Roland, it seems, is not interested in reissues. Each time the company has revisited its past classic models, it has reinterpreted those nameplates with new designs. And for lovers of the originals, that has caused mixed emotions.
The obvious comparison is Korg, who dominated last year’s NAMM headlines with a surprisingly-authentic remake of the MS-20, to say nothing of MS filter recreations across their products. Moog, Dave Smith Instruments, Novation, and others have also more faithfully reproduced some earlier models.
But the Aira TR-08, a new drum machine Roland is now teasing, could still be a new direction. Labeled the “evolution” of the 808 – and with videos recalling the instrument’s history – the Aira seems unlike anything Roland has done in recent years. For one thing, while Roland focused on dance music gear and grooves in the 90s, even seeing a flagship drum machine is itself news.
And the simple truth is, we don’t know which way Roland is going this time. Will they follow industry trends and add some analog circuitry? How much of the original will they remake? Innards aside, how does Roland see their history through the filter of 2014? We know how they’ve reinterpreted their legacy in the past, but what about now?
Those clamoring for an 808 (or 303) re-release, you probably won’t be happy. Roland is keen to remind you that you want something “new and exciting.”
On the other hand, we can already see from the images that the new hardware emphasizes tactile control, and the video featurette on the 808 does talk about the importance of the distinctive 808 sound.
The design itself is telling. I wrote a favorable review for Keyboard when Roland unveiled the SH-201. You have to remember, this was 2006, before we were spoiled by loads of brilliant analog monosynths – it was nice to see Roland embrace one-for-one synth controls, with no screens. (Madonna liked it, too.) The TR-08 appears to come from that same commitment to accessibility, so even if it eventually offends 808 aficionados (or even me, for that matter), it could still be an important release for a market hungry for new drum machines.
And there really aren’t many entry-level drum machine options out there, apart from something like Korg’s volca beats. There’s a market opportunity there, no question, whether Roland successfully fills it or not.
But just as I wouldn’t hope for a “reissue” of an 808 (obvious already from the marketing and photos), I expect that the sound engine will build on existing products. Remember that the SuperNATURAL line already includes models of vintage instruments. That’s a PCM-based engine, which can then be processed through a selection of other models to approximate the sounds of the original. (Various speculation online has suggested the same, as seen in the FA/Fantom and Integra series. Roland tends to iterate on those designs.)
We’ll of course be watching very, very closely indeed and working with Roland to get more on this.
In the meantime, since this is wide open, speculate away. Armchair quarterbacking will be just the thing between now and the start of the NAMM trade show next week.
All we know for now: Roland thinks you don’t like the colors of the old 808, and do very much enjoy Matrixsynth. (No argument on the latter!)