Roland AIRA family revealed

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After much speculation, Roland has let loose the official announcements about their new Aira series of retro-inspired products: the TR-8 drum machine, TB-3 bass synth, VT-3 vocal processor, and perhaps the most interesting one of the bunch, the System 1 synthesizer. Roland is calling the System 1 a "plug-out" synth, due to the fact that it can run emulations of classic analog synths that you instantiate and program on your computer, then pipe into the System 1 hardware, take to the gig, and play and tweak using just the hardware. It also has its own DSP sound engine, with a two-oscillator subtractive architecture.

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Common to all the Aira (pronounced "eye-rah") instruments is a new technology Roland is billing as Analog Circuit Behavoir (ACB). Essentially, their engineers studied vintage TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines, the TB-303 Bassline, SH-101 synth, and System 100 and 700 series modular synths, paying careful attention to how all the original components actually interact. The benefit is purportedly sonically perfect emulation, but with the flexibility and stability that comes from having digital innards. Unique design features of the System 1 include a video editing-style jog wheel for pitch-bend, which can also do what Roland calls a "scatter" effect. Think glitchy, pseudo-granular breakdowns and sonic decimation in the style of BT, and you get the idea.

We know--you're jaded about any musical instrument company coming up with yet another way to make "It's digital, but . . ." sound appealing. So are we. And while we haven't had any Aira product on our test bench for central scrutiny yet, we did get to spend some hands-on quality time with them in an off-floor hotel suite at this year's NAMM Show. So far. we can report that they sound darned near perfect and are extremely fun to use.

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Though keyboardists will be most interested in the System 1 (the Aira that's actually, um, a keyboard), there's no question that the TR-8 Rhythm Performer is generating the most buzz. (Note the contrast with Roland's long-used nomenclature for a drum machine, "rhythm composer," and hence the implication of realtime live performance.) It emulates the sounds of the TR-808 and 909 perfectly, and as to the user interface, it simultaneously recaptures and improves upon the experience of entering hits for different drums in the kit as the sequence runs. One thing we're unclear on at this point is that Roland says the TR-8 uses modeling technology exclusively, even though the TR-909 had several PCM-based sampled sounds. (Then again, you can make a Hammond organ sound like a Farfisa much more easily than going in the other direction, so maybe a similar dynamic is at work here.)

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For acid bass lines, the same is true of the TB-3, and we totally dig its touchscreen interface. As to the VT-3 Vocal Transformer, if you want a slick little desktop wedge to handle vocal affectations from Darth Vader to Daft Punk, this is your man.

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Here's some unabashed speculation. Ten years ago, Roland had a box called the VariOS. This rack module contained all the DSP to run emulations of classic Roland synths, plus do more contemporary tricks such as vocal effects and the VariPhrase audio processing introduced in the VP-9000 and matured in the V-Synth XT. Picture-perfect interfaces ran on your computer, but the box did the audio heavy lifting; it was sort of like Roland's own take on a Creamware Scope system. Point being, we wouldn't be surprised at all if the ACB that underpins the Aira line is a modernized superset of the code wizardry from VariOS, only taking advantage of another decade worth of Moore's law and parted out into hardware pieces designed to create retro-cred user experiences.

Inside baseball notwithstanding, Roland hit a home run with the pricing.

  • TR-8 Rhythm Performer: $499
  • TB-3 Bassline: $299
  • VT-3 Vocal Transformer: $199
  • System-1 Synthesizer: $599

Those are all street prices, and we applaud Roland for keeping them so low. Whatever the Aira products really are or really aren't (and we will find out and tell you about it), again: They sound absolutely killer and are easy to use and addictive in equal measure, and both the sonic and tactile experiences are far more "expensive"--in fact, I'd guessed the TR-8 price at a grand when first asked.

Our longtime contributor Peter Kirn has some additional and very thoughtful analysis on his site, Create Digital Music.

Bottom line: We can't wait to get our hands on review units for real.