One, two, three – Roland has finally made the 303 bassline, 909 drum machine, and VP-330 vocoder that so many people wanted. They’re small, they’re really affordable ($349-399), and they’ve got modern features. But after decades of remakes that strayed from the very things that made people love the originals, at last Roland has learned from their own legacy. So, let’s talk about what’s new and what, mercifully, isn’t.

tr-09_rear_gal

tr-09_top_gal

tb-03_rear_gal

tb-03_top_gal

Stop worrying and love the remake

First – I love ideas, but why not remakes? The 303 and 909 have recognizable and even boring or overused sounds, sure. But the whole point of musical tradition is using old sounds in unexpected ways. And these particular noises are recognizable for a reason – they’re expressive and they work well on PAs and in the instrumentation of certain kinds of music.

The same goes for the design. The 303 and 909 aren’t sounds that exist in a vacuum: they’re sounds that emerge from a particular interface. You could say the same of a grand piano or an electric guitar; you can’t separate the timbre from the way that timbre sits under your hands.

For some reason, though, it’s taken for now for Roland to at last hear all of us telling them this. The AIRA TR-8 was great, but it wasn’t a 909 (though I do love those faders). And the TB-3, while a fascinating bass instrument, was also something else – lacking the very hands-on control and particular sound architecture that makes a 303 a 303.

But here’s where I’ll say something blasphemous:

I think insisting on using the original 303 and 909, at their current used prices, is absurd. And not only that, but it cuts anyone who doesn’t have large chunks of disposal income out of the joy of using these instruments. That’s ironic for instrument whose legacy was built on being essentially undesirable – an unwanted machine that got into the hands artists who abused them in creative ways.

Don’t get me wrong: if you’ve got an original TB-303 or a TR-909, good for you, and enjoy! But with reliability failing and prices continuing to clime, this simply isn’t an option for a lot of people. (Ironically, it’s easier to make a 17th century viola da gamba last than electronic instruments, so we’re always going to have to deal with making new gear.)

What’s special about the TB-303 and TR-909 remakes is that they actually give you what you want. They give you the sound and the design. But they also do the other things you’d wish for – they’re convenient, they’re not expensive, and they have some modern additions that make them more usable and fun to play. (Hey, we deserve this. We’ve been waiting a while.)

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The sound

Like the (already pretty good) TR-8 and other AIRA instruments, the new Boutique models are built on Roland’s Analog Circuit Behavior. ACB provides models of the individual components of the originals. The AIRAs were good; the new Boutique can build on ever better versions of those.

I spoke yesterday to a visiting member of Roland’s RPG team in Harajuku. I figured the TR-09 and TB-03 would mostly reuse ACB models from the AIRAs with some tweaks. Not so.

Instead, Roland says the new Boutique Series represent a massive amount of work on new models. The first AIRA TB-3 didn’t just make single oscillator 303 sounds; the AIRA TR-8 was built as an 808 model, but not really as a 909.
And these are more focused – the models for the TR-09 and TB-03 only model the 909 and 303 (as opposed to the multiple instruments modeled by the AIRA SYSTEM-1 and TR-8).

So these models, Roland says, are new. And what I can say is, you can hear it. I didn’t do side-by-side comparisons, but I think that’s almost not the point: both sound so good you want to keep using them, which is the idea. You’d be hard pressed to find a drum machine under $1000 as balanced as the TR-09, let alone one for this price; the TB-03 meanwhile is pure magic.

CDM got exclusive access to record some sounds earlier this week. This is me just screwing around, really. No added effects, apart from briefly some reverb on the TR-09 to demonstrate that you can route individual audio tracks to effects by choosing multiple outs over USB. And yes, I turned the TR-09 compressor up, so some of those bass drum hits are too hard – but nice that you can do that, actually. I promise some actual music soon; in the meantime, I think you’ll hear some of the unprocessed sound and agree that I have way too much fun with them.

Will these models exactly mimic one particular vintage machine? No — not least because individual models of analog gear can differ from unit to unit, and components age. But they do have the character of the original, and that makes them a starting point for further signal processing and musical use. They sound alive. I just want to try them on a big club PA before I really know how I feel about them; headphones are something different.

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Original designs

Apart from sound, you do finally get the original control layouts. So the TR-09 is a shrunk-down 909 — but as it happens, maybe the 909 was waiting for this all along. That same layout on the gargantuan original works perfectly in a small space. Tiny knobs with small clearance is itself a bit fiddly, so big-fingered people probably will want to look elsewhere. But if you can live with that, you get a compact machine.

And programming and sound control on the TR-09 does all the things the original did.

That’s the same with the TR-03 — at last. Now, I know some people who utterly hate the original 303 programming method, but it’s there if you want it. (There’s an alternative, too, if you don’t – see below.) Most importantly, the sound controls from the original are back. So you get dedicated filter, resonance, and envelope controls. That was missing on the AIRA, and it’s what makes the experience of playing a 303; you might as well ship a Corvette remake without a steering wheel as leave these out.

Little details like using TAP to write notes works, too.

And of course, the TR-03 is in a form factor scale that’s close to the original. That signature footprint has defined the entire Boutique series. At last, it gets to come home to the 303 that inspired it.

