The Roland TR 909 did for House and Techno what the 808 did for Hip Hop, and here’s how…
Think of House and Techno music, and certain defining qualities spring to mind. The first is most likely to be a four-to-the floor beat, with a kick drum sound whose almighty ‘thump’ would cut through any mix. There would be other defining features of this beat- some rough, sizzling hi-hats, and perhaps some very obviously synthetic hand claps. All of the drum sounds you are hearing in your head are from the Roland TR-909, or inspired by it.
Arriving some three years after the 808, the TR-909 employed a mixture of analogue and sample-based technology to generate its sound. Though a clear step-forward from its predecessor in terms of technology, it still appeared to lag behind its entirely sample based peers. As a result, it quickly found its way to second hand shops. Somehow, it ended up changing music forever. So, how did that happen?
It’s not all about samples…
To understand how the TR 909 became the ‘rock’ upon which dance music was built, it’s worth taking a look at how the unit was designed. The majority of the sounds (everything other than hi-hats and cymbals, in fact) were based on analogue synthesis. The samples were 6-bit, and compressed at that, which gave them a very aggressive ‘sizzle’.
Like the 808, it featured a 16-step sequencer, with exactly the same interface as the 808. Sixteen buttons represented the steps, with an LED indicating whether a note was to play for each step. Also like the 808, each drum sound had a selection of editable parameters.
Roland felt this ability to be edited was essential, and it was this that pushed the 909 towards its ‘hybrid’ design. It was far easier to edit analogue sounds than samples, and the inability to edit snares and kick drums was just too limiting.
When RAM became cheaper, enabling more and higher quality samples to be stored, and Roland released the TR-707 (entirely sample-based), and the TR-909 was consigned to history. Or so many thought…
The sound of House
How did the TR-909 go from being a soon-to-be museum piece, to being the essential tool for House music, the cutting-edge musical form of the late eighties and early nineties? Much like the TB-303, whilst the 909 was crashing in price due to its perceived undesirability, an underground Chicago music scene was about to explode onto the global stage, with a sound built around the 909.
As House infiltrated the rest of the US, with local variants arising, such as Detroit, the UK was developing its own sound using the very same tools. Acts such as 808 State (named after the 909’s predecessor) used the 909 on nearly all of their early work, as did Orbital.
Aside from the affordability, the TR-909 had one key characteristic that made it appealing to House producers more than any other: the kick drum sound. This had plenty of bass, but more than anything else, it had a powerful ‘thump’ that really pushed speakers, and made the ribs rattle… When mixing, this sound alone could cut through anything, and in House music’s Post-Disco derived sound, this gave tracks a rhythmic propulsion and momentum that could keep a crowd in dancing all night.
The analogue based sounds also proved to be a great strength. Whilst samples, perhaps, were closer to the sound of acoustic drums, the rudimentary technology meant that they sounded very flat, and a bit dull. Roland’s decision to use editable analogue sounds meant that (via the multiple velocity levels and accent) patterns could be made to be very dynamic, and sounds could be tweaked to a variety of tonal colours.
Plus, the kick and snare were huge sounding, and the aggressive hats and cymbals added a further idiosyncratic touch to the overall sound of the machine. The inclusion of a flam feature added further to the possibilities. It was, perhaps, the shuffle feature that further defined this as a perfect tool for House. With its roots in R&B, Disco and even Gospel, this rhythmic ‘swing’ was a great fit, and also key to defining the sound of modern dance music.
An accidental hero?
It’s easy to think of the Roland TR-909 as unit that almost accidentally became iconic, by virtue of it being easily attainable at the time a new modern musical form was happening. However, these units still change hands for thousands of pounds, despite being over 30 years old, and despite the fact that many software recreations are available. Personally, I think a clue to why is found in Roland’s decision to use analogue technology, against the trends of the era.
This decision was made because it made the 909 an expressive, creative instrument rather than a sample playback unit. It was because of this that is was adopted for use in ways that it was never intended. Though it wasn’t ‘realistic’, it sounded unique, with fat, full tones, and was the most expressive, musical tool. This was no accident on Roland’s part…
I, like many other producers, would wholeheartedly welcome a TR-909 reissue, should Roland feel inclined to raid its back-catalogue. If it were to add some DAW friendly features, all the better.
Though it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see it re-released in its original form, we can always dream.
Could it be improved? What would you add?
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Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.