If you haven't already got a Roland TR-808 or TR-909 it's because either you don't want one (strange, but it takes all sorts) or because you can't afford one. The Roland AIRA TR-8 combines the two and is yours for a fraction of the four-figure sums the discontinued originals would cost you. Surely this is a no-brainer?
Roland AIRA TR-8 review: analogue?
No, it's not analogue, but if that alone rules it out you're missing half the point. If it can sound as good (and in our tests so far, it does) then how it makes the sounds really doesn't matter.
And that other half of the point? Well that's the way these machines worked. Far removed the mouse-clicking introspection of today's techno tools, these were made to be hammered, bashed, tweaked and improvised on, and thankfully so is the TR-8.
Roland TR-8 : instant gratification
Unlike Korg's dinky Volca Beats, the TR-8 is a full-sized tabletop unit with a much more professional feel. The row of 16 step buttons along the bottom looks fabulous and is great for tapping in patterns on the fly. Most of the main performance controls get their own knobs and buttons, so you can bring in new sounds with the faders or cut them in and out with mute controls, alter their volumes and mess around with each sound's specific tone controls all in realtime.
Lighting is used intelligently on the faders to show which sounds are in play, and the step buttons change colour accorording to the mode you're in. If you leave it alone for a few minutes you're treated to a mesmerising light show, a bit like a fruit machine in attract mode.
Roland TR8: the sounds
There will be slight differences in the sounds of the TR-8 and the orginal 808 and 909; that's inevitable. Still, the TR-8 does a brilliant job of recreating the sounds that have been the backbone of dance music for the last 30 years. Each of the sound slots has presets for both 808 and 909 kits, and you get the same controls to tweak them with. The 808 bass drum booms just as it should and the 909 counterpart is incredibly punchy, and with dedicated knobs for pitch, decay, attack and even a compressor just for the bass drum, you can adjust them to suit lots of different styles.
Those 909 high hats are just as light and airy as the originals (apparently the same actual cymbals that were sampled for the 909 were recorded for the TR-8), and the claps have that super-crispy sound that cuts through on any sound system.
Scatter and effects
One of the big advantages of the TR-8's digital architecture is that it allows for some effects to be included without hiking up the price. Each sound can be assigned to or excluded from the separate reverb and delay effects. That control is crucial because it allows you to wash your snares and claps in ambient effects and keep your kick drums tight and dry. The effects sections give you enough control without over complicating matters, and that's a balance that's been struck across the board.
There's also an intriguing "Scatter" effect which is very useful for adding fills and variations once you've got the hang of it. It's a kind of random effect that chops up your beats into a different order and reverses some of the sounds. It's not foolproof though, so you'll need to spend a bit of time getting to know it if you don't want your audience to collapse in a heap on the dancefloor.
Shuffle and swing
It shuffles! Roland beat afficianados will value this knob. It's the gateway to a lifetime of skippy, funky beats. Without this your drums are nailed to a rigid, robotic grid. That's fine, but when you turn the Shuffle knob it all starts to swing around in the grooviest way.
Ins and outs
New for the TR-8 is an audio input section. You can use it as a simple way to mix any other gear with the drum machine but there's a bit more to it than that. By specifying a pattern on the step buttons you can use the sidechain control to create a pumping effect in time with the beats. For example you could play some chords from a synth and have them pump in and out between the bass drum hits, or use the same trick with a long sustained bass sound.
Those originals famously had separate audio outputs for most of the sounds, which made it possible to give them their own channels on a mixer and process them independently. The TR-8 doesn't go that far but does let you route any of the sounds to one of two additional outputs. That reduction to two extra outputs isn't such a loss because you've already got reverb, delay and compression effects within the unit, and you can also adjust the stereo panning onboard too.
You can send the rimshot sound to one of those outputs to trigger older pre-MIDI gear. There's also MIDI In and Out, plus a USB port that handles audio and MIDI data. That adds up to a very useful bunch of ins and outs.
Roland TR-8 review summary
There will be a lot of moaning about the TR-8's digital brains, and it's likely that many will conclude that it sounds substandard purely for that reason. The reality is that it sounds fantastic. Just about all the important features and characteristics from the originals have been recreated here, and the new effects are very welcome additions. We'd like to see a way to chain patterns together to create "songs", but otherwise there's very little we'd change, bearing in mind the price.
Review by Tony Horgan.