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Roland

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Prominent Japanese manufacturer of synths, effects units, drum machines, guitar amplifiers, and (through its Boss subsidary) guitar stomp box effects. Engineer Ikutaro Kakehashi established Roland in 1972 after leaving his previous venture, Ace Electronics (best known in the U.S. as the maker of the Ace Tone line of combo organs). With some staff from Ace and a substantial amount of Kakehashi's savings, the company designed and put into production its first product, the TR77 drum machine, only 90 days after founding the company. The company moved very quickly after that; the next year, it introduced its first synth, the organ-like SH1000, which became the first synth to be manufacturered in Japan, and several more keyboard instruments followed shortly, as did some guitar amps. Also, Kakehashi, faced with needing to find more work for some of his engineers, established the Boss subsidary that year.

For the next eight years, the company deveoped and marketed a dizzying array of products, including the world's first commercially produced guitar synthesizer, the GR-500, and its first modern polyphonic synth, the Jupiter-4. But in 1981, as it was getting set to introduce the now-famous Jupiter-8, its European distributor went bankrupt. Kakehashi had to scramble to recover unpaid-for merchandise and obtain credit to continue operating the company. Roland recovered from this, however, and went on to produce several now-highly-regarded synths, including the Jupiter and Juno lines, the JX line (designed and produced by the company's guitar synthesizer group), and the MKS rack-mount synths. Several other products from this period, which were lightly regarded at the time, also went on to become classics: the TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines, and the TB-303 bass synth/sequencer. When Yamaha's DX7 begin cutting into the sales of competitors' analog synths, Roland responded with the digital D-50 and subsequent models, using digital processing but with different synthesis methods than Yamaha's FM synths. Sound designers found Roland's digital synths easier to understand than Yamaha's FM methods, and Roland became one of the few '80s synth makers to respond successfully to the Yamaha challenge. Even the random things went right for Roland during this decade; a chance meeting between Kakehashi and Sequential Circuits' Dave Smith at a trade show led to a discussion of synth remote control buses, which became the genesis of MIDI. The European distribution problem was eventually solved by accquiring SIEL in 1987 and setting it up as Roland's European arm. Roland also established a subsidary called Roland DG, which originally targeted designing computer peripherals for use in music production. After several twists and turns, Roland DG became a leading maker of numerically controlled machining equipment, and moved away from the music industry.

In 1989, Roland jumped into the workstation market with the sampler-based W30, based on its previously introduced S550 sampler. This product pointed the direction to which Roland would eventually turn for most of its revenue. The XV series introduced in the mid '90s evolved into the Fantom workstation line, which today is Roland's biggest-selling product. However, there always seems to be a group at Roland ready to introduce innovative and offbeat products when they think they can get away with it. The JD-800, introduced at a time when most synths were designed with stripped-down user interfaces, stunned the world by putting knobs and switches on a digital synth. The V-Drums line revived the concept of the drum synthesizer from the '80s, and products such as the VariOS and the V-Synth have introduced new methods and principles of synthesis, such as Variphrase.

The name "Roland" was chosen by Kakehashi mainly because it was easy for Westerners to pronounce, and has nothing to do with any mythology. Roland is noted for using model numbers rather than names for most of its products; said model numbers usually consist of one or two letters followed by numbers, and any given letter or combination of letters usually corresponds to a given type of product. A model number with two digits is usually a keyboard, and a number with three digits, where the first and second digits are the same, is usually a rackmount synth. (For example, the D-550 is the rackmount version of the D-50.) A Japanese superstition holds that the number 4 is unlucky, and Roland usually avoids using a '4' in a model number or name.

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