If you want a cut–price 808 and only analogue will do, Acidlab have just the thing...
In the dim and distant past there were an army of different–sounding drum machines to choose from, yet looking back you’d be forgiven for thinking there were basically two. Once again it’s the first of that famous Japanese pair that has been revived for our consideration. Acidlab’s Miami is a modern analogue rebuild of the Roland TR808. It makes no attempt to cover any other ground and adds little in the way of performance enhancements, even compared to its illustrious ancestor. But it’s fitted with a choice of MIDI or DIN Sync and boasts individual outputs for every voice. If analogue is your vice, here’s another slice...
Having followed the adventures of Crockett and Tubbs in the ’80s, the Miami has something of the place itself about it, being a combination of the classy and not–so–classy. Construction is of light but sturdy metal, although the aluminium bottom was thin, slightly wobbly and one of its tiny rubber feet had gone astray. The small circular buttons don’t match Roland’s colour scheme, the majority are either yellow or pinky–russet, and they aren’t blessed with the most positive action either.
The elongated panel with its many red LEDs is of a similar PCB black to the MFB Tanzb r and is adorned with equally ugly text. It won’t challenge the TR808 in a beauty contest, but at least its knobs have a reassuring weight and smoothness, which is, of course, more important than flawless lettering. Size wise, the knobs are a vast improvement on the 808’s titchy ones.
Scoffing at the idea of compromise, Acidlab have blessed the Miami with 11 individual quarter–inch outputs — a solid–feeling jack for every voice. Each is removed automatically from the regular mono output as soon as an individual jack is plumbed in. There’s also a 3.5mm output that carries a 12V pulse for every accented step. This is potentially useful for triggering other synths or sequencers, but no match for the TR808’s trio of trigger outputs. The mini–jack format was presumably necessary because there was hardly any rear-panel space left over. Lack of space might also account for the omission of a headphone socket and MIDI output; instead you have a switchable sync source (MIDI or Roland’s DIN Sync24) or the option of DIN Sync–only output. To round off there’s a 14V AC external power supply and switch. Surprisingly, the review model Miami began playing a pattern as soon as it was powered up. I’m told this enthusiasm has been curbed in the current version.
Having located an English manual on the Internet, I see it carries the following assurance: “The sound circuitry of the Miami is identical with the 808 and has been realized using present–day components.” From the outset, I had no reason to doubt it. From the cowbell to the claves, the bass drum to the hi–hats, the controls and tonality follow the path set by its legendary muse. Thanks to five switches, all the right instrument alternatives are present and in a familiar layout. You can therefore choose between claves or rimshot, maracas or hand clap, three tunable toms or congas. To keep us on our toes, the hand clap is abbreviated as ‘HC’ on the switch and ‘CP’ for instrument selection.
A quick peruse is enough to establish there are no deviations from the TR808’s very specific sound set, and just two deliberate control departures, both involving the bass drum. The first is pretty insignificant: to add extra thump or click, you turn the ‘tone’ knob anti–clockwise rather than clockwise. The second is a welcome extension to the maximum release time of a bass drum you can’t even tune, thanks to a dogged pursuit of authenticity.
As there’s little evidence of a waning appetite for this palette of analogue thuds and plinks, all I’ll add is that these 808 sounds are as satisfying and full of presence as the best clones out there, and more authentically tweakable than samples. The complex wonder that is the cymbal is cool and splashy, while the snare’s ‘tone’ and ‘snappy’ controls provide the expected tailoring of the body and noise components. Actually, I found the 808 snare (arguably always the poor relation compared to the 909) to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of those individual outputs. To get it really cutting through, adding a dash of high boost, compression or, preferably, both together, will soon have it boshing along lustily.
Unlike the TR808’s strangely crippled operating system, there’s no need to stop the groove to switch between playing and writing patterns (incidentally, even the TR606, which uses the same CPU as the 808, could manage that). Similarly, you don’t have to stop when changing between the two Track and Pattern modes (Track mode is simply a mechanism for organising patterns into a vaguely song–like structure).
The Miami holds up to 192 patterns, all of which are empty on arrival. This is a generous amount, if slightly daunting for anyone in need of a little help off the mark. However, unlike the 808, each pattern has a maximum of 16 steps, which imposes limitations of its own. Patterns are arranged in 12 groups of 16 and selection couldn’t be much easier. Turn the mode switch to Pattern Play and pick a pattern using the step keys, swapping groups with the 12–way Pattern Group switch.
A newly selected pattern begins the moment the current one ends. There’s no method implemented to seamlessly swap on the next step, as on some recent drum machines and sequencers. When in Pattern Play mode, holding down several step keys together selects a chain of patterns to loop. It’s a neat performance trick but one that doesn’t quite make up for omitting the TR808’s variation and fill functions.
If you like to record beats by hitting buttons, set the mode to ‘tap write’ and tap away to your heart’s content. You need to be reasonably committed and precise in your timing, but any mistakes can be erased using the Clear button on the next pass. Hits recorded late or just plain wrong can be corrected X0X–style (aka ‘step write’), which is a further notch around the mode selector. Whichever means of pattern creation grabs you, ‘play’ is always just one turn away because it helpfully appears in two positions.
