This year (2022) Roland celebrates its 50th anniversary — so perhaps now is a good time to take a look back at the various landmark electronic and digital pianos the company has produced over the years. But first the “origin story”.
Roland’s founder, Ikutaro Kakehashi (1930-2017), nicknamed “Taro”, was originally a mechanical engineer and as a student worked in the Hitachi shipyards. After the war, he worked as a surveyor’s assistant, a watch repairer, and an agricultural worker, before getting into electronics.
His interest in music led him to build a small electronic organ. Whilst this was never marketed it did lead to him designing an organ for Technics – the SX601.
The breakthrough product for Kakehashi’s firm, then Ace Electronic Industries, was the FR1 Rhythm Ace (1967) – possibly the world’s first electronic drum machine. It was a runaway success. And the FR1’s technology was subsequently purchased by Hammond for their upcoming range of home organs.
Following a series of take-overs, Kakehashi parted company with Ace Electronic. And in 1972 he founded the Roland Corporation. Its first product was the TR77 rhythm box.
Why did Kakehashi choose “Roland” for the name of his new company? Simply because he wanted a pleasant-sounding, two-syllable word that was easy to pronounce. “Roland” fitted the bill. Supposedly he came across the name in a telephone book.
In 1973 Roland launched Japan’s first synthesizer – the SH1000, followed by their first electronic piano – the EP-10.
Roland went on to be a world leader in the design and manufacture of musical instruments and studio products. Here are some of their most innovative electronic and digital pianos.
Roland EP-10 and EP-20
When compared with today’s digital pianos, the Roland EP10 was a pretty poor instrument. It had a five-octave (F-F) keyboard that wasn’t touch-sensitive, so was it really a piano? The controls consisted of four preset buttons (two pianos, and two harpsichords) and a volume knob.
But remember this was one of the very first such electronic instruments ever built, and surprisingly for the time, it was incredibly reliable.
The EP-20 appeared later the same year (1973). This included a mixer for the piano and harpsichord presets, and a vibrato feature.
The groundbreaking Roland EP-30 (1974) was the world’s first electronic piano with a touch-sensitive keyboard. This feature was then the holy grail. The player could now add expression. Sensors measure the velocity each key is played – the faster the key is struck, the louder the note. From the mid-late 70s, virtually all new electronic pianos had to be touch-sensitive.
The EP-30’s controls included: Volume, which can be pulled out to turn off velocity sensing; Tone; Vibrato (depth and speed); four presets (2 Pianos, 2 Harpsichords); and a Bass preset that adds a bass tone to the bottom 1-½ octaves.
Electronic and Electric
Electronic pianos are not the same as electric (aka electro-mechanical) pianos. An electronic piano generates its output signal purely using electronic circuitry— other than the keyboard there are no moving parts. An electric piano, however, takes an oscillating medium, such as a string, tine or reed, and amplifies it. Touch-sensitive electric pianos such as the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzers had been around for some years prior to Roland introducing the EP-30.
In 1977 Roland launched the 75-note MP-700. This was one of the first two electronic pianos to have a weighted keyboard. The other was the Yamaha CP-30. The MP-700, however, was not a great commercial success, being too heavy and too expensive.
MIDI and the Roland HP-300 and HP-400
By 1980 many companies were producing electronic musical instruments. But there was no standard way in which they could communicate with one another. Kakehashi approached various industry authorities to address this. And in 1981 Dave Smith and Chet Wood, from US synthesiser maker Sequential Circuits Inc., published draft specifications of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface).
In essence, MIDI allowed electronic instruments to be linked, or to be controlled from an external source such as a computer, sequencer or master keyboard.
In 1982 the Roland Jupiter-6 (synthesizer) was one of the first two instruments to be released with MIDI.
And in 1983 the Roland HP-300 and HP-400 became the first electronic pianos to feature this technology.
40 years on MIDI is still with us.
Master Keyboards and Sound Modules
With the advent of MIDI, there was an opportunity to split the actual keyboard from the sound-producing electronics of the piano. A master keyboard could thus be used to control various different tone modules—including those producing piano sounds.
Roland introduced the MKB-1000 in 1984. This was one of the first master (mother) keyboards, with 88 velocity-sensitive, weighted, wooden keys.
The same year Roland also launched the MKS-10—the world’s first piano module. Also known as Planet-P, it offered 8 analogue presets classed as Pianos, Clavis, Harpsichords, and Electric Pianos. But it had limited polyphony —only 16 notes could sound simultaneously.
The RD-1000 Stage Piano
In 1986 Roland unveiled a new technology called Structured/Adaptive Synthesis (SAS). This involves sampling and analysing the sound of an acoustic piano, and creating a set of algorithms mapping harmonic content to key velocity. As a result, Roland engineers were able to produce an instrument that really sounded like its acoustic cousin. However, the RD-1000 was again only 16-voice polyphonic. The MKS-20 is the module version of the RD-1000.
The following year the same SAS technology was incorporated in Roland’s range of home pianos — HP-5600S/HP-5500S/HP-4500S/HP-3000S.
Rhodes and Roland
In 1987 Roland purchased legendary electric piano maker Rhodes from CBS and released the Rhodes MK-80 and MK-60 in 1989. Unlike traditional Rhodes pianos which had tines as the sound source, these were digital pianos, and Harold Rhodes, the founder, didn’t like them! Roland sold the company back to Rhodes in 1997.
In 2009 Roland introduced the V-Piano which was the world’s first standalone digital piano that used modelling rather than samples to create sounds. Up to this point, physical modelling of pianos was the domain of virtual instruments such as Modartt’s Pianoteq.
The V-Piano featured Roland’s new breakthrough Progressive Hammer Action (PHA) III Ivory Feel Keyboard. This was a weighted keyboard with a slightly heavier touch in the lower octaves. It had a simulated escapement and felt more akin to a grand piano action than most other digital pianos of the time.
The original V-Piano was considered an expensive item for the time… c.$6,000 and at nearly 40kg it wasn’t particularly portable.
The Kiyola KF-10
Roland produces digital pianos for both domestic and professional use. The Kiyola KF-10 (2015) is an example of Roland collaborating with outside designers—in this case, Karimoku—to produce beautiful instruments for the home. This piano features in a previous article.
50 Years On
These are just a few of the many electronic and digital pianos Roland has delivered over the past five decades. Few can disagree that Roland has been a real driving force in the evolution of the digital piano.
In 1976 Kakehashi predicted that electronic models would one day account for half of all pianos sold, a forecast that seemed ridiculous at the time. Little more than ten years later he was proved right.
A new 400-page book entitled “Inspire the Music” celebrating Roland’s 50 years of innovation is published this summer.
“I Believe in Music”, Ikutaro Kakehashi’s inspiring 2002 memoir can be ordered from Amazon via this link.
Note: World Piano News may receive a small commission if a purchase is made.