Roland have just released their highly anticipated AIRA range of electronic instruments. The range consists of the TR-8 Rhythm Performer, the TB-3 Touch Bassline, the VT-3 Voice Transformer, and the soon to be released System-1 Plug-out synth.
The AIRA range is arguably the most anticipated product line in years, captivating the new crop of electronic musicians as well as the old-dogs who owned the original machines back in the day. As someone who has experienced the AIRA products first-hand, I can say confidently that these things will go down in history much like their predecessors.
Let’s take a look back at the iconic products behind the AIRA story:
In 1980, Roland released their TR-808 Rhythm Composer (TR being an abbreviation of transistor rhythm). The 808 was designed as a studio tool for writing rhythm tracks for demos. Its simple user interface and rock-solid clocking soon made it a favourite over the competitor product from LinnDrum (along with its price). The 808 didn’t sound anything close to real drums, nor did it sound like the cheaper rhythm machines (like the Roland CR-78). The 808 had a sound of its own.
Due to its characteristic, synthetic sound and MASSIVE kick drum sounds, the 808 soon caught the attention of musicians and started to be taken seriously as an instrument. The 808 appeared on hit songs such as “No Can Do” by Hall & Oates, “In The Air Tonight” by Phill Collins, “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye and from there, rocketed into the mainstream. The ubiquitous TR-808 has been used by everyone from The Human League to Kanye West and remains one of the most sought after electronic instruments to this day.
In 1983, Roland superseded the TR-808 with the TR-909 by adding a new, sleek user interface, sample-based sounds, and MIDI. A few new features made the 909 just as popular as the 808 and it certainly found its own way onto a huge amount of hit songs. With an edgier, tougher sound, the 909 had it’s own style and appealed to the more modern techno and house music. This was thanks to its blend of analogue and sample-based sounds and simple step sequencer.
The 909 had a much tighter sound than the 808, so it was chosen more often for the four-to-the-floor beats synonymous with techno and house music, and with its MIDI and swing features, the 909 was a pretty flexible machine for its time.
The TB-303 (TB being an abbreviation for transistor….you guessed it, bass!) is a single-oscillator, monophonic bass synth. Released in 1981, the TB-303 was designed to provide bass backing for solo guitar players. Once again, Roland had created a soon to be iconic machine…and they didn’t even know it! Whilst not as user friendly as the TR units, the TB-303 is incredibly tweakable and has the most delicious, foundation rumbling bass. It’s hardly a surprise that it rose to fame just as its TR cousins and started an acid/techno revolution. A huge percentage of massive pop, R&B, dance, and hip-hop tracks over the last 30-odd years have been created with some mixture of 303, 808, and 909.
After hearing that Roland were reinventing the TR/TB legends with digital units, which aren’t built in Japan, I was almost sick with rage. Why would they destroy the legacy of these titans with a cheap, digital money-maker? Well, I went to Syndey to the official Roland launch and for the first time in a long time, I was absolutely blown away. Instead of relying on sample-based designs, or even the advanced COSM or SuperNatural technology Roland are famous for, their engineers developed and entirely new, cutting-edge technology to recreate the sound of the older units precisely. They call this technology Analog Circuit Behaviour (ACB). This new system not only mimics the exact characteristics and behaviour of each and every component, but the knock-on effect that component has on the next component in the circuit and so on, and so on. But, even the finest Roland engineers could not perfectly recreate these units from circuit diagrams alone. Original 808, 909, and 303 units were prised open and analysed part-by-part by Roland engineers including the engineers who built the original units. By exploring the behaviour of the old circuits, the new digital units are not only able to reproduce the distinctive sound of the old circuits, but also inherit their behaviour due to the variable instability of the electronic components they are mimicking.
So, what does this mean?
Well, it means that the new, vastly cheaper digital units sound EXACTLY the same as the older units…but since they’re digital, there’s no end to the possibilities. New features such as pattern randomisation, tap temo, USB audio/MIDI, built-in FX, 32-step pattern support, XY pad…The list goes on!
Here’s perhaps the most shocking thing I’ve ever said and I can’t take it back…the AIRA units are BETTER than the originals.