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Review: Roland TB-03 and TR-09

December 22, 2016

Almost three years ago, Roland unveiled its AIRA line. Eschewing analog circuits for impressive digital recreations of iconic ’80s products, the AIRA collection quickly caused a stir in the synth community. While purists complained that Roland should have stuck with resistors and capacitors, contemporary producers were delighted to have access to convincing replicas with modern amenities.

This year Roland expanded its Boutique line utilizing the same DSPbased ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior) technology used in the AIRA gear: The TB-03 is based on the legendary TB-303 Bass Line and its built-in sequencer, while the TR-09 models the classic TR-909 Rhythm Composer, a hybrid analog/sample-based drum machine.

TB TEST

I was a bit surprised that Roland followed the AIRA TB-3 with a second iteration of its 303 heritage, but it made total sense to me after spending several days with the TB-03. While the TB-3 includes more features and a futuristic interface, its inclusion of non-303 dance-friendly sounds gave it a little too much range. This was a huge plus for some, but others found that it distracted from the original 303 experience.

The TB-03’s interface and synthesizer engine are identical to the original, right down to its sequencing tools that are so opaque that, without a manual, atonal honks and rhythmic screeches are about the only thing you can make with it. Fortunately, the TB-03 includes a manual that makes understanding its cryptic system a bit more approachable for newcomers. Better still, it incorporates a second mode, called Step, that radically simplifies programming, so you can make sequences that are musically intelligible. And if those tools aren’t enough, you can always control it via MIDI over USB and sequence directly from your DAW.

This brings me to another detail that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere: The TB-03 is compatible with Roland’s K25m Boutique keyboard. If you have ever wanted to actually play a 303, now you can. And I assure you, it’s great fun. As for the synth itself, any perceived differences between an original and the TB-03 are either psychological or due to the decaying circuitry of the vintage unit. If you’re unfamiliar with the 303 architecture, it’s a single sawtooth/square oscillator followed by an unusual 3-pole resonant filter, with additional control over filter envelope modulation and a single decay parameter for the envelope. The original’s accent and tuning knobs are present here, too, to be thorough.

In the upper right corner of the panel are three additional knobs for direct control over distortion amount, delay time and delay mix/ feedback. If you’re familiar with the “acid house” sound of the late ’80s and early ’90s, these effects are absolutely essential for re-creating that sound, so these are useful deviations from the original specs. What’s more, the overdrive can be set to one of three modes that model different types of distortion pedals, and the delay can be switched to reverb mode if you’re after that particular sound of the era.

ONE AFTER 909

Even more surprising than the TB-03’s release was the launch of the TR-09. I’ve been a diehard user of the AIRA TR-8—both live and in the studio— and its ability to capture the sound of the 606, 707, 808, and 909 is stunning. The AIRA also features innovative rhythmic effects, but as with the TB-3, that’s the main reason purists have contested its credibility so vocally: It’s just too modern.

So in that context, it made sense for Roland to revisit the TR-909 and maybe silence a few more naysayers. Here the Boutique form factor replicates the front panel of the original 909 almost perfectly, including its slightly wonky approach to programming patterns and tracks (e.g., songs). It’s not all that hard to get the hang of creating original patterns with the TR-09, but the overall paradigm feels a wee bit dated by today’s standards. Fortunately, there’s both USB and DIN MIDI connectivity available for those who’d rather take advantage of their DAW’s sequencing tools.

What’s more, the USB features include the ability to sub mix the individual drums into four digital stereo pairs, allowing for a lot more flexibility in a production situation. If you want to record your jams live into a DAW and worry about mixing it later, you’re covered.

As for the sound, it’s functionally indistinguishable from the original. Whether you’re in a club environment or adding it to a remix, there’s really no audible difference between the TR-09 and the TR-909, save for the original’s ever-present noise floor. Each drum features exactly the same parameters and their effect on the sound is identical. Hardstyle kicks, two-toned toms, and gritty sampled cymbals are all in place. You can even get the snare to do that tiny tonal click in addition to its more readily identifiable splashy smack. Bottom line: The range of the TR-09 covers the same territory as its namesake.

Dynamics processing is an added bonus, here, as the kick and snare (but not the other drums or stereo mix, sadly) include their own independent compressors. These can be fine tuned by using a couple of key combinations that are easily memorized. But if you’re a 909 fan, you’ll probably set them up once for that punchy ’90s house sound and leave it.

Lastly, there’s a trigger output on the front panel for compatibility with analog sequencers such as the SH-101 or, more aptly, the TB-03. This can be programmed independently, unlike the original, which was tied to the rim shot. This amenity is a perfect example of how Roland has managed to remain faithful to the original instrument while adding little touches that probably should have been available in the first place.

CONCLUSIONS

In a review for Keyboard magazine last year of Roland’s earlier Boutique synths (the JU-06, JP-08, and JX-03), I took the miniature synths to Switched On Music (Austin’s vintage synth store, er, boutique) and tested them against the originals (visit keyboardmag.com to read the review). As someone who has relied on the originals since their introduction, I could wholeheartedly attest that there was no credible difference between the Boutiques and their analog forebears, unless you like the sound of dying Juno voice cards and scratchy Jupiter pots.

After spending a couple of weeks comparing the sound of the TB-03 and TR-09 to the vintage models, as well as the larger AIRA units, I can honestly say that the Boutiques are actually better than the originals. For starters, you can get them for a tenth of the price of an original model on eBay and not have to worry about maintaining delicate analog circuitry as it ages. More importantly, their new features completely offset any perceived absence of street cred. They work and sound exactly like the originals, integrate essential processing tools that are key to their signature sounds, and are more flexible in every way, including CV and trigger compatibility with analog gear.

If you’ve always lusted after a real 303 or 909 but couldn’t afford the outlay, the TB-03 and TR-09 will satisfy that craving and then some.

STRENGTHS

TB-03: Knockout re-creation of the TB-303 with integrated effects. Additional step entry mode makes programming sequences much easier. Analog CV/gate and trigger input.

TR-09: Flawless re-creation of the TR-909 sound and interface. Independent compressors for kick and snare. Analog trigger output. Multiple audio outputs via USB.

LIMITATIONS

TB-03: Can’t save synth settings with sequences.

TR-09: TR-09 knobs may be a too tiny for some.

TB-03: $349 Street
TR-09: $399 street
rolandus.com
 

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