Roland TR-09 review

Roland TR-09 review

The TR-09 is Roland’s recreation of the TR-909, the iconic drum machine from 1983. Initially unsuccessful due to its unrealistic sounds, the 909 later became integral to techno and house music. It had analogue kick, snare, toms, clap and rimshot circuits, and low bit rate samples for hi-hats and cymbals.

There have been constant calls over the years for Roland to re-release their classic gear such as the 909, and in recent years the company finally seems to be responding. The TR-09 is part of the Boutique range: limited edition miniature models of popular hardware. The Boutiques digitally model the original circuits, which has annoyed the analogue purists, but has the major advantage of keeping costs down. Crucially, the Boutiques also recreate the user interfaces of the old machines, which were generally simple, immediate and intuitive, with the odd quirk thrown that lent some character, and with knobs and sliders for easy control and tweaking of all the main parameters.

There are lots of good reviews out there that cover the main features of this machine, so I will focus more on personal impressions and giving a sense of what it is like in use when making tracks.

Background

The 909 has a distinctive sound, which anyone familiar with electronic music will have heard countless times. The kick is a tight, punching thud. The snare and clap make bursting, snapping sounds. The hats have a trashy, hashy high mid that cuts through a mix. I’ve always found the toms and crash a bit cheesy, but the rimshot has a staccato ‘puck’ that is great for punctuating rhythms, and the ride has a delicate tingle, which contrasts nicely with the other sounds (used to great effect by Robert Hood for example). The 909 sounds have become as essential to techno and house as an overdriven Marshall stack is to heavy rock, or the twang of a Telecaster to country and blues.

Back in the late 90s/early 2000s, you could pick up an original 909 second hand for maybe £800-1000 (people used to advertise them for £909), but prices keep rising, and they now sell for around £3000, which is roughly equivalent to their new price (£999) adjusted for inflation. They are becoming collectors’ items.

I once played with a real 909 many years ago, back in the early 1990s at my local church youth club of all places. The club did a sponsored all nighter as a fundraiser – somehow we managed to convince people to give us money for staying up until 6am playing pool and watching films. One of the guys running it brought in his 909 and a few other bits of music gear. I would have been about 13 and well into rave and hardcore at the time, but I don’t think I really knew what a 909 was. I recall it seeming like an exciting but slightly awkward box. It looked a bit like a Commodore 64, and had a limited, primitive range of starkly synthetic sounds. At the time it would have been all over the place in the records I was listening to, but mixed with synths, samples and breakbeats – in stuff like early Prodigy, Altern-8, KLF, Utah Saints, 808 State, early Warp and XL, Deconstruction, N-Joi, Bizarre Inc., Bassheads and so on. Amazingly, when I had the raw thing in front of me I couldn’t quite make the link.

Since then my dealings with the 909 have always been at a distance, using samples or emulations. For years I had a Novation Drumstation, which digitally models all the 808 and 909 sounds, but without the sequencer. The 909 kick on it needed some EQ to get the low end thump, but otherwise it was a decent machine. The TR-09 feels much closer to a real 909 though, because of the interface and sequencer. The sense you get is of using a mini 909 rather than an emulation.

Here is a short comparison with the Drumstation. It is a bit unfair, because the two machines are very different in use, the Drumstation can be had second hand for half the price of the TR-09, and it does 808 sounds as well. The first four bars is a simple pattern using the Drumstation sequenced from Logic. The next four bars is the same pattern sequenced on the TR-09, set up to be as close to the Drumstation as possible, and the next four bars are the same pattern but with the TR-09 tweaked to my taste, including a bit of kick drum compression and some swing. The three sections then repeat in the same order so you can compare them:

So what’s it like in use?

In short: brilliant. It sounds great, is easy to programme, and fun to use. I don’t have any way of comparing it to an original 909 of course. There are YouTube videos that do this, which show some subtle but audible differences. I would describe the TR-09 sound character as tough and powerful but with a vintage vibe. The high end seems slightly rounded, in a pleasing way, without affecting how the hats cut through. Here is an example of a typical beat:

The build quality is good too. The knobs, though tiny, feel smooth and solid, and the buttons give a responsive click.

Compared to a 909 there are some nice additional features. The kick and snare can both be sent through on board compression, with amounts set independently for each. It is quite subtle at low values, and sounds excellent. Dial it up a bit and the kicks get really punchy, without having to run them through any outboard gear or plugins.

You can also edit additional parameters not available on the original 909, using a button press and a menu. The tempo knob is used to change values, which works well. Gain can be adjusted for each instrument, along with pitch for the hats, clap and rimshot, and decay for the clap, rimshot and cymbals. The latest firmware, which I’ve yet to get hold of, also implements pan for each sound.

Initially I thought it might have been better to have the additional pitch and decay controls on front panel knobs, like with the TR-8, but hiding them away keeps things simple and reduces distractions. You can dive in to change them when you need to, then dive back out again to the main interface.

The TR-09 has a dedicated trigger out that can have its own sequence pattern (on the original 909 this was linked to the rimshot pattern). The trigger can be used to sync with the Korg Volcas, for instance, or to trigger the sequencer on an SH101 or other analogue device. Like most of the other Boutique machines, the TR-09 also has a handy mix input for chaining devices together without needing a mixer. Also, the knobs all send MIDI controllers.

