TR-09 versus TR-8

TR-09 versus TR-8

These two machines are similar enough to merit comparison. Roland have some advice about the differences here. Before buying my TR-09, I compared them both. I’ll try to explain why I preferred the TR-09.

When I first saw the TR-09, I was actually a bit nonplussed because its specifications seemed obviously inferior to the TR-8, released by Roland a few years earlier, and there is very little difference in price. I couldn’t see why anyone except die hard 909 fans would take the 09 over the 8. Here are some of the key differences:

  • The TR-8 has more of an 808 styling visually, but it models the sounds from both the 909 and 808, and you can buy an expansion to do the TR 606, 707 and 727 kits. The TR-09 is far less versatile, with only 909 sounds.
  • The TR-8 has a proper power socket and four large jack outs, whereas the 09 gets power through a flimsy micro USB lead (although it can be battery powered, unlike the TR-8), and has a single minijack output (although multiple outputs are available digitally over USB on both machines).
  • The TR-8 has front panel knobs for additional parameters not available on the original machines, such as pitch and decay on the clap, and pitch and separate level controls for the hats (the 09 hats, like the original 909, have a single shared level control and individual decay knobs). On the 09, these things can all be adjusted but only one at a time, through a menu.
  • Both the TR-09 and TR-8 have a compressor for the kick and snare, but the TR-8 also has a scatter function for processing beats, a built in reverb and delay, and an external input that can be gated using the sequencer.
  • One area where the TR-09 does better is with the number of pattern memories – 96 compared to just 16 on the TR-8. The TR-09 also has a song mode for sequencing patterns, which the TR-8 lacks.

Given these differences in specification, with the TR-09 selling at £399 and the TR-8 only slightly more at £439, on paper the TR-8 looks like the clear winner.

However, at PMT in Manchester I demo’d both side by side, and the TR-09 immediately appealed to me more. They were both great, and without the TR-09 around I would have bought the TR-8 no question. But given the choice, I went for the 09.

Why? Well, it’s hard to pin down. It isn’t really about the sound. For what it’s worth, I found the TR-09 kick drum to be a bit beefier and more solid in the low end than the TR-8 909 kick. That is significant, because the 909 kick is such an important sound. But that alone would have been too minor to outweigh the other advantages of the TR-8.

More striking was the difference in feel of the two machines. This is probably a personal thing, but every time I switched from the 09 to the 8, I just wanted to switch back. The 09 made me want to play with it. I could immediately see why the original is so sought after.

I’ll try to be more specific:

  • The look. The TR-09 looks clean, understated and seriously cool. Whereas the TR-8 has green lights and flashing multicoloured pads which, whilst kind of fun and attention grabbing, seemed gimmicky and toy-like by comparison. After many years of using studio gear, I’ve decided that visual aesthetics do matter – production is a multisensory experience that is not only about the sound.
  • The build. People have dissed the TR-09 for being a toy due to its size, but actually it feels like a serious bit of studio kit, apart from the micro USB power socket and minijacks. The front panel is metal, the knobs are sturdy and smooth, and the buttons, whilst tiny, have a quality feel to them. The flip up stand seems a bit flimsy, but the machine itself is solid. The TR-8 actually seemed more toy-like in its build, despite the larger box and professional connections. The sequencer pads and buttons are OK but a little squishy. The knobs are fine but a little plasticky. That said, I have small fingers. People with chunky hands might find the TR-09 just too fiddly, whereas the TR-8 knobs are more spaced out.
  • The sequencer. As noted in my main review page, the 09 sequencer, like the original 909, has two velocity levels for the kick, snare, toms and hats; with the TR-8, it is just on or off for each step. In use, I found that to be a really significant difference.
  • The interface. Something about shifting between modes and kits on the TR-08 didn’t quite work for me. I’m not sure why. Whereas on the TR-09 switching from pattern write to pattern play, step mode to tap mode, all just made sense immediately.
  • The size. The sheer portability of the TR-09 appealed to me for some reason. The TR-8 isn’t massive, but the 09 is tiny, and can be battery powered. I could imagine taking it on a long train journey for example.

It’s worth noting that my main interest is in the 909 sounds. Probably 80-90% of the drum sounds I use at the moment are 909. I like the 808 kick, hats and maracas, but don’t mind using samples for these because I don’t use them so often. I also have a TR-505 which has the same sounds as the 707, so I have that sound set covered; again they are not something I use very often. I’m not too fussed about 606 sounds either. So the versatility of the TR-8, which is one of its big advantages over the TR-09, was not that important to me in the end.

If you have been comparing these two machines, please leave a comment below with your thoughts.