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Roland: Providing the world with only the best electronic musical instruments

Interview - December 21, 2023

Roland Corporation has been a driver of innovation for over 50 years as a maker of electronic musical instruments—a journey woven into the very fabric of contemporary music.

GORDON RAISON, CEO OF ROLAND CORPORATION
GORDON RAISON | CEO OF ROLAND CORPORATION

Roland instruments defined a generation of musicians and your products have made countless waves in the industry. However, today music tastes have changed, with a switch from analog to digital forms of music production in the 1980s showcasing this. What does the Roland brand mean to music enthusiasts and amateurs alike?

I would say that we are a brand that is truly loved, so people who connect with our brand have a passion and an affection for what we make. I would love to say that it is a cleverly cultured image by our branding department, but it comes from the love, care, and attention to detail of the people who work for the company. It sounds sort of cliche, but it is true. I hope what it means is an element of innovation as well as an element of high quality. We are more expensive, but that is because you are buying a much higher-value product.

I met with a person who runs a music site called Reverb.com (the largest online marketplace dedicated to buying and selling new, used, and vintage musical instruments), and I complained a little about the fact that they do not do many features on Roland. They often cover Boss, but not Roland and he said that the problem was that there are not many Roland products in the second-hand market, so there is no point in running features. You will meet people who own a Roland digital drum kit that is 10-12 years old, and they last because of the quality. The quality of sound is much better with newer technology, but there becomes an emotional connection with a digital device. Take for example your mobile phone; the connection is not normally an emotional connection to the device, rather your connection is the life experience you can have thanks to it. Things like having your whole family history in the palm of your hand, that is my connection with it. The difference for us is that we are making electronic devices where the person makes a human connection to that device. You would have to pry our synthesizers from people’s dying hands to get them away from them.

Part of our magic is that we have the hardware and software, and we develop our own chipset. That is important, and while we do not fabricate (manufacture the chips), of course, all of the designs are done by us. The reason is that I need to create something that humans truly forget exactly what it is. When you sit down with our pianos, you should not think “does this feel like a real piano?” It should be an immediate interaction between human beings and instruments or equipment. If you know any drummers, they are constantly hitting stuff, and if they are not hitting things because they are in a meeting, they are tapping their legs. There is an immediate interaction and they love resonance. For them, whether it is an acoustic experience or an electronic device, there must not be any lag. This software design is clever and cutting-edge that actually takes that mechanical design and makes sure that the human being does not think twice about it.

Take the act of scrolling on your mobile phone, I am sure many teams are working on that. What is the time delay? How much pressure do you need to give? That is why people love us because there is a human-to-device connection.

 

Kevin Parker of Tame Impala stated in an interview with Pitchfork that his favorite drum sounds come from real ones and that the human brain can pick up if something is digitally reproduced. On the other hand, Damon Albarn, the mastermind behind The Gorillaz, loves his electronic preset beats. Where do you stand personally on this discussion in the music industry?

Wow, great question. It is all about the human being. I was in Nashville two or three weeks ago and we were experimenting with our V-Drums Acoustic Design series VAD706 electronic drums on 10 stages. Part of the reason you might want to use electronic drum kits like the VAD706 is that it looks cool, and for a sound engineer, you can plug it in and get the sound level. Sound engineers have to tune into the cymbal because of the sound waves it creates. This creates huge problems in complex, small, and older venues. Normally they are playing music for 18 hours a day and each of the 10 stages has a different shape and style. The reason they want to use the VAD706 is that it is a great experience for the drummer and it is wonderful for the audience because you can balance the sound so well. It always sounds good no matter where you are.

We were nervous because as you said, there are drummers who like playing electronic drums, and there are those who do not. Everybody has to play with these kits. A nod to Pioneer because if you want to be a DJ, you just turn up with a USB stick because Pioneer decks handle so much. I guess you could say the same with the VAD706 because as a drummer, you just turn up with your drumsticks, and you are good to go. I feel it does not take away from the human experience.

As an extension of that, when we purchased Drum Workshop, Inc. in October last year, the reason was that they had a hybrid approach. As a drummer, however, I may also want to hit a trigger, and that trigger may be linked to a sound or even a video these days. It is a much more complex integration, and to go back to the core of your question, I think that the transition from digital to acoustic has already happened, especially in younger people. How much are you using technology? Where is the boundary? I think some people want to have the experience of saying that they got trained in this and they love that experience. You have those who notice the difference, and you have those who really like the controllability you can only get with digital instruments.

