Review: Roland AIRA TR8 - Drum Machine

Its the new old school beatbox   14-Feb-14

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Roland's AIRA (pronounced IRA) range has been a major tease since it was announced before NAMM, but not available actually at the show. Today is the big day, the culmination of a multi-stage teaser which has had people practically frothing at the mouth.

It's unsurprising really as Roland have hitherto refused to revisit their old legacy kit as an actual emulation.

First on the bench is the Roland TR8 - it's a drum machine, a digital one which uses Roland's new ACB (Analogue Circuit Behaviour) which claims to offer something different to the usual modeling techniques.

Essentially, the TR8 emulates two classic machines - the TR-808 and the TR-909. All the voices from these machines are included and you can create hybrid kits between the two of them. And most convincing they are too.

The hardware feels pretty sturdy, it has a plastic case with metal top plate. Connections are headphones, stereo output, plus aux A + B (2 x mono) giving four outputs total in hardware. You also get a stereo pair for input. It is possible to pan and assign voices to the outputs so you can process them separately in a live scenario.

Additionally, the USB connection - gives audio and MIDI connectivity.

There are 11 concurrent voices available, each has it's own level fader, plus voice parameters - these vary depending on the type of voice:

  • Kick -
  • Tune
  • Attack - click at the front
  • Decay - length
  • Comp - a single knob compression.
  • Snare
  • Tune -
  • Snappy - the white noise portion of the sound
  • Decay - length
  • Comp - compression - this didn't seem to have all that much effect.
  • The Rest
  • Tune
  • Decay

As well as the 16 kit memories, each voice also has 2 or 3 memories -  808 and 909 but in some cases a third will give you the percussion alternative  - clave (on the RimShot) or cowbell (Ride Cym), or conga (Toms) and maracas (handclap).

I can say that these voices are pretty convincing, though the voice parameters are not identical to the originals in all cases.

The USB audio driver allows you to access all 11 voices as inputs in your DAW, plus an additional three (total 14). The last 2 are from the external input, and your DAW can access both sets of outputs too - pretty handy.

The main programming interface is step based with 16 steps switchable scales for triplets 6 and 8. There are 16 patterns and memories - each pattern has an A + B section and can be switched or chained - unfortunately you  can't copy A to B for quick variations, but you can copy entire patterns easily between the 16 slots.

Additionally, there's a swing knob to allow you to add shuffle - both positive and negative.

Sequencing can be done in traditional step mode - select voice turn on steps, and also in real-time which is an nice addition.

All patterns and kits are stored in the last state they were left in - there is no saving, just select and edit and its done.

In addition to the voices, you have step sequencers for Accent, Reverb and Delay - these allow you to setup sends for each voice on particular steps separately- actually pretty cool in practice.

Additionally there's a step sequencer for the external input - you can setup a sort of gating effect by dialing in the sidechain parameter. Alternatively, you can just pass the audio signal through for doubling up inputs.

While the sequencer is pretty faithful to the original machines, I can't help but think that it would have been good to add parameter lock type features so we could automate tunings, decays etc with each sequence. However all the knobs do transmit CC so you can automate via an external DAW, but that sort of defeats the point of the performance element.

If real-time playback is more your thing, there is an INST PLAY button which lets you play voices via the step buttons that correspond to each voice, additionally you can record real-time too

So what do I think?

Lets forget about the analogue vs. digital debate, it's not getting us anywhere.

I can say that it does sound good - massive low end on the kicks, I have played it to someone who owns and uses a TR808 and they were impressed.

There is some analog shift and drift during triggering like the original 808 (though perhaps not as pronounced as the one we tried), the voices "move" - presumably this is the ACB at work.

Basically as far as I can tell it's almost a dead ringer.


For the money, (around £399 street) I think it's hard to come up with a reason not to buy one when compared to the 2 or 3K you could drop on an original.

My caveats are - no parameter lock or other sequencer enhancements suitable for the 21st Century. I would also have liked to have seen an analogue compressor on the main outputs to give it some more oomph out of the box, but I guess you could do that in the DAW.


But for those of you wondering if it's good enough to live up to the hype - I say yes in this case - Roland 1 - Critics -0

Available soon, price £399 UK

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47 Comments... Comments are closed while we transition to Disqus

Adam Bailey    Said...

Why would you want this? JUST, WHY!

