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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:
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
Seamless audio and MIDI switchover between computers