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.

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.

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

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 range of adjustability on offer exceeds both the original machines

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.)

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.

20th March, 2014

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