The plug-ins from D16 Group sound better, I guarantee it!

14-Feb-14 03:14 AM

iko biko    Said...

No plugin or even analog clone so far sounds better C'mon man.

14-Feb-14 03:34 AM

Slovan    Said...

I think it is telling that these are launched at a DJ show. The demo comes alive when the bass is introduced, the modular plug in synth is interesting so what other plug ins are planned?

14-Feb-14 04:21 AM

Champ    Said...


Why? Because its hardware. Personally I don't find working with software fun anymore. And If I can't have fun with it I would bother using it. :)

The controls on the TR-08 seems to be the nicest thing so far but as Nick mentioned its missing some features with it should have in 2014. (specially since its a digital device) I think for basic stuff it could be a nice drummachine and I do hope other manufactures will copy the layout.

I still wonder why they didn't make it completely analog. It could've all be done in the analog domain I believe. Bit of a downer for me.

14-Feb-14 04:35 AM

Graham richardson    Said...

I agree the D16's sound better. These Roland's seem like a missed opportunity.

14-Feb-14 04:50 AM

George Cloned    Said...

in french , TR means "touché rectal" .. what else to add ?

14-Feb-14 05:06 AM

LagrangeAudio    Said...

I do like this very BUT doing the conversion it'd going to be at least 800 australian dollars. That's starting to get into fairly silly territory in these parts for what it is. I bought a miniBrute for loads less than that, even the Gaia was cheaper than what this will sell for, seriously??

14-Feb-14 05:28 AM

Synth_Fan    Said...


Sounds fantastic. Excellent computer integration for individual voices; exquisite user interface and real-time performance feature. Price - makes it a no brainier. Cannot wait!

14-Feb-14 05:28 AM

Raw Cc    Said...

I rather spend 3x as much and get a elektron rytm

14-Feb-14 05:59 AM

blox Electrix    Said...

For my part,i'm aware of this machines shortcomings but i like how it sounds & i like the workflow simplicity. for that reason alone i do want one. The price is in the correct ballpark & the panel is nice, simple & clear. As a home studio type user i don't like any software, i mean none at all, i love real hardware & i'll get this but never plug it into a pc unless it needs a firmware update. This is the drum machine that has been missing from my set up all along. I only wish that Korg would expand a bit on their ESX1 so i didn't have to switch to Roland. Thanks for the review Nick, although a quick one i saw enough to decide.

14-Feb-14 06:13 AM

M311Y    Said...

I'll be going for the elektron rytm also, even though ill be saving for an extra year I do believe it will be worth it!

14-Feb-14 06:16 AM

Ronads    Said...

No D-beam, woohoo! Wait what's this... Scatter?

Oh Roland.

14-Feb-14 06:36 AM

TYU    Said...

Years ago I had a 808 briefly… then had a 909 for a long long time….

Here we are 30 years later and I really struggling to see progress….. This is just SOOOOOO underwheleming…..

I used to LOVE Roland gear… I've had so much over the years… but in the last 10 years they ALWAYS seem to get things JUST wrong… such promise and then they just seem to miss the mark… time after time… It's such shame...

14-Feb-14 07:01 AM

selercs    Said...

Great job Roland! I am planning to buy one

14-Feb-14 07:07 AM

Elektron didnt invent CC record!    Said...

fail for me if it really cant record its own midi cc parameters: that does indeed make this retro ! Rolands own mc909 , yamaha rmx/rs7000 and Korg Electribe motion sequence next generation of grooveboxes all brought us parameter automation ( before Elekton @Nick ! ) , now even Volca beats for 1/4 price I believe records knob motion.

14-Feb-14 07:08 AM

Elektron didnt invent CC record    Said...

P.s ...what no filters ?

14-Feb-14 07:44 AM

GeekyDisco    Said...

I'm not seeing a wow factor here. Its just a bog standard drum machine. For those with Maschine, Ableton, Reason, Cubase, etc, which already come with the 808/909 sounds why would you drop 400 pounds for a unit that is so ordinary?

Roland drop the ball again.

14-Feb-14 08:09 AM

W    Said...

I'm betting most of the people whining about it not being analog wouldn't even notice the difference in some sort of blind test.

14-Feb-14 09:32 AM

HnnH    Said...

No trigger out? What about DIN?

14-Feb-14 09:35 AM

EMwhite    Said...

