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Roland TR8 Rhythm Performer

Drum Machine
Published April 2014
By Paul Nagle

Roland TR8 Rhythm Performer

Roland's TR8 sees their classic TR808 and TR909 drum machines reincarnated in a single box. Is it what we've all been waiting for?

Ever since the first shadowy green image aired, Roland's Aira series has been the focus of intense online speculation. Would the Japanese giants finally do that thing, that special thing so many musicians have begged for? I'm talking about remaking some of the instruments now regarded as classics, their place in history assured alongside the Hammond organ, the Mellotron and the Minimoog. For many, Roland's TR808 and TR909 represent the pinnacle of analogue drum machine desirability, and even though they've been sampled to death, modelled, cloned, worshipped and generally priced out of reach, it's to Roland we still turn, hoping for the real deal. Well, it's finally happened. Sort of.

The TR8 is a digital recreation of both the TR808 and TR909, in a single performance‑focused design. If you're already running away screaming, offended by the word 'digital', I urge you to pause and take a breath. Roland have obviously taken the TR8 very seriously, and so should we.

TRs Are Green

After the rumour, the mystery and the teaser videos, it's surprising that the collective name Aira doesn't feature anywhere on the panel. Not that it matters; 'TR8' has a nice, friendly ring to it. At a spacious400 x 260 x 65 mm and a fraction under 2kg, this gently sloping black-and-green drum machine sits comfortably on its four squishy rubber feet, inviting you to come and play.

Construction is of light but solid black plastic and, other than the rather pointless green frame around the panel, it's classy all the way. The central space is reserved for 11 sliders that smoothly set the levels of each instrument. Those controlling the bass and snare get more space than the others, on account of the extra knobs involved. Most voices offer adjustment of decay and tuning in addition to level.

The controls are laid out logically and to a high ergonomic standard. Basically, stuff's exactly where you want it and the right size too. On power‑up, familiar step buttons light up in 808‑styled red, orange, yellow and white, setting out the TR8's stall unambiguously. The remaining buttons and sliders are backlit in green, and in low light are far more informative than any display. I questioned whether there was a way to tone down the step keys, as I found them rather dazzling after many hours up close in my darkened attic. Happily, Roland have thought of this already, and if you power up holding the Pattern Select button, a dimmed mode, plus alternate colour schemes, are yours at the spin of an encoder. After five minutes of inactivity, the panel begins to flash like a crazed one‑armed bandit. If you find this distracting or fit‑inducing, the function can be deactivated.

The near‑perfect panel could be more helpful in one respect. Unlike the TR808, you have to guess which buttons conceal the claves, cowbell and maracas, although it's not too much of a stretch to work out the congas are in the same position as the toms. Otherwise, a quick scan shows that only a handful of 808 components have fallen by the wayside. Of these, I missed fills the most, but only until I discovered new and arguably more dynamic methods of adding them, which I'll come to shortly. I'm pleased (and relieved) to report that most of the functionality changes are for the better. The biggest advance is also one of the simplest: you can slip in and out of step or real‑time recording at any moment without stopping the music. As the name suggests, the emphasis is firmly and groovily on performance, and stopping is a buzz‑kill you almost never need to worry about.

Outputs consist of a stereo pair plus a mere two assignable outputs, so you're not going to be treated to the glorious abundance of sockets of a TR808 or 909. In an ideal world there would have been at least a couple more, but there's a partial solution involving the USB port, which we'll keep until later. The two further audio connections are inputs, configured as stereo or summed mono. MIDI is where it should be, and even though there's no MIDI Thru, the output can serve as a 'soft thru' if necessary. This pretty much wraps up the rear panel's high points, except to say there's one of those small recesses in which to secure the external power adaptor lead. This might be a worthwhile idea unless you're like me and prone to tripping over cables that ought to have been secured, sending everything not rudely disconnected hurtling into space.

On the TR8's back panel we find an input for the external power supply, an on‑off switch and a USB Type B port. Moving further along there's MIDI I/O and seven quarter‑inch jack sockets. These consist of a pair of external inputs, a pair of assignable outputs, stereo main outputs and a headphone socket.On the TR8's back panel we find an input for the external power supply, an on‑off switch and a USB Type B port. Moving further along there's MIDI I/O and seven quarter‑inch jack sockets. These consist of a pair of external inputs, a pair of assignable outputs, stereo main outputs and a headphone socket.

