I’m really impressed with Roland’s AIRA lineup. Every product is a winner, and several have become mainstays in my production workflow. In the February 2015 issue of our sister magazine Keyboard, I took the System-1 SH-2 Plug-Out for a spin and came away suitably impressed. This month, I installed the new 7X7-TR8 upgrade into my TR-8, adding a slew of new sounds that are based mostly on the classic TR-707 and TR-727. For the uninitiated, the TR-707 was Roland’s first sample-based beatbox, with a character that was fairly ubiquitous to ’80s pop and new wave: INXS’s classic “Need You Tonight” incorporates a few TR-707 sounds.
Released in 1985, the TR-707 was decidedly drum-centric, and the 8-bit character of these sounds will either come off as charming or cheesy. But as additions to the TR-8’s existing arsenal, they add a lot of diversity to the overall sound of its grooves, especially the readily identifiable rim shot, toms, and tambourine.
Arriving shortly after the TR-707, the TR-727 focused exclusively on Latin percussion, with bongos, congas, timbales, agogo bells, shaker, vibraslap, whistles, and a star chime effect. While these are also 8-bit, they’re somehow less plastic sounding than the TR-707 drums. In fact, adding these drums to a TR-909 groove makes the combination sound surprisingly modern in the context of today’s retro house renaissance, largely due to the fact that countless Detroit techno tracks relied heavily on it back in the day.
In light of the TR-707 and TR-727’s heritage, it would be easy to assume that Roland simply added a bunch of samples to the TR-8 that could just as easily be found on the Internet, but that’s not the case here. As with the 808 and 909, Roland dug into the original architecture, emulating the gritty 25kHz 8-bit DACs (complete with a whisper of noise) and the curves of the original envelopes. Speaking of envelopes, the TR-8’s decay and tuning knobs work on the 7X7 sounds, as do the kick and snare compressors and attack/snappy parameters, giving these sounds a lot more flexibility than the originals, which had no sound-editing features.
The 7X7 upgrade also includes a new batch of 808/909 sounds that are tonal variations on several of the originals—a punchier 909 kick and snare, a noise burst based on the original 808 clap, tuned-noise “toms,” and an analog finger snap that would have sounded right at home on the CR-78. Naturally, the TR-8 parameters work appropriately on these too.
Roland has added a nifty color-coding scheme for selecting the new sounds. When you switch to Instrument Select mode for a given drum, the integrated LEDs change to gorgeous jewel tones that correspond to the different drum machines. And rounding out the package are some new flam options, cribbed from the TR-909 and TR-707, that were missing from the original AIRA implementation.
All in all, the 7X7-TR8 is a must-have for TR-8 owners. Even if the 707 sounds aren’t your cup of tea, the 808- and 909-based additions are topnotch, and the 727 percussion adds a lot of flavor for house and forward-thinking hip-hop production. The TR-8 is on track to become the go-to drum machine for vintage connoisseurs.
Flawless re-creations of the original TR-707 and TR-727 drum machines. Tuning and decay parameters added. New TR-808 and TR-909 sounds. Additional flam modes.
8-bit crunchiness can be a love-it-or-hate-it affair for some users.
Francis Prève is a music producer, DJ, electronic musician, and an Editor at Large for Keyboard magazine.