Are Roland’s recreations the last word on these classic instruments?
A few years ago, Roland finally responded to the requests of many devotees by bringing back some of their legendary instruments, albeit using software modelling techniques rather than analogue circuitry. The TB-3 and TR-8 (which incorporated TR-808 and TR-909 kits) didn’t look much like their illustrious predecessors, but thanks to the magic of Analogue Circuit Behaviour they sure managed to sound like them.
After the release of those two fine machines, Roland might have planned to move on to pastures new, but not so. Next, the Boutique range delivered new software impressions of classic synths, but cut down in scale and polyphony. Even so, it was something of a surprise to hear the range had been expanded to include a Boutique TR-909 and TB-303. On this occasion, the look is very clearly based on the originals and the Aira green is but a memory. Could it be that these ultra-portable versions mark Roland’s last word on the subject? We can only wonder...
Beginning with the dove grey (my wife reckons) TR-09, there are a couple of regular-sized buttons — Start and Stop/Continue. The rest are much smaller and divided into those having an integral red LED and those in clear plastic, able to light or flash. Each drum voice has dedicated controls to match those of a TR-909. As such, they are always live, but in some cases extra parameters are available too — hidden in a menu system complete with a four-character display and data entry encoder. The hidden parameters are: the gain and pan of every instrument, the tuning of specific drums (rim shot, clap and hi-hats) and the decay of others (rim, clap, crash and ride cymbals). All of which presents wider scope for experimentation than the original machine.
The TR-09’s main output is a stereo mini-jack and without any individual outputs at all, that pan control quickly feels essential. There’s a mini-jack headphone socket too, plus a Mix input capable of handling stereo signals from another Boutique, iPad, etc. I looked around for the main volume control, only to find it on the rear panel — as an even tinier control. While still taking stock, I realised there is no connector for a conventional power adapter, just a micro-USB port. This petite drum machine is initially powered from four AA batteries (supplied), but as it had been well exercised before reaching me [Sorry — Ed], they didn’t last much beyond a first exploratory session. To progress the review I therefore had to borrow a micro-USB adapter/charger from another piece of gear.
This is a more substantial box than its 308 x 130 x 51 mm dimensions might suggest; its cold metal panel rests on a plastic base and its knobs are small and crammed closely together, a far cry from the friendly spacing of the TR-909 (or, indeed, the TR-8). The TR-09 ships with the DK-01 Boutique Dock into which it clips neatly. Once attached, it can be raised to a couple of useful working angles although the plastic docking assembly feels somewhat rickety. Once you adjust to the scale of the controls, you’ve got all the hands-on of the legendary TR-909 in a format that will fit into a moderately sized jiffy bag. Prop it up on its docking stand and, using the internal speaker, you can create grooves to your heart’s content, and plenty of them. The TR-09 addresses one of the few shortcomings of the TR-8 — pattern storage — by having a generous 96 to fill. There’s even a basic song mode to assemble patterns into songs. These longer structures are known as tracks and eight are available to build arrangements.
For pattern creation, both step-time and real-time recording is supported, the latter complete with a guiding metronome. The metronome borrows the rim shot voice, something to be aware of if you like to begin with that particular thunk. Otherwise, real-time mode (known as Tap Write) is an undemanding process in which you hit keys. For some voices, two keys are required, with the left-most reserved for tapping in accented notes; the right key is unaccented.
If you switch to traditional step entry, repeatedly pressing any step key toggles through accented, unaccented and off states. (This order can even be changed via one of the global options.) Dedicated buttons on the left-hand side take care of scale, instrument selection, setting the pattern’s last step and activating shuffle or flams. Flams are applicable to the kick, snare and toms, with the flam time adjustable either in preset amounts via a range of step keys or by holding the Flam button and turning the Tempo knob. Flams may be introduced in a positive or negative direction.
Another fun trick of step entry is to add notes between the beats. Assuming you’ve kept to the default scale of 16th notes (four steps per beat), you can add 32nd notes by holding the Enter key as you enable steps. These are only visible later by holding the Enter key — something worth remembering if you’re hearing rogue notes that aren’t immediately traceable. Entering these ‘backbeats’ is the only way of making patterns of 32 steps.