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Improving on the original

From there, we can talk about improvements.

Metal cases. The build on these is, mercifully, not what you got from the AIRA. (No green!) That includes a metal case that even the original TB-303 lacked.

Docks. The special Boutique Series docks ship in the box for both the 303 and the 909. That lets you easily fold up the units for easier access. (If you want this dock without the keyboard, it’ll also be available for sale separately for use with the rest of the Boutique Series – perfect for people who hate mini keys.)

USB. Install an audio driver, and both TR-09 and TB-03 will stream audio to a computer.

96k, 24-bit sound. Unlike the original Boutique Series, these audio drivers support up to 96kHz, 24-bit audio streams. I’m particularly interested in 24-bit for dynamic range; that seems worth testing.

MIDI as well as CV. It’s the best of both worlds. CV/gate means you can connect to other vintage and modular gear and use analog signal control. But MIDI, not available on the originals, of course makes them far more flexible. (The TR-909 was notable for adding MIDI, but it was a basic trigger implementation – here you get full CC control in both directions.) There are both full-sized DIN ports and MIDI available over USB.

New to the 303, you get trigger input, too (see below).

Full MIDI CC. This is obviously especially cool on the TB-03 for some acid automation, but both units respond fully to MIDI CC control and send MIDI from the panel (for recording). I tried to get my hands on a MIDI implementation guide, but it’s coming.

Live programming. Patterns keep playing even as you mess around with modes and parameters, which gives the TR-09 and TB-03 unparalleled flow.

USB and battery power. You can use USB power with a computer or a wall wart – so you’re not worried about finding the right power adapter. Or you can use battery power. And for anyone complaining about digital modeling and ACB, there’s one answer – it’s less power thirsty.

There are some unique features on each unit, too.

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New to the TB-03

To me, the surprise of the TB-03 is that it’s all about the added onboard signal processing. A 303 on its own can be a bit dull, as in you eventually get tired of filter resonance. But the TB-03 packs overdrive, delay, and reverb onboard, too, which extends what you can do with it.

Overdrive. I’m sorry: you have no idea how good this sounds. The combination of overdrive with the filter opens up the whole character of the TB-03.

Delay. There’s also an analog-style delay with feedback, which also extends timbral range as well as opening up rhythmic effects. You can use it freely, or clock to external sync.

Reverb. This is hidden; I totally missed it at first. But you can switch the delay to a reverb. The guy from Roland I met loves the reverb. I don’t, because I love the delay. You can choose for yourself.

Step mode. This is a really fun way to enter patterns – officially “step mode” but everyone at Roland was calling it “simple mode.” Essentially, it lets you use the TB-03 panel as a normal step sequencer and get rid of the sometimes maddening 303 way of entering melodies. Shhh – I won’t tell your die-hard 303 friends. I slightly miss the AIRA TB-3’s clever touch surface, but the flexibility of the TB-03’s design and interface and (finally) dedicated knobs for envelope and filter make it more than worth it.

Trigger input. In addition to CV/gate, there’s a trigger in. It’s something of an SH-101 feature, and it means you can create interesting rhythmic syncopation – route the trigger signal from the SH-09 (or another sequencer) into the TB-03, and each trigger will advance the sequence. (Meanwhile, it’s clear that some sort of SH-101 Boutique Series remake is a no-brainer, as opposed to the weird PLUG-OUT thing that eventually shipped for the AIRA SYSTEM-1.)

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New to the TR-09

Built-in compressor. The snare and bass drum each have an adjustable compressor. It sounded fairly transparent to me in a brief test (again, I want to get on a PA, which is where I think this might come in really handy).

The LED is available for editing. Yep, that’s convenient — a display for not only master tempo but also various parameters an editing, which wasn’t available on the original.

Breakbeats! Well, that’s what I was doing with them. You can add 32-note patterns via a modification key when programming.

Assignable audio outs. Okay, first, the bad news – you don’t get dedicated audio outs for each part on the TR-09. (Since it’s digital, not analog, I’m guessing you also can’t mod this the way you could on the KORG volca series.) But the good news – audio outputs are assignable internally via menus.

For analog, you’re limited, but you can hard pan parts left or right. Since they’re generally mono to begin with, that means you could split a signal and route a particular part or parts to outboard effects.

On a computer, you get more versatility – there are four assignable stereo pairs, plus the stereo mix. That also would mean you retain stereo panning information if you choose.

More pitch. Additional pitch controls are hiding behind that front panel, for parameters not available on the original.

Stereo. Stereo. You can now set panning for parts, too, either sent directly to the stereo mix (analog/USB) or included as stereo information in those assignable stereo outs.

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Hit of 2016?

I think there’s no surer bet than seeing this hardware as a huge breakout hit.

They also represent a new direction for Roland. The company has a long history of messing about with its history. Names like Jupiter and Juno have appeared on products in the loosest sense, and the 303 and 909 in particular have been bastardized incessantly. Even the AIRA, while being a bit more reverent (and modeling components), still different from the original design.