I worked for Fender for a little while and I was talking with one of the master builders who was recreating a legendary artist’s guitar. I was standing and watching this master builder, and he said that he was worried because he was trying to get the pick-up in the guitar to sound right. He said that he had tried winding different ways and tried different gauges, but nothing sounded right. I caught up with him a few months later, and he said that he had solved the problem. He said that they usually source their copper from South America, however, the copper needed to come from Africa, and that made all the difference. How much of that is true is up for debate, but it does not matter because he believes it and if he believes it, then others will believe it. Is it marketing? I do not think so; I think it is the reality of the human experience. 

Most people do not have huge homes, so the ability to come home when everyone is asleep, plug your headphones in and play is immensely valuable. I can turn the volume down and play, and my children can learn while not annoying other family members. There are so many benefits to a digital instrument. However, from a human perspective, we need to be respectful of whatever they choose. It is how they experience joy and how they can express themselves.

 

Digital technologies have advanced in nearly every industry and music is no exception. Producers can record and compose high-quality music all from a digital workstation. For a beginner, this can be somewhat daunting, and your company has the Roland Cloud, a subscription-based service. How are you making sure that the Roland Cloud is accessible to new users? How do you believe digital technologies will further change the music industry in the next 5-10 years?

One of the next steps for the development of Roland Cloud is to penetrate down. It is known that 80% of subscribers to Roland Cloud are experienced hobbyists and professionals who sit at the ultimate level. That downward penetration comes down to the solution we offer. That is not to say that we are dissatisfied, and in fact, we are happy with the progress we have made thus far. It is just the next step, and we do have a plan for that. Unfortunately, I cannot give you that plan because it is a bit too early to share, but we are looking to share more information around mid-2024. The critical part of this is the technology, and our chip development cycle is normally around 10 years. Part of the current chipset is a variant called ZEN-Core Synthesis System which is integrated with Roland Cloud. If you take a mobile phone as an example, there is a complete connection between what happens in the cloud and what happens on your device. With musical instruments, that has not been the case. Traditionally we use MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface protocol) to communicate, or some other protocols, but this is where ZEN-core is totally different. If I am creating or layering sounds on my phone or laptop, I can get home and download it into my Roland synthesizer for a performance, or vice versa. If I am creating something on my JUPITER-X synthesizer, I can connect to Roland Cloud and if I have a FANTOM synthesizer somewhere else, or I have a friend that has a Jupiter X, I can just download it to those devices. While it may not sound that surprising these days, for musical instruments it is a breakthrough. You might see it in some DJ gear, but we have it in most of our synthesizer range. You can start sharing those sounds, and while yes, it is high-end, the Roland Cloud features are key to getting down to the rest of the community. Obviously, when you get further down, the Holy Grail is removing the barrier of entry for people to learn instruments. At the end of the day, Roland Cloud is about how we develop from the pro-expert level down.

So many people want to create music, and we as an industry owe a debt to society. We must work out how we expand that to them. It is fine creating the most beautiful instrument, but if it means you have to go through 2000 hours of practice, you are going to narrow your reach. I think TikTok has taught us there are incredible creators out there, so we want to help people deliver their journeys to the public. I think this is where the future goes in 10-20 years' time. Quantum computing, probably, but that is outside our roadmap right now. ChatGPT and Open AI have opened up our minds internally, and we have our I-Arpeggio (a new type of arpeggiator in which built-in AI analyzes your keyboard performance and switches to the optimal arpeggio pattern in real-time), which is our first generation of AI. It can sense how hard you are playing, how soft you are playing, and your skill level. It does the composition to match the way you play. It has already been in our products since about three years ago (September 2019), and it has opened the idea of more powerful computing. We are several years into our current chipset and still getting benefits, and the ability to connect to the cloud is where I believe the future goes.



Roland recently released the BRIDGE CAST, a gaming audio mixer that boasts two independent mix buses, voice-changing functions, background music playback, sound effects, and a whole range of customizability. It is Roland’s first piece of equipment targeted towards game streaming. Why did you create this product and are you looking to create more equipment for the gaming industry or streaming in general?