At least one operation requires you to stop the drum machine, although the manual leaves you to discover this fact for yourself. This is Clear, the rather useful means of instantly wiping a pattern. Of the other housekeeping functions, I found pattern copy and paste to be slightly convoluted — it also has the odd requirement of selecting the destination pattern prior to the source, something that never quite felt intuitive.
As well as adding accents to each drum, you can draft in Total Accent for the whole pattern. For this there’s a handy knob providing dynamic control and the Enter key becomes the ‘instrument select’ key when programming it. Total accent is a fast global means of piling extra emphasis on top of the accents built into each voice.
Having added notes, flams and accents, there’s no further action required to save the pattern — the very act of entering write mode accomplishes that task for you. While some of the key combinations are initially a bit cumbersome, you’ll get there with a bit of practice, plus there are LEDs a-plenty to prompt you about the bank, group and pattern selected, and whether you’re in write mode or not.
Curiously enough, the initial version of the firmware made no provision for instrument muting or soloing. Thankfully these useful functions were added in version 1.04, albeit requiring a key combination of Shift and Instrument Select. In this mode, the Enter key toggles between mute or solo — the instruments are then put into the chosen state by hitting step keys. It’s not ultra-slick but it does the job, although there’s no visual indication of which tracks are muted once you return to normal operation.
You’re able to switch between the two top-level play/write modes — pattern and track — without stopping the music. Not surprisingly, pattern mode allows you to concentrate on individual patterns but it also offers chaining, accomplished as easily as holding down a range of keys. However, it’s in track mode where you can put together more permanent arrangements of patterns — and in any order. Tracks consist of up to 1000 measures where each measure is one of the 96 available patterns. By default, a track plays just once. To make it loop, press the Cycle button.
It’s a friendly system in which you can move forwards and backwards through the arrangement with dedicated keys, or insert and delete measures to generally put together song-type structures. You can re-use patterns multiple times but — unlike the song modes of some grooveboxes — there are no mute overrides for each measure. To achieve variations of that type, you need to make copies of the pattern and edit the triggers.
Usefully, you can store the tempo for each track, although the TR-09 won’t automatically play at this tempo unless you select the track by holding both the tempo key and track number. I reckon this is the ideal way to do it, actually, because it offers the flexibility to switch tracks without a sudden tempo jump or impose one when you wish. Incidentally, tempo can be entered in finer resolution — two decimal points — by using the Shift key along with the tempo control.
It’s an ongoing homage to the original designers that these simple drum voices continue to be much in demand today. Indeed, they are the standard to which all else is compared. Keeping it simple, Roland have not attempted to match the TR-8’s effects capabilities. Only a compressor has been added, which can be applied to the bass and snare drums in individual amounts. Despite its single parameter, it’s surprisingly effective, not that these classic sounds need a whole lot of assistance to sound ‘just right’. I’m not sure it makes up for the lack of individual outputs though. No, I take that back, I am sure. It doesn’t.
If you rig up the TR-09 to a PC or Mac, you get virtual outputs — four of them over USB. As with other Airas, the USB port is your gateway to a high-quality audio interface and the USB connection also carries MIDI, so it’s useful for backing up your patterns too.
It could be my imagination, but the ACB modelling this time out sounds even more like an example of a TR-909 you’d encounter today. Perhaps the look helps (in the same way that drinking cheap champagne from a posh glass somehow lends it mystique) or perhaps Roland have revisited the circuits and updated ACB to include simulated component ageing. Either way, I was thoroughly impressed.
The kick is phenomenal. Its attack transient, decay and tuning range deliver a superb percussive backbone from practically any combination of settings. Ditto the snare, the hi-hats and the clap — all sounds we know (almost too) well. Once again, the behaviour accurately captures the gentle phasing whenever the clap and snare play at the same time — a product of a common noise source in the original machine. Perhaps the only issue is one that’s difficult to quantify, but I’ll have a go anyway. After a prolonged session — and here I mean playing TR-09 patterns for an hour or more — something about the top end begins to grate. I realise I’m probably unusual in letting patterns run for so long and that it’s hardly a scientific observation, but I always find it a relief when it stops. My solution — also applicable to the TR-8 — is to apply some creative roll-off of high frequencies, for which I find a stereo analogue filter (a Xone VF-1, actually) to be invaluable. Your mileage may vary, but as several TR-8 owners have mentioned similar experiences to me, it may be something to be aware of.