For the first time, with the Boutique Series, though, we see Roland return to the original product conception. And while I’m a fan of innovation, I think that’s really healthy. The 303 and 909 aren’t just about a sound; they’re about a particular layout and workflow. You wouldn’t recreate a Steinway piano and change around the input and mix it up with a bunch of other sounds. (Actually, bad example, as we’ve seen that, too!)

But in this case, there’s something refreshing about the limitations of these instruments.

Pricing/availability

US$349 for the TB-03 (349€ before VAT)
US$399 for the TR-09 (399€ before VAT)
Both prices include the dock.

In stores in October.

CDM should be first in line for a review; we can also visit the ones hanging out here in Berlin if you need more hands-on questions.

https://www.roland.com/global/products/tr-09/

https://www.roland.com/global/products/tb-03/

The VP-03 actually I think is equally newsworthy, but we’ll cover that in a separate story as it’s the odd man out of the trio (though as you’ll see, in kind of a good way).

  • Jyoti Mishra

    All I care about in the TR-09 is the timing. How tight is the timing, is it better or worse than the original? I wish websites would talk about that when reviewing new drum machines / rhythmic software.

    • I didn’t notice any timing issues. I think that’s generally why you don’t see comments on this.

      • Jyoti Mishra

        Thanks, Peter! I admit, I’m slightly obsessed with timing / feel… I’ve just bought a Forat 9000 off Ebay purely because I miss the feel of ’80s sequencing so I am, obviously, nuts. 🙂

        As for contemporary gear with the best feel: Elektron but even more knob-on, the Tip Top Trigger Riot. <3

        • Will Durham

          I totally agree that for many years, timing’s an issue and is rarely discussed because in truth most don’t delve that deeply in to things that should be thought of, and aren’t. I’d say that the newer stuff’s generally pretty tight, but that’s just a guess and the only way will be hands-on..and yes, I have a Forat 9000, Linndrum and Oberheim, in large parts due both to the timing as well as the sounds that are still top shelf.

          • Jyoti Mishra

            It’s jitter that kills feel. Latency can always be compensated for *as long as it is consistent.*

            I know that Logic Pro sending MIDI to external hardware is in no way as tight as my Atari. I find that sad and worrying.

            For rhythmic stuff, I much prefer my 707, 808, Machinedrum, Monomachine and Trigger Riot to any DAW I’ve tried so far. Maybe that’ll change in the future, I remain optimistic! 🙂

            The new TR-09 *sounds* good for the 30 seconds I’ve heard but I’d have to have a hands on with it, get to know the feel? And how is that affected when it’s externally synced?

          • Gabriel Rey-Goodlatte

            Have you looked into Expert Sleepers sample accurate MIDI / trigger out? I think the jitter issue is with USB MIDI interfaces mostly, not the DAWs themselves (sequencing of internal/VST instruments should be fine). The Expert Sleepers solution is supposed to solve this. Uses SPDIF to carry the MIDI / trigger / CV. So it can be sample accurate.

          • Jyoti Mishra

            I have, thank you but I went for a Sync Gen II Pro instead, it’s absolutely solid:

            http://www.innerclocksystems.com

            You may like this page of theirs:

            http://www.innerclocksystems.com/New%20ICS%20Litmus.html

          • Gabriel Rey-Goodlatte

            That would help with sync, but not with using a computer to actually sequence, right? That’s my main interest in the Expert Sleepers stuff — accurate timing of MIDI sequences coming out of the DAW (versus sync – although it can do that too).

          • Jyoti Mishra

            Tried ES, didn’t work. So, I’ve given up on DAWs for MIDI sequencing, I’m just going to use hardware / Atari / Trigger Riot / Elektron / Sequentix, boxes that can actually keep time. You know, like DAWs are meant to… >_>

          • Gabriel Rey-Goodlatte

            Interesting, in what way did it not work?

    • Jeff Cross

      For me, its not about how well it keeps time, but how it feels.. Drum machines have pretty distinctive timing character.. I have no doubt that they can make something which keeps perfect time, but does it have the micro timing feel of the original?

      • Jyoti Mishra

        But if you look at the array of people measuring MIDI jitter on the web from popular DAWs, this isn’t true; they’re all over the shop. And even hardware can be problematic. Here’s just one such list: http://www.innerclocksystems.com/New%20ICS%20Litmus.html

        • Jeff Cross

          I am quite familiar with this topic, but usually the timing in a hardware sequencer is not effected by MIDI jitter. There are other issues that effect the timing, but jitter is only usually an issue when you are sending the notes to the device from an external source. That doesn’t mean there isn’t timing related funkiness in the sequencer portion of the drum machine, but this is probably what contributes to the ‘feel’ of the timing.

      • Jyoti Mishra

        But yes, sorry, totally agree on the feel being the important thing!

      • Will Durham

        I think you’re confusing the two…the feel you’re referring to is all about the timing being discussed. Has always been a concern for me, dating back to the 80s. It’s not “keeping time”, it’s the feel that we’re referring to, which is rarely mentioned in articles, dating back decades. It’s why I still have my Linns. The feel of the Rolands, that as the article has the depth to mention were NOT desired pieces back then, is fairly machine like..but that’s what’s been in vogue for decades after the cheap stuff came in to vogue and has stayed there.

