Monday, January 30, 2012

Multivox FR6M "Rhythm Ace", Contemporary Keyboard 1977

Multivox  FR6M "Rhythm Ace" 1/3-page advertisement from page 42 in Contemporary Keyboard December 1977.

While researching Retro Synth Ad's first Multivox post - the Firstman SQ-01 Sequence Synthesizer - one little nugget of Multivox criticism kept on popping up. The notion that some of the company's designs and circuitry were very similar to those from other companies - in particular Roland.

This little tidbit even made it into the introductory paragraph of Multivox's Wikipedia page:
"Multivox were an American based synthesizer company from the mid-1970s. They specialized in delivering Japanese-designed and built equipment to the American market. They were criticized as having design and circuitry extremely similar to but inferior to designs by Roland." 
"... similar but inferior..." - Ouch.

If you followed a certain link in my last blog post to Gordon Reid's July 2002 Sound on Sound article, "A tale of two string synthesizers", you would have run into one of the more well-known online examples of this comparison - Roland's RS202 and Multivox's MX202. The article is fantastic. A definite read.

I have to say, the best part of that Sound On Sound article is near the end when Gordon contacts Roland about the comparisons:
"I contacted Mr Hiro Ueno, the Director of the Development Division at Roland Corporation in Japan, and he informed me that there was neither a licence agreement nor a joint development agreement between Hillwood and Roland. So my initial hunch was correct all along: Hillwood was a parasite, blatantly copying Roland's designs, right down to the component level."
[Side note: Neither the Roland RS202 or Multivox MX202 get very much action in Contemporary Keyboard magazine advertisements. The RS202 appears in a Roland family ad that seems to have begun running in July 1978, and the MX202 only seems to appear in a Spec Sheet section - IN THE EXACT SAME ISSUE as that Roland ad! ]

I bring up this article for another reason - in a call-out box, Gordon also points out the similarities between this blog post's feature player,  Multivox's FR6M "Rhythm Ace", and Roland's CR68 and CR78.
"Keyboards were not the only Multivox products that 'shared' design features with Roland products. Take the FR6M Rhythm Ace as an example. This was a simple, analogue beatbox with 27 preset rhythms, much like any number of others from the same era. But its knobs and switches were identical to those used by Roland at the time, and the design and case were very similar to those of the CR68 and CR78."
The thing I found most surprising about this FR6M advertisement after reading all this, was Multivox's attempt to protect their "Rhythm Ace" trademark by adding a nice little registered trademark symbol beside the name in the title - concerned that another company might come along and steal the name of their product.

My reasoning being that it was Roland founder Kakehashi who created the original "Rhythm Ace" name years earlier when he had started his first musical instrument company Ace Electronics (later changed to Ace Tone).

I asked myself the obvious question - just how big are Multivox's balls? Snarfing the"Rhythm Ace" name from Ace Tone's - a company that the founder of Roland used to own? 

On the surface it looks like exactly that.

But as I dug deeper...  er... probably easiest to explain all this through a timeline:
  • 1960:
    - Kakehashi has already been building musical instruments such as Theremins and guitar amplifiers for a few years, starts Ace Electronics Industries
  • 1964:
    - Ace Electronics creates first Ace Electronics R1 Rhythm Ace. Flops!
  • 1967:
    - Ace Electronics creates the FR1 Rhythm Ace. Successful! More Rhythm Ace products to come!
  • 1972:
    - Kakehashi leaves Ace Electronics, the company he started, and establishes Roland Corporation with some staff from Ace Electronics. He then visits a number of countries to find distributors, including Multivox in the US - who was already a distributor for Ace Electronics
  • Mid '70s:
    - Ace Electronics changes name to Ace Tone, and continues to create "Rhythm Ace" products
  • 1976:
    - Multivox doing a decent job on the East Coast, but not on the West. So, Roland gives West Coast distribution to Beckman Musical instruments
  • 1978:
    - Roland CR78/68 released
    -Multivox FR6M "Rhythm Ace" released, looking and apparently sounding very similar to the CR78 and 68
Initially, this really makes it look like Multivox yoinked the "Rhythm Ace" name from Ace Tone. And I would have gone to bed even more angry at Multivox than I had the night before.

But then I found a little footnote on the Ace Electronics Wikipedia page that made me laugh even harder!
"In 1970s, some models were also supplied to Multivox, an OEM brand of Ace Tone's general agency in the United States".
And can you guess what one of those models of "Rhythm Ace" was? Yup - the Multivox FR6M Rhythm Ace.

Maybe you are all thinking... "duh! yah!" And maybe everyone but me already knew this. But this was new to me. :) In the end, Multivox DID have legitimate rights to use the "Rhythm Ace" name for this product. Doh!

And, consider that if the CR68/78 and the FR6M came from a related ancestor - the Ace Electronics FR1 Rhythm Ace - it could explain some of the similarity in sound, no? But I'm just guessing there, and definitely not trying to make excuses for Multivox.

Either way, the "Rhythm Ace" name is one thing Multivox didn't "borrowed" right from under Ace Tone/Roland's nose.

And Roland is still King of the hill in my books.

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