ROLAND AIRA TR-8 REVIEW
The TR-8 has finally dropped, and its sound doesn’t disappoint. But does it have the same feel as the original?
Review: Blair Joscelyne
I bought my first analogue drum machine back in the early 1990s. I was 14 years old and it was a Roland TR-606 I picked up for $50. That may sound cheap for such a classic piece of gear, but back then it was a pretty expensive metronome, which is all I was using it for. Certainly I wasn’t going to use it for drum sounds — that’s what I had the Alesis SR16 for. I guess for me, it just wasn’t that cool, yet…
Of course this was an attitude that a lot of people shared until they realised just how incredible and surprisingly versatile these drum machines were across a host of genres, even though the palette is somewhat restricted compared to what we have access to today. This large-scale adoption across a variety of different genres, combined with grass roots hype, would solidify Roland as the analogue drum machines of choice for a generation. The TR-808 and 909 have gone on to become cult items drooled over by tech heads the world over. So the question is, what do you do if you don’t have $4000 tucked away in a cookie jar to buy a second hand version of one of the originals?
Introducing the brand new Roland TR-8 Drum Machine. No, it’s not analogue, but ‘Shhh!’ …don’t tell anyone and they probably won’t ever know.
Roland’s new AIRA range comprises four models: the TR-8, the TB-3 Touch Bassline, which is a modern take on the TB-303, the VT-3 Vocal Performer and the System-1 Plug Out Synthesiser. The products are all decked out in black with intergalactic green highlights. Much to the disappointment of some purists, these are digital units but a number of exciting features expand on the originals. I’m told by Roland that its engineers have measured in detail the circuits of the originals, including any anomalies and flaws, and recreated them with its new digital modelling called Analogue Circuit Behaviour (or ACB). This ultimately means Roland can deliver products for a small percentage of the cost of a second hand original, while also being able to include modern conveniences like USB and controls that are focused on being able to make a variety of performance and pattern changes on the fly, such as the new ‘Scatter’ function.
The TR-8 is housed in a fairly sturdy black plastic box with a metal face, and is about the size of a large laptop. The knobs have a nice rubberised feel with the right amount of resistance. The back panel features headphones out, left and right Mix outputs, assignable outputs, MIDI in and out, and USB. You can sync it with other instruments from the AIRA range like the TB-3 or sync it with your DAW via USB MIDI. The original units had separate outputs on the rear panel, and the TR-8 cleverly allows you to record individual instruments out of the TR-8 into your DAW via USB audio.
The TR-8 has tweakable controls for every function. Along the base of the unit are 16 step sequencer buttons (in a format similar to the original) that can be used for programming beats or performing live. They also change colour to indicate the currently selected mode. While the colours are pretty, and its cool that they reference the colour scheme of the original 808, the buttons are my least favourite part of the physical side of the unit. They feel clunky and their action is noisy. Units like Maschine, Novation and Push have clearly spent the time and money developing buttons with better feel than their predecessors. The TR-8 buttons are glassy, slippery and generally feel a little outdated. Maybe this was an aesthetic design decision, or a throw back to the original, but in a market where customers value ‘feel’ I think this will let the TR-8 down. I did mention they look really cool though, right?
In the middle of the unit are 11 sliders. If you mute an instrument, the green back lighting around the specific slider goes out so you know it’s not in use. This is great. The TR-8 layout makes it simple to bring elements in and out and clearly see what’s going on, a handy enhancement over the original 808.
The left hand side of the unit has controls laid out in a similar fashion to the original. There’s the Start/Stop button and above that are rubber selectors for choosing sounds, patterns, scale and mode. The tempo is displayed as a digital BPM readout on the right hand side with tap tempo, swing, and Roland’s new ‘Scatter’ function. While along the top are Reverb, Delay, External In with Sidechain, and the Accent control.
The TR-8 includes the sounds of the TR-808 and 909 kits with dedicated controls for each sound including tune and decay and the addition of attack and compressor on the kick and snare channels. The snare channel also includes a knob called ‘Snappy’, which sounds like a filter but actually corresponds to the level of the snare wire component of the sound. When using the compressor control on the kick, it doesn’t auto-adjust the output of that sound to compensate, which would have been a nice feature. That said, a quick fiddle with the volume of that part and you’re back in business.
Even if you’ve never laid your hands on an original you could be making a beat within seconds. There are no detailed menus to go through, simply choose an empty pattern and a drum kit and go for it in either Real Time Recording or Step Mode. But things really start getting interesting when you build your own kit. On the TR-8, you can assign any sounds from the two drums kits into any pattern. This ‘Dream Kit’ feature lets you build up your perfect 808/909 hybrid into a single pattern.
And boy, sitting back and hitting Play, the sound is as delicious and thick as I could have hoped. Back in the ’80s, a lot of fast food chains used additives in their milkshakes to make them thicker and tastier. Well, whatever it is, it seems Roland has poured a bucket of the secret liquid into the TR-8. From punchy deep kicks, through to snappy hats and cracking snares, the TR-8 is an absolute beast. There is no question about the sound. The 32-bit/96k signal path is rich, detailed and twerked my sub around so much even Miley Cyrus would have been impressed.