    • Holmes

      I’m glad to see you bring up timing, and I’m surprised as well at how infrequently this seems to be discussed, amongst all the other concerns. With a machine like this, the timing should naturally be of the utmost concern, with both it’s steadiness (lack of jitter) and the micro-timing feel of the individual sounds and how they sit together.

      As mentioned, all current DAWs, on all the fast current computers, seemingly do indeed lack tightness (not mere latency), as compared to some dedicated machines or some earlier computers. You can feel it, and you can see it if you zoom right in. This really should be addressed, but it seems as though some don’t want to entertain the notion that there is anything wrong with the timing in DAWs.

      And as well, with micro-timings, the start point of the attack makes a difference to the feel of the machine or software. As with drum machines such as the LinnDrum (with the laid back snare) or say the Roland TR-707, the micro-timing of these individual sounds creates an overall feel when it’s playing back straight patterns. For example, I recently checked out the micro timing of the TR-626, and there are varying amounts of space before the sample ROM sounds. If you change and trim these samples and play them back it has a different feel. I’m surprised at how many sample sets don’t make an attempt to retain the feel of drum machines, and are just trimmed tight. And using groove templates doesn’t produce the micro timing of the individual sounds and their relation to the others, if that is what you wish to hear.

      • Jyoti Mishra

        Yes, yes, yes!

        Without wishing to sound *too paranoid,* there’s an awful lot of money tied up in the DAW business. It’s in all of the manufacturers’ interest to keep all the timing issues quiet. And it is fucking ridiculous to me that a £60 Atari from Ebay has better MIDI timing than a £2,500 Mac Pro. But that’s modern OSes and multitasking, MIDI literally isn’t a priority for them. In between juggling audio, pinging your email and making a cup of tea they might deign to check on what’s going on with the MIDI bus.

        It’s even worse with iOS “instruments.” How can something be musical if there is a 500ms audible gap between my finger hitting the screen and sound being produced? Yet, we’re meant to accept this because, HEY, LOOK, ONE GAZILLION SOUNDS!

        And you’re totally on it with sample-start timing importance. For example, I have a 707 and I’ve AB-ed it with endless sample sets. Some of them are laughably unlike the original. But if all people have is the samples, *they will never know any better.*

        This is all very well for me, a professional musician who is old enough to have bought all that gear way back when it wasn’t stupid prices. But if you’re a kid coming up now, how can you afford to buy an 808 or 909? You use what you can afford; sloppy DAWs and jittery “hardware” (really, VSTs in boxes) drum machines and you’re happy.

        If you’ve never had butter, margarine tastes just fine.

        • Spankous

          Hmm. I am just testing an ipad 4 of a friend. i can`t notice some “huge” latency when hitting virtual drums which surprises me very much (in a positive way) to be honest. i think you are referring to much older devices? i don`t think i have much less latency on my “stationary” macbook-midi drumpad combo than on an ipad as i just found out. And it`s a fast macbook. I am seriously considering an ipad like this for on the go idea recording. Other than that i agree with you in most parts. I don`t think it`s a hardware issue in the case of the Mac Pro. I somehow believe that cause of the time pressure and competition nowadays there is a lot of mistakes and also compromise programming going on. competition that leads in worse quality standards. I am no expert in anything but i somehow see this

          • Jyoti Mishra

            Nope, there’s an audible gap for me between hitting a pad in Korg Gadget and hearing a drum sound, on an iPad Air. I can cope with that latency, it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be but it’s still there!

          • Spankous

            i don`t have the Gadget app. Maybe it has long latency settings or issues. I have Vatanator and FunkBox and test them as we speak. I can`t distinguish the thumb of my finger hitting the ipad from the reproduced drum sound. the latency is really almost as small as hitting my djembe. Yes it`s not like a real drum but i had much much much worse. Btw i use the ipad with earphones so i don`t have experience if latency would be affected with an external interface.

          • Jyoti Mishra

            But ‘almost as small’ isn’t good enough, is it? I want musical instruments to feel good to play and most iOS synths and drum machines (NOT ALL!) I’ve tried are just too laggy for fun! And that’s what it’s about for me. When I play an acoustic guitar or a Moog Source, they are THERE, they are fun and musical and not like trying to wade through mud. 🙂

            BUT just to show I’m not a total hater, I’ll say there is one drum machine I love on iOS, it’s BTBX. Anything I do on that makes me want to dance, it just grooves. It’s probably to do with sample trimmings, the seq timing, blah blah but I don’t care, it’s great. And it’s FUN! (Has a better feel than FunkBox but is no way near as complex, maybe that’s why!)

          • Spankous

            When “almost” is the best there is right now then it’s also a matter of choice how much fun you will allow yourself to have. I don’t need perfect gear in order to create. I like the challenge of adapting. I don’t think you are a hater. Only maybe a bit too much focused on flaws. I don’t really like funkbox. It has some classic sounds that are sometimes useful but the interface is not complementing the way i think. Will take a look at btbx

          • Jyoti Mishra

            Naah, fun isn’t a choice, it’s a spontaneous flowering! That’s like trying to force yourself to fancy someone: you either do or you don’t. Fun = Teenage Engineering, Elektron Machinedrum, JX-3P, Trigger Riot, Intellijel Metropolis but that’s *my* fun, of course.

