Roland #909Day: Full Report/First Looks

Quick tours of the System-8, Boutique Series 2, VP-03, DJ-909, and Aerophone AE-10
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Now that the fog juice has cleared, it’s time for a recap of Roland’s monster #909day launch event. Few companies would dare to dream up a simultaneous launch on multiple continents for over 30 products, because the logistics alone are a marketing VP’s worst nightmare, but Roland delivered on that promise – including three separate stages for the star-studded LA event at Six01 Studios.

While everyone was distracted by performances from artists in every imaginable genre, I slipped off into the darkened demo room to test out the AIRA and Boutique offerings on AIRA-branded V-Moda headphones, which were surprisingly good at masking the din from the main room. Granted, I was only able to spend 15-20 minutes with each of the new products, but that was enough to get a feel for what’s coming to retail in a few short weeks.

(check out our SLIDESHOW for detailed images and specs)

System-8

The four-octave, kryptonite green System-8 is basically the mothership of the AIRA series, fused with Plug-Out engines based on the Boutique series’ Jupiter, Juno and JX models. With its unearthly glow, the keyboard itself is stunning and will look absolutely incredible on stage, but what we care about is the sound, right?

Well, now that the Boutique sound has made converts of even the most stalwart analog fans, unleashing a synth that flawlessly replicates the sound of the Roland’s most famous analog polysynths ensures that the System-8 is going to find a home in countless studios and live rigs – even with its $1499 price tag (which thoughtfully) includes the Jupiter-8 model.

The base AIRA analog engine is no slouch either, with three oscillators (the “sub-oscillator” is far too flexible to be constrained with that label), extensive filtering modes including both low- and high-pass options that sound fantastic, and an integrated TR-REC sequencer that’s a breeze to program without a manual (even surrounded by the mayhem of the 909 Day event). Add in a few integrated effects with dedicated knobs and the ability to mix and match different oscillator, filter and LFO modes and the System-8 is poised to raise the bar again in the “virtual vs analog” war.

Boutique Series 2

TR-09 and TB-03

The first two entries in Roland’s Boutique Series 2 were a bit of a surprise, as it seemed that the 909 and 303 were ably covered by the AIRA TR-8 and TB-3 units, which have quickly become mainstays for the dance community. That said, the new Boutique versions make perfect sense for hardcore devotees of the originals, thanks to their return to the classic interfaces of the TR-909 and TB-303. It’s no secret that the TB-303’s slightly bizarre approach to creating sequences was a huge part of its success, as was its spartan array of synth parameters that made it impossible for the unit to sound “bad”. These are all faithfully retained, with bonuses like integrated distortion, delay and reverb that are tailored to reproduce that acid/techno sound perfectly.

The TR-09 treads in similar territory, with identical sequencing tools and drum parameters that fully recapture the experience of the 909. While the analog outputs are limited to a single stereo mini jack, connecting the TR-09 via USB offers four additional discrete outputs for its drums, which can be grouped into separate submixes. And to ensure that the TR-09 plays nice with vintage gear, there’s even a voltage trigger out on the front panel for the rimshot. Finally, there are integrated compression options for the kick and snare, so that plugging directly into a club system or DJ rig will deliver pro results without additional processing.

Street price: $399 (TR-09) and $349 (TB-03)

VP-03

I have to admit that the new Boutique VP-03 came as a complete surprise, as I’ve been a fan of the original VP-330 Vocoder Plus since its original release. For those who aren’t familiar with its pedigree, the VP-330 was the vocoder for countless 70s and 80s new wave and electronic tracks, used by everyone from The Cars to Vangelis and Tangerine Dream.

The VP-03 version absolutely nails the 330’s paraphonic strings and choir textures and includes an XLR input on the front panel for instant access to the vocoder’s legendary sound (there’s even an included gooseneck mic for instant gratification).

I have to admit, I spent a little extra time with this unit in my tests as the sound brought back so many memories of my early synthpop years that it was hard to pull myself away from it. Needless to say, my upcoming review of it will more thoroughly investigate its authenticity, which at first listen is extraordinary.

Street price: $349

DJ-808

While the Boutiques and System-8’s lavish praise have basically broken the Internet this weekend, the DJ-808 has whipped up its own firestorm of controversy among the club and dance communities, with naysayers grousing about its size and kitchen-sink array of AIRA amenities and fans rejoicing about the ability to finally have everything in one place and synchronized.

For Serato-based DJs, the DJ-808 – with a street price $1499 – might well be straight-up Nirvana, thanks to its integrated AIRA drum machine, sequenced mixing tools cribbed from the MX-1 (which, frankly, I love and use regularly), sample trigger pads, and full USB compatibility with the Boutique and AIRA instruments. As someone who’s gigged with both the TR-8 and System-1 synced to Ableton Live, I can readily attest that despite the gargantuan footprint, the DJ-909 could well find its way into mainstream DJ rigs and club systems. It’s got the right combination of features for both AIRA and Serato users – and if those artists embrace it, it could well change the entire concept of what a 21st century DJ set should be.

The DJ-808 was such a showstopper that it was easy of miss Roland’s other forays into the club scene – the TT-99 turntable and DJ-99 mixer. These are squarely targeted at the current vinyl renaissance and with street prices of $349 and $249 (respectively), will appeal to budding DJs determined to “keep it real”.

Aerophone AE-10

While not a keyboard or groovebox, the Aerophone AE-10 is worthy of attention as it’s the first truly new wind controller to hit the market in quite some time. Whether its retro-modern design reminds you of the G-707 guitar from 1984 or a Cantina band on Mos Eisley is a matter of perspective, but with integrated SuperNATURAL wind instrument models (and a nifty synth) as well as MIDI and Ableton integration, the time may finally be right for sax players to step to technology and create entirely new forms of jazz and EDM. From what I saw on the Roland stages, the AE-10 is capable of extremely nuanced performances – and that’s news indeed.

Street price: $1,399

Extra Credit

While the above mentioned gear stole the show, 909 Day also featured quite a few other noteworthy products including new entries into the V-Accordion lineup, four (!) new digital pianos, ElCajon mic processor, TD-50 e-drums, and the new Boss GT-1 guitar multi-effect processor. Madness indeed!

(check out our SLIDESHOW for detailed images and specs)