In Step Write mode, you select the voice to edit from the 12 available, then activate steps as usual. Of the 12 voices, the first isn’t a real one. It’s Accent and its level is the only (and slightly restrained) means of programming dynamics. The Miami therefore boasts one of the most streamlined X0X input methods around, and with its brazenly obvious controls and relatively narrow possibilities, I doubt even my mum would be baffled by it. However, there’s no thought for features we take for granted on modern drum machines, such as the muting or soloing of individual voices, but at least the top row of knobs serves as a reliable mixer.
Other than dynamically adding and removing hits during playback, the most radical type of performance variation is achieved by modifying the pattern length, dropping down as far as one step if necessary. Should this put you out of time with other gear, it’s important to realise there’s no re–sync option. Actually, lack of re–sync is something inherent in Sync24, Roland’s early five–pin protocol (found in the TR808, TB303, CR8000 and others). A connected Acidlab Bassline 3 (or any other DIN–slaved device) loses control of its own start/stop button. This is one area in which MIDI usually has advantages. I say ‘usually’ because for some reason a slaved Miami can only be stopped by the master device.
Roland’s four ‘scales’ are faithfully replicated, two of which instruct the Miami to generate triplets. A series of explanatory white lines illustrate the divvying up of steps to time signature, with the lowest of them corresponding to 4/4. Only when in 4/4 can you take advantage of the rather neat shuffle implementation. This offers the regular ‘even-note’ swing most commonly seen and also the odd–note shift found on, for example, the wonderful Roland CR8000 (where steps 3, 7, 11 and 15 are delayed). For a rather weird drunken effect, both types of shuffle can be enjoyed simultaneously, using combinations of the Instrument/Select and Length/Shuffle buttons, plus step keys. Although a continuous control would have been far nicer than this key method, shuffle provides a welcome departure from absolute on–the–beat precision. If using internal sync, the lack of a display means you’ll need to set the tempo by ear. Since I had a CR8000 conveniently nearby, I slaved it to the Miami and, according to its display, the range is from roughly 40 to over 300 bpm.
Flip into Track Write mode (still without stopping) and you gain access to the 12 ‘tracks’ — repositories for sequences of patterns within the same group. For each new step, you select a pattern then hit the Write/Next button ready to pick another. When you’re finished, or reach the limit of 64 steps, you simply drop back into Track Play and the structure loops, leaving you free to potter with a bass line, or recharge your glowstick.
The Miami is an authentic–sounding TR808 for those who desire but can’t locate or afford the real thing. It should appeal to those 808 devotees who are steadfastly committed to analogue and have no interest in driving the voices from a sophisticated modern sequencer engine. Chaining patterns is a handy and welcome feature, but I’m not sure it beats the TR808’s variations and fills. On the other hand, the Miami outguns its vintage predecessor with the ability to edit patterns then switch to playing and selecting them freely, without stopping.
In a world where Roland have now built the TR8, the Miami can still impress with its full set of individual outputs, healthy pattern storage and a certain streamlined purity. DIN Sync I/O can be regarded as either a dusty relic or a celebration of old-school values but it’s of potential use with other Acidlab gear or old Roland kit. Otherwise, there’s a bare–bones MIDI implementation for clock slaving, or for use as a module. The bottom line is that the Miami sounds convincingly like a vintage TR808 but is considerably cheaper.
Roland have recently turned out a little green number called the TR8 — you might have spotted it. While the Miami scores with its voice outputs and real analogue circuitry, the affordable TR8 is convincing as either a TR808 or a TR909. For an analogue alternative, look no further than the MFB Tanzbär. It is not so concerned with exact 808 cloning, is a little cheaper and features two great kicks, generally more tweakability and a pretty sophisticated sequencer.
The TR808 didn’t have MIDI at all, so the Miami scores points by offering MIDI synchronisation. If you’d rather trigger the voices remotely from an external sequencer or maybe drum pads, you must first reboot while holding down the ‘MIDI Expander’ button. Having done so, the internal sequencer is totally disabled. You must then rely on the fixed (and slightly unusual) note allocation Acidlab decided on.
Any notes with a velocity higher than 100 trigger the accent, which means that no greater scope for dynamics is available via MIDI than is delivered by the Miami itself. To return to ordinary internal sequencing, another reboot is required, which would get a bit awkward if you were switching regularly.
- An analogue clone of Roland’s TR808 for a thousand quiddollars less.
- Generous pattern capacity.
- Can switch seamlessly between pattern selection and programming.
- Syncs to MIDI or Roland’s Sync24 protocol.
- Individual outputs for every voice.
- Still not cheap.
- Sequencer has few frills.
- No MIDI out.
The Acidlab Miami is analogue, has multiple outputs and sounds like a Roland TR808. While priced to deter the casual, it costs way less than the real thing.
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