The short answer is yes, and yes. We actually previewed the product to streamers at the Esports Awards last year, and they were really blown away by it. The developers are gamers, and they talk to gamers, so they are in touch with what people want from such a product. That is where the need for AI to generate music that fits a style came from, yet it is important to create music that does not sound like bland elevator music. Something that is on a tight loop is critical for streamers. Then we announced BGM CAST, a curated music service for the BRIDGE CAST. Available through the companion BRIDGE CAST app and Roland Cloud, BGM CAST provides BRIDGE CAST users with a simple, integrated solution to enhance their live streams with a large selection of background music tracks and sound effects.




What is your favorite game soundtrack?

Oh gosh! I have never been asked that question before, and honestly, I have never thought about it. Maybe Elder Scrolls, I think V was Skyrim right? It was a very good soundtrack.

 

One product you announced on the 7th of March 2023 was a line of three new models of digital grand pianos as part of the GP series: the GP-9, the GP-9M, and the GP-6, with all to be sequentially released from the 24th of March, and each to feature Roland’s latest Piano Reality technology. Why do you believe now is the right time to release new models of your digital grand piano series?

There is no organizational memory at Roland of the collapse in the late 80s, and early 90s, and there is no organizational memory of the internet bubble crash in 2000, however, there is a deep scarring from 2008. You might think, “how is that possible?” It comes down to the company having innovators beyond belief in the 1980s all the way up to the early 2000s. We sort of lost our innovation, and 2008-2010 was a downturn for us, which led to reform and buyouts. Now is the natural evolution, and the new generation of grand pianos is part of that evolution.

This series is ultimately customizable, and they are a thing of beauty. What we create are things that really fulfill people, and when we find an advance in technology, that can go a way to make a difference in the ways that human beings can get a sense of satisfaction. Innovation creates excitement, the excitement keeps demand going, and demand means that we can continue to invest and innovate. The other angle is the simple fact that we do make wonderful pianos. When I joined the company, I used to twitch when people would say, “yeah, but it is not acoustic.” Now I do not because the reality is that it is a choice. Would I want this, or would I want a Kawai, a Yamaha, or even a Steinway? It is a choice based on your sense of beauty and your sense of sound.

The reason we launched comes down to many factors, but the key is that we are constantly looking to tweak and make a difference even with the current chipset. With the Bluetooth connection, I think we have had Bluetooth on all of our pianos since 2015, and the connectivity makes a big difference to consumers.

 

COVID-19 brought about the closure of live performances, and musicians, as well as venues, lost their livelihoods. However, the pandemic also meant that people had extra free time, and many decided to pursue a new hobby. A popular choice was music, with many learning new musical instruments, and Google searches such as how to DJ quadrupled between March and April 2020. What mid to long-term changes did the pandemic bring to your business? With so many people learning and getting into music during this period, how did you cater to this market?

On the business side, there was a period of around two years where normal demand curves were suspended. There was almost perfectly inelastic demand within the amounts of products you could supply. Costs went up, so what you wanted to do was match your price increase to the cost increase to achieve a balance. Since Q3 last year, normal demand curves have come back into operation in the US. Those demand curves weirdly transform and what we found though is that there was a lifestyle change in people. Those people started to re-evaluate their lives, and while some of them decided this was not for them, some people stayed and continued to create music. People really started to think about what they do for themselves, and that has remained the same even after the pandemic has passed. While the demand curve has changed, we are not seeing it disappear.

According to my data, 5% of the world plays an instrument, and 75% would like to play. Unfortunately, even though we can collect some data, we can never really be sure how many people are coming in and playing. The trend used to indicate that people would stick to a single instrument, but now we are seeing young people with the ability to play one instrument and a desire to play others. Going back to your question, yes there was a hike, and while some of those beginners disappeared, the overall trend indicates that people want to invest more time in themselves and their hobbies. While there were supply problems, the fundamentals did not change, which is a trend toward more people wanting to be involved in creativity.

Imagine we go back 35,000 years ago when we had the first evidence of habitation in Japan. If you go back that far, the best musicians were the musicians you knew. Occasionally you might have a wandering minstrel come through the village but in general, it was all about how to create. It came down to the instrument, whether that was an oboe or drums, or even using one’s voice. Around the 1920s, we had the invention of the gramophone, and with the advent of the radio, the general public was able to have easy access to some of the greatest performers history had ever seen or heard. Maybe people became intimidated, believing that there was no chance they could ever be as good as those musicians. What I believe is happening now is a new stage in human music history where social media has allowed people to see the best performers, yet no longer be embarrassed about creating themselves. Suddenly it does not matter if you look funny or if you are not the best dancer. Are you engaging? Do you have a message you want to express? Social media allows that expression on a whole new level never seen before throughout human history.

