At the end of March we received the long anticipated TR-8 from Roland. This is our Roland Aira TR-8 review, which highlights what we think is good and bad about Roland’s new drum machine.
The Tr-8 is the update of the well loved 808 and 909, which are much sought after drum machines, first released in the 1980’s. Although we’ve never owned an original 808 or 909, we do have a Jomox 888 in the studio, which is an amazing analogue drum machine. For the purpose of this review, we’ll often refer back to the Jomox for comparison.
First of all, if you’ve not heard about or seen the Roland Aira TR-8 yet, check out this great video from Gearjunkies, showcasing the sounds and live possibilities of the Roland Aira TR-8.
Analogue or Digital?
If you’ve followed the TR-8 release online, you’ll know there was a lot of debate on whether this unit was going to analogue or digital. The TR-8 is 100% digital and although this will have put many people off straight away, it’s worth looking into further.
The TR-8 uses Roland’s new ACB modelling engine (Analogue Circuit Behaviour) that aims to faithfully recreate analogue circuits and the way they behave. Playing one of the preset kits, straight away you can hear it working. For example, when just playing the clap, every clap sounds very slightly different, making it sound less digital and rigid. The ACB modelling seems able to copy these analogue nuances from the original units.
Playing through some more presets and then moving on to building our own patterns, it sounds great. To our ears, it doesn’t sound as rich and warm as the Jomox 888 but the difference is small. Once the sounds are recorded and processed in a full track, we’re pretty sure you wouldn’t hear any difference to sample processed from the original 808 or 909 units.
The TR-8 definitely challenges the notion that virtual analogue can’t sound as good as real analogue.
Look & Feel
The faceplate of the TR-8 is a brushed aluminium and the knobs are rubber with a reassuringly solid feel. Overall it feels very sturdy and we’d be happy to take it to gigs, safe in the knowledge it’s unlikely to break easily.
The faders and function buttons are backlit green. The step buttons can be several colours and are very bright, maybe too bright. Our studio isn’t brightly lit and you do get left a little snow blind by the lights on the TR-8. There may be a way to dim them but there’s nothing about this in the manual.
Ease of Use
For us, this is the most impressive thing about the TR-8. Once out of the b0x, we had it setup and playing within minutes. Without even reading the manual, we were able to create and build drum patterns quickly. This may be because of our experience with other drum machines but the TR-8 is very intuitive and even a complete novice would be creating great drum patterns within a couple of hours. Compare that for example with our Jomox 888, which took a few days to fully figure out, after reading through the manual several times!
The TR-8 has built in effects, which the original didn’t have. There’s a reverb, delay, scatter effect and the ability to sidechain an external source.
The reverb has 8 different presets and can be applied to any step on the sequencer. We felt the reverb sounds a bit plastic and needs to be used subtly to get a desirable effect. The delay is much better and you can get some really interesting effects using the feedback and timing knobs. This would be great for recording some rhythmical effects, or using during a live set.
The scatter function allows lots of different variations for cutting up and changing the sound. This would be useful for recording a snare build for example or most likely for use during live shows.
Having used the TR-8 for a month now, we’ve had a chance to get used to all the settings and what it can do. At this stage we’ve really started to notice some limitations of the TR-8.
First of all, there’s no parameter lock. With a parameter lock, you’d be able to record some automation on each step and get some interesting movement in your patterns. This is a feature that most new drum machines have and even the Korg Volca Beats at half the price of the TR-8 has parameter lock.
Micro timing is also missing, which would give you the ability to move steps around and create your own timings. The Jomox 888 has this and parameter lock and came out several years ago. It’s something Elektron are doing very well and is expected to be on their forthcoming Analog Rytm, an 8 voice analogue drum machine.
Another big gripe is the lack of sample support. It’d be great to be able to load your own samples and use the TR-8 to sequence these sounds.
It’d also be nice to be able to solo instruments. Currently the only way to do that is to lower all the other faders or mute all the other instruments. It all adds to the workflow.
Finally, the TR-8 doesn’t feel as expansive as it could be. There’s 16 kits and 16 patterns, each with a possible 32 steps. Once you’ve reached that amount of patterns or kits, you’d need to edit and change one of the old ones to save anything new. So currently it feels a bit tight but maybe a future update could add more space for saving more of your work.
The Tr-8 brings the 808 and 909 to a new age of producers, without having the outlay of cash that the old units now command. It’s so easy to use out of the box that you’ll be creating classic sounding beats in no time.
The simple things are done very very well with the TR-8 and for that reason, we’ll be keeping the TR-8 in our studio and using it for future live gigs for some time to come.
We do feel Roland have missed a trick with the TR-8. Keeping it simple will appeal to a lot of producers but a few more features such as parameter lock and sample support would have put this drum machine into the top bracket, maybe helping it reach the legendary status of it’s predecessors.
With the TR-8 being digital, it could be upgraded at a later date with many of the features we feel would improve it. This is a big plus for digital over analogue.
All in all, the TR-8 is a great drum machine, which has made it’s own space in our studio and for the price of £399, it’s a no-brainer.
Product London Rating – 4.5/5
Pros – Sounds great, easy to use, solid and well built, very competitive price at £399.
Cons – No micro timing or parameter lock, no sample support, instruments can’t be solo’d, 16 kit/pattern limit feels a bit tight.