Review: Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer - EMusician

Review: Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer

The best drum machine in a very long time
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Has it really been four years since the TR-8 upended the dance music scene by reintroducing a generation to the iconic sound of Roland’s most influential drum machines? In that time, it’s become impossible to avoid the 808 kick, 909 snare, and Roland’s classic analog percussion elements in every dance music genre.

Artists spoke, and Roland listened.
 The TR-8S feature-set reads like a
 user’s wish list of upgrades (with
 quite a few powerful surprises, too).

Artists spoke, and Roland listened.  The TR-8S feature-set reads like a  user’s wish list of upgrades (with  quite a few powerful surprises, too).

But as with any hit product over time, users will master the features and then demand more. But with something as time-honored as the 808 and 909, what does “more” look like? Spoiler alert: The TR-8S.

MORE WHERE YOU NEED IT

Whereas the first TR-8 combined a lightweight plastic housing and bold, almost toy-like design, the TR-8S’s build quality is substantially more robust, and nearly every aspect is more refined and customizable. For example, you can assign your own colors for the fader LEDs on a per-kit basis, which is useful when performing in dark club settings.

The parameter layout is largely identical to the first unit, with new features logically placed in context. Upgrading your workflow from the TR-8 is straightforward, as you can lean on muscle memory as you explore the wide range of enhancements.

The back panel includes six assignable 1/4"outputs, in addition to the stereo pair. These additional outs can serve as triggers if you’re syncing to other gear or have a modular rig. A dedicated trigger output is also present (see Figure 1).

Fig. 1. In addition to MIDI, USB, and a dedicated trigger output, the TR-8S includes six assignable audio outputs that
 can double as trigger outputs. The SD Card slot allows you to load your own samples into the unit.

Fig. 1. In addition to MIDI, USB, and a dedicated trigger output, the TR-8S includes six assignable audio outputs that  can double as trigger outputs. The SD Card slot allows you to load your own samples into the unit.

There is also a pair of external audio inputs, which can be used in a variety of ways, including side-chaining tasks and processing audio. MIDI is covered by both DIN and USB, with the latter capable of sending multichannel audio for the individual drums, as on the TR-8. You can also use USB for unusual audio processing through many of the effects outlined below.

FACTORY AND CUSTOM SOUNDS

If you just want instant gratification, there are 84 preset kits that run the gamut from functionally identical re-creations of Roland’s existing array of drum machines, such as the 808 and 909, to specialized kits that are optimized for modern dance genres, trap/hip-hop and world percussion—and a lot more in between. I’m always pleased when manufacturers leave a few empty slots for user customizations, and there are 44 of these in the unit’s 128 kits.

The onboard drums are comprehensive, including all of the ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior) modeled 808, 909, 606, 626, 707, and 727 drums that are available as expansion packs for the TR-8. In addition to the 81 ACB drums, there are 342 sampled hits, including roughly 160 effect, synth, chord, bass, voice, and stab options.

If that’s not enough, there’s an SD card slot for adding your own samples, each of which can be up to 180 seconds. While that’s theoretically long enough for loops or even stems, manual synchronization would be pretty cumbersome for anything substantial. That said, there is around 600 seconds of memory for 44.1kHz mono samples (300, if you’re working in stereo), and with more than 30 years of drum libraries available online, it’s doubtful you’ll ever hit your head on the sonic ceiling of this instrument—especially if you factor in the synthesis and effects amenities for each.

Whether you’re using factory samples or importing your own, there are a number of synthesis tools for further customization, including an amp envelope with attack and several hold parameters for sample duration. The resonant filter operates in both lowpass and highpass modes with a dedicated envelope for modulating the cutoff. Other parameters include stereo spread and a bit-crusher for each sample.

For the ACB-modeled instruments, there’s a different set of parameters that correspond to their sounds. For example, when working with the 808 snare, this knob can be assigned to Snappy for direct control over its noise component. On the kick, you can adjust the attack transient. Toms include a few new parameters that relate to their predecessors’ sound, but allow more in-depth customization.

In addition to the instrument-editing tools, the front panel includes dedicated tune and decay knobs, as well as an assignable control knob that can be used for panning, effects sends, LFO depth, and an array of insert effects including filters, boosts, compression, drive, and a second bit-crusher, among them.

KITS AND EFFECTS

In addition to the extensive drum design tools, each kit has enhanced versions of the delay and reverb, with a surprisingly deep level of customization for each. Each kit also includes a set of mastering effects, some of which are identical to the instrument inserts, with the addition of a few more distortion effects, flanging, phasing, and a variation on the sideband filter from the System-8 and V-Synth.

