Roland TR-8: 7X7 Expansion Review
AIRA drum machine broadens its horizons
Ever since its release last year, the Roland TR-8 has been flying off the shelves as a new generation of electronic musician starts to tap into the Roland’s amazing heritage of drum machine technology. The AIRA range, which included updated versions of the TB-303 and System 100 synths, has proven quite the hit since its launch. The good news is that the functionality of these units is expandable via downloads, hence the recent launch of the 7X7 expansion pack for the TR-8.
The new pack kits your TR-8 out with classic sounds from the Roland TR-707 and 727 drum machines of the late 80s. These came after the 808, and featured a wider variety of sounds including latin-inspired tones which greatly broadened the appeal of the units. Indeed, there is apparently entire sub-genres of music created almost entirely using the distinct sounds of the 727.
It had its limitations though, not least the fact that the only tweaking you could do to the sounds was the volume, which ruled out a lot of the fine-tuning which made the 808 so popular. What it did have was individual outs for each drum sound, meaning if you were that way inclined you could route each sound to a mixer of outboard effects. The TR-8 version achieves both of these things, making it perfect for tinkering on the fly.
The expansion is a paid-for download, meaning you’ll have to put your hand in your pocket – more on this later – but it augments your TR-8 line-up with more 808 sounds on top of the 707 and 727 tones pulled straight from the Roland vaults.
To equip your TR-8 with the expansion pack, you’ll need to purchase it from the Roland website. There is a dedicated section there for all additional AIRA content, with more planned for the future.
At the time of writing, the download costs $75, and Roland has been quick to point out exactly why that is. They say unlike other expansion packs, the company has had to dedicate time, resource and money to some pretty hardcore research and development in order to make the sounds as authentic as possible. It’s not a case of messing around with some sample files; this has had to be re-engineered from the ground up. So, while it is costly, you know you’re getting the best quality sounds. You pay your money, you take your choice.
With that caveat out the way, onto the downloading. The included software element of the TR-8 is merely a driver which makes the unit talk to your DAW, it doesn’t produce sounds in itself so there is a bit of a process to the download. It’s well documented on Roland’s site and, despite appearing a bit daunting, in reality took around 5 minutes to do.
Navigating your way around the TR-8 is straightforward enough; on the left of the unit are buttons marked ‘kit’ and ‘inst’ – these enable you to choose between entire new kits being loaded, or individual elements from each kit being loaded so you can make your own. Everything is vividly colour coded too so there’s no danger of getting lost in a menu midway through a set.
The 707 sounds include the authentic bass, snare, toms, hats and cymbals, all recreated in minute detail. The elephant in the room with AIRA has always been analogue and a software update isn’t going to all of a sudden make the kit purist-friendly. However get past that and what you have are some extremely usable, amazingly fun sounds which can be amended and played with in a way that the original couldn’t. Of course, you also benefit from the TR-8’s scatter and effect functions, adding new ways to mess with your beats in real time.
The 727 samples mark something of a departure from the rest of the units sounds. Here we have congas, bongos, timpales and whistles, which give the unit a lift by adding something completely different to your musical arsenal. Again, you now have the benefit of tweaking the sounds and using the on-board effects, giving the package a much broader appeal than before.
You’ll also get a handful of new 808 samples to play with, including new toms and fingersnap sounds, which slowly but surely adds to this being a real heavyweight performance tool.
Admittedly for some the AIRA range will never truly recreate the magic of the older versions, but if you can get past that you’ll enjoy a range of amazing sounds in a wonderfully intuitive drum machine which just begs to be played with.