            Funkbox has great sounds but it doesn’t move me when it’s going, something is missing *for me.* We’re now getting beyond the objective (jitter measurements) and into the subjective (skeuomorphism is a turn off).

            Every time I test a new drum machine, be it soft or hard, I put in the simplest pattern: snare on 5, 13 and 16, kick on 1, 2, 8, 10, closed hat on 3, 7, 11, 15. Tempo 120. If it doesn’t feel good playing that… I give up on it.

            Yes, I’m nuts. But that’s art.

          • Spankous

            Art would be to make it sound the way you want. There is always a way. Art is not something sounding right right out off the box. Thats just a good instrument. If some people few decades ago would give up that easily we wouldn’t have Dub music and dozen other things. Thats art. Of course thats only my opinion 🙂

          • Jyoti Mishra

            We’ll have to agree to disagree! *bows*

          • Spankous

            Ok. I have a movie for you. “As good as it gets” with jack nicholson. Don’t know why but after our conversation it reminded me of you

    • dyscode

      Then you will love this site:
      http://www.innerclocksystems.com/New%20ICS%20Litmus.html

      and actually learn that the 909-timing is among the most sloppiest ever – ~7ms jitter! The thing is, it jitters in very groovy style, that makes the rhythm come to live.

      • Jyoti Mishra

        I have a Sync-Gen II Pro and it is *rock solid.* 😛

        And that jitter is for external-clocking, it’s only 4ms when the 909 is the master which isn’t that bad! 🙂

      • Yeah, getting into specifics… it’d be actually really interesting if they emulated the jitter. 😀
        My guess is that they “fixed” it but I can ask the team involved.

        • Holmes

          Peter, that would be cool if you could get any specifics from the team, as to how they went about retaining the rhythmic feel and micro-timing of the machine. Whether they analyzed the attack onset timing of the individual sounds. I imagine they’d have kept the original micro-timing of the sample-based cymbals and hi-hats, based upon the original sample ROM.

          They probably didn’t emulate sequencer jitter, which I think is okay. I think the more important aspect for a machine like this is the micro-timing of the individual sounds and how they sit together as quantized sequences, considering that that’s the way it’ll mostly be used.

          If you program a quantized beat on a machine and you actually dig it and it seems to really click, I think that’s partly down to the micro-timing and is partly what you’re vibe-ing on. As I mentioned, in experimenting with creating a sample set of the 626, it makes a big difference in feel if you trim the samples just a bit differently, maybe going from a bit relaxed to overly rigid.

          It’d be great if Roland could share a bit of information along these lines – what went into the recreation of the machines. I’m particularly interested in the history of the sample-based machines (707 etc.) and how they went about trimming the original samples in an effort to get the rhythms to feel good quantized, as say Roger Linn did with putting a bit of space in front of the snare of the LinnDrum, or whether the feels of the machines were more serendipitous.

          • This is a really hugely interesting question. Honestly my suspicion is that Roland will simply say that they ignored this but it’s worth asking. And yes some deeper investigation of this stuff could be interesting.

  • I’m definitely tempted by the TB-03. The TR-09’s knob spacing/size and lack of even an additional pair of analog outputs kind of suck, but the TB-03 doesn’t have any obvious compromises that I can see. I really didn’t expect to see CV on it, either. Good stuff!

    • Adam Jay

      After watching the Kosmic youtube video on the TR-09, I am less concerned with the knob spacing. Yea, thanks to the battery compartment, the knobs can’t be spread out much horizontally. However, the spacing of the knobs vertically demonstrates plenty of room for tweaking if you keep your fingers above and below the knobs, which should feel natural, as fingers tend to go toward the location of empty space.

      • Agreed. And before moaning, it is probably a good idea to wait until they show up in your local music store and give them a good go yourself. I am definitely looking forward to that!

  • deecodameeko

    “Names like Jupiter and Juno have appeared on products in the loosest sense, and the 303 and 909 in particular have been bastardized incessantly.” lol like that 909 themed turn table and mixer? W T EFF?

  • Bram Bos

    I already have space on my desk reserved for that TB-03.. That thing is just impossible to resist.

  • vjair

    these look ( and sound ) like great units if they fit your workflow. I’m very happy with ACB ( I have a system 1m ) – so I’m sure they will sound good in person.

    as someone who is avoiding the DAW workflow I couldn’t happily make use of the TR09 ( id want dedicated outs ) As a TT303 owner, I wouldn’t mind the MIDI CC’s – I think it will go on the “to add at a later point” list in stead of “need right now”.

    I think for anyone who doesn’t have either and especialy DAW users, they are a no brainer.

    as for the controls size though – the tb03 is okay as its a fairly sparse layout ( like the original ), but the TR09 is just too damn packed in ( as are some of the other boutiques imo )

  • chaircrusher

    There’s an ideal when it comes to ‘in the box’ DAW operation, where you can plug in things like the boutique synths & aira boxes, and routing the audio to tracks ‘just works’

    That doesn’t work, generally. You can do it with aggregating audio devices on OSX, or with SoundFlower, but the forums are full of people who get this working only to have it fall apart. You can run Jack everywhere but it’s f*cking terrible to configure and maintain.

