Roland AIRA TR-8 Rhythm Performer

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The AIRA drum machine offers hints of 808 and 909. But as Greg Scarth discovers, it’s not quite the straightforward clone you might expect.

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Roland’s long-awaited revival of the TR and TB brands for the new AIRA series has justifiably generated a lot of interest, but those with long memories will immediately note that the idea of digitally recreating the company’s analogue classics isn’t entirely new.

The Novation Drum Station module offered a surprisingly similar combination of modelled real-time 808 and 909 synthesis way back in 1996. Plugins like D16’s Nepheton and Drumazon do the same thing in your DAW. Even Roland themselves offered a series of digital boxes based on the classics back in the 90s, but the sample-based MC-303 and 505 grooveboxes were frankly not up to scratch.

“there’s no doubt that the TR-8 taps into a well-established demand for the sounds of the analogue classics”

The world of music tech in which Roland find themselves in 2014 is a long way from the world of 1996. In the intervening years we’ve been through the DAW revolution, seen legions of producers abandon analogue hardware and hands-on control in favour of cheap and convenient plugins, then seen a shift back in the opposite direction as all things analogue have come back into vogue.

The only constant in that time period has been the reverence afforded to the 808 and 909 in dance circles. The 808 and 909 are replicated by more sample packs, plugins and hardware units than any other drum machines. Roland may not be jumping on the analogue bandwagon with the AIRAs, but there’s no doubt that the TR-8 taps into a well-established demand for the sounds of the analogue classics.

Spec

While it draws heavily on the features and sounds of both, the TR-8 emphatically isn’t a slavish reproduction of either the TR-808 or 909. Those vintage references are mixed with a handful of new ideas and a few pragmatic updates to make it more suitable for modern production processes. The synth engine is entirely digital, based around Roland’s new ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior) approach – essentially a fancy name for circuit modelling of the type employed to great effect by software developers from Universal Audio to Softube to U-he.

“The range of adjustability on offer exceeds both the original machines”

The range of adjustability on offer exceeds both the original machines. Bear in mind that the 808 in particular was quite limited in terms of which parameters could be tweaked. The kick drum and snare, for instance, offered no tuning adjustment. If you want your kick drum to be in tune with the track when using an unmodified 808 you have to tune the track to the kick, rather than the other way round (which could easily mean all your tracks end up in the same key).

The TR-8 takes a much more modern approach. Each of the 11 drum channels offers tuning and decay controls. The kick drum also offers adjustable attack like the 909, while the snare offers the same Snappy control found on both the 808 and 909.

The sound

The TR-8 offers a full complement of 808 and 909 sounds which can be mixed and matched to create kits. The instruments are spread across the 11 channels and can be switched (either individually or as a whole) mid-playback. In most cases, such as the snares and hats, that just means 808 and 909 equivalents on the same button.

On some it means logical groups of sounds such as the toms and congas are bundled together. But on others it means you’ll have to choose between quite different sounds. The 808 clap, 909 clap and 808 maraca are all on the same slot, for instance, which means that if you want a handclap in your kit you can’t have a maraca, and vice versa.

It would be nice to have a little more flexibility in terms of combining sounds – it’s an issue which could perhaps be addressed in a future firmware update. (There are rumours that Roland may also add sounds from their other drum machines in the future, which would make the TR-8 even more versatile, but it’s little more than unconfirmed speculation at this point.)

“In practice, the analogue character of the TR-8 is subtle.”

One of the main difficulties when reproducing older analogue gear is that even two apparently identical machines produced in the same factory on the same day can sound subtly different, especially as they age and their electrical components begin to degrade.

There’s no single, definitive 808 or 909 for the TR-8 to replicate, but the sounds of all the drums on board are certainly authentic enough that you’ll know exactly which units they’re based on as soon as you hear the TR-8. The additional tuning and decay controls serve only to make the sounds more versatile than the original units while maintaining their sonic character.

In practice, the analogue character of the TR-8 is subtle. Roland claims that ACB offers “faithful recreation of tonality and behaviour” and reproduces “the original TR’s unique variations in tone that occur when multiple instruments are entered in accented steps”. It’s refreshing that this isn’t a clumsy and obvious attempt to create a totally randomised, in-your-face pseudo-analogue effect, but a much more measured approach.

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  • Date: 20th March 2014
  • Nick Shepherd Wrote:

    any idea if the sequencer can be used to sequence other midi gear ?

    in my case it would be interesting to know if you can hook up my MFB 522 to the Midi Out of the TR-8 and use the big&full 16 steps to sequence the mfb ?!

    i could then bring the 522´s stereo out back into the TR-8´s ext. input…

    is there any info out there what midi data the TR-8´s stepseq runs out of the midi out ? :)

  • BS Wrote:

    Nick – from what I hear the TR8 sends MIDI out over USB and DIN in all edit/playback modes. Ironically, I’ve been looking for a sequencer exactly like this (basically a 707 sequencer which sends MIDI in edit mode) to sequence my Drum Station, which it looks like the TR8 just made redundant.

