Roland TR8 - Introduction
The Roland TR 808. Let's say that again, the Roland TR 808. Youthful dreams of transistorized rhythms playing out over countless 12" extended cuts. That was my reason for doing everything I could to get the mythical 808. I was about 18 and met someone in college that made that dream a reality. There's not a single production I haven't used the 808 on. It is one of the most flexible and sculptable drum machines out there. Even if you're not using the sounds, there are three trigger outputs from which to drive sequencers, Simmons brains, arps of analogue synths, and it all moves to the time of that wonderful, slightly off clock. It's a love affair. No doubt about it.
So when Roland announced that they would be bringing the 808 back, I was the first to be both immensely skeptical and excited. It's a weird feeling because you don't want them to mess it up, but at the same time their modern history is of misses, most not even near. Case in point, the Jupiter 80, the complete and utter bastardization of a name that was, until the 80, associated with prestige, class, and serious integrity.
That's a heavy burden for any company to bear, but Roland has it particularly bad due to the cultural importance of the TR, TB, JP, Juno, and SH range. And to go after the crown jewel, the 808 -- a machine whose simple name drop initiates knowing smiles -- is borderline impossible. This is what Roland faced entering the market and sociomusical sphere bringing the TR 8 to life.
At the emergence of the first signs of the Aira range I heard all kinds of industry rumor mills spewing out theories. There were Hollywood style teaser campaigns and no one was none the wiser as to what exactly these machines would be. I'll be honest, I haven't seen this kind of fan reaction about a synth or drum machine ever. Forum members were busy trying to perform CSI grade photo manipulation to unearth the look of these machines while others were already predicting failure. Let's not even mention the theories about analog or digital. I'll stake my claim, from the onset I wanted them to win. And for the same reason I cheer for the teams I do in the world cup -- because I like to see the underdog win. And Roland, certainly in todays market place WAS the underdog. That is, until the release of the Aira range and the TR8.
Roland TR8 - Specs / Feature Details / Architecture
Upon first glance, the TR8 looks amazing. There are currently two camps: those that think the neon green and somewhat futuristic look of the machines is horrendous and those that thing it's amazing. Clearly, I'm in the later camp. Why you ask? Because Roland was always about looking towards the future and what they've presented with the TR8 is a best of all worlds approach, an approach that characterizes the current musical landscape. It's an aesthetic that does not shun the past, but references with sophistication and at the same time moves music technology and the creative expression forward. Hence, the generous sliders and knobs, a well lit sequencer, and a plethora of rubber buttons was heaven to me.
The TR8 in short, is the continuation and progression of the TR range of drum machines and I'll say it now, it is definitely worthy of the TR name.
The TR8, at the moment has two soundsets, a complete 808 and 909 kits. Every sound from the highly revered drum machines that put Roland on the map are emulated here with their new digital emulation called ACB -- Analogue Component Behaviour. The drum machine is partitioned into several instrument sections (kick, snare, low / mid / high tom, close / open hi hat, rim shot, hand clap, crash cymbal, ride cymbal, and accent) and each section has a corresponding set of controls. Most instruments have the same parameters that were present on the original machines, such as decay, or tuning, but Roland have added additional controls to EVERY instrument for the TR 8.
There is a fully featured step sequencer, with 16 steps or 32 steps (the A and B part) and 16 savable patterns, just as on the original TR 808. The sequencer at this time has no song mode, however, all 16 patterns can be chained and the TR8 can run through them in sequential order. You don't have to chain all 16 patterns, but can choose any amount. There are dedicated controls for setting the rhythm scale of the sequencer, just like on the 808, as well as a handy last step button. This time, swing is on a dedicated knob and there are positive and negative values. This is something that you couldn't natively do on the 808.
New to the TR 8 is also a full fx section that is activated per step of the sequencer. This includes a reverb with several different algorithms ranging from deep space hits to super tight non lin. The reverb features dedicated controls at the top of the unit for the essential parameters. Next to it is a delay, and again, like the reverb there are dedicated controls and several algorithms to choose from.
