Roland Aira TR-8 drum machine reviewed

May 2, 2014
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In 15 years of writing about music gear, I’ve never seen a buzz quite like the one surrounding Roland’s new Aira series. It was the talk of NAMM 2014 even though it wasn’t exhibited publicly, and blog after blog covered the teasers leading up to its release. When it finally hit the market, nearly every outlet rushed a video review of the products—more than a few of which telegraphed the reviewers’ unfamiliarity with the original TR-808 and TB-303. My first synth teacher, David Kane, let me spend hours with his TR-808 back in 1982. Then I used one throughout the ’80s along with the TB-303, TR-909 and 606, and let’s not forget the TR-707. Needless to say, I was chomping at the bit to get my hands on this new Aira series and give you an in-depth report.

PROS: Immaculate recreations of the TR-808 and TR-909 that also go far beyond the originals. Integrated delay and reverb can be sequenced. External audio input allows tempo-synced gating and side-chaining. Unit can act as an audio interface.

CONS: Drum and effect parameters can’t be saved with kits or patterns. Only 16 pattern memories. No way to chain patterns into songs. 

Bottom Line: The TR-8 fully lives up to its hype, but goes way beyond that. It’s quite possibly the new standard for live beat-making.

$499 street | rolandus.com/go/aira


Specs

Let’s get the nuts and bolts out of the way first. The TR-8 is astonishingly modern in its amenities. We’ve all seen the videos of its LED-laden panel. In person, the thing glows like it’s filled with kryptonite and it positively begs to be added to a live EDM/DJ rig, thanks to its full complement of USB connectivity including sync, MIDI, and two-way audio communication that lets you record direct and independent digital audio for every drum channel in the beast. What’s more, the TR-8 can serve as an audio interface for your computer, so you can send the output and sync from your DJ software, then process that audio through the TR-8. As a performer, I was immediately fascinated by this option and tested it heavily for this review—more on that in a bit.

The essential sounds of the TR-8 are, again, modeled replicas of the original TR-808 and 909 kits. Individual drums and percussion elements can be mixed, matched, and sonically tweaked to create entirely new kits. The front panel controls include independent slots for kick, snare, three toms, rim shot, handclap, open and closed hi-hats, and two cymbals. At first, I was concerned that Roland had omitted other signature 808 percussion sounds, but these are just hidden more deeply in the unit’s kit options. In fact, the layout is nearly identical to the kit selection in the TR-909, but you really have to be a purist to detect these discrepancies. Sadly, EDM’s current crop of “preset teens” would never notice this detail. [And those damned kids won’t get off Francis’ lawn! —Ed.]

Above the drum kit controls are three sections for the reverb, delay, and external input, all with dedicated knobs per function. This brings me to one of my favorite aspects of the TR-8. With the possible exception of loading kits and swapping individual instruments, there’s absolutely nothing fiddly about immediately producing great grooves with this box. Roland’s devotion to the one-knob-per-function ideal really paid off here, because almost every feature is instantly accessible in live performance. (A notable exception is stereo panning, for which you enter Instrument Select mode, hold down a drum button, and turn the tempo knob.)

In the upper right-hand corner of the unit is the Aira family’s new “Scatter” function, which performs a bit like iZotope’s Stutter Edit or Ableton’s Buffer Shuffler effect, reversing and re-arranging elements to morph grooves in extremely complex ways, with just a twist of a knob. Editor Stephen Fortner calls scatter “the BT knob,” and that’s an apt moniker.

The final few knobs and buttons are devoted to parameters like tempo, shuffle/swing, and switching between the various recording and performance options, and that’s it. The TR-8 is blissfully straightforward in every way.

 
 

The back of the TR-8 sports connections for USB, five-pin MIDI in and out, a stereo mix out, 1/4" stereo headphone out, two assignable outputs for individual drums, and stereo 1/4" external inputs for processing audio. The TR-8 can also send each and every drum on its own channel as audio over USB. Click image to enlarge.

The Sound

Keyboard readers know that I’m obsessed with today’s analog renaissance, so I’ll admit that I was pretty skeptical about Roland’s all-digital Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB) approach to modeling the TR-808 and 909. Roland claims this emulates complex interactions between analog components such as transistors and capacitors, and that they did a lot of reverse engineering of the vintage units’ circuit boards. (There’s a precedent for this in the form of the sophisticated SPICE circuit modeling software used by engineers, though I don’t know whether that’s the tool Roland used.) For reference, I still have a Boss DR-110 that includes 808-derived analog circuits, along with a Mattel Synsonics and Korg’s new Volca series (reviewed Mar. ’14). So in conjunction with my synths, I certainly had enough tools at my disposal to assess whether the new Airas truly sound “analog.” 

As mentioned, the TR-8’s drums are laid out like the originals, but with more knobs for each drum, so you can fine-tune the sound of each to your exact specifications. Even the extra 808 percussion options, like congas, clave, maracas and the quirky-but-timeless cowbell, are perfectly captured. Whether Roland’s ACB approach is strictly modeling or a hybrid that incorporates sampling is beside the point. The unit’s 24-bit resolution (32 bits internally) and 96kHz sampling rate, combined with the added parameters and overall sound, result in audio that’s present, punchy, warm, and absolutely in-your-face like proper analog.

There are 16 kits in total and interestingly, there’s no “save” function. Once you select your sounds for a given kit, they’re locked until you change them again. You can even set up the toms so that each can have its own sound. For example, the low tom can be a sharp 808, the mid tom a quirky 909, and the high tom could be the 808 conga with its higher pitch and rounder sound. This is especially cool in conjunction with their tuning functions. You can easily create simple melodic content in this manner, which is even more fun when you add the 808’s clave and cowbell.

