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Review: Roland DJ-808

February 7, 2017

You know Roland never misses a chance to call upon its rich legacy of formative electronic music instruments. For the brand’s first foray into the DJ controller world, it had to be something more than just a top-shelf, 4-deck Serato DJ controller, which the DJ-808 certainly is.

However, in keeping with Roland’s recent mission to expand its digitized AIRA line far and wide, the DJ-808 also includes a full step-sequencing TR-S drum machine and a VT “voice transformer” section, which clearly borrow technology from Roland’s AIRA TR-8 and VT-3. Therein lies the DJ-808’s unique value: It builds in elements of live production, sequences samples from Serato’s sampler, and syncs the TR-S, as well as connected external gear, to Serato’s tempo. A few more surprises await inside, too.

IT’S KIND OF A BIG DEAL

While drool-worthy as a DJ controller, the DJ- 808 cuts a wide swathe in terms of features, which will be a factor to some prospective users. At 23.6" wide and 16.8" deep, it demands a lot of space, as many deluxe 4-deck Serato controllers do. However, it weighs only 15 pounds—much less than competitors such as the Numark NS7III (32 lbs.) and Pioneer DDJ-SZ (23 lbs.). It probably shaves off a few pounds by utilizing plastic for much of its casing, while the top plates are brushed metal. Similar to Roland’s System-8 keyboard, it still feels sturdy.

Fig. 1. The TR-S unit across the top makes the DJ-808’s improvisational appeal all the greater, and there are an additional four modes for the velocitysensitive performance pads that take advantage of the TR-S’s drum sounds and patterns.

Utilizing a 24-bit/96kHz soundcard inside, the DJ-808 comes with both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA main outputs, as well as balanced 1/4-inch booth outputs with a separate level control. The controller is bundled with Serato DJ software, but it is compatible with a Serato DVS upgrade and has four stereo audio inputs (two phono/ line and two line) for external players. Additionally, the two AIRA Link USB host ports for compatible Roland units will provide power and tempo sync, and run audio into channels 3 and 4 of the DJ-808 mixer.

The front panel has channel-input selectors and channel and crossfader curve-type switches. The mixer section includes hands-on control for track browsing and selection, a dedicated volume fader for the TR-S patterns, and four built-in Channel FX with dedicated controls: Dub Echo, Jet (flange), Noise, and a highpass/lowpass filter.

Each deck has its own set of performance pads, effects, and looping controls. Moreover, almost every feature has an alternate Shift function to address nearly everything you’d need to do with Serato DJ on the DJ-808. The two hardware decks control software decks 1-and-3 and 2-and- 4 separately, or control both software decks simultaneously. The very responsive, touch-sensitive jog wheels utilize separate top and edge surfaces to alter playback speed and do rapid track searching. They work with selectable Vinyl and Slip modes, as well as with a toggle Reverse or a temporary Censor reverse.

The DJ-808 also comes with the Serato Pitch ’n’ Time DJ expansion, which normally sells for $29. This expansion makes Key Sync possible, so that you can make sure successive songs have their analyzed key matched up. The DJ-808 includes a dedicated Key Sync button, as well as hands-on control for adjusting beat grids, turning on quantization, and changing the software layout. The only things I could note as missing from the DJ-808’s software controls that some competitors include are dedicated Serato Flip controls: Flip is another popular $29 Serato DJ expansion for creating custom track edits and remixes. I also really miss instant EQ kill switches for the channels’ 3-band EQ.

BANG ON THE DRUMS ALL DAY

The best Serato controllers of the past few years all feature eight illuminated performance drums pads for each side, with eight or so color-coded modes. The DJ-808 follows suit, except with a whopping 13 performance modes, several of which take advantage of the TR-S drum machine. These modes include cue-point triggering, cue-point instant looping, “roll” for inducing beat repeats of different lengths, a mode for jumping to saved loops, two slicer modes that chop a song into looped and stuttered segments, two sample modes of playing Serato’s Sampler with full velocity or velocity sensitivity, and a pitched play mode for playing a track at varied pitches.

Fig. 2. Along with generous audio I/O, the DJ-808 includes a mic input, MIDI Out for synchronizing external gear, and two AIRA Link USB host ports for interfacing with compatible Roland instrument and effects units.

On top of all that, you have three TR-S pad modes—one for triggering TR-S patterns and two for playing the four active TR-S drum sounds with either full velocity or velocity sensitivity. Both of those modes also employ the bottom four pads to play drum rolls when the pad is held down. The greater the pressure you apply, the faster the roll will be.

