The TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines were manufactured by Roland between 1980 and 1985. The Roland sound would hugely influence the development of Electronic dance music, Techno, House, Acid, and Hip-hop.
At the time, these drum machines would turn out to be a commercial failure for Roland, but no one could have seen the iconic status they would achieve in the world of music in the years ahead.
By the early 1990s, drum machines were already being left at home when visiting the studio with the introduction of the versatile Akai samplers, which had your vast saved libraries available for ease of use. To be honest, I can’t remember a time in the early 1990s where I ever saw a drum machine in a studio.
By the mid-1990s, programmers began using drum pad programming again in the form of the Akai MPC3000. This MPC3000 unit worked so well because of its ability to store huge selections of samples and recall them when needed and its unique quantizing ability.
So… what reason, if any, apart from the retro aspect is the need for a TR-909 and TR-808 hybrid. In a world where computer-based software has advanced so far, is there a need for the Roland Aira TR-8?
Let’s find out in our in-depth Roland Aira TR-8 Rhythm Performer Review…
Construction and Overview
The Roland Aira TR-8 is a digitally recreated version of the TR-808 and TR-909. It uses analog circuit behavior, a new Roland technology that remodels the circuits of the original units.
The unit itself has genuinely been well thought out in its construction. It is a solid build housed in sturdy plastic with a metal top panel. It sits at an impressive 400 x 260 x 65mm and weighs in at just under 2kg. In the center are 11 very smooth faders to set your individual instruments.
Versatile and practical…
The TR-8 is designed to play real-time/live but is also for production work. The unit is decked out with all the familiar features that the original TR’s had. All the classic step functions are here, making it easy to place your kick, etc.
On power up, the step buttons light up in the 808 styled red, yellow, white, and orange. All the other buttons are back-lit in green. The TR-8 also comes with the edition of reverb, delays, and the scatter function, which we’ll talk about later. With most voices, decay and tuning are also adjustable in addition to level.
One great advance is the ability to slip in and out of step or real-time recording without stopping the music, which, as you can imagine in a performance, is a significant upgrade. Most functionality changes in this unit, I would say, are for the best.
The TR8 comes with 16 kits, each having 11 instruments taken from their original sources. What you get is the 808 in the first location and a 909 in the second, with the others being a variation.
The TR-8 has a stereo pair of outputs and two assignable outputs. It also has stereo inputs or the mono summed input. There is a midi in/out, with it being possible to use the o/p as a ‘soft thru’ if needed. It also has a USB port through which the TR-8 is able to output each of its sounds separately. There are a total of 14 o/p’s available over USB(seven stereo pairs).
The unit has an internal resolution of 32bit/96khz.
This is an instrument for the performer, which shows because there is no save button for kits or patterns. The step and real-time recording mode plus the kit selectors are on the front left of the unit.
The TR rec mode is pretty straight forward and allows you to sequence up to 16 steps per instrument. Simply press any of your 16 pads, which will turn red when active, and press start to listen.
Inst rec mode can be used to record in real-time while using your sequencer.
Plenty of options…
The pattern select mode allows you to choose from one of 16 user-writable patterns by hitting a pad. The patterns also have two parts with 16 steps, each called A & B. Select A & B together, and the TR-8 chains them to form a 32-step loop.
The original scale function is also included, from which you can select the various straight feels or triplet feels etc. all changes you make to patterns, fx, and sounds are continually saved throughout usage.
We have step mode, which was on the TR-909. This allows you to adjust the pattern lengths by switching steps on and off. Hold the last step button, press the step to be last; when you’re ready to go, hit step 16 to bring everything back on the one.
Included in the master tempo section are the shuffle function, fine tune, and the tap tempo.
There is no song mode available, but patterns can play consecutively. You can actually play all 16, which is as easy as holding down various keys while the pattern select is lit.
Brighten up your day…
While using default colors, the step keys are yellow to distinguish selected patterns, with the current one flashing orange. Each mode has a distinct identity that gets you working faster than any drum machine that we know.
I mentioned earlier the addition of a feature called ‘SCATTER.’ This I really enjoyed and makes up for the Fills which have not been included. Scatter has 10 functions that allow you to time-stretch and re-edit your patterns. You can take your steps or parts and roll them or reverse them, creating cool glitch fx and fills, which I really liked.
Roland Aira TR-8 Rhythm Performer Review – Pros and Cons
- It sounds so, so close to a TR808 and a TR909.
- Kits can be constructed with instruments from either.
- The X0X sequencer is a quality update on the original machines.
- Visually striking.
- Built‑in effects and two assignable outputs.
- Each voice can be recorded separately via its combined audio/MIDI interface.
- All knobs and sliders can send MIDI CCs.
- Reasonably priced.
- Lots of potential for further expansion.
- Only 16 patterns, although they all have a variation.
- More individual hardware outputs would have been nice.
- You have to stop playback to copy a pattern.
Are you a fan of Roland?
Then check out our in-depth Roland Juno DS88 Review, our Roland GO 61K Review, our Roland Juno Review, our Roland FP 90 Review, and our Roland VR 09 V Combo Organ Review.
Or, if you’re looking for some superb musical tech, take a look at our Teenage Engineering OP1 Review, our Korg Krome Review, and our Yamaha MX49 Review for 2023.
Roland Aira TR-8 Rhythm Performer Review – Final Thoughts
To round up, I liked this unit a great deal more than I wanted to. Personally, I have spent so long in the box that I didn’t think I would need another unit to carry around.
It is a very well built unit with great attention to detail. It’s very easy and fun to use, but it’s very much a professional studio unit. The TR-8 has the very distinct sound that the original units had, and it’s honestly very hard to tell the sounds apart as they have been so finely replicated.
In some ways, it does feel like a cool little unit that a DJ may carry around to spice up the evening. But saying that, it surely will be enjoyed as much in any professional studio environment. Will we be adding one to our gear list? Quite possibly!!!
Happy beat making!
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