In Use

The TR8's menu‑free accessibility probably explains why the owner's manual is so brief. It lacks only the MIDI spec and a few undocumented startup options to be truly satisfying. For the record, you can give your percussion greater dynamics over MIDI, and both clock and transport are catered for, along with transmission of note data, plus CCs from every knob and slider. On its days off from drumming, the TR8 would make a darn good control surface.

That this is a performer's instrument is evident from the word go, not least when you notice there's no save button for kits or patterns. In practically every case, what you change, you keep.

After that refreshing discovery, let's start with a few basics. The TR8 has 16 kits, each comprising 11 instruments plucked from either of its two legendary sources. As shipped, you get a typical 808 in the first kit location and a 909 in the second, with the others offering mixed variations. For simplicity's sake, kits are limited to the format laid out on the panel. This fixed structure means there's no way to include both an 808 and a 909 kick, for example, and the instruments sharing controls (the rimshot and claves, for instance) can't both appear in a kit either.

The panel is always live, so it's a pain‑free case of WYSIWYG. More importantly, it becomes second nature to swap instruments or entire kits regularly during playback: the whole machine becomes an eternally shifting scratchpad. This philosophy of constant change might explain why there are only 16 patterns on board, each with a variation. You can join the two halves (A and B) by pressing both buttons at once, and this status is remembered when you later return to the pattern. Actually, every edit you make is remembered; there's no concept of having a static version of any pattern to work from. Unusually, the pattern copy function insists that you first stop playback, a requirement I hope will be removed in a future update.

There's no song mode or equivalent, but patterns can play consecutively — all 16 if you like. Kicking this off is as easy as holding down a range of keys while the Pattern Select button is lit. When using default colours, the step keys are yellow to represent selected patterns, with the current one flashing orange. Those keys receive their fair share of tapping and stroking, and the feedback from the multi-coloured backlighting is terrific. Each mode gains a distinct identity that makes getting up to full operational speed faster than with any drum machine I know, including Korg's Electribes. When I see the step keys are blue, I know I'm selecting a new kit. When they're pink, I'm replacing an instrument in a kit. Green keys represent lengths other than 16 steps, and if any pattern has been shortened, the Last Step button will be lit when I return as a reminder. Clearly Roland have listened to some experienced players because so many of these little touches are present.

There's no Shift key, nor is there a need for one! Dedicated buttons are the name of the game, and pressing Inst Play rewards you with a flashing indication of track activity that you can jam along with. The keys aren't velocity‑sensitive, though; if you want louder you have to reach for the slider. Via the adjacent Inst Rec button, notes played will be recorded into the pattern, quantised to the current scale, of which there are a familiar four, the first two catering for triplets.

When your strictly quantised beats are in need of loosening up, shuffle is found just beneath the tempo encoder. Shuffle pushes the pattern's even steps forwards or backwards so at their extremes they almost overlap with the next step. Here, I actually felt it liberating to have no display of the shuffle values. It forces you to listen and make choices purely by ear. Thanks to the knob's central detent you can confidently de‑shuffle at any moment, and if I wasn't already impressed by the quality of the voices (I've been keeping you in suspense over those), I'd probably be falling for the TR8 purely because of its interface.

In the Instrument Play/Record modes, the 16th step key is lit in a relaxing half‑bright white. This is the mute key, and a push turns the first 11 step keys pale violet. They now act as instrument mutes, which are often faster and more precise than juggling 11 sliders. On keys 12‑15 there's a roll function. It repeats a voice (or voices) at eighth or 16th intervals, and there are two variation patterns with gaps to break up the repetition. Apart from the gently syncopated motion produced when the first two are combined, roll isn't completely successful. It is deactivated during real‑time recording, plus it introduces no dynamic build-up over time. In the review version, there appeared to be a bug in which the first note sometimes retriggered during a roll, even in patterns with no competing activity for that voice.