    So you end up — if you’re lucky playing routing tricks with an analog mixer or multiport audio interface.

    And even if Roland comes up with a solution specific to their USB audio things, you still have to cope with aggregating the magic Roland driver with everything else.

    And there’s a fundamental problem with aggregating devices, especially inputs, which is unsynced word clocks. This isn’t unsolvable — you just need a one sample buffer and reclock all channels on the way to the application — but it has huge potential for screwing up audio mixing, especially when you start running into your computer’s CPU limit.

    So there, I’ve done my raining-on-the-CDM-parade for the day!

    • That’s part of why I’m way more excited about the TB-03 than the TR-09. I’m already aggregating my Focusrite with an iConnectMIDI4+; I don’t need to add another and the TR-09’s analog output situation isn’t good.

    • Jyoti Mishra

      THIS COMMENT! Yep! I’ve given up on trying to get several audio devices talking via USB to my Mac… aggregating is such a total pain in the arse, trying to keep track of what is what is actually harder than a physical patchbay. Gave up, bought external audio mixers to present stereo submixes to my existing MOTU interface.

  • Stéphane Picher

    Very interesting article!
    A rational look at what these new products are, with plus and minuses, and not just some “analog is heaven, digital is evil” talk we see all around.

    Looking forward to hearing it more!

    Also, you made the TB-03 kinda bark, and it was funny, in an awesome way.

  • DJ Hombre

    Great article Peter, I’m still wondering if I’ll pick up a discounted AIRA TB3 or go for the boutique TB03. Whatever, it’ll be a nice companion for my TR8 (which sounds great – I have no issue with the onboard 909 sounds there).

    • Yeah, next step / final review should definitely be a comparison….

  • Ridge Racer

    I’m not trying to be a wise guy but not sure about a couple of statements in your article: “But MIDI, not available on the originals, of course makes them far more flexible” – the 909 had MIDI in/out and din sync.
    “There’s an LED. Yep, that’s convenient, and not on the original.” do you mean the big red tempo/measure display on the 909?

    • Actually — not quite.

      MIDI is now a full bi-directional implementation with CC for all the Boutique line, not just the note send/receive on the original TR-909. And of course no MIDI on the TB-303.

      The LED on the TR-09 is also now available for parameter editing, not just tempo/meas display as on the TR-909.

      Added some clarification to be sure what I’m talking about.

      • Ridge Racer

        O.k. gotcha.

        • Yeah — thanks for pointing that out as what I originally wrote was neither clear nor entirely correct. 😉

      • Owen D RhythmDial

        Shame the TR-09 does not have additional tracks for sequencing other gear like the TR-909 has, that limited yet useful sequencing was some of the ways people learned to work with minimal controls and achieve amazing tunes!

  • Tony Scharf

    These products are about 15 years too late to be of any interest to me, personally. It’s really kind of sad just how focused on the past synthesizers companies have become. I guess its just a sign that synthesizers are a mature idea now. The days of innovation are gone.

    Yawn…

    Ill be on my front porch with an ice tea, yelling at any kids that step on my lawn. Where did I put my cane?

    • Will Durham

      It’s very true that new waves of innovation are long overdue. No doubt about it..HOWEVER, the classics that came and went, then proved their worth, whether it’s guitars, f/x, synths, drums…thank god for the renaissance, as long as they continue, as stated in this article, to try to get true, good emulations of the old sounds that previously have been lacking and are still a work in progress but sometimes, are headed in the right directions.

    • I mean… FM synthesis and granular synthesis were invented in the 60s, and digital synthesis in the 50s. Yet you wouldn’t say history stopped there.

      I think there’s good reason to revisit these designs – and I’m pretty confident that this is neither too late nor the end of innovation. 🙂

      There’s still stuff to learn from the way these were done, and a lot of people haven’t ever gotten to use them – they’ve only heard them on records. I think learning more about the past designs can inform new ones. But then, I’ve spent no small part of my life learning about things like Renaissance compositional practice … if you think the 303 is outmoded. 😉

  • Kyle

    Tired analog/digital discussion aside, is there a reason why Roland can’t just give you 1/4″ outputs, and more of them? Maybe I don’t need per part, but 2 or 3 assignable busses?

    Sure you get that over USB, but that is no good to me as I almost certainly would be plugging this stuff into pedals/various outboard…

    It’s a good thing so many of these products are a few fries short of a happy meal, otherwise I might actually have to buy them.

    • Spankous

      yes man. multiple out i am missing too. but this goes for many many devices. imagine how much more usable (for experimentation) it would be with multiple line outs

    • Well you still have two dedicated outputs… I wonder just how much separate processing of each individual drum part people are actually doing.

      Don’t get me wrong – I want more outputs, too. But then last night I wound up playing with some 909 sounds routing the whole pattern through distortion and was perfectly happy (using a cheapo set of 909 samples and no hardware at all… cough. 😉 )

      • Gabriel Rey-Goodlatte

        So you’re able to route separate sounds to each of the two analog outputs? And pan? So you could get 4 mono analog outputs?