Roland could have put in more bells and whistles, metal chassis, touch sensitive pads and more but apparently, product marketing felt $500 USD was the sweet spot.

What else is in this price range? {DR880 or nothing} Classic workflow and from the sounds of it, good sounding.

It's not going to eat the lunch of the $1,500 - $2,000 machine but I suspect they will sell piles of them.

14-Feb-14 09:42 AM

robgs    Said...

nice.. but not essential.

14-Feb-14 09:53 AM

Gustavo    Said...

Seems better than the TB-3, but somehow Arturia seems to have one upped Roland...SparkLE and beatstep both seem great options, specially considering most dance music producers always have a computer in hand.

14-Feb-14 10:36 AM

Dave Spiers    Said...

Such a good review Nick. Seeing the analyser on the kick was very interesting and I think I'm gonna get one as a result of this and the 808 vs 08 head to head

And I already have an 808 here.

14-Feb-14 12:47 PM

W    Said...

@ Gustavo - You reckon the SparkLE will still be going strong in 30+ years time like the 303 or 808?? Hell, you'll be lucky if it's still going in 3 years time if Arturia decide not to update the software to run on new operating systems.

I'd actually like to see this topic covered on a Sonictalk episode. How long should software and hardware (that connects to a computer) be updated for by developers before it's forgotten about and people either HAVE to upgrade or simply delete/throw it away? I'm currently updating my setup to a new laptop and it's proving an absolute nightmare. Sorry to go offtopic!

14-Feb-14 01:57 PM

The Guvnor    Said...

The price is pretty good. Although Roland missed the boat by 10 years, its still good to see them actually come out with it. I'm not sure I would buy it as I already have drum sample libraries coming out my arse, and the D16 emulations to boot. Great review!! I can't wait for the System 1 though if the Roland synth emulations are good.

14-Feb-14 02:30 PM

KingVidiot    Said...

Where's the VT-3 review as promised? I like my VT-1, and apparently they skipped the VT-2.

14-Feb-14 04:30 PM

whiteblob    Said...

does the usb driver act like the access virus TI driver, that does not needed to be added as your main audio interfere for your DAW. or does act as the main audio interface?

14-Feb-14 05:05 PM

whiteblob    Said...

does the usb driver act like the access virus TI driver, that does not needed to be added as your main audio interfere for your DAW. or does act as the main audio interface?

14-Feb-14 05:05 PM

whiteblob    Said...

does the usb driver act like the access virus TI driver, that does not needed to be added as your main audio interfere for your DAW. or does act as the main audio interface?

14-Feb-14 05:06 PM

whiteblob    Said...

does the usb driver act like the access virus TI driver, that does not needed to be added as your main audio interfere for your DAW. or does act as the main audio interface?

14-Feb-14 05:07 PM

whiteblob    Said...

does the usb driver act like the access virus TI driver, that does not needed to be added as your main audio interfere for your DAW. or does act as the main audio interface?

14-Feb-14 05:08 PM

salocin right    Said...

@adam baily lol you got no ider, realy! I thnik you must be drunk :•) or mac'iefide lmao....

14-Feb-14 05:48 PM

Dr.Filterstein    Said...

Nick, what about panorama ?

14-Feb-14 08:38 PM

ric    Said...

they are using the original algorithm?

15-Feb-14 10:15 AM

Sundog    Said...

Does any one know if the System-1 can be sequenced within the Aira setup? A fun aspect of the SH-101 was the internal sequencer that can be step triggered by the original x0x drum machines and clones. You could also sequence the SH-101 with the TB-303 Gate/cv outs. Any idea if the TB-3 can externally sequence the System-1 or will it need a third party midi sequencer or DAW to do it?

15-Feb-14 10:30 AM

trash    Said...

As someone that does not like or use software for any of my recording and really loved the TR step method of programming back in the day this device really appeals... However it am I correct in thinking that both the TR-8 and the TB-3 don't have any kind of song arrangement mode. It seems that both of these devices are geared purely towards live performances which seems a bit of narrow thinking to me. Or have I missed something...?

15-Feb-14 10:43 AM

Malcolm Davis    Said...

