Review: Roland AIRA Series

TR-8, TB-3, and VT-3 Instruments: Classic Machines, Reborn
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What’s not to like about the TB-3’s handy touchscreen and Scatter effects combined with a recreation of the TB-303 resonant filter?

WITH ITS new Aira series of products, Roland revisits some of its most popular analog designs, the TR-808 and TR-909 Rhythm Composers, TB- 303 Bassline, VP-330 Vocoder Plus, and SH-101 keyboard synth—instruments that have defined the sound of popular music for a generation. But unlike its competitor Korg, which continues to mine analog technology, Roland chose to use digital techniques to bring back its classics.

Using a unique modeling approach it calls Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB), which analyzes the specs of each original instrument down to the circuit level, Roland has created the TR-8 Rhythm Performer, the TB-3 Touch Bassline, the VT-3 Voice Transformer, and the System-1 Plug-Out synthesizer. Each instrument marries modern workflow conveniences to old-school sound quality. The quartet can be interconnected to create a complete performance system, or operate on its own or in any combination. (At the time of this review, the System 1 wasn’t available; watch for a full review of it later this year.)

Unlike their namesakes, the Aira instruments can be used as USB audio interfaces to send audio into your DAW. In addition, the TR-8 and TB-3 can transfer MIDI over USB. And although the TB-3 and VT-3 can be powered via USB, the TR-8 cannot. The signal paths in all three devices feature 32-bit/96kHz resolution, which means you’ll hear no digital zippering or aliasing, even during long, slow filter sweeps.

Every instrument in the Aira series has a version of the Scatter effect, a performance tool that slices, stutters and rearranges patterns into real-time variations that you control. The particular Scatter functions in each instrument match the role the unit plays in performance.

With the TR-8, the classic sounds of Roland’s TR-808 and TR-909 are back, but with modern conveniences such as USB connectivity and real-time performance effects that process external audio as well as internal sounds. TR-8, the Beat Box Combining the sounds and workflow of the TR-808 and TR-909, the TR-8 makes it quick and easy to step-record beats into its 16 pattern memories—each of which offers A and B variations—including Accents and the application of Reverb and Delay to each step. There are 16 drum kits, each of which has 11 instruments selected from an overall library of 28 drum sounds. Each of these instruments has its own volume fader and knobs for Tune and Decay. In addition, the snare has Compression and Snappy controls, while the kick drum gets dedicated knobs for Compression and Attack.

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The recording tools include Shuffle, four Roll buttons, and four time signatures. The tempo range is from 40 to 300 bpm.

The modeled 808 and 909 sounds are convincing; you’ll love the signature fat-and-smooth kick tones and the shrill sibilance of the hats and cymbals. While some people will say they miss the hiss or the ever-elusive “analog warmth” of the originals, the TR-8’s sounds are as close to the originals that digital re-creations are going to get.

The TR-8 has the most elaborate Scatter section, with a knob to select one of 10 types, providing stutter and glitch effects, pattern reversal, changes in gate length, and so on. The knob can also be used to set the Depth for each Scatter type. Audio fed into the TR-8’s input jacks can be processed through its Scatter engine.

All Your Bass Are Belong to TB-3 While keeping the sounds of the TB-303 intact, the TB-3 reconstructs its interface with a user-friendly, pressure-sensitive touch screen. Five screen modes let you play and sequence the sounds and select from 64 patterns, with up to 32 steps in each. Record in real time or in step mode, with Accent, Slide/Tie, and Clear/Rest buttons to make it quick and easy to get the results you want.

The VT-3 is an easy-to-use vocoder that offers a wealth of other vocal effects at a reasonable price. The Env Mod screen puts envelope modulation, and decay under your fingertip. The XY Play mode assigns pitch change and volume to the x-y axis and modulation to pressure. Scatter provides eight variations with 10 levels of depth for each one, which you activate by touching or sweeping through them on the screen.

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You also get a re-creation of the TB-303’s signature smooth filter with its screaming resonance, which, along with 26 original sounds, does a great job of mimicking the timbres and behavior of the original model. However, the TB-3 throws in 108 additional 4-oscillator sounds for you to sequence, process and mangle on-the-fly, making it an attractive value for live performance or recording. The TR-8 and TB-3 lock up with each other when connected with a standard MIDI cable, making an old-school 303/808/909 jam session simple to set up.

VT-3 for Vocals The most straightforward and least expensive of the Aira line is the VT-3, an easy-to-use vocal processor for stage and studio. Plug into the XLR/TRS combo jack in back (phantom power is available for the XLR input) or into the 1/8" mic input in front. Then select one of the 10 vocal effects—vocoder, synth, lead, bass, megaphone, radio, Scatter, or one of two types of pitch correction. For each setting, you get individual sliders for wet/dry balance, reverb, pitch (±1 octave) and formant, the latter of which ranges from female- to male-like characteristics. At any time, you can use the Robot button to remove pitch variations and add more of a synthetic sound. In addition to using the Bypass button, you can bypass the effects using a footswitch. Three memory slots let you save and recall settings.

It’s great to be able to achieve VP-330-type vocoder effects so easily, but there’s more to the VT-3 than that. Adjusting the Pitch, Formant, and Mix Balance provides an impressive range of vocal effects for creating synthetic voices and special effects or exploring different timbres for background parts. The VT-3 will appeal to a broad audience thanks to its processing quality and the wealth of effects the unit can achieve.

All Together Now Anyone who has been clamoring for 303/808/909 substitutes, whether for the sounds or the live-performance capabilities, will want to check out the Aira line. While there are other all-analog clones available, they naturally cost much more and won’t include fun stuff, like touchscreens and the Scatter mode. And while analog purists may scoff at the digital sound or the updated interfaces, the simple truth is that the TR-8, TB-3, and VT-3 sound amazing, are fun to play, and are attractively priced.

Markkus Rovito drums, DJs, and contributes frequently to DJ Tech Tools and Charged Electric Vehicles.


STRENGTHS Fantastic reproduction of signature analog sounds. Focus on hands-on control for live performance. Scatter effects. High value for the price. Thoughtful interface and consistent build quality for mid-priced units.

LIMITATIONS Too few drum sounds in the TR-8. Could use more memory locations. No DAW integration via plug-in versions.

TR-8: $499 street;
TB-3: $299 street;
VT-3: $199 street