Roland 909
Roland has done a superb job over the past few years of reminding everyone why it's still the boss. Here we focus on the legacy of the Roland 909 and the effect this classic drum sequencer had on music.

Legendary drum machine left its mark

Roland has done a superb job over the past few years of reminding everyone why it’s still the boss, other than the fact it owns the pedal company Boss. You see while everyone else is scratching around looking for the next big innovation in music technology, the veteran Japanese company has gone the other way. They’ve cleverly remembered that pretty much all genuine musical innovation in the last 30-odd years came from people using their gear. Hip hop, dance, electronic … almost all of it leads back to Roland. So they went backwards, in the most forward-thinking way possible.

In 2013 it launched the Aira range. Aira comprised an updated, thoroughly modernised TR-808 drum machine, TB-303 bass synth and System 1 synth. All great instruments which were extremely well received. But, aware that there is a huge – and ever growing – clamour for true nostalgia in music, it has recently launched an even bigger slice of glorious musical atavism in the new Boutique range.

The Boutique collection delivers near-perfect recreations of the original 808 and 303, along with a dedicated version of the classic TR-909. And it is with this that we’ll looking at today. Let’s focus on the legacy of the Roland 909 and the effect this classic drum sequencer had on music.

Way back when

Launched in 1984, the Roland TR-909 took the foundations of its predecessor, the TR-808 and developed it. Many of the same principles remained – workflow and affordability among them – yet this newer unit had some key changes.

Chief among them was the inclusion of sampled sounds. Whereas the 808 was entirely synthesized and analogue, the 909 was more of a hybrid. The snare and kick sounds were both analogue in the same way as before, yet there were changes to the hats and cymbals.

Engineer Atsushi Hoshiai has recalled how no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t find a way to get the sounds of the cymbals the way they wanted them. In the end, Hoshiai ended up bringing two real cymbals from his own personal collection in order to include them as samples on the machine. Once recorded, and converted into 6-bit audio samples, users could affect them in the same way as the analogue sounds. Thus, one of music’s most iconic sound banks was complete.

Another new inclusion on the 909 included a MIDI connection, so the unit could be used to control other, external devices. This certainly increased the amount you could do with the 909, but it’s fair to say it didn’t usurp dedicated MIDI controllers from studios.

Regardless, that’s not what it was meant for. What you got with the 909, and the 808 before it, was a selection of interesting and unique sounds. You also, thankfully, got an intuitive way to programme and mess with those sounds all within one box too.

New sounds for new genres

What perhaps marked the 909 out as a different proposition from its older brother was the crowd that used it. You see, the 808 is well known as hip hop royalty. So many artists from that community used this affordable, easy to use unit to programme the beats over which they could rap. The 909 however, was picked up more by the burgeoning dance, house and techno scene in the mid-80s.

The late Frankie Knuckles has said how he felt a good house bass should be felt and not heard. By utilising the tuning function on the already pounding 909 kick drum he was able to achieve just that effect. Bass that came and slapped you in the stomach.

The list of famous users is pretty comprehensive. Aside from the dance and house crew, the 909 was used by none other than Phil Collins on his 1985 track Sussudio. Proof, if it were needed, that these machines were capable of producing some pretty eclectic stuff. They were easy to tinker with, to experiment with, and to quickly get tracks laid down.

The modern age

So with the heritage it has, it was no surprise when Roland launched its Boutique range. These new machines, including frankly beautiful TR-909, take everything that was good about the originals and throw in some modernity. It’s now much smaller than the original. It is also battery powered, and can connect to your DAW via USB to offer high-quality transfer of up to four channels of audio at once.

Purists may (or rather, will) comment that the sound quality isn’t the same as the original. Of course it isn’t. Where as the TR-909 used an actual electronic circuit, with actual living electricity, to produce its sounds, the new unit uses much more advanced ACB (advanced circuit behaviour) technology to get you in the same ballpark. So no, it’s not the same, but for 99% of us it will more that suffice.

So fair play to Roland. The original Aira units got people close to the sound they were after, but something about that futuristic space controller vibe didn’t sit well with everyone. With this new Roland Boutique TR-09, there can be no complaints. Unless you have north of £2k to drop on an original, this is the closest you’re going to get to that classic 909 sound.