    • Will

      > is there a reason why Roland can’t just give you 1/4″ outputs, and more of them?

      Well, cost. They could add them, certainly, but all of it adds up and eventually you have to start either eating away at your profits or charge a price above what you think customers will pay for.

      Was thinking it’d be a massive coup on Roland’s part if you were able to plug the 09 into the Aira Mixer thing and get individual outputs there. Or perhaps they’ll come up with a stand alone USB breakout box. Doubt there are actually that many users who are willing to pay for that though.

      Personally, I don’t want to deal with 8-12 outputs from a drum machine. I do want four though, almost always set to: Kick, Snare, er’thing else.

  • As an Owner of TR-8 and TB-3, I’m having a hard time justifying these two right now except for the Battery powered situation, that is cool. As a former owner of TB-303 (bought in the 80’s in a bargain bin) I can tell you that I loathed the Bassline input method, yet I’m sad I sold it (for shiny digital gear I also no longer have). The Vocoder looks cool and I think I’m in love with the System 8.

    • I’d say, get rid of the TB-3 and get the new TB-03. Just because of the looks and the knobs. 🙂

      • I actually love the TB-3 touch screen interface Esp Envlope Mod and patter swithching and scatter LOVe Scatter, and its lead and non TB sounds. Its baddass little machine in it’s own right. The sound of the 303 doesn’t justify losing the versatility and performance fun of the TB-3. ( I used to own the real thing, I bought mine in 250.00 bargain bin at music store in Montana in 84. So I’m quite familiar with it. I do regret selling it so I’d get the 303 for nostalgia sake. That said the System-8 is drawing me into it’s green vortex and the first sacrifice maybe my JP-08.

  • Clay

    I keep hearing people complaining about ACB, and why is Roland focusing on simulating their old synths with digital instead of building new synths with pure analog… Well, I have a theory, and I think Roland are really onto something.

    I actually think that Roland’s continued R&D, and dedication to ACB is going to eventually pay off in a BIG way… Leaving the other big players behind.

    Digital emulation of analog is nothing new… But I think there is no doubt that ACB is the closest technology yet. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good. Some boof head will say I’m dumb, digital will never replace analog, and well, yeah – I agree not quite yet… but Roland is showing us that they are close to really perfecting ACB modeling.

    So why keep emulating these old iconic analog synths of the past? Well, I think it’s the best way to develop a technology that can digitally emulate analog. Their success in ACB is measurable, by comparison to the original analog synths being replicated. To my ears at least, its already pretty amazing (anyone who cannot at least admit that ACB is an amazing achievement probably also still argues that CDs won’t replace records, and still enjoys watching faded videos on their betamax VCR haha… Just kidding, but I think I am making a valid point)

    At some point Roland will have the technology to roll out new VA synths built on a future version of ACB that are indistinguishable from analog, but with more polyphony, more versatile effects, a clean digital signal path at an affordable price. If it sounds as good as analog, at a fraction of the cost, with all the benefits of digital, can anyone honestly say Roland are investing in the wrong technology? By looking to the past, Roland are the most forward thinking synths manufacturer out there. Sounds crazy, but think about it! It’s freaking exciting!

    Anyway, just my opinion. Feel free to disagree… Oh wait… What’s that sound? A heard of Trolls coming for me… Help! 🙂

    Great article by the way 🙂

    • jimmie

      The thing is, currently ACB is rather more expensive than modern analog tech. If Roland is going to invent yet another new synthesis method with cutting edge technology, that’s good but if it will relate to “analog circuit behavior,” I’m not sure.

      I’m not against ACB at all, tho. I just wish those new boutiques were inexpensive as volcas so I could buy all in a heart beat and also they had slightly bigger knobs!

      • Clay

        True. ACB is still kinda pricey… The New System 8 seems cool, but damn that’s expensive. Although I wish the Boutiques could match Volca prices, they are a lot more sophisticated (USB, MIDI in and out DINs, audio in, built in audio interface etc). I do love my Volcas though! I’ve got the Bass & Keys. For ACB stuff I have JP08 & TR-8… Love them both. Just want more polyphony on the JP08!

        • Well, exactly … you pay more, but they’re also adding some other functionality. And we’re still below $400 – not too bad.

      • I am quite sure, Roland is pricing them according to the expenses they had with all the R&D they have done so far. It must have been quite some man-hours gone into analysing all the old machines’ cirquits and behaviours down to those nitty-gritty details, document everything and then do all the coding and testing for it. That must have been a massive investment, and I am not surprised that Roland is now “milking” it with the Aira and Boutique ranges. Also, if it is true (and we’ve got to take their word for it) that they e.g. remodelled the 909 from scratch to build the TR-09, instead of just reusing the existing ACB code from the TR-8, that’s a testament to their intended quality approach. It is not just a quick shot to get our money, because we’re all just a bunch of nostalgic synth geeks.