    The TR8 looks pretty good but I wish they included a few other sounds. From what I’ve seen in demos, there doesn’t seem to be any reason not to have up to 16 different sounds available for each drum slot. Even without modelling the other analogue units like the 606 and CR78 I don’t see why they couldn’t have included samples of the digital units like the 707 and R8. That would make it a no-brainer to me. As it stands I’ll probably get one eventually but I’m happy to wait a while and see if the price comes down or if they keep developing it with firmware updates.

    That thing about having to choose between certain sounds looks annoying too. It would be cool if you could have both kick drums at once, or even have two copies of the same kick to tune and process differently. Seeing as it’s digital why limit it like that?

  • Nick Shepherd Wrote:

    Thanks for the feedback ! :)

    according to this guy @ 1:20min the next addition will be TR-707 via firmware.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6Ob-pp3jAc

    i think i might just wait for Akai´s rythm wolf for the sequencer – Tr-8 is looking good but i am not sure if its the unit to go for right now for my purposes.

  • leetenant Wrote:

    TR-707 update is a waste of time. They should first add the TR-727, TR-606, and CR80. I would hope they add fresh sounds never made available to the TR series, but we can always do without it.

  • S. Righteous Wrote:

    If interested, I did a review here, which focuses on the stuff most other reviews did not touch on. Just opinions, but worth reading before buying one.
    http://bitterharvest.ca/roland-aira-tr-8-review-the-stuff-no-one-else-told-you/

  • Nick Shepherd Wrote:

    @ S. Righteous

    thanks for this interesting review – i have one question, which would also answer my initial question here in the comments.

    What kind of midi is the TR-8 sending out, i.e. what notes do get recordet in your daw for the indiviual sounds. simple Midi note values ?

    feedback would be awesome :)

  • PB Wrote:

    @ Nick Shepard

    Note values, note length being 16th notes (or 32nd, or 8th/16th trip based on the “Scale” button). The Knobs and faders are automatable inside a DAW as well.

  • Nick Shepherd Wrote:

    cool – thanks for your feedback !

  • Giddit Wrote:

    The TR-8 is really great, just hope Roland will touch up some aspects of the emulation in a future update; the 909 snare + clap artifact needs some work as does the 808 bass drum accent and pitch variation that occurs at certain decay settings. I’d say that would take the TR-8 from 85% there to 95% there.

    ACB seems more than just marketing, now just keep supporting and improving on it Roland.

  • Adrian Isaac Wrote:

    Well I’ve got a Tr8 and have to say that the machine is very inspiring. It hands down beats any software simulation and just by the sheer nature of being able to tweak every thing live you end up with beats and grooves and sounds that you just wouldn’t get sitting in front of your computer screen using a mouse. The scatter function has some really interesting sounds. I stumbled upon a bit crushing effect which makes the beats really dirty! The ACB technology is very nice too as the effects have very subtle variations which really breathe life into things. Above all, the machine puts the fun back into the studio. I have all my synths and sampler hooked up to ableton so it can all be played live. Just hit record and jam the night away. Ideas creation heaven!

  • top Wrote:

    tr-8 is not bad…

    Though snares and claps sux compared to the real deal.
    909 closed hit hat also doesn’t sound right.

    But it’s by far the best clone ever made.

    Hope a future update to solve those problems.

    I ll keep the real deal for now !

  • Dirk Wrote:

    The analogue behaviour is not prominent enough on the 909 and especially the 808 kicks.
    Hoping for an update to fix these issues as well.

  • André et Michèle Wrote:

    We grabbed one of these as a secondary drum machine for live use (primary machine being Livid Cntrlr running Steppr). Our thoughts so far:

    Good:
    - sounds, sequencing, swing
    - midi sync (from Live as a master) works no prob
    - the delay has some cool settings when used lightly
    - audio over USB worked no problem (have only tested in Windows so far)
    - very fun to play using the faders
    - no screen/menu + dedicated knobs per sound make for an immediate experience
    - since this is a live machine for us, we don’t need a lot of storage space for patterns
    - will be great if they actually release other kits, but can’t count on this til it happens!

    Not so good:
    - wish some of the sounds changed more across the knobs, they are not equally expressive
    - the sounds could be better normalized
    - scatter doesn’t add too much (sounds very glitchy so it depends on your style)
    - wish you could reduce the brightness of the LEDs
    - mute is a bit clunky to access, much quicker to just use the faders
    - it really needs to be updated to copy between A + B patterns
    - fills could be better (and should be quantized; as is, they start when you hit the fill button, which could between 16ths)

    All that said, we’re happy to have it in our live arsenal, and think if Roland does come through with adding other kits it will start to approach the flexibility of other machines out there (even if only as a go to x0x machine).