How does it compare to the TR-8?

This is likely to be a key question for many people, so I’m putting my thoughts on a separate page, here. In short, both are great, but having tried both I went for the TR-09. The TR-8 is much more versatile and fully featured, but something about the TR-09 just feels right.

Why bother with this when I can just download some free 909 samples?

A sample pack will be able to give you the authentic 909 sound no problem. But the TR-09, like the 909, is not just about the sound.

The sequencer has a distinctive workflow that is enjoyable and will push you in different directions to a computer-based DAW. I particularly like how the kick, snare, toms and closed hat all have two different levels. One button press turns the sound on for a given step; a second press makes it louder, and the light on that step comes on brighter. A third press turns the instrument off that step.

It’s surprising how much nuance and movement you can add in with this simple feature. It doesn’t just provide a way to change the levels of the sound; it means that in the process of programming patterns, you have to step through two levels, and as a result are more likely to use those two levels. A DAW enables this kind of variation using velocity, and with a much wider range of values, but you have to take the initiative to go in and alter it. It would be great to have an option to have these two levels for all the TR-09’s sounds, rather than just a subset. The clap in particular would really benefit from it.

Second, the knobs mean you can easily sculpt the sounds to fit with other elements of your track. Instead of scrolling through and auditioning different samples and then adjusting filters, EQ and so on, you can just tweak each instrument until it sounds right, and the number of knobs gives you just enough control without becoming burdensome. It makes for a fast, smooth workflow.

The knobs also make it easy to vary sounds over the course of a track. For example, in a pattern with lots of high hats, adjusting the decay for both closed and open hats simultaneously creates shifts in emphasis and groove:

You can map MIDI controllers to do this sort of thing with sample based setups, but that is tedious and slows down the music making. With the TR-09 you don’t have to bother; the controls are hard wired in.

The machine also produces a subtle sense of variation that I would normally associate with analogue gear. Apparently in both the TR-09 and the Aira TR-8, the timing of the sequencer reflects that of the original machines, so there is a tiny bit of drift from full quantisation as compared to using a DAW. Unlike samples, the analogue modelled voices also sound slightly different each time they are triggered, as with the original 909. The clap in particular seems very ‘alive’.

What could be improved?

As has already been pointed out, the worst thing about the TR-09, as with the other Boutiques, is the lack of a proper power socket. Micro USB just doesn’t inspire confidence that it will last. A machine as good as this deserves better, especially at the price point. Surely it would have been possible to fit a little barrel connector in somewhere. Even the Korg Volcas have that. If it had to be USB, then it should have been a larger connector, like the square one on the TR-8. I could imagine people choosing the TR-8 over the TR-09 on the basis of this issue alone. The only saving grace is that, because the TR-09 has a battery compartment, it shouldn’t be too hard to DIY-fit a power socket in future if needed.

The second worst thing is the lack of proper outputs. A single minijack is miserly compared to the multiple full sized jack outs on the original 909. The physical size of the TR-09 case is inevitably limiting, but something like a D-sub and breakout cable could have been used to give proper outputs, perhaps sold as an extra to keep costs down. The USB audio outputs, and the possibility with the new firmware to pan sounds hard left and right to give two separate audio outs, provide some compensation.

As I have already said, having two velocity levels on all instruments would make for a nice extension of the original design. There are also a couple of annoying quirks from the original that I think could have been ditched, such as having to press two buttons together to select the open hat. The ultimate additional feature would be to have other kits available, such as the 808, 606 and 707, but within the 909 style interface. That seems unlikely to happen though.

Summary

In many ways the TR-09 is a perfect demonstration of how technology is never only about the output. The obsessive debates I’ve seen online about whether this sounds like the ‘real thing’ overlook the fact that, as well as making it sound good, Roland have recreated a classic hardware interface for drum sequencing, one which makes the process fun and is a welcome antidote to the dominance of DAWs. This is a point well made by a review on Resident Advisor.

Apart from the lack of a power socket, perhaps the biggest drawback is that 909 drums have been so ubiquitous, for so long, that it is difficult to innovate with them. Those wanting a wide sonic palette of drum sounds will need to look elsewhere. That said, the fact that these sounds have been so rinsed does throw down a challenge: can you find something original to do with them? As well as programming classic patterns I’ve found myself working to push the machine outside its comfort zone, such as programming slightly steppy patterns, with a bit of influence from garage or grime – genres where it might be more usual to use drum samples and 808 sounds.

Check out this clip, where I have used the menu parameters to pitch up some of the sounds, and drastically reduced the decay on the crash to turn it into an alternative open hat type sound. The live tweaking here again shows how this machine can get a bit of movement into your beats:

Ultimately whether this machine is worth buying will depend on how much you use 909 sounds. The TR-09 is something of a one trick pony, but that one trick is an absolute killer. For me, these sounds are such staples in my tracks that it has been worth getting a box wholly dedicated to them, and the sequencer workflow is genius. The low cost, compared to a vintage 909, means that I’m willing to put up with annoyances such as the micro-USB socket and single minijack output.

Pros Great sound; fun and intuitive sequencing; highly tweakable; straightfoward interface; solid build quality; portable; useful additional features such as compression and added parameters; plenty of pattern memories; stylish appearance.

Cons No proper power input; single minijack stereo output; additional outs only available over USB; limited range of sounds.