    • Random Chance

      You sound like someone who might shed some light on what ACB actually is. We know a number of approaches to simulating different aspects of analog hardware in the digital domain. What I’d like to see addressed is how ACB relates to the state of the art in this field. Any sources at all available? Patents maybe? Some vague statements by Roland employees?

      • It’s not too vague — it’s component modeling. So that doesn’t tell you the specifics of what they’ve done, but it does say something about the general category of technique. They’re not the only ones doing it, of course.

        • James

          So essentially they are simulating each capacitor, transistor, etc. of the original circuit?

        • David Geissbühler

          Peter, I think “component modeling” is definitely vague. Modeling of non-linear electronic circuits requires solving a non-linear system of equations that has as many equations as nodes between components, and this is an extremely computationally expensive task i can say. And this you have to solve at least 96000 times per seconds. There are tricks ofc, for instance doing algebraic reductions of the system, such like the approach taken here http://www.livespice.org (looks like a interesting freeware btw!), but still i’m sure this is still extremely limited. Just found a very interesting article on SOS with a lot of interviews of several major players of the analog audio gear modeling market, describing the approches they’re tackling the problem with http://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/plug-modelling, and this looks more like an art than a ‘technology’!

          A look inside the JP-08, here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIFLdka9kTM, shows a board that is common to the whole old boutique line (and most probably to the new 09/03 as well, which might in turn explain the lack of separate hardware outputs). The board has an FPGA, or DSP (as some people on forums tend to say), the same as in the whole AIRA line and that was developed by Boss for their GT products https://www.boss.info/us/community/boss_users_group/1632/. It has RAM memory, a cheap CODEC apparently (as read on some forums again) and standard peripherals electronics. (Would be great to see the DA/analog part of these machine closer, to see how much care they put in that.) As a scientist seing old ideas rebranded every day, I’m certainly biased, but i believe the “ACB technology” is more of a marketing thing that, which taken with the overall i-need-that-vintage-machine hype, allows you to sell those at a much higher price than what they are truly worth in term of production costs. Yes there are r&d expenses, but really, these are massive production series for electronic music instruments! Not saying it is a bad thing btw, It’s cool they made reproductions of machines most people want in their studio at an ‘affordable’ price 🙂 Lastly, If i understand correctly, they don’t have the plug-out version… Which looks brilliant on the aira line.. And this is to me more like market-segmentation than hardware limitation, sadly..

          On a personal side, i’d immensely prefer an inexact analog clone (like the diy nava one) rather than an exact ‘modeling’ of a vintage cliché! Meanwhile i’ll stick to my rytm and my soul-full and truly boutique eurorack modules 🙂

          • What, a Roland acronym being some kind of meaningless marketing speak? 😉

            I can probably convince them to go into more detail. I mean, honestly I would generally say that voicing and programming is the bulk of work on any instrument. I mean, even if you look at some comparatively simple PCM instruments, that’s just huge. I don’t quite see how it’s disingenuous to do some analog modeling on an FPGA and call it component modeling, though. It’s a reasonable facsimile as far as sound, and it really does seem they’ve done some additional work since the first gen AIRA.

            But —

            Everyone here as usual is asking some really intelligent questions and my sense is the product people would actually be happy to talk about them.

          • David Geissbühler

            True. We don’t care about FPGAs nor marketing, in the end we just want music instruments that suit best our creativity… But since they seem very proud of their ACB thing we’d really like to know a little more about it 🙂

          • trash80

            The whole point is indeed component level modeling on a FPGA. Which is to say for example that instead of recreating a simple low-pass filter mathematically like one does in DSP, you create models of real-world components (in this case a resister and a capacitor) and the hardware loop. In the end you get a more accurate representation of the original hardware’s imperfections, which is what we like to call character. 😉

            Edit: You can do this in DSP-land, but a FPGA would be much more optimized for the task being able to design parallel blocks of circuits.

            Whoever used DSP and FPGA interchangeably did not have a clue about what they were talking about.

          • David Geissbühler

            You’re right, using FPGAs (not even sure it is one) might change the way you do your modeling. But then I’m curious a little how that’s done… I was mostly saying people are doing analog modeling for decades (at the component level too), that’s a complicated thing (i do numerical physical modeling everyday), so please let us know a little more about your brilliant technology 🙂 Until then it’s for me just a marketing gimmick, which is ok, everybody does that (couldn’t find any patent so i guess it is)… And for me these machines are just overpriced compared to true ’boutique’ gear that’s released these days. Not even talking about what i think of their slogan ‘the future redefined’ when one mostly outputs VA versions of their old gear.

          • trash80

            Hah! Digging further it does look like it is using a DSP. Or at least, that’s what the Boss website claims on some guitar pedal that uses the same “ESC2” chip. Having said that, it is a pretty large ass BGA chip, could go either way I suppose being that “DSP” is a more common industry term. I’d bet it’s cheaper to go DSP and easier for firmware updates. Still sounds pretty good and the price is fairly cheap compared to past items, isn’t that what matters? “The past redefined” 🙂

  • Jay

    The real drawback I see with these things is the drivers… Let’s face it. Roland isn’t well known for supporting drivers – especially legacy products. So once they deem these ‘end of life’, then that’s support