As I am a father, I have become a Taylor Swift fan thanks to my daughter, but I will also watch TikTok performers who have only 10 followers. That performance differential is now acceptable, and this is one clear trend that we are seeing worldwide. Many companies see the same trend. Our obligation as an instrument company is to make sure that we help people fulfill that unfulfilled potential.



We are seeing a trend of solo producers coming into the music industry; have you had any experiences like this during your time at Roland?

This reminds me of a guy I met around 2017 who was a studio artist, but he had a recording setup at home. The setup was in London, and while he had tried different sound booths, his favorite was actually a simple duvet hung over the top of a door. He was recording various artists coming through and he would do the mixing, however, when you watched his workflow, it was horrific for him. His main instrument for capturing ideas was his memo pad on his phone. He felt that because he had a baby, he would wake up at 5 am and it was his most creative time because it was before the baby woke up and he had half an hour of creativity. The problem was also that everything was crashing for him and it was stifling his creativity. This is where Roland Cloud comes in, and we were able to help create stable sounds. If you use our keyboards and synthesizers, they are industrial strength. You can always rely on them and that comes because we understand the workflow and the creative process.

The cost of creating a recording studio used to be massive, but nowadays you can do studio-level recordings for not a lot of money. For a few hundred dollars, you can produce sounds of really high quality, and that really sums up how accessibility has never been easier. The Bridge Cast came out of conversations with gamers who could not get the right quality of audio. They might have got great video but bad audio, and what we have produced replaces about three different devices in the chain. Each one of those devices had the potential to degrade audio and degrade video. It really came down to just talking to people and really getting to the heart of what they want from their equipment.

 

Your company acquired Stagelight in 2019 and V-MODA, a headphone brand, in 2016. Additionally, you acquired Drum Workshop in 2022. How are you managing these brands under one umbrella?

For us, it is all about the brand. If you take VF corporation, which is the company that owns Vans and Supreme, they do this brilliantly. For us, Roland and BOSS share the technology, and our head of Boss is a lovely guitarist, but his growth of knowledge is piano. There is a connection between the two, so there is a whole piece of technology you share such as chipsets, and digital signal processing (DSP), but you also share the passion for what you are creating. You do not create the devices we are creating unless you have a real passion for that area.

 

Are you looking to further expand the group in the near future?

Great question. Of course, I cannot share any specifics, and my shareholders should be the first to know. In fact, the Tokyo Stock Exchange would make sure that everybody knows at the same time. Needless to say, we have a plan, and if you were to take a look at our mid-term, you would see multiple parts to that. That all leads to a long-term plan, and we as a group company are always looking for alliances, collaborations, and acquisitions to help us fulfill that vision. That vision is an extension of musical instrument playing and creating incredible music. We want to share the tools to allow as many people as possible to express their hidden creativity.

We should be saying that if someone wants to create, but does not know how to do it, that is a failure by us. While this statement is a heavy one, it absolutely should be the mindset we have here. Gaming is brilliant in this sense because while it is expensive, it is becoming more and more accessible. Just like musicians, gamers are passionate about what they do.

 

Roland is developing production tools and DJ controllers in collaboration with Serato, a global DJ software maker. Can you tell us more about this collaboration and how it came about?

That collaboration has been in place for a while, and in the DJ space, Serato is the premier provider of content you want as a DJ. It felt like they were the natural company to talk to, and with many of our collaborations both past and present, we look for natural evolutions of our business. Alliances really are based on finding like-minded people and working out how you do stuff together. The DW acquisition is an example of that, and both our companies share a similar mindset. As we went through the post-merger integration plan, we saw that we share a similar culture. We saw the world the same way, we had a similar culture, and we had a similar set of objectives so it felt like we would be so much better together.

We have done collaborations before in terms of brands with companies like Vans, Uniqlo, and PUMA, and I would classify these as brand collaborations. You also have content collaborations and those are the way we work with our artists, and we want those artists to walk away thinking that working with Roland is very cool.

 

Your company also has an audiovisual aspect to it. What are your expectations for it?