SCATTER YOUR EFFECTS
It doesn’t end with this smart digital kit manipulability, Roland has again upped the ante over the originals by allowing effects to be inserted on individual steps in the sequence. Oh yes, things are getting very cool now. Program up a sequence and then insert reverb on one of the steps, or all of them, the same goes with delay. The nice thing is that with the reverb just on one step, each time it re-triggers it sounds like it’s interacting with the remnants of the reverb trail from the previous pattern. It’s very analogue in its feel and reminds me of the kinds of the sounds I get with my old tape delay.
You can make a variety of patterns and then trigger them in time to create whole songs and sequences, which makes playing live easy and fun. Keys 12-16 double as note repeat, mute and variation triggers to keep the patterns interesting. But if you really want to mess with them then you can dive into the ‘Scatter’ function.
THE MAD SCATTER
On the top right hand side of the instrument is a knob surrounded with a green box that simply says, ‘Scatter’. The knob acts as a selector for 10 different Scatter effects and doubles as the depth of the effect. In essence, once you hit the On button, it gives you simple glitchy effects along the lines of Stutter Edit and Tim Exile’s The Finger, albeit a much simpler version. It does this by rearranging the individual steps within a sequence and also changing playback direction and gate time. With the press of a button and the twist of the knob you can create weird, reversed, unpredictable variations in the pattern. I see this as one of the best features of this type of groove box. To be able to give variety to what otherwise can feel a bit robotic, and being able to apply Scatter to external inputs is actually really cool. In case you really want to go out there, the TR-8 will generate random patterns for you too. Just like the cheat codes on your SEGA or Super NES, the TR-8 has a special button combo that will create rhythms for you. They’re not always exactly musically tasteful, but it’s just another way the TR-8 can inject a bit of something special into a mix.
KICKING THE TYRES
At an asking price of $649 the TR-8 is a great sounding drum machine. It’s instantly usable. It looks great and has some modern features and architecture to give it some distance, and difference, from its ancestors. Though if I’m perfectly honest I’m just not sure how much demand there is going to be for a stand alone drum machine with only two drum kits. The originals are cult classics because they have been used on cult classic songs. They are rare and have that magical analogue circuitry that sends users into a frenzy, even if they can’t hear the difference. And I doubt in the mix many people could tell the difference between the TR-8 and the 808. Side by side they do sound almost identical. But there’s just something about the original that gives you that little squirt, that little sizzle that leaves you feeling like you’re interacting with something that’s magical — something that’s really alive.
The AIRA series feels a little to me like it doesn’t quite know what it is meant to be yet. Yes, there are clear references to the TB-303 and 909s but the whole design feels a little bit ‘bedroom DJ’. The VT-3 voice transformer from the same series doesn’t lock to a scale pitch and while it makes some cute robot noises it offers limited use in a real studio environment. It’s over priced for a toy, but under spec’d for professional use so it leaves it sitting in a strange no mans land and I’m not quite sure what Roland was thinking.
Since the originals were released, Roland is now in a totally different market place where people want a lot for a little. Personally I like that there are only two drum kits on board, but I also come from the analogue generation. These new products look like they are designed for a younger generation who have grown up with a buffet of sounds and effects which are all available for little money. With plug-ins, iPad apps and then other hardware controllers like Maschine, Push and Novation’s Launchpads, I think Roland is really going to have to stand out. And luckily, the sounds do.
But the first thing people are going to do when they see one is hit a drum pad and it just doesn’t feel the way I think a lot of people will want it to feel. There’s no pressure or sense you’re hitting a drum.
Three commercial composers and songwriters used this review item while it was in my care. One composer who stuck his head into my studio literally buckled at the knees when I played him the sounds so I lent it to him for a day. I asked all three of them what they liked best and worst. It was unanimous. The worst feature was the feel of the buttons and their favourite feature was the actual sound and the Scatter function.
Having a physical surface to play with is great, but Roland might have a hard time convincing the masses why they should spend their money on the new TR-8 instead of just making do with a $10 iPad Drum Machine app with a multitude of kits. Being able to load external samples would have made the TR-8 not only a throwback device, but a proposition that’s hard to argue with. Though I sense that’s beyond the point of the TR-8. It is a throwback device. A dedicated one that’ll resonate with anyone who has ever dallied with an 808 or 909, analogue or sampled.
DRUMMING UP BUSINESS
If you are in the market for an 808 or 909 clone, there is no doubt about it that the TR-8 is the best choice. It sounds incredible, its easy to use and has all the modern features that we’ve come to expect from digital instruments. In a blind audition people literally could not tell the difference so the digital vs analogue argument doesn’t hold a lot of water in this case. In addition to this, it’s a fraction of the cost of the original but includes some incredibly usable extras like step effect inserts and the new Scatter function. So if you were thinking about getting a modern stand alone drum machine to get those classic 808 and 909 sounds, that is well priced, packed with modern features and a sound that will make your speakers melt, then stop reading right now and just go and buy one.