Roland DJ-808, System-8, TR-09, TB-03 and VP-03 boutique Hands-on preview

The move of Roland finally embracing its legacy kicked off with the Aira range in 2014 and has steadily continued since with the release of various software and hardware emulations of old favourites. This year marked a new high with Roland organising a global live-streaming event on September 9 (‘909 Day’), which, despite being called ‘Redefining the Future’, largely consisted of more reimagined classics from Roland’s Golden Age.

Now that the dust has settled and prototypes and early production units are slowly making their way to various outlets around the world, we got the chance to see, hear and try out the new ‘DJ / Synth / Boutique’ products for ourselves at an event hosted by and at Roland Benelux in Belgium.

After a brief presentation of two slightly confusing limited edition ‘anniversary products’ consisting of a 909 themed turntable that’s apparently not really suitable for serious DJ’ing even though it’s accompanied by a matching DJ mixer, we got a demonstration of the DJ-808 by Mak Tongia. The DJ-808 is positioned as a hybrid DJ controller, mixer, voice transformer, sampler and drum machine and is the first result of a collaboration between Roland and Serato which aims to blur the boundaries between pure DJ’ing and live EDM performing.

As a self-contained unit featuring stripped down versions of the Roland TR-8 drum machine and VT-3 voice transformer in combination with its bundled Serato DJ software and sampler features, it offers a lot of creative potential right out of the box. The addition of various connectors including MIDI out, phono and line audio inputs and 2 bus powered Aira Link USB ports allows to easily link and sync external gear, turning the DJ-808 into a mighty mixing and production center in the right hands.

Hardware-wise, it’s built like a tank and features low-latency platters for accurate and fast control. It feels like a sturdy piece of kit that can cope with the strain of being taken from stage to studio and vice versa. The DJ-808 has an RRP of €1499 and comes with the Serato DJ software. While some limited compatibility with other DJ applications like Traktor might be possible through MIDI mapping, this is first and foremost a dedicated controller for the Serato DJ suite.

Next up was the new flagship ACB Plug Out synth System-8 which was demonstrated by Peter Schreurs. Like its little brother System-1, the System-8 features a core synth engine but can also act as a shapeshifter through so-called ‘Plug Outs’ which emulate classic synthesizers and radically change the character of the sound. The System-8 will come with the Jupiter 8 Plug Out included, and a Juno 106 emulation will be available through a free firmware update in early 2017. Unfortunately these Plug Outs will be bound to the hardware; unlike the existing Plug Outs it will not be possible to run the Plug Out instruments as VSTs in your DAW. The currently available System-1 Plug Outs will also be made compatible with the System-8, although it seems unlikely the monophonic Plug Outs will get more voices at this time.

On first sight the core synth is close in character to that of the System-1, although there are more options and the filter and effects sections have been improved and expanded considerably. The choice to still offer only a single LFO and limited modulation options is disappointing though, although Roland hinted this might be changed in a future upgrade. The range of the sounds is pleasing, and building patches in both the System-8 engine and the Jupiter 8 Plug Out is fast and intuitive. This is really a hands-on synth that just begs to be played and tweaked.

Unlike the Boutique emulations of the Jupiter 8 and Juno 106, the System-8 versions are 8 voice polyphonic and feature engines running on 24 bit / 96khz, allowing for more dynamics in the sound. An interesting new feature is the option to set the ‘condition’ of the parts that are emulated, ranging from a brand new calibrated synth fresh from the factory to an old veteran machine that has been around the block a couple of times and has lost some of its stability in the process. Another feature that will make a lot of people happy is that it’s now possible to not only dim, but even completely turn off the green LEDs.

Parameter resolution is 256 steps through MIDI instead of the typical 128, and on top these are interpolated 4x internally for even smoother transitions and no audible stepping. According to Roland the System-8 will be the main focus point for new ACB developments. With over 8 times the DSP power of the System-1, of which currently only a fraction is used, users can expect various expansions and enhancements in the future. However, it’s advisable to base your purchase decision on what you actually get now instead of what you might get in the future to prevent disappointment.

