When Roland unleashed the TR-8 as one of the first entries of the then new ‘Aira’ series on an unsuspecting public back in early 2014, to say it caused quite a stir is an understatement. It was the debut of the new all-digital ‘Analog Circuit Behavior’ (ACB) technology that was claimed to be nearly indistinguishable from the original analog circuits, it contained emulations of two of the most loved and legendary drum machines of all time (the TR-808 and TR-909, with later expansions adding the TR-707, TR-727 and TR-606 to the repertoire) and … it came in green. A lot of green.
It was the start of a debate that echoes on to this very day, but by now we can say the TR-8 was a roaring success. The sounds were good, it had a wonderfully immediate interface that sparked creativity and it was affordable, unlike its legendary grandparents that are now in the 3k ballpark if you want one that hasn’t been completely banged up. Roland sold a lot of these units to a generally satisfied audience.
At the same time, there was a considerable wish list of features and options that the TR-8 didn’t address and that weren’t added in later updates. When the TR-8S was announced, it was clear Roland had been taking the comments and requests on board after all, as the list of new features pretty much contained all the stuff users and critics of the original asked for.
Look and feel
When setting up the TR-8S, the first thing you notice is that it looks a lot more contemporary and mature compared to the TR-8. Gone are the green edges and the Scatter button, and it now looks much more at home between popular units like Maschine and Push rather than looking like some 80s retro-future sci-fi movie prop. It makes it look more serious and professional and is definitely a big improvement over the original. The push buttons feel a bit ‘stiffer’ than the original, which might be a good or a bad thing depending on how much you prefer a light or heavier touch.
Like the original TR-8, the unit is made of plastic with a metal top plate, but it feels sturdy and well-built. It’s pretty lightweight but not flimsy, and especially for touring musicians it?s a nice machine to carry around as it won’t break your back. While people have voiced concerns about built quality of the Aira range in the past, it seems that these products are generally very reliable and don?t break down easily at all as most of them seem to be still chugging along just fine 4 years down the line.
The device contains a lot more pushbuttons and comes with a 2×16 character screen now. While there are still LEDs all over the place, they are now displaying various, customizable, colours and can be dimmed down to a subtle glow or turned up all the way to 11 for if you want the bling. The addition of the screen adds a menu system to the TR-8S, something its predecessor didn’t have. While this might remove some of the immediacy, it?s absolutely vital to make sure stuff like sample management is actually usable.
The TR-8 used a lot of ‘hidden’ combinations of button presses you had to look up and remember to change various settings, which can now be done through the menu in a far more intuitive manner. The menu itself is elaborate and might have benefitted from a bigger screen, but it gets the job done. In typical Roland fashion there are still various shortcuts available to increase operating speed once you know your way around on the TR-8S. And with all these new features and menus, it’s good to see that Roland has finally drafted up some decent manuals again that explain the unit in great detail rather the flimsy, folded sheets crammed full of nearly invisible text that came with the older Aira units.
While the TR-8S has loads of improvements and additions ranging from small to big compared to its predecessor, the biggie that got everybody talking is the addition of sample playback. An SD-card slot at the back of the unit can be used to load samples into the TR-8S. Roland supplies a generous supply of preset samples, but of course it’s possible to use your own. Of course, this offers lots of new creative possibilities that vastly transcend the 80s based drum sounds the TR range traditionally had on offer. You can load samples as vintage or modern as you like and by using melodic and/or vocal sounds you can do much more than just percussion alone. Do remember this is primarily a drum machine and not a sampler or groovebox though; sample editing on the device is extremely limited and creating melodic sequences is only possible through painstakingly dialling in pitch controls step-by-step rather than hammering notes in from a keyboard. Also, it’s not possible to change samples per step or record sound in the unit itself.
Another big improvement is the removal of the restrictive locked instrument per track. The TR-8 forced you to use the preconfigured instruments with the bass drums on track 1, the snare drum on track 2, etc. While it was possible to mix multiple drum machine models, it was not possible to combine an 808 and 909 kick drum in the same kit for example. The TR-8S removes this restriction by allowing every track to contain any instrument or sample you want. So, finally it’s possible to layer that 909 kickdrum attack with the 808 sub-bass tail in a single kit, which is great news. One of the changes that makes a more universal spread of instruments is possible is through the control knobs which are now the same for each track: tune, decay and a ‘control’ button which you can assign to any of a multitude of parameters.
Knob movements can now also be recorded and played back through a technique Roland calls ‘Motion Recording’. While recording in real time, you can operate the knobs, and the values will be stored on the steps. It’s also possible to hold a step button and turn the knob. This allows for more expression and complexity in your patterns and works really well. A dedicated button turns the motion playback on and off so you can use pre-recorded motions at key moments in your performance.
Apart from the motion recording and playback, the sequencer underwent many more refinements and additions. Every pattern can now have up to 8 variations which can be chained, and there?s a manual fill button that plays back specially configured steps on that variation. This allows for far more complex patterns and performances, resolving the complaints about the original TR-8 being too limited in this regard.
The TR-8S features more effects than its predecessor and they add a further layer of creativity and possibilities for sound design. And obviously it?s great to have some effects on board when playing live. However, while serviceable, most of these effects aren?t anything to write home about and will probably be dropped in favour of dedicated outboard or plugin effects of higher quality. Fortunately, the increase in individual audio outputs makes external processing of individual sounds a lot easier than it was on the original TR-8.
If you’re a Roland Cloud user, you probably have noticed the TR-808 and TR-909 have recently been added to the roster of virtual instruments. The TR-8S and the Roland Cloud plugins can interact which each other, sharing patterns and it’s possible to use the TR-8S sliders and faders to control the plugin parameters. Programming the sequencer is not (yet) supported from the hardware though.
The TR-8S has a lot to offer for musicians seeking a drum machine and is a great update to an already great machine which shows Roland has listened to its userbase. It features accurate models of much loved classic Roland drum machines with lots of options to tweak or even butcher the sounds. The addition of sample playback removes the barrier of being stuck with 80s drum sounds while keeping all the benefits of the popular and intuitive x0x-style of sequencing and programming rhythm patterns. More patterns are available now, and chaining and switching between them is easy and intuitive, allowing for the creation and playback of complex rhythms straight from your fingertips.
At the same time, the boom in hardware releases over the last few years has resulted in many alternatives in the same price range, some of which may offer more in the way of sampling, sound design, sequencing or audio quality. The TR-8S doesn’t feature direct sampling, the audio quality seems to lack some of the presence and ?oomph? of some of the alternatives, and the onboard effects aren?t great. So, in the end a lot will depend on how highly you rate the classic Roland drum sounds combined with a limited sample playback engine and a x0x-style sequencer. For the people who do rate these highly, the TR-8S is a no-brainer for sure.