DEREK JOHNSON and DEBBIE POYSER examine the rise and rise of Roland's most sought‑after beatbox, the TR909.
There can be few hi‑tech instruments which still command a second‑hand price only slightly lower than their original selling price 10 years after their launch. Roland's now near‑legendary TR909 is such an example — released in 1984 with a retail price of £999, they now fetch up to £900 on the second‑hand market! The irony of the situation is that barely a year after its launch, the 909 was being 'chopped out' by hi‑tech dealers for around £375, to make way for the then‑new TR707 and TR727. Prices hit a new low around 1988, when you could often pick up a second‑user 909 for under £200 — and occasionally even under £100. Musicians all over the country are now garrotting themselves with MIDI leads as they remember that 909 they sneered at for £100 — or worse, the one they sold for £50 (did you ever hear the one about the guy who gave away his TB303 Bassline — now worth anything up to £900 from true loony collectors — because he couldn't sell it? He knows who he is...).
The Techno Connection
Even as UK second‑hand prices for the 909 slumped in the early to mid‑'80s, this durable machine was beginning its phenomenal renaissance. Almost by chance, the fledgling Chicago house movement had adopted the 909 as its beatbox of choice, with Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles weaving 909 rhythms into his live mixing shows at the seminal Power Plant club. The sound caught on, with other local DJs clamouring for 909s of their own, and causing something of a local shortage around Chicago and Detroit. Meanwhile, the pioneers of Detroit techno were making the 909 the rhythmic basis of their sound, and setting the stage for the rise of Roland's vintage Rhythm Composer.
While the 909 was on its way back into favour, second‑hand prices for its non‑MIDI predecessor, the TR808, were peaking at around £500‑£600, fuelled by its popularity with hip‑hop musicians. If hip‑hop rejuvenated the 808, as some maintain, it was certainly techno which breathed new life into the TR909. Second‑hand gear watchers marvelled as 909 prices reached and then surpassed the level attained by the 808, which itself had been a source of amazement. It seemed that the bubble must burst, but no‑one had reckoned with the now mainstream appeal of the 909's distinctive sound, which had moved out of the confines of techno and into the pop charts. Indeed, UK techno duo LFO are on record as remarking that "even Kylie's using TR909". The result of this continued popularity is that the people who own 909s are, for the most part, hanging onto them, and those who want one seem prepared to go to almost any lengths to obtain one of the finite number available on the second‑hand market. We've even heard of German and Swedish buyers competing for UK‑sourced machines!
What's It All About, Roland?
So, what's all the fuss about? A certain amount of the 909's popularity can undoubtedly be explained by the vagaries of fashion, but there's more to it than that. Physically, the 909's chunky beige console‑style design flies in the face of current trends for increasing miniaturisation and sleekness, but it certainly feels like a substantial instrument as a result. The front panel is spacious, to say the least, and the buttons and dials have a weight and solidity which underline the quality of components used — an impression confirmed by both independent service expert Mike Swain of Panic Music Services, and Roland UK's own service department. When questioned about the reliability of the 909, both attested that they rarely turn up with problems, being generally stable and trouble‑free machines.
Central to the 909's appeal could be its emphasis on real‑time control and spontaneity, demonstrated by the fact that almost all functions have a dedicated button, with just a few requiring a punch of the Shift key first — this clearly strikes a chord with dance musicians. Like pre‑MIDI analogue synthesizers, the 909 allows you to tweak individual sounds while a pattern or song is playing, and select individual patterns at will — all without needing to access layers of hidden software. All 10 of the TR909's sounds feature a volume control, so individual instruments can be dropped out whenever you like. In addition, the kick drum, snare, three toms and two cymbals can be tuned over a fairly wide range. In common with the TR808, there are a few extra parameters for the kick and snare drums: the kick has Attack and Decay knobs, and in tandem with the tuning parameter, it is possible to produce anything from a tight, aggressive slap, to a resonant, flabby punch. Similarly, using the Tone and Snappy controls lets you vary the snare between woodblock, a blast of white noise, or a fairly realistic simulation of the real thing. The toms also have adjustable Decay controls, as do the open and closed hi‑hats.