Now, let’s answer the big question. Did Roland nail the analog beauty of the originals even as they kept the innards of the Aira system fully digital? The answer is a resounding “Hell, yeah!”

If you take advantage of the new knob functions, like tuning, decay, and compression (on the kick and snare), and do so with an ear for the originals, the results are functionally identical to the TR-8’s analog ancestors. Little quirks like the way the snare and clap noise elements are layered, or the whiff of bit-crushing in the 909 hi-hats and cymbals, are absolutely nailed.

Here’s a gripe, though. Even with all of these options for customizing individual drums’ sounds, your edits can’t be saved at the kit or pattern levels. The kits contain only the sound selections, not their parameter settings. Here’s hoping there’s a way to add this ability in a firmware update at some point.

Sequencing and Performance 

Make no mistake, the TR-8 is a targeted at live performance and not designed for song composition. In fact, there’s no way to string patterns together into a song even if you wanted to, which honestly didn’t bug me one bit. After all, when it’s connected via USB, you can easily create complex song patterns with your DAW’s sequencing features, so this isn’t a deal-breaker by a long shot. Onstage, of course, the point is to trigger patterns manually and tweak them on the fly.

Also, the TR-8 only offers 16 main pattern slots. In a nod to the original TR-808, each of the slots can have A and B versions, which can be toggled on the fly or strung together to create two-bar patterns, complex 32nd-note one-bar grooves, or things in between, depending on which of the four Scale options you choose. Between the Scale choices and the Last Step button (which lets you set any step as the final one in the pattern), odd time signatures are possible if you want ’em.

As with the kits, there’s no “save” function for the patterns. When you move to another pattern, whatever you did on the previous one is retained until you return to it and revise it further. In context, this felt completely natural.

Programming patterns is handled using the same two methods that nearly every drum machine uses: Triggering sounds by hitting the non-velocity-sensitive buttons (with quantization baked in) or via Roland’s timeless step entry mode that everyone has copied over the past 30 years. I wasn’t bothered by the lack of velocity or pressure sensitivity, because that’s not part of the character of the originals. If you want to emphasize specific hits, you can always apply the Accent knob on those steps.

Essential functions like copying or erasing patterns are handled via intuitive key combinations that I mastered within an hour of opening the box. Once your sequence is programmed, you can add flourishes like rolls and variations by holding secondary keys while pressing the button for the drum(s) to be affected. There are eighth-note and sixteenth-note rolls, as well as two “vari” options that further syncopate the drums to which they’re applied. Multiple roll buttons can be pressed in combination for further variety, which was a pleasant surprise.

Finally, there’s a mute mode that can eliminate various drums for intros, breakdowns and other dramatic effects. A solo function would have been cool as well, but that’s splitting hairs. Again, I have to emphasize that any omissions in the sequencer’s features are largely academic in this context. 

Roland clearly knows that the reason the TR-808 and 909 were successful wasn’t because of their arcane song construction tools. These are the very drum machines that launched electronic dance music as we know it, and were central to a good chunk of hip-hop (though the Akai MPC shares the spotlight there), and the Aira approach to sequencing and performance exemplifies this.

Further Features

In addition to the TR-8’s collection of amazing drum sounds, there are integrated delay and reverb effects that you can add on a per-step basis. For example, you could set the reverb to hit only on beats 2 and 4 and the delay to hit on the off-beats—or cook up any pattern that you can imagine. There are eight distinct options for each effect and some go far beyond the usual halls, rooms, and tempo-synced delays. Many are extremely chunky and gritty, and there are even some LFO-modulated delays for wobbly effects. What’s more, you can dig deep into the system and turn effects off for specific drums, which can tighten your mixes considerably.

The cherry on this sundae is the TR-8’s stereo external input, which can accept either analog audio via the 1/4" jacks or digital audio over USB. As soon as I saw this, my DJ brain exploded in ecstasy. With a little forethought, you can actually use the TR-8 as the audio interface for your Traktor or Ableton rig and have the entire thing locked to tempo. As if that weren’t enough, the external input includes gate and sidechain effects that can also be sequenced on the fly for pumping and chopping up your tracks as you layer the TR-8 grooves on top. I spent a few hours pushing this system to the limit, mixing tracks from Ableton through the TR-8’s USB audio link, and didn’t have a single hiccup. Note that the TR-8 is always running at 24-bit/96kHz resolution, and will force your software to do the same, so consider the CPU impact if you intend to pair it with an older laptop.

Conclusions

I’ll admit that the buzz leading up to the Aira release was both mysterious and heavy-handed. It wasn’t that I was skeptical about Roland’s intentions—I just wanted to make sure that the TR-8 didn’t have that flat “in the box” sound that digital products often suffer from. All I can say is that the TR-8 exceeded my expectations in nearly every possible way. It’s truly addictive as a performance tool and drum machine, and its ability to integrate seamlessly into a DJ or live EDM rig (not to mention its rock-solid performance and sturdy build) gave me the confidence to include it in both of my performances at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival in front of thousands of people. I’m not just a believer. I’m a full-fledged addict, and I’m not the only one. Ari Evans, CEO of highly influential EDM blog LessThan3, was at my home during the tests, and he concurred that the Aira TR-8 is “the future of live EDM performance.” Final answer.

 
 

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