Roland TR-8 Rhytm Performer Review
When Roland first announced the launch of AIRA, a series of reimagined instruments from the 1980’s, I was thrilled. The Japanese music behemoth known for producing iconic instruments unveiled to the world a new synthesizer, vocal processor, and modernized versions of the TR-808 / 909 and TB-303. As a music nerd, I was excited for all of it; however, the thought of a modern interpretation of the renowned TR-808 drum machine was by far the most exciting news.
After reading countless reviews and debating with myself, I decided to plop down $400 on a second-hand TR-8. Since then I’ve had a little over a year to get a better feeling for all its pros and cons.
Upon unboxing this beast, the first thing I noticed was its beauty, the second standout feature was its size. Many of the reviews I read before purchasing my own TR-8 downplayed or otherwise rejected to mention the machine’s beauty. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing outstanding, but not until the machine is in your presence do you get to fully appreciate it. This leads to the second thing I noticed, its deceptively small size. Coming in at 400 x 260 x 65mm, it’s not much bigger than an old laptop. I thought it’d be somewhat larger.
The control surface is very much in tune with the original TR-808. It features a 16-button sequencer and segmented instrument controls. With the exception of a few new knobs and buttons, everything else is nearly identical. If you’ve spent any amount of time toying with the original, you’ll feel right at home in front of the TR-8. Even if you haven’t, the machine’s logically design is straightforward enough for anyone to pick up within a few minutes.
I must admit when I first heard the TR-8 impose its will on my monitors, I was floored. This drum machine captures nearly all of the favorable characteristics that its predecessor has become famous for. Only a few 808 samples I’ve come across thus far pound my speakers like this machine does. Although its 100% digital, the engineers at Roland have done a phenomenal job mimicking the analog circuitry that made the TR-808 / 909 great. I don’t think it’s a reach to say that the 808 sound produced by the TR-8 is as good as the original.
The knobs, buttons, and sliders feel sturdy. Although most of these components are manufactured from rubber or plastic, nothing feels wobbly. After a year of heavy use (including travel), I’ve yet to have anything snap or break on me.
The function of most knobs on the machine is fairly intuitive. Like the original drum machine, the separate instrument segments allow for precise control over the sounds in your sequence. All 11 segments enable tonal manipulation through decay and tuning knobs, however, the two segments reserved for your bass and snare offer a compressor and parameters for attack and snap. Each section also has a button for muting and selecting individual sounds.
When it comes to the 16-buttons that make up the step sequencer, I’m conflicted. The buttons are made from a glass or hard plastic material, and while I understand why Roland decided to go this route, sometimes I wish it had those “squishy,” silicon-based buttons found on other drum machines. These harder buttons make the TR-8 feel a lot more like its big brother; nevertheless, after a year of use, they’re beginning to feel somewhat clunky.
This isn’t much of an issue if you’re using your machine in the studio, but I think live performances would be a pain.
This brings us to the machine’s workflow. As I alluded to above, I feel that the TR-8’s layout and primary workflow is simple enough that just about anyone can figure it out within a few minutes. What I omitted, however, was this “anyone can do it” approach only scratches the surface of what this beast can really do.
For example, the TR-8 allows you to build your own drum kit. Unfortunately, you can’t import your own sounds, but you can create a custom kit from the 808 / 909 sounds already installed. Once you’ve filled a pattern with your ideal kit, you can enter Step Mode or Real Time Recording and program the machine to your heart’s content.
Each 16 step sequence allows for two patterns, which the machine knows as pattern A and pattern B. This enables you to add variation to sequences. Even more variety can be added by using the “swing” feature, which I found to be very sensitive. But once you really dive into the machine you’ll realize that “swing” is primitive compared to everything else you can do.
What do I mean? Well, one of the coolest things the TR-8 can do is sequence effects! Reverb, accent, delay, and sidechain effects can be programmed to trigger on any of the 16 steps within your pattern. At first, I found the notion of sequenced effects to be a bit weird, but over time it becomes very intuitive.
When you dive even further into the depths of this drum machine you’ll find the “scatter” feature. What “scatter” does is manipulate the gate time and orientation of random steps within a sequence. This enables you to add some spice to a performance with glitch effects. The TR-8 can even create random patterns for you. Once you’ve got a handle on these features you can do some really powerful things with your machine.
The sequences you create with the TR-8 can be played live or exported to your DAW via many different methods. I like to use the TR-8’s USB port to sync the machine with my computer and record each instrument to a separate track. Thankfully, Roland has made this process ridiculously effortless. There are also other outputs such as MIDI, left / right audio, and a couple others if you don’t like USB.
The TR-8 has far too many noteworthy features to cover in any one review. If this review made you more interested in the TR-8, I’d say stop here and go get one.