The TR 8 features a stereo input as well, which can be changed to operate in dual mono mode and features a new side chain function. This input, like the fx, is step gated but it can be set to have a varying amount of side chain via a variable knob. Depending on the algorithm selected, you can create the (overused) french house ducking effect with ease by mirroring the pattern programmed on the kick drum in the input sequencer section and maxing out side chain knob. However, if this flavor of compression is not your preference (hello friend) there are various other algorithms including a great programmable audio gate where the side chain knob turns into a decay time knob. Feed the input a warm pad sound, punch in a straight 16th pattern on the sequencer and we're off!
The quirkiest effect on the TR 8 would have to be the scatter section. Poop jokes aside, the scatter does actually have some unique functionality to offer. In essence, the scatter effect is a live sampler, pulling sound from the master output. When activated, it essentially acts like a hardware beat repeat effect in that it rearranges and glitches whatever beat you have going on the drum machine. With some practice and certain parameter settings, very convincing reverse effects can be achieved and these don't feel gimmicky at all. Unfortinately these kinds of effects are in the minority of what scatter does and most of the time you will really come off as that douchy guy fist pumping the first time he hit beat repeat 10 years too late ...
Around the back panel are two master outs. Users will be happy to know that each instrument can be freely panned. There are also two additional outs that work like the original 808 in the sense that when an instrument is assigned to them it will be subtracted from the master output. Unlike the 808, multiple instruments can be assigned to a single assignable output. There are MIDI IN and OUT jacks as well as USB. The USB on offer here is both audio and midi. It is not a plug and play affair and you will need a custom driver, but when installed each discrete instrument can be digitally tracked at 96k / 24bits.
Roland TR8 - Sound
Features and mechanics aside, the TR8 is facing most scrutiny in the sound department. However, rest assured that it does deliver. But it requires a bit of discourse. It is painfully obvious that Roland has gone to great lengths to model the TR 808 and 909 in sound, feel and concept. Every sound feels like these machines but has its differences. These differences are not of the variety of the tried and true marketing comment: well the original machines sounded different machine to machine. Nay, these are the differences between analog transistors and digital emulation. Having said that, the TR8 sounds absolutely fantastic. It exudes the punch and snap of both the 909 and 808. It is incredibly loud and has a bottom end that really levels the competition. I haven't heard such heavy kicks from a new product in a really long time. But it is precise. Very precise. Digitally precise. The sounds do move around and each strike is different from the previous, just as on the original, but it bites more and lacks a bit of warmth in the mid range. The 909 model in particular, feels a bit more polished. Like a more produced 909 and lacks some of the grime from the original. However, this is not a bad thing. It's just different. If you are ok with that, this is the machine for you. If you are after a part for part 808 / 909 clone, this isn't it. BUT, it is a true to form TR drum machine that only Roland could deliver and should be held in the same level of reverence as the originals.
Roland TR8 - Demo Video
This one does a direct comparison between TR8 and Roland 808 sounds:
Lots of Demos on YT explaining the features - but I like this one for the simple "techno roots" vibe using the 808 and 909 sounds:
Roland TR8 - Applications in todays world / How it fits in hybrid modern set up
It's also good to know that Roland has been active on the support side of things (unlike the VARIOS … remember that) and have recently released a major update to the TR8 with many user requested features present. The most vital, the ability to override the gain staging for each instrument. This is behind the actual level fader and each sound can be driven into saturation. On snares, this is wicked. Also the TR8 is incredibly lightweight and surprisingly affordable so if you're contemplating bringing the old warriors on the road, you know have a very compelling alternative. On a big PA, the TR8 issues the punishment just fine.
Roland TR8 - Conclusion
I've been a supporter of this new Aira range since day one. It's great to see an old friend return to the table ten fold. I also deeply appreciate the attention to detail with the TR8. The sequencer is slightly off, just like the vintage sequencers and makes for a great xox style sequencer for controlling other MIDI gear. The user interface is even more intuitive and playable than the old machines and the sound quality, while slightly different, is still in the same TR family of quality!
Review by Matia of INHALT