Talk about iconic. The Roland TR-808 drum machine is so cool that’s it’s still hot after 30-plus years. Turn on Top 40 radio and you’ll hear those all-too-familiar drum sounds (especially handclaps, snares and those “boom-car that rattles the whole neighborhood” kicks). That, or are you more likely hearing the new TR-8 which has already been adopted by modern hitmakers?
The key in Roland’s Aira TR-8 is its ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior), modeling the original TR-808’s analog circuitry rather effectively with the phat-ness of kicks and the snap of the snares, just like you remember them. These sounds are played on 16 colorfully backlit pads, which also select the 16 patterns available as well as the 16 steps available when recording patterns.
Think of the Aira TR-8 drum machine as more of a sound module with trigger pads.
Each of the 16 sound types have only a few choices available, but it’s the manual controls that provide the “wow” factor. Tuning and Sustain are offered on all 16 sounds, while kick and snare add the knob-tweaking delights of Compression, coupled with Attack on kicks and Snap (the volume of the snare wires) on snares. Thankfully, there are also 16 linear volume faders.
There are multiple reverbs available with Decay and Gate controls: there’s Delay with multiple algorithms and controls, but most importantly (drum machine roll, please) there’s Scatter, which allows all manner of random digital glitching, stuttering and reversing.
Roland’s owner’s manual is more like a “get started/quick-tip sheet” than a manual, so I scanned it and dug in on my own. I was mortified to find that the TR-8 does not program whole songs, just patterns only—disappointing. As I programmed my first pattern, I realized there weren’t even preset or user banks; there are 16 patterns and that’s it. Furthermore, there was no metronome to count-off during my programming, only a visual click. I was starting to think that I misspent $500.
Roland tech support informed me to step record (not real-time record) four quarter notes into my pattern and then begin layering parts in real time. Much to my surprise, this worked rather well. In fact, I soon realized that my head was thinking about programming on my other drum machines and I needed to get into the TR-8 headspace (with only 16 steps per measure and bold visual indicators, step programming is a simple breeze). Soon I was choosing patterns, step removing beats I didn’t want, step entering others I did want, real-time playing some parts (the quantizing is automatic), reverbing or delaying only the particular steps or sounds I desired, adding Shuffle for looseness, adding Accent for emphasis, reassigning new sounds to my pattern and applying the dubsteppyness of Scatter.
Scatter is manually tweakable “on the fly” and when I came up with a glitchy Scatter modification that was pure dope (sorry, the TR-8 makes you program and speak like a DJ), I could save it! Furthermore, those eternal audio inputs that are mixable with your patterns are Scatterable too, but you must be playing a pattern to Scatter the external audio (Scatter is tempo-based).
The biggest limitation was the quality of the 16 playing pads. They are so stiff, hard and clicky that you can’t even play a decent 16th note high-hat on them. Then again, the step mode is so simple to use that it’s easy to overlook.
I tried the USB features on the TR-8 and never did get error-free digital audio. I understand that firmware 1.1 just came out; maybe that fixes the clocking/syncing/buffering issues I encountered. I think I prefer the warmer fullness of the analog outputs anyway, so the point may be practically moot.
Here’s a 2:30 demonstration of the TR-8 I performed all-live (and recorded via the stereo analog outputs and a pair of quarter-inch DI inputs on my Focusrite ISA428MkII preamp) to show just how easy it is to play and tweak the sounds as you go: https://soundcloud.com/pro-audio-review-magazine/roland-aira-tr-8-drum-machine-demonstration
Next, here’s a 0:40 bumper that utilizes the TR-8 in a stock pattern, a little Scatter, analog outputs summed to mono and which was recorded via the quarter-inch DI of the BAE 73MPL 1073-type mic preamp: https://soundcloud.com/pro-audio-review-magazine/bae-73mpl-raw-audio
I feel that $500 is a lot of money for a drum machine that can’t play songs, but as a producer/engineer, I think of the Aira TR-8 more as a sound module with trigger pads. The sounds themselves are absolutely fantastic; the modern conveniences—Scatter and the ability to make rap basslines using only “tuned, no-attack, long-sustain” kick sounds—are radio-ready; and the programming, although a bit awkward at first, allows ample song building ability, especially if you learn to think more like a DJ than programming complex beats first, stripping them down, then building them back up to tweak parameters on the fly. From hip-hop beats to EDM productions, metalcore bass drops, trap beats and just modern pop, the TR-8 can get you there once you learn to exploit its many features and quirks.
Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Charlotte’s Catalyst Recording and has been a long-time Studio Contributor to Pro Audio Review. twitter.com/robtavaglione