of the original, I can see the VC1 becoming a 'must-have' add-on for V-Synth owners.
Nevertheless, it would be sad if the most exciting product in 2004 were an expansion board that recreates a technology from 17 years earlier, so where can we look to find signs of Roland's innovative genius? To answer this, we have to return to 1964, to Kakehashi's first NAMM show. While investigating other companies' activities, he discovered that many were involved with manufacturing and distributing accordions. In 1967, while still CEO of Ace Electronics, he travelled to Italy to gather information and source parts that would allow Ace to manufacture a new breed of instruments, electronic accordions. For reasons lost to history, this didn't happen, although several Italian manufacturers later unveiled such instruments. Nonetheless, Kakehashi remained interested in the concept, and, given the close proximity of Roland Europe to the home of the accordion, Castelfidardo, they were never far from his mind.
Amazingly, Roland have now applied the letter 'V' to create two V-Accordions, the FR5 and the FR7, which include an integrated battery pack, amplifiers and speakers. These boast a bellows pressure-sensor, a new algorithm that Roland call 'Physical Behaviour Modelling', and physically modelled voicing to reproduce the sounds and nuances of the real instruments. The company claim that the V-Accordions can 'switch from Italian jazz to German folk, French musette, or historic bandoneon' with complete authenticity. If so, they might become successful in countries such as those of central Europe, central and South America, and Japan, where accordion music is still an important part of musical culture.
Given that the FR5 and FR7 are unavailable at the time of writing, we have reached the end of what can be said about Roland's history at present. And despite my best efforts to keep things brief, the history has run to more than 50,000 words. This was inevitable... thanks to Ikutaro Kakehashi's knack for finding new product niches and creating specialist companies to fill them, Roland are now a worldwide conglomerate with more than 20 joint-venture sales companies, research facilities and manufacturing plants in the USA, UK, China, Taiwan, Italy and Australia, not to mention the laboratories and factories within Japan itself. Consequently, it has been impossible to avoid omitting important products and events, let alone minor details. If I have dismissed your favourite product with no more than a glancing mention, I'm sorry.
So, what of the future? Approaching his 75th birthday (which he will be celebrating on 7th February 2005, just before this magazine comes out), Ikutaro Kakehashi clearly believes that technology and music will bond further, creating new opportunities for manufacturers and their customers. As he has said, "The only way to affect tomorrow's news is to make tomorrow's news ourselves". Whether Roland will be making the news quite as frequently without the man who founded it and guided it remains to be seen. Kakehashi not only brought entrepreneurial flair, an acute business acumen and technical expertise to everything he did, but he appears to have coupled these to an understated wisdom and a keen understanding of human nature — a rare combination. In the four years since he retired, Roland have made some uncharacteristic misjudgements, and that, perhaps, is the measure of Ikutaro Kakehashi and his achievements.
But Roland Corporation may have weathered the storm. The most recent annual figures, released just before this article went to press, show that the company increased turnover by nearly 15 percent in 2004, and made a profit of 10.6 million US dollars. So although there are those who argue that Kakehashi should be given a bigger telescope for his birthday, we can already see that Roland have turned an important corner and returned to profitability without his involvement on a day-to-day basis. To quote the company, "The future is still under construction".