As befits its status as Roland's then‑flagship drum machine, the TR909 is kitted out with 10 individual audio outputs, allowing you to treat sounds externally — the sounds are pre‑panned at the main stereo output.
And There's More...
Other facilities add to the 909's continuing usefulness. First off, there's a built‑in tape synchroniser — no Song Position Pointers, but welcome and usable all the same. Not surprisingly, given the 909's appearance virtually at the birth of MIDI, Roland equipped their new beatbox with a couple of pre‑MIDI options: a DIN Sync input allows the TR909 to be sync'd by something like an MC4 sequencer, and a Trigger output (programmed using the rim shot) can be used to drive certain older drum machines and sequencers, as well as the arpeggiators found on many analogue synths.
On the MIDI side, the TR909's simple MIDI spec mean that sounds can be played over MIDI on any MIDI channel — with full velocity response, but not with pitch bend — and the machine can sync, or be sync'd, to MIDI clock. External storage is limited to a primitive but fairly reliable cassette tape dump, or M64C cartridges (one cartridge holds the equivalent of the memory of two 909s). We've heard that early TR909s may have operated in Omni mode only, although we personally haven't found one where this is the case. Be warned, though, that the basic MIDI settings have to be set each time you turn the machine on, since the 909 does default to Omni mode and internal sync.
The Rhythm Method
In a world dominated by ever smaller, ever more powerful sound modules, and sophisticated computer‑based sequencing software, why use an old drum machine like the TR909 for programming your drum patterns? Well, if I'd just paid £900 for a TR909, I'd want to use everything on it — and to be honest, part of the charm, not to mention all of the feel, of a TR909 is obtained through creating drum parts with the on‑board sequencer.
The process is fairly logical, and consists of programming a series of patterns, which can then be chained into completed songs (called Tracks by Roland). There are 96 patterns and eight tracks, divided into two banks. Each bank of four tracks has access to 896 bars, which are assigned as they are needed until the supply runs out. Patterns created in one bank can't be used by tracks created in the other, although they can be freely copied between banks should the need arise. Of course, you could simply choose to select individual patterns in real time, an interactive approach adopted by many a live remixer or house musician.
Programming patterns uses one of two methods — step or tap. Step is a more sophisticated version of the method found on the TR808, where you write one drum sound at a time, using the row of 16 buttons at the bottom of the front panel. With a pattern running, you press a button where you would like a drum to sound, press it again to give it an accent, and again if you want to remove the event. An LED in each button lights to show the presence of a drum hit, and an accented event is shown by the LED glowing brighter. You move onto another drum sound using the Instrument Select button. In tap record mode, you record a pattern in real time using the 16 buttons as pads. There are two pads each for the kick, snare and three toms, since each is available in an accented, and non‑accented version. Each method is quick and intuitive, and you can switch between methods depending on what you want to achieve.
It may appear that there is a limit of 16 steps per pattern, giving a nominal time signature of 4/4, but this isn't the case. It's possible to alter a pattern's 'scale' to accommodate 32nd notes (a pattern featuring 32nd notes will be half as long as a normal pattern), and 8th, or 16th note triplets. You can even define how long a pattern is, as long as it's between 1 and 16 steps (you can have it in any colour, as long as it's beige...). More complicated patterns can be created by using block pattern play. Select two (or more) consecutive patterns, and they will play sequentially. For example, give patterns 1 and 2 a time signature of 2/4 and 3/4 respectively, and, using block pattern play, you'll have a 5/4 bar. A little planning goes a long way with the 909.