X0X Boxed

Real‑time recording works well enough, but the TR8 is also blessed with Roland's tried-and-tested step-programming implementation, and this is where, I humbly suggest, the real fun lies. A quick press of the TR‑REC button and you're free to add steps X0X‑style. A deep, mesmerising red colour indicates the steps where the selected drum is triggered. Unused steps are dark and the current scale division is marked in the background by half‑lit white keys. Stroking a finger across the smooth plastic is an enduringly satisfying way to set (or unset) multiple triggers at speed. Finally, the step‑based accent implementation is as simple as they come, its level global and set by a dedicated knob.

If neither method of recording delivers the goods, I recommend the random pattern generator. Simultaneously press the Pattern Select and Scatter On buttons and you're rewarded with what might be a brilliant starting point, or a burst of utter madness. Unpredictable fills can be generated this way, and since it's the only case where an edit needs to be confirmed, you can randomise 'til the cows come home and your original pattern won't be permanently wiped until you hit the flashing TR‑REC button. This is all highly entertaining, but the next bit's probably what you've been waiting for.

Hot Aira

Haters brace yourselves. The TR8 sounds like a Roland TR808. It also sounds like a TR909. I'm not kidding. Ordinarily I'd be using phrases such as 'comparable to' or '808‑like' but in this case, even the furthest extents of the controls remain within precisely scoped limits. The fact it never strays out of character boosts the sense of authenticity considerably. It would have been theoretically possible for Roland to have replicated modified machines too, but they've only done this in the case of the 808 kick, which can be found in an alternate version with a longer decay. That kick also shifts its pitch on repeated hits, which gives it a markedly different feel to the standard. It would be wonderful if this idea were expanded in future, addressing the inevitable moan that you can never modify digital gear.

During the review period, I borrowed a TR909, a cloned 808 and a TB303. You can read about the 303 adventure elsewhere in the magazine, but side by side, I was pleased (and yes, I admit, surprised) to find Roland's new gear held its own. Kicks kicked butt, snares boshed boisterously. I tried to get some information about how the sound is achieved, but didn't get any further than the revelations from Roland's YouTube videos, namely, "it's ACB [Analogue Circuit Behaviour] modelling, entirely new technology we have not used elsewhere. There are no samples.” However it works, the results are highly credible. Pounding away next to the real deals, kits set up the same way were as interchangeable as two different 808s or 909s would be. Though at first I thought the originals had more presence and greater depth, I subsequently did some blind tests — and frequently failed to identify which was which. I compared individual instruments, full kits and even specific voice combinations such as the TR909's snare and clap. These share a noise source that's played through two different filters. When they're heard simultaneously, you get a third filtering effect — a distinctive swoosh — caused by the layering. It's reproduced beautifully by the TR8.

I'm sure I needn't describe every voice of these well‑known machines. TR8 owners are provided with equivalent controls, in most cases a Decay and Tune knob. The snare gains 'snappy', taking both the 808 and 909 snares through their respective transformations from boxy thuds to bursts of noise. The bass drum's 'attack' is especially useful for adding bite to the smooth and mellow 808, but it even helps the punchy 909 kick cut through more aggressively, not that it needs assistance. Of the remainder, I've never been able to decide whether I prefer 808 or 909 hi‑hats, so it's excellent to have both. I'd also forgotten how usable 909 toms are, which probably dates me a bit.

Effects & External Inputs

Here's where a bit of DSP can work its own kind of magic. The TR8 is a digital drum machine with built-in effects — and handy they are too! Firstly, the bass and snare drum both have dedicated compression. Slightly too brutal at their maximum, the compressors have a range of in‑between settings to delight connoisseurs of the loud and slightly overdriven.

Here's a thought that struck me next: all drum machines need reverb and delay! The two effects are applicable to any instrument except those routed to the assignable outputs. For maximum flexibility, voices can be excluded from either effect — on a per‑kit basis — but that's not even the neatest trick. The reverb and delay are step‑programmed in exactly the same way as the drum voices and accents. This inspires a whole new method of adding dynamics, as well as suggesting other innovations. For example, if you trigger the delay on a step immediately after a long decaying snare, only the quieter final noise splash is subject to the delay's repeats. There are eight choices of delay and the same number of reverb types. Although the reverbs are no Lexicons, they have sufficient scope for most typical uses — and some freaky/fun spaces too — filtered reverbs, reverse delays, cavernous halls and so on.