Interesting the debate between those who want Aira to recreate the sound of original hardware, vs those content with software. I'm firmly in the 'hardware' camp. Working with software is like computer programming. Click the mouse a few times, change a setting here, download a file there...before you know it, hours have passed and you've created nothing. On the other hand, hardware allows you to create something immediately, shape it, play with it, and enjoy the whole process. I've been down the software route - had Reason, NI Komplete, a few Arturia synths - sold all of them because there is no joy in using them. I may as well be inputing numbers on a spreadsheet. As for Aira - its probably not going to be the same as the real thing, but have you seen the prices for TR-808s and TR-909s these days, let alone a System 100 synth!!! If money were no object I'd forget Aira and just spend up big at RL Music on real vintage analogue gear. But I'm not super-rich, so I have to work with what I can afford. The price on Aira looks good. My only concern is with the System 1 synth - is Roland REALLY going to fully support it with VSTs that are worth getting. A System 100 VST is essential. A SH-5 or SH-7 would also be good. They are obviously going to do an SH-101 which is a good place to start, but I'd hate this to be a repeat of VariOS.

15-Feb-14 07:47 PM

RabidKorgFan    Said...

Shame about the lack of motion sequencing. Its such as powerful feature of the Korg ESX and EMX, as you can record it live and edit it step by step later. Personally I think the Korg machines trumps this in every dept. Solid metal chassis, vacuum tube on the output, multiple chainable fx, motion sequencing, ribbon controller and gating for performance, 5 synth parts on EMX (that can be made to sound like drum parts) with tons of synthesis options, more pattern memory and fairly intuitive song mode (this part could definitely be improved). I bloody love my Korg groove boxes. Proper hands on dance music makers. If you can only afford one I would recommend the EMX.

17-Feb-14 03:28 AM

Blake    Said...

After being pissed off for years at Roland for not ironing out the MC-909, I'm going to finally buy a Roland product again. The TR-8 and the System-1 will be in my studio. :-)

17-Feb-14 05:11 AM

guru    Said...

disappointed so few individual analogue outputs. I think the Novation Drum Station is still the best sensibly priced hardware emulation out there.

18-Feb-14 06:42 AM

Z-tits    Said...

Guru you got it right, yet roland already made a drum machine that is better than even the drum station. It is called the R8. R8's amount of control expands the drum palette and has a better reputation than the 808 and 909(my opinion) for studio and sound design. If Roland had reinvented the R8 I believe that the wow factor would have been there for sure assuming the multiple outs would be included in its desktop/groovebox form.

23-Feb-14 01:47 AM

YT    Said...

Just in case Roland is listening -For the sake of electronic music culture everywhere -"Less Chitter More Wampa". Keep it moving.

23-Feb-14 02:33 AM

Chan Canasta    Said...

I own a TR909 and TR808 and was thinking of getting rid of both and buying a TR8. The TR8 sounds superb - but it is so crippled as a drum machine / 'rhythm composer' that even the ancient 808 puts it to shame. Scatter is fantastic and the accent on live performance is great - but why sacrifice (even a simple 808 style) song mode for it ?

13-Mar-14 09:24 PM

S. Righteous    Said...

If you are thinking of buying one, you might want to check my review of it. I focus on the stuff other reviews leave out. I'm a musician, and review my gear in the context of real world use.

02-Apr-14 11:51 PM

AT    Said...

I have owned mine for a month now and was at first disappointed in no song function. Then downloaded the free Ableton max for live device and its not a problem. I can sequence with Ableton and have control of every parameter via ableton now. I can do a 4/4 beat with triplet rolls too. Something no TR could ever do. But all that being said, why would you care about song sequencing. what has and does make all TR's so much fun is the live use. My only gripe is the USB is 96k which is hard on my computer. This box is my favorite piece of live gear.

17-Dec-14 11:21 AM

Chris    Said...

Got mine 2 weeks ago... truly lovely sounds. good job on the emulation, BUT... only 16 Patterns to store and no (!) way to save your own kits into the machine??? no kidding? WHY? I get it, it's a "performer" (whatever that means), but even then... does a saving function really destroy the hole "performer" thing? Hope Roland will fix this...

28-Sep-15 12:38 PM

Some R    Said...

You can chain patterns. So with planning that suffices as song mode. I've had mine a few weeks now and was initially underwhelmed due to being used to saving settings..requires a different mindset. However considering the price point it provides a lot for little outlay. The MC505 was nearly £1k back in 98 and, although not a groovebox as such, as a drumbox this is more focussed and sounds a lot richer.

29-Dec-15 12:22 PM

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