Apart from triggering the on‑board sounds, each TR909 pattern also features an external play option. Here, a further 16 tracks can be programmed as part of a pattern, and transmitted over MIDI only. Designed to allow external drum sounds to be incorporated into TR909 patterns, what this actually gives you is a very simple sequencer, with a range from bottom C (on a 61‑note keyboard), to the E flat 16 notes above. Although limited (for example, the gate time is fixed), this facility can lead to some very interesting results. One anomaly worth pointing out is that when you clear a pattern to start from scratch, the external instrument tracks aren't erased — you need to press Shift/Ext Inst, and erase those tracks separately. This is a minor irritation that joins a few other small problems. For example, in order to change between patterns in either of the two banks, the 909 needs to be stopped, and the same goes if you want to switch between step or tap recording. You also only get a tempo readout when you push the Tempo button. For an instrument that's over 10 years old, though, there's not too much to complain about.
Unlike many of the instruments that appear in SOS retrospectives, the TR909 is not an unsung instrument waiting to be rediscovered, but inspite of its ubiquity, it does have a lot, both sonically and creatively, to offer the discerning (and, unfortunately, rich) musician.
The Sounds That Rocked The House
An early TR909 brochure claims that the instrument sounds "have been created through computer analysis of actual drum sounds". In practice, each voice is produced by what amounts to a little synth circuit — a la TR808 — a fact confirmed by a quick look at the main printed circuit board (don't try this at home, kids). Each section of the PCB features references to VCO, Noise, Env1 and so on. The exceptions here are the hi‑hat and cymbals, which are actually samples — a first for a Roland drum machine. Although the handclap sounds like a sample of that found on the TR808, it actually appears to a be generated by a circuit as well.
The quality of the sounds is surprisingly good, and constant chart exposure means they sound contemporary — just check out the profusion of 909 or 909‑clone sounds amongst the soundsets of many modern synths, samplers, drum machines and their libraries. If you can't stretch to current asking prices for the genuine article, countless sample CDs feature typical samples, and Roland also made a 909 ROM card for their own R8 drum machine, which sometimes becomes available on the second‑hand market.
The kick and snare are the heart of the 909 sound, and, due to the aforementioned array of knobs, can sound as naff or as sophisticated as you like. In fact, the kick drum has a surprising amount of what can only be described as 'oomf' — the bass energy can be lethal at high volumes. The toms sound a bit 'syn tom'‑like, but have a nice woody feel to them, the handclap is a classic (shared with the 808), and the hi‑hat is crisp with plenty of presence in a mix. Surprisingly, for such early samples, the cymbals are actually quite good, if a little abrupt in the fade.
- Bass Drum
- Snare Drum
- Low, Mid and Hi Tom
- Rim Shot
- Hand Clap
- Open/Closed Hi‑Hat
- Crash Cymbal
- Ride Cymbal
- 2 x MIDI In/MIDI Out
- DIN Sync In
- Tape Sync/Tape Dump In/Out sockets
- Start/Stop Footswitch Socket
- Trigger Out
- Master Stereo Output
- 10 x Individual Outputs
Machine‑Age Fan Club: Famous 909 Users
The following musicians (amongst many others) either own, or have owned a TR909:
- 808 State
- Les Adams (LA Mix)
- A Guy Called Gerald
- Juan Atkins
- Bizarre Inc
- Cabaret Voltaire
- Future Sound Of London
- Simon Harris (Music Of Life)
- Michel Huyge
- Phil Kelsey (DMC remixer)
- Nigel Lowis (Dina Carroll's producer)
- Derrick May
- Will Mowat (Soul II Soul)
- Kevin Saunderson
- Tim Simenon (Bomb The Bass)
- Three Wize Men
- David Toop
- Unique 3
Countless musicians also use TR909 samples, including LFO, and top remixers Brothers In Rhythm, whose Steve Anderson has been quoted as saying: "As much as you can try to get away from it, there's nothing like a 909 snare." (SOS February 1994)