The TR8's front panel measures 40 x 26 cm, which should leave you with plenty of elbow room. Once you've learnt to specify when and where the effects should be in the pattern, adding them becomes an integral part of a performance. The effect settings aren't saved in your pattern. If you happened across a particular delay time that fits, you'll have to either record it then and there, or learn the TR8 so well you can find it reliably every time.

There's an extra delay‑ish effect too, called Scatter, which is all about fast 'sample and repeat' operations such as looping, reversing and gratuitous glitching. Firing it up for the first time, I couldn't help thinking of DJs and cheese. Fortunately, there are 10 different Scatter types and sufficient diversity so that, clichéd or not, I found myself eventually won over. The stale Wensleydale of earlier morphed into fragrant, soft Lancashire before my ears. Scatter would be even slicker if its button could be switched at will between toggled and momentary modes. Perhaps Roland can implement a shortcut for this.

Finally, an external signal — stereo or mono — can be added to the mix. The signal isn't processed by the delay or reverb but it is subject to Scatter. The main purpose appears to be serving up pumping compression effects, thanks to a step‑based side-chain. The side-chain pattern is programmed in the usual way, its amount set by (you've guessed it) a dedicated knob. I couldn't help wondering whether the feature could one day be extended to include gating as an alternate mode, for those of us whose pumping days are over.

Conclusion

It's heartening that, for all its power, the TR8 takes hardly any time to learn. Right from the start it's about what you choose to do with it. Roland have finally delivered their classic sounds, but have dared to put them into a more playable interface than ever before. They deserve credit for listening, no matter how long it took.

I realise there will always be those for whom only analogue is acceptable, whether because of an innate desire to melt solder and transform or because of beardy prejudice. Fortunately, for the vast majority, a drum machine is about having instant control over the right sounds. The TR8 ticks those boxes with a fat, wide felt‑tip!

Unlike other machines that lack a display, the TR8 not only gets away with it, but actually seems better without it. In fact I'm convinced a display would have compromised it as a musical instrument. Ditto for the scratchpad approach, in which everything is live and saved as you go. Admittedly, I would have liked lots more patterns, and a couple more assignable outputs wouldn't have gone amiss either. After that, my wishlist is pretty short. Obviously nobody wants to stop the music to copy a pattern and, in common with the TB3, there needs to be a way to deactivate note transmission when using the MIDI interface functionality.

The TR8 has considerable update potential and this is where Roland could be vindicated for their rejection of the analogue path. If Aira is to become a force to reckon with, adding further classics would surely sweeten the deal. The technology sounds big, punchy and right, and at the asking price, the TR8 thoroughly deserves to be a hit.

Alternatives

With the originals still commanding premium prices, if you wanted all the sounds of a TR808 and TR909 in a single instrument, there haven't been any serious alternatives since the sequencer-less Novation Drumstation in the '90s. There's the Acidlab Miami that aims to be a TR808, and another alternative would be our old favourite the Korg ESX1, packed with Roland samples. If samples don't impress, back in the analogue realm there's the more expensive MFB Tanzbär. It has individual outputs and some voices do come pretty close, but the dancing bear slips out of disguise easily and isn't loaded with all the voices found here.

USB Today

The tale isn't quite complete because there's one last chocolate in the box — and it's no coconut or rock‑hard caramel either! Apologies for going all Forrest Gump on you there, but just as I was reading through my scribbled notes, the first version of the USB driver dropped into my inbox. Once installed on my Mac, the TR8 became an audio and MIDI interface.

There's no dedicated volume or balance control between the TR8's output and the computer's audio, which could be limiting in some circumstances. However, a 24‑bit USB 2 interface is always potentially useful, and when I booted Logic X I felt briefly as if I'd been handed all the coffee creams. The TR8's audio driver features 14 inputs: enough to cater for the main mix, plus any external signals, and every instrument. If you prefer to individually process your percussion voices, this way you can! Given its potential as a MIDI controller and with a functional MIDI interface thrown in, the TR8 could be a real treat for the travelling musician.

Published April 2014