I am pretty excited about it, but as you can tell, I am excited about almost everything we do here. We have some cool technology, such as our ability to set up 4K cameras for a meeting or a live concert. It does high-definition output as well as auto mixes. If a guitarist is playing and the input is 4K, then it will auto-edit to focus on the guitarist, focus on the drummer, pan out, pan across, and many others. The same is true for speeches. The beauty is because of our chipset, you have ultra-low latency and high processing ability, and all of that comes whether that is audio, video, or both. We can make streaming video our niche, and these videos are coming out of USD 4000 video mixers because the hardware and software are so cutting edge. Add to that the “art wear”; how do the buttons feel? How much is the fade? I think in particular with B2B, we are appealing to those that really want a product that is not going to fail. Sure, for the price of one of ours, you can buy two of a competitor's, but the quality simply is not going to be the same. At the end of the day, it comes down to what you want as a user and a comparison between quantity and quality. The idea of engineering products down is just not the way we do things here at Roland.

 

After establishing its presence in the United States, Roland has gone on to be a worldwide company, having locations in Asia, Europe, Oceania, and throughout the Americas. Are there any countries you are targeting as part of your mid-term and what strategies will you employ?

Over 90% of our sales are outside of Japan, and there is a perception within Japan that we are not a Japanese company. This is something we need to improve on. Our founder was always looking outside, hence the reason he selected a name that is possible for people around the world to pronounce (but very difficult for Japanese people to pronounce correctly). We are global in our approach by nature, and if you look at growth potential by region, I see growth opportunities everywhere.

We see emerging markets getting stronger, although China is slightly different from everywhere else. North America and Western Europe are pretty consistent in what is growing and where the opportunities are. I really see opportunities everywhere, some of that is market share, and most of it is market growth.

 

In the year that you have been president of Roland, what has been the biggest lesson you have learned as a Western CEO leading a Japanese company? If we come back again on the last day of your presidency, is there a goal or dream you would like to achieve during your time as president?

Let’s start with the past year. What I found the same is that there is a culture and desire among the people of Roland. I went to Mumbai for the first time in 2018 and we have a distributor there that has been operating for over 30 years now. 95% of their turnover is Roland and Boss, so we consider them family. When I talked to them, I suddenly realized that you could tell a Roland or Boss person because they bleed orange. The same could be said when I moved to Japan. While the cultural differences are still there, the way we work bonds us.

Japan is such a strange place because it can be the easiest place to live, while at the same time being the most complex. As you know living here too, there are seven to nine different categories for recycling. In fact, I spent my first three months here cutting the rings off of plastic bottles until someone finally told me that I did not need to do that.  Despite this, I found a house that is eight minutes away from here, so I am very close to the headquarters. There are so many conveniences that make living here a breeze, and there is beauty in the way Japanese people work and live. However, when you compare living here to living in a Western country, the differences become complex. Learning to be a CEO of a Japanese company is not really that different from learning to be a CEO of an American company, a German company, or even a company from the UK, but the big difference comes in how life is led in those countries.

Japan is a country with so much untapped potential. Living here, I get to see that personal creativity come out, whether that is creative arts or even business. I think on the business side, we have a commitment not only to grow but also to the most efficient use of the company’s assets. The biggest assets of the company are the people, and I know this is a little cliche, but it is the truth. We mainly produce in Malaysia, but I do personally believe that Japanese manufacturing is the best in the world and the most consistent in quality. What we have done is taken those processes and moved them to Malaysia while at the same time adapting those processes to the Malaysian people. The way people work in Malaysia is different from how they do things in Japan or even China. Maintaining that ultimate high level means that in the Western world, we can offer 10-year warranties on our pianos. While it does come from love, it also comes from the Japanese ethos for manufacturing, and in my opinion, it is unbelievably strong. 

In terms of goals, when Mr. Junichi Miki took over, it was not an easy transition, and I do not know if you knew, but he still works for the company. It is not a senior position, and he runs a department I like to call Area 51, even though he hates that name. It is really fun because he always corrects me. His job is brilliant, and he takes the engineers who are going to retire and allows them to help train the new engineers we have coming in. These are the most experienced engineers with a lifetime of expertise, and Mr. Miki helps facilitate the passing of that expertise. It is a really fun area and they are doing some really cool things there.

Ideally, by the time I pass the company on to the next generation, I would like to see that I have left the company to people that can fulfill Roland’s best potential and have a clear vision of how to do so. 


Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Paul Mannion

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