Joining the 11 expected percussion voices is a 12th, Trigger. This helpfully allows you to program a trigger for external gear without sacrificing an internal voice. Typically the rim shot’s output was used for this, which is probably why the trigger out socket is placed in the rim section (the rear panel would have been an even better place).
Last but not least, the MIDI implementation is rather spiffy. There are MIDI CCs assigned to the front panel controls and almost all the TR-09’s functionality is covered, with the exception of pan as far as I could work out.
After the rather odd-looking TB-3, it’s a relief to play with a TB-303 clone that sticks to its raison d’être and puts all the expected controls in roughly the expected places. Yes, the Boutique scale-reduction algorithm has been applied again and the volume control has been shifted to the rear panel, but there’s more grab-space around the knobs than the TR-09, which is something. Here there’s an added bonus in the form of effects: dedicated controls for overdrive and delay. And as with the TR-09, it sits in its DK-01 docking station at a couple of jaunty angles.
It shares the mini-jack connectivity of the other Boutiques and has front-panel CV/Gate outputs, plus a trigger in, so you can use a modular (or TR-09-sourced) trigger to drive the sequencer. Regular MIDI is also available in the form of MIDI In and Out (but no Thru) sockets, plus USB MIDI/audio if required. If you look underneath you’ll also see that, next to the speaker is a connection for the K-25m keyboard. In common with the TR-09, you can use a quartet of AA batteries or power it over USB, but once again you’ll need to source an appropriate adapter.
It’s hard to think of anything fresh to say about this iconic sound, other than Roland have produced another believable sound-alike. The modelling seems very similar to that of the TB-3. This amounts to beautifully squelching sawtooth basses, the characteristic doleful square and a resonance that incorporates the classic squeals, wows and zaps — even if it doesn’t quite ooze with liquid sweetness at the max. Unlike some other software incarnations (eg. Audiorealism’s ABL3), no user customisation of the sound or behaviour is offered. Apart from that, there’s not much to wish for. I’m sure there are fervent forum-dwellers who live and breathe the TB-303 every day and, for such users, only a full analogue rebuild would ever be a satisfactory replacement. But for the majority, Roland have delivered.
The knobs feel OK and respond pretty well too. There’s enough free panel space to have made them the correct size, so it’s difficult to understand why Roland chose not to. As is traditional, the tuning knob sits right next to the cutoff frequency knob but in its favour there’s a centre detent so you can easily get back in tune if you employ it as a makeshift pitch-bend.
Along with the familiar look, Roland offer the original method of TB-303 programming and therefore the classic workflow. It’s been so long since I programmed a real TB-303 that it felt strange — because the old method separates the entry of pitch and timing.
Having selected which of the 96 patterns you’d like to write, it’s then a matter of setting the pattern length and whether you’d like to work in the default 16th notes or triplets. Switching into Pitch Mode, notes are entered first, via the keyboard. You can check and make corrections by stepping through the pattern with the Tap key, adding slides or accents as you go. The timing can be entered either in real-time with the Tap key or by switching into Time Mode and specifying notes, ties and rests with the same buttons used for octave transposition and accent. I found this method a better source of happy accidents than most so it’s good to see it present and correct.
Unlike the TR-09, the Clear operation works during playback, although old-style Bassline creation still requires you to stop the music. As a solution, Roland have added a new, improved step recording mode. It’s still a method of step entry, but it’s so much faster and easier than the original. Having set the global preference for this mode, notes may be entered freely during playback, with each one incrementing the step number in the display. As you go along, you can introduce slides, accents, octave transposition. The Tap key can also be used to whizz through the pattern view without affecting playback, resulting in one of the most satisfactory programming methods I’ve encountered in any clone.
