Roland’s TR-08 up against it’s legendary lineage…
So, we were finally able to take a good look at the Roland reincarnated classic drum machine of all drum machines and latest addition to the Boutique Series, TR-08.
The legendary 808 sound is an integral part of hip hop’s DNA. Although it’s initial release back in the 80’s met with some snobbery, the Roland TR-808 was embraced by dance music and hip-hop producers. This sort of goes without saying though. If you know the sound and you know the music of the 80s and 90s, you know that you can’t miss it. The 808 is everywhere in hip-hop music. For example, Beastie Boys Paul Revere with the reversed 808 drums?! Legendary. When that beat drops everyone goes up! Who can deny the 808-driven force of songs like Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock”, Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without A Pause”, Boogie Down Productions “Love’s Gonna Get You”. The same is true of so many early Dr. Dre productions and the entire Miami Bass sound. The 808 definitely runs deep through the veins of hip-hop.
I was excited to receive the latest iteration of Roland’s 808 drum machine, the TR-08. The Roland Boutique series of synths and drum machines made it possible to use ACB technology to pack the TR-808 power into this small portable package. And although I initially thought “Geez how many 808 rehashes can we take?”, I’ve sense warmed up to the idea. As a matter of fact, I am thoroughly enjoying the technological advances, tactility, control and portability of the TR-08. Let’s face it, the 808 sound is pretty much foundational in the arsenal of electronic music and hip-hop. It’s pretty much just as influential today with Trap Music and more recent classics like Kanye West’s “808s and Heart Break” as it was when Sir Mix-A-Lot dropped “My Posse’s on Broadway.”
The Roland Boutique TR-08 comes to us loaded with modern features along with most of its original arsenal. Most notably is the fact that the TR-08 comes with USB. This allows for Midi over USB and the recording of up to 10 individual instrument outs when connected to a DAW.
There are 11 instruments (5 of which are switchable to different sounds) with various tweakable parameters. The Toms (Low, Mid, Hi) each have a tuning knob and the ability to switch between Tom and Conga. The same is true of the Rimshot and handclap which can be switched to claves and maracas respectively. There is also a trigger out which can be used to trigger other devices such as modular synthesizers.
It’s worth noting that the instruments that share a track (e.g. Tom & Conga) cannot be simultaneously programmed and /or played. That’s likely true to the original but it would have been a nice upgrade to be able to sequence all instruments at once and as needed.
The sequencer on the TR-08 is essentially a 32-step sequencer with an a/b configuration. The sequencer allows for intros, fills and song mode for pattern chaining. There is also a 16 bank user memory with 12×16 Patterns and 4×16 Intro/Fill-In. That means you can save up to 192 patterns and 64 intros/fill-ins across 16 banks.
In use, the sequencer may not be very intuitive if you’ve never used a TR-808 drum machine. But the manual is comprehensive and once you get the basic controls down, it becomes pretty easy to program.
The connectivity is abundant with the following
- TRIGGER OUT jack: mono miniature phone type
- PHONES jack: stereo miniature phone type
- OUTPUT jack: stereo miniature phone type
- MIX IN jack: stereo miniature phone type
- MIDI (IN, OUT) connectors
- USB port: Micro-B type (Audio, MIDI)
What stands out to me here is the USB does triple duty providing power, audio and midi over USB. The TR-08 does sport mini jacks (1/8”) rather than the standard ¼” jacks that so many folks prefer. But this doesn’t cause any degradation in sound. It just requires an adapter to interface with typical ¼” studio gear connections.
The build quality of the TR-08 is obviously more akin to the other Roland Boutique Series models than that of its tank like 80’s forefather the TR-808. It weighs in at just over 2lbs and measures 12”x5”x2”.
The TR-08 both benefits and suffers from what all the Boutiques have in common, it’s size. I love the portability of the TR-08, and all the boutiques for that matter, but the smaller form factor has it drawbacks when it comes to tweaking the controls. I am happy that it has no sliders, being a faithful pint size recreation. It is knobby but one does notice the small size and the relatively closeness of the knobs when initially working with the TR-08. But to be far that’s mostly on the instrument control side to the left. On the right, there controls are nicely spaced out and comfortable to control.
On a related note to the TR-08’s size and portability, it’s capable of battery power via 4 AA batteries. That makes it easy to program beats on the go or in situations where electrical power is not readily available. Conversely, it also has the ability to be powered by AC power or even power over USB. There is a lot of flexibility there.
The TR-08 interface is very familiar right down to the color scheme and layout. If you’ve ever used or been near a vintage TR-808 drum machine, you’ll feel right at home.
In terms of sound, the TR-08 lives up to the hype and exceeded my expectations. Roland nailed the sound with their ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior) technology. It’s worth noting, that the TR-08 is not an analog drum machine. However, the sound is spot on and perhaps more consistent across the board. I can recall hearing that all TR-808’s were not created equal back in the days. But that’s also typical of analog instruments from that time.
Although, the 808 bass drum on the TR-08 has nice decay on it at max, I love to see it extended for that straight up stupid long decay that shakes the place and lingers. So, I quickly discovered that there is a menu item for BD Type which allows you to select normal or long decay. Once you adjust this setting the world shakes.
Overall, the TR-08 has great punch in the lower end, the snare is snappy and the highs have a nice and bright sizzle on top. Still, there is a built-in compressor for dialing in added punch but it’s for the kick and snare only. To access it you have to dive into the menu system.
So, yeah there are knobs galore for lots of immediate tactile control but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the menu system. Given the benefits of the features like the compressor and the decay options, I’d say it would behoove you to dig in and get to know the menu options. The pay-off is huge and the added functionality truly extends the power of this tiny giant.
In conclusion, the TR-08 exceeded my expectations so much in fact that I didn’t mind the size at all. Although there are many many 808 sample libraries and sample packs available on the market, the TR-08 gives you parameter control and tweak-ability that is hard to come by otherwise. The ACB modeled classic sound of the 808 is spot on and I don’t even care that it’s not analog because it sounds that good. Modern I/O, such as USB, that allows 10 simultaneous audio tracks to DAW and midi over USB is dope and really convenient. I’m glad I gave it a chance. Given the outrageous aftermarket prices for a vintage TR-808 and the potential maintenance headaches that comes with any vintage gear, I know that the TR-08 is as close as I’ll ever come to a real TR-808 at this price point. I kind of love it.