There’s also a sidechain option that can be derived from the TR-8S’s external input or one of the drums in a kit. While this sidechain feature does all the usual tricks with compression and such, the kit-level master LFO (with multiple waveforms) is a bigger standout, as it can be assigned at the instrument level to almost any drum parameter. It’s great for everything from wobbles to subtle timbre shifts pervading a groove. This is the first time I’ve seen this feature on a mainstream drum machine and I expect it to become a hallmark of the TR-8S sound.

All of the above parameters are saved with each kit, and kits can easily be copied, so if you find or create something that has a vibe you like, you can use it as the basis for future projects.

ADVENTURES IN SEQUENCING

The TR-8S lets you enter drum parts in three distinct ways: By activating steps using the iconic 808-style editor for each instrument, triggering multiple drums within a kit by tapping their associated buttons, or—new to this instrument series—by selecting a drum and tapping a single velocity-sensitive rubberized pad on the right of the control panel. This last approach allows for nuanced articulations of hi-hats and shakers, as well as authentic snare and tom fills.

Like the TR-8, the TR-8S puts its focus squarely on performance, so there are no obvious song-creation tools here (though there’s a really clever workaround below) but that’s not the point. Where the original adhered to a more purist approach to re-creating the behavior of the 808 and 909, the sequencing tools in the TR-8S function like a wish list of upgrades that address the limitations of the first unit.

On the earlier unit, each pattern included A/B variations that could be tied together to create a longer pattern of up to 32 steps. From there, you could select contiguous strings of multiple patterns, up to its 16-pattern maximum. If you thoughtfully used the entire unit’s memory, you could theoretically sequence a 32-bar pattern.

When it comes to sequencing, the TR-8S is exponentially more sophisticated. For starters, each pattern includes eight variations that can be related to each other (for continuity purposes) or totally different grooves. These variations are labeled A through H and can be combined in any permutation, as long as they proceed sequentially. That is, with a single pattern’s set of variations, you can manually configure it to play ABCD for a period of time, then press ACGH for a thematic variation, and BDEG for another section. Discovering that the patterns didn’t require contiguity was a huge lightbulb moment as a performer, because it means you can generally use a single pattern (with these variations) as the basis for an entire track or song. What’s more, any given selection of pattern variations is saved with the pattern, so pattern 1 will remember its last entered configuration.

In this way, you can have pattern 1 play ABCD, pattern 2 play BCDF, and pattern 3 play A-H in sequence, then string those three patterns together to create a custom 16-bar cycle. This is where the absence of traditional song construction tools becomes a relatively moot point: With up to 16 8-bar (A-H) patterns instantly available (128 total), certain dance and pop arrangements can be configured with a little advance planning, if that’s your goal.

There’s also a user programmable auto-fill feature for each pattern, with options for 2, 4, 8, 12, 16, and 32-bar intervals—along with a manual insert option—which is ideal if you’re sticking with conventional arrangement tactics. The auto-fill feature also includes options for the original TR-8 scatter function, which is useful for glitch and EDM transitions.

Like its predecessors, the surface of the sequencing tools leans heavily toward 4/4, but hit the “Last” button and you’ll quickly discover that every drum/instrument can have its own length. Dig a little deeper and you can create what Roland calls “sub-steps” for each step, with their own divisions. These are huge assets for extremely complex polyrhythms in the context of traditional club music.

Another major upgrade? Kits can now be saved with the patterns, so even in the above scenario, you can alter the sonic character dramatically within a performance or composition, doing things like using an 808 snare and hats for one section and switching a 707 snare for another, while keeping a 909 kick throughout.

In addition to more thorough pattern sequencing options, all of the instrument knobs and effects now offer Motion sequencing, which is easy to implement: Just turn on Motion, hold the Record button, and turn the desired parameter. Once you have something that works, you can save it with your pattern. And yes, you can parameter lock to steps too, if that’s your sound.

A BOLD NEW BEAT

Since its introduction, I’ve been using a TR-8 (both live and in the studio) and in that time it’s become a real workhorse when I need an authentic Roland vibe. The TR-8S is an order of magnitude more advanced, without sacrificing the original’s legit street cred.

As a studio instrument, it will quickly become a go-to for electronic producers. As a live instrument, I have no doubt it will be quickly embraced by the DJ crowd. As a sound designer, I can’t wait to start creating my own custom kits for this beast. It can take any sample collection—homespun or third-party—and breathe new life into it.

Yes, this is a rave review, because the TR-8S is an astonishing achievement for $700.

STRENGTHS

Over 400 instruments. Import and process sampled data from SD card. Real-time processing of individual drums. Extensive effects. Performance-oriented sequencing. Assignable audio outs double as triggers for voltage-based gear.

LIMITATIONS

No CR-78 ACB models. Software editing would greatly enhance kit design.

$699
roland.com

Francis Preve has been designing synthesizer presets professionally since 2000. Check out his soundware company at symplesound.com.