Digital Rhythm Composer
Nobody can deny the fact that Roland have done more than any other company, to date, in popularising the electronic drum machine; their TR-606 and 808 models are industry standards, against which all newcomers have been set. Thus, it comes as no real surprise to learn that Roland are expanding their range with the introduction of the TR-909 Digital Rhythm Composer, a 'hybrid' update of their 808 machine. Whether this means auf wieder-sehen, pet to the glorious 808 or not is still to be seen.
What does come as a surprise, though, is the discovery that all but the cymbal sounds on the 909, are synthetically generated (not sampled sounds). However, the percussion sounds available from the machine are totally 'new', not simply copies of the 808's sounds, and are the result of computer simulation tests used to analyse the changing character of drum sounds, in order to recreate authentic 'voices'.
What follows is not strictly a review; rather an introduction to the features available on the TR-909. A full analysis of the unit will grace E&MM's pages as soon as possible, but in the meantime read on...
Visually, the TR-909 resembles it's smaller brother the TR-808, with similar physical dimensions. All connections are retained on the rear panel whilst the newly-styled, grey finished case houses the extensive programming and playback controls. These are well laid out and easier to follow than those on the 808, I'm glad to say.
Briefly, the unit has a capacity of 1792 bars and 96 memories, selected in two banks. Programming is possible in both 'step' and 'real time' via the front panel drum voice selector buttons or the MIDI system, using the rear panel 5 pin DIN connectors.
The inclusion of the MIDI system is a sensible one, and Roland are claiming a world 'first' on this aspect, although rival drum machines are also fitted with the interface. MIDI enables the TR-909 to be played and programmed by any MIDI-equipped keyboard, as well as from Roland's superb new GR-700 guitar synthesiser. At a recent unveiling of Roland new products, I witnessed the unbelievable sight of a drum solo being played on the bottom octave of a Roland HP piano, linked to the TR-909 via the MIDI connection!
Using this facility the TR-909 can be played 'dynamically' ie. with fully variable volumes on each drum sound, dependent upon how hard the relevant piano key is struck (and provided you use a touch-sensitive keyboard!).
Without the MIDI connection, the unit is still capable of dynamic response but to a lesser degree. For, as well as an overall Total Accent control, the majority of sounds have two selector buttons that govern the 'Loud' and 'Quiet' volumes of the instrument, enabling accents to be programmed and remembered within the space of a bar or on every beat.
A 3 number digital readout is also provided for tempo, measure and song information. The retention of the LED sequencing for step time (as on the TR-808) is welcome, and in conjunction with the new-style, illuminated program buttons, makes for a visually appealing, informative front panel.
Both Tempo and Master Volume utilise click-stop rotary controls which make continual resetting easy, although tempos are programmable as well. A Tape Sync facility has been included to enable triggering of the 909 from an external click-track recorded on a multitrack tape, thus making the unit a more attractive proposition to home recordists, and film music composers alike.
Another welcome feature is the inclusion of 'shuffle' which has eight variations to duplicate the human drummer, and to help remove the clockwork feel identified with analogue-type drum machines (if desired).
To help further in this area the TR-909 can also simulate 'flams' (ie. two drum beats in very quick succession) which once again add a useful degree of authenticity to any rhythm pattern.
Roland have taken the best aspects of the higher-priced digital drum machines, in terms of their programming facilities that is, and included them on the TR-909. These include bar or pattern insertion and deletion capabilities when creating rhythm chains or sequences, and a bar 'copy' facility which both makes life easy when constructing rhythms as well as saving on valuable memory capacity.
There are 16 individual instrument sounds available on the unit, although this number does include the dual level variations found on the Bass Drum, Snare and Toms.
The controls associated with the instruments themselves, are all located in the top section of the front panel, as on the 808, divided clearly into separate instruments; only this time more variation facilities have been included and more substantial knob caps used (the previous design on the TR-808 were too small for comfort).
Bass Drum offers control of tuning, volume level and attack and decay, giving a very usable range of sounds from a low 'thud' to a 'click'. As well as Tune and Level, the Snare has an overall Tone control and a separate control labelled 'Snappy' which governs the amount of 'snare wire' sound mixed into the main snare signal.
Low, Mid and Hi Toms are provided, each with a Tune, Level and Decay control, covering a similar pitch range as the 808's previous tom sounds. Rim Shot and Handclap simply have separate Level controls, whilst the open and closed Hi-Hat has a shared Level control, but individual Decay. This is an immediate improvement over the 808.
Finally, the Crash and Ride Cymbals, which employ digitised 'real cymbal' samples. These both have Level and Tune controls enabling various-sized cymbals to be duplicated. The use of sampled cymbal sounds is a logical move on Roland's part, as cymbals are undoubtedly the hardest instruments to synthesise on a drum kit via analogue means. However, their inclusion is certainly an improvement. The decision to go for synthetic toms may well prove a fortuitous one for Roland, as the majority of digital drums are often lacking in this department, simply because they use only one tom 'sample' and clock it at a faster or slower rate to obtain pitch changes for the various toms. This, inevitably, creates a compromise which manifests itself in less than authentic sounds, and limited programming ability ie. only one tom can be played at a time. This is not the case with the TR-909 tom sounds.
Judgement of the instrument's sound qualities must be reserved for an in-depth test, as an exhibition demonstration rarely provides the best indication. Final points to mention though, are the individual jack-socket outputs for every instrument, and the stereo output facility with pre-panned instruments, if individual mixing or treatment is not required.
The final question is 'what price?' Well, at £999 including VAT the Roland TR-909 is not exactly cheap and in the face of the burgeoning competition this may prove a vital factor. What it does have in its favour is the MIDI connection facility, and extreme ease of programming. Will this be enough to attract potential customers? Only time will tell.
Review by Ian Gilby
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