That leads us to the marquee attraction to the DJ-808—the TR-S drum machine. It manages to pack many of the abilities and pattern sequencing style of Roland’s AIRA TR-8 into a much smaller space, although with fewer sounds per kit. Each of its 909, 808, 707, and 606 kits from Roland’s vintage beat boxes has the signature kick, snare, and open and closed hi-hat sounds. You can quickly swap kits or mix and match individual sounds into a group of four.

Once you hit Start, you can trigger the 16 preset patterns from either a deck’s pads in Pattern mode or with the 16 numbered TR-S buttons. From there, you can clear instrument parts or entire patterns and record new instrument parts either in real time from the performance pads or using step-sequencing input from the TR-S buttons. You can alter the rhythmic values of the pattern notes, such as three steps to a beat (eighth-note triplet), four steps to a beat (sixteenth-note), etc., but the patterns cannot exceed 16 steps in length. Patterns are also subject to a Shuffle setting for swing, and you can back up a set of patterns to your computer.

Four knobs alter the TR-S drum sounds—Attack (kick and snare only), Trim (individual volume), Tune, and Decay—and there’s a mixer with four faders for varying individual drum volume. However, the more robust sound-shaping tools come from the Serato software itself, because the TR-S master output can run through either one or both of the Serato DJ effects decks, which makes it possible to process the TR-S patterns with up to six effects at a time. That’s a huge win for DJ-808 users: Serato lets you expand the effects selection beyond the Base Pack of 12 standard effects, the decks toggle between one effect with more parameters or three effects with fewer, you control the beat sync values from 16th note to 8 bars, and you can do it all manually from the DJ-808’s effects controls.

This all adds up to the TR-S being an excellent live tool for creating beats quickly, copying and pasting them to a new slot if you want to, changing the beat, and then working with it endlessly with a wide variety of effects. However, that’s still not all. As one of my favorite TR-S perks, it can also sequence all eight of Serato DJ’s Sampler slots, making it really a 12-part sequencer when you add the four internal sounds.

Missing the signature cowbell or rimshot from the “x0x” drum kits? Just add them—and any other sounds you want—to one of Serato’s four 8-slot Sampler banks, and you can sequence and play them along with the other sounds. The limitations here are that, of course, the TR-S sequencer does not vary pitch for sequencing melodic samples and that the TR-S will only sequence from one Serato sample bank at a time. If you switch over to one of the other four sample banks, the saved notes in a pattern will apply to those new sounds.

EVERYONE HATES THE SOUND OF THEIR OWN VOICE

The DJ-808’s VT section works like a miniature version of the Roland VT-3 Voice Transformer except without the special effects processing settings and saved presets. With the VT turned on, the DJ-808’s combo XLR/TRS mic input runs through the VT’s Level, Hi (EQ), Low (EQ), Pitch, Formant, and Reverb controls. A Duck setting lowers the music output while you’re using the mic, and the Auto Pitch mode pitch-corrects the mic input to match the key of the selected Serato deck.

While the full VT-3 is much more versatile, the DJ-808’s VT makes things more fun and interesting. Even if you don’t plan to use the Auto Pitch to sing over music, just playing with the Pitch knob while the Auto Pitch is turned on can create some cool chorus-type effects. Pitching my voice down with the Formant turned to the “masculine” side gave me the 1970s’ “quiet storm” DJ voice of my dreams.

MORE BOUNCE TO THE OUNCE

With the DJ-808, Roland takes an appropriately small step toward fusing DJ and production hardware. The addition of the TR-S drum machine, which very importantly also sequences from Serato’s 8-slot Sampler, makes original beats that sync to the DJ software easy and convenient to those with drum machine experience, and it is immediately accessible to those learning for the first time. It’s well integrated and leaves the door open for users to sync up external gear, as well. And it does this all at a price that lands in the upper range for controllers, but stays firmly in the realm of its competitors. Perhaps an update could even allow recording the TR-S patterns to load them in a Serato deck for further manipulation.

Regardless, I’m thrilled to see Roland entering the DJ hardware world with the DJ-808 as part of its expanding AIRA universe, and I’d wager that there’s more to come.

STRENGTHS

Full-featured, 4-deck Serato DJ controller. Serato Sampler sequencer syncs to Serato’s tempo. Serato DJ and Pitch ’n’ Time DJ software. Vocal auto pitch, effects. 13 performance-pad modes. High audio quality. High output levels. AIRA Link USB ports. 4-Channel FX on mixer.

LIMITATIONS

Can’t adjust TR-S pattern length. Only one bank of TR-S patterns. No instant EQ kill switches. Can be hard to keep track of all the pad performance-mode functions.

$1,499 street
roland.com

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