Roland have lifted the curtain on their hotly anticipated new Aira range of products, and they've finally done what fans have been pleading for for decades: recreate their classic triumvirate of TR808, TR909 and TB303. Well, sort of…
Nobody reading this will need any introduction to Roland's renowned drum machines and bass synthesizer, and still less to the place they hold in the history of electronic music. Nor will they need to be reminded of the increasingly outlandish prices these once-maligned machines can command on the secondhand market, or that fans have been longing for Roland to revisit them for the last two decades. Well that day, it seems, has finally arrived with the launch of the Aira range.
The Airas are far from being clones of the originals, though. Roland are clearly convinced of the need to innovate as well as emulate, and instead of remaking their classic instruments verbatim, as it were, they've chosen instead to recreate them through digital modelling rather than analogue circuitry. To this end, their engineers have painstakingly measured every facet and flaw of the originals, hoping to capture their character and eccentricities and recreate them in virtual analogue, a process they call "ACB" (Analog Circuit Behaviour). In short, the point of the Airas is to provide the sounds everybody wants with better, more modern interfaces and with an array of new, performance-oriented controls. The other crucial difference is the price: the Airas will cost a fraction of what one would expect to pay for a secondhand example of any of the originals.
There are four models in the Aira range, two of which have clear antecedents: the TR8 Rhythm Performer, the TB3 Touch Bassline, the VT3 Vocal Transformer and the System One Plug Out Synthesizer.
The TR8 Rhythm Performer is a drum machine that combines the sounds of the TR808 and 909 in a single box and offers hands-on, knob-per-function sonic control and a step sequencer in the style of the originals. Roland promise full reproduction of the two classic TRs in both sound and behaviour. To this end they've plundered the original design spec sheets and conducted detailed analysis of a number of different machines, including pristine ones belonging to Roland themselves. They've even gone so far as to recreate what can only be described as 'quirks' in the originals.
So much for the old — what about the new? Well, as you'd expect, different instrument types from the 808 and 909 can now be combined into single kits and a number of completely new functions and effects have been introduced. For example, you can now add reverb and delay effects on a per-step basis, control accent intensity with a single knob or add side-chain ducking effects at will. Also on-board is a new effect that Roland call Scatter. Described as a performance function, Scatter allows synchronised real-time control over variations in patterns, including reverse, glitch, gate, truncate and stutter. The TR8 has MIDI and USB connections on its back panel, and while it only has two physical, assignable outputs, multi-channel audio can be output via USB. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the TR8, though, is its price: it's expected to retail for just £399$499.
The TB3 Touch Bassline is, of course, the rebirth (no pun intended) of the TB303. Roland have apparently decided that, while the 303 sounds great (again, they've gone to tremendous lengths to accurately recreate the sound), it was a nightmare to program (no arguments here…), and to this end have completely scrapped the sequencer interface, replacing it with a touchscreen. This is a bold move, and one that again demonstrates Roland's wish to improve rather than dogmatically adhere to the past, although it has to be said that in this particular instance, they're unlikely to get too many complaints. The touchpad can also be used to control pitch, volume, filter and control modulation and even envelope mod and decay. Other functions not found on the original include the Scatter effects found in the TR8 and, apparently keen to make up for the loss of the occasionally random qualities (ahem) of the old sequencer interface, Roland have happily equipped the TB3 with automatic and random pattern generation functions. The TB3, like the TR8, includes MIDI and USB connections and is priced at £245$299. Nobody's saying you have to sell your original and buy four, but you know, it's an option…
The VT3 Voice Transformer, unlike its Aira siblings, is not directly based on an existing Roland product, but is in fact a vocal effects unit with an emphasis on live control and performance. The unit allows you to choose from nine different voice characters — including auto tune, VP330-style vocoding and various lo-fi flavours — and then adjust pitch and formant settings at will to see what chaos ensues. The VT3 has an XLR/quarter-inch 'combi' input so you can plug a mic directly into it and is designed to be particularly lightweight and portable. Like the other Airas, it's priced appealingly, costing just £159$199.
The System One Plug Out Synthesizer is a four-voice synth that harks back to the Roland synths of yesteryear — if the late-'70s and early-'80s count as yesteryear. Whilst it's a fully fledged synth in its own right, it's the 'Plug Out' part that makes the System One unique. Put simply, the Plug Out technology allows you to connect the System One to your computer via USB and edit and update the synth, not just with new patches, but with entirely new instruments. Roland are planning to release a range of heritage synths for the System One, beginning with the SH101. These will be modelled with the same attention to detail as the TR8 and TB3 and hopefully we can look forward to a raft of Roland classics in a playable, portable form in the not too distant future. It's expected that the System One will be priced at £495$599.
The TR8, TB3 and VT3 are due to ship in March, while the System One is scheduled for release in June. You can imagine how keen we are to get our hands on the Airas, and you can look forward to reading reviews of all of them in SOS very soon, beginning with full, in-depth reviews of the TR8 and TB3 in the April issue.
If you want to try out one of the new Airas, Dancefair in Utrecht (Feb 15 and 16) will be the first opportunity in Europe for the general public to see them.
For UK residents, you'll have to hang on for the Brighton Music Conference (April 11 and 12) which will host the UK premiere of Roland’s highly anticipated Aira products.