The build quality of the System-8, based on the prototype that was on display, is comparable to that of the rest of the Aira line. It’s sturdy enough and won’t break easily, but it has a light feel about it which might put some people off. The keyboard is superior to that of the System-1 and is velocity sensitive. While the keys are perfectly serviceable, they’re nothing special and the lack of aftertouch is an unfortunate omission. The Scatter button probably won’t be missed by most, and the introduction of traditional pitch and mod controls is welcome.

The System-8 has an RRP of €1499 and is expected to start shipping by the end of October with the Jupiter 8 Plug Out included. The Juno 106 Plug Out will be available through a free firmware upgrade early 2017.

Boutique: TR-09, TB-03 and VP-03
Finally Vejio Laine went on stage to walk us through the new Boutique triplets. Like the previous series, another trio of classic Roland machines have been given the Boutique treatment: a limited manufacturing run of 10 months, shrunken down to backpack size and built to high standards with a pleasing design and good materials. Unlike the previous generation of Boutiques, this trinity all sport a 24 bit/96khz sound engine resulting in a more dynamic and defined sound. The new Boutiques consist of drum machine TR-09, bassline synthesizer TB-03 and vocoder VP-03.

Unlike the Aira TR-8 and TB-3, the TR-09 and TB-03 not just try to capture the spirit of the originals but more or less the whole experience. Therefore they not only look pretty much identical to their forefathers, but are also very similar in functionality and operation. Some might find this a return to form, others might find this limited and a step backwards.

The ACB models of the TR-09 and TB-03 have been refined and improved which is really noticeable in the snares and hihats on the TR-09 and in the punch, squelch and aggressiveness of the TB-03. Unfortunately it seems unlikely these improved ACB models will be made available for the TR-8 and TB-3. The return of dedicated Env Mod and Decay potmeters on the TB-03 is a big improvement over the TB-3, as well as the addition of a dedicated accessible effects section to add overdrive and delay.

Less pleasing is the size of the controls on the TR-09, which are really very, very small. While this allows for a compact footprint and an easily portable unit, operating the machine in the heat of a live set might be harder than it should be. The size is less of an issue with the TB-03 as the machine it’s based on is comparable in size. Like the previous Boutiques, the new ones can be run from battery or USB power and feature mini jack connections. Musicians using vintage or modular equipment will welcome the addition of trigger and CV support.

The VP-03 is maybe the quirkiest product in the line-up. It’s a full blown 10 band vocoder based on the classic Roland vocoder design, but also emulates vintage string and human vox machines from the early days of polyphonic synthesis. These emulations are pretty elaborate and a surprisingly broad array of sounds can be made by combining and tweaking the available engines and effects. Combined with the Vocoder this can lead to very pleasing results.

An extra addition is a basic sampler/slicer which can be used in combination with the on-board sequencer. The sampler functionality is pretty barren, although Roland had good hopes this would improve in a future update. Various options to use pitch tracking or using the sampler to trigger the vocoder make the VP-03 an interesting addition to the Boutique line-up, and probably the one that is the most inviting to experiment with to get surprising results.

All Boutiques look and feel great, apart from the earlier mentioned small controls of the TR-09. They feel well made and robust despite their small size. The TR-09 has an RRP of €449, the VP-03 and TB-03 will be sold for €399. The TR-09 en TB-03 come with the Boutique stand, while the VP-03 can be used with the optional KM-25 keyboard stand.

Hate it or love it, the Aira and Boutique ranges are here to stay. Both take a different approach to reach the same goal: take the classic machines from the past, update them to modern standards and put them in an affordable package. The products shown today fit perfectly in this line and will no doubt find their way to many studios and stages around the world even though it may not the stuff some purists were hoping for. The VP-03 as odd one out will no doubt get its own cult following, it’ll be interesting to see what people will do with its eclectic mix of strings, vox, vocoder and sampling. The DJ-808 takes the Aira concept and brings it to DJ’ing, creating new ways to blend pre-recorded material with real time production. All these products are really hands-on and invite people to just switch them on and start playing, which is the best thing about hardware in the first place.

Of course a single day of demonstrations and hands-on moments isn’t nearly enough to really get into these products. First impressions are important but a product will only prove its worth after continued use. Therefore we look forward to take a much closer look at some of these products when they become available for review in the near future.

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