As per the TR-09, patterns can be chained temporarily by holding down a range of track buttons. This was always a brilliant feature on the original 303 and it’s here that the new step recording mode really shines, because you can write to a series of chained patterns, effectively treating them as one long pattern. The display helpfully increments the total number of steps so you’ll always know where you are.
If you switch from Pattern Write to Track Write mode, you can build structures of up to 256 measures, where each measure is a pattern. There are a few restrictions for the patterns available in this mode — these are illustrated on the panel. Thus for tracks 1/2, you can choose patterns from group 1, tracks 3/4 involve group 2 and so on. In total, there are four pattern groups and three sections (A, B and C) with eight patterns in each. Section C is accessed by holding buttons A and B together. Consistent with the TR-09, you can flip between track and pattern modes without stopping.
Firmware update 1.04 introduced a couple of random pattern generation modes and a pattern copy process — in a friendlier form than the TR-09’s. Of the random modes, the second one is less drastic: it sticks to moving octaves, accents and slides around while leaving the note data intact. The first is completely random. Randomisation can be performed during playback or as a means of populating an empty pattern. I found it just the thing for instant inspiration — it frequently generated patterns far superior to those I was attempting to hatch.
With MIDI CCs provided for all controls, you can capture complete performances in MIDI format for later tweaking and adjustment. The micro-USB port also works as an audio and MIDI interface, which is great for backing up your patterns, recording knob action to your DAW and so on.
Finally, the effects are slightly more extensive than the front panel knobs suggest. Enter the Global menu and you can choose between three flavours of distortion, none of which sound particularly great, except in very small amounts. The delay is better though; it can be a wavery tape simulation or a cool digital echo. The digital version’s shortest times produce resonant ringing effects while longer times and high levels of feedback are both satisfying and trippy. The third delay setting is a weird reverb. It conveys the impression you accidentally dropped your Bassline into a large metal tank. Someone’s bound to find a use for that! Finally, the delay defaults to non-sync’ed operation but it’s easily locked to the clock from the same menu, which, incidentally, is accessible enough that effects can be swapped painlessly during playback.
In the ’80s, Roland said ‘We design the future.’ They did it so well that decades later they are still haunted by ghosts of the past. Whether these Boutique versions are enough to put those to rest, I won’t try and predict. Size issues aside, there is much to applaud here. Both models are blessed with the Roland name and a suitably reverent visual appeal. The ACB modelling is as good as ever, which means there’s finally an option available for anyone in pursuit of the sound and the workflow of these legendary machines.
Both machines score in having a large pattern pool and easy means of programming and chaining patterns. And in each case, making long structures using the track method is fast and simple — exactly what’s needed. Of the two, the TB-03 is the more fun to use, while the TR-09 probably sounds closer to the real thing — and here we’re talking about the final few degrees of closeness that are unlikely to trouble the average user. However, I found the TR-09’s knobs to be too small and awkward for pleasurable use. Considering the original was so chunky and rugged, the TR-09 feels like a Scrappy Doo substitute when you were hoping for Scooby.
Although priced only a little below the TR-8, the TR-09 isn’t packed with extras such as performance tricks and effects. Indeed, neither of these are exactly cheap given there are analogue drum machines and TB-303 clones in roughly the same ballpark. Still, they are the closest Roland has yet come to a full reissue and should be close enough for most purposes. It would be nice to think they marked the final chapter.
Many alternatives have appeared over the years but the main competition for the TR-09 must surely come from Roland’s own TR-8. For just a little more cash you get an interface that’s an ergonomic delight, plus a TR-808 kit and effects are thrown in too, along with expandability. Other than for its larger pattern pool, it’s hard to see why anyone would choose the TR-09 over its larger brother, but battery power, portability and visual appeal could be reasons for some. Elsewhere, Acidlab have been promising the Detroit 909 clone for some time now but it’s still not available at the time of writing.
Amongst the analogue alternatives to the TB-03, the Acidlab Bassline 3 is my personal favourite. It has a fast, effective programming method and handles well. Or there’s the Cyclone Analogic TT-303, which also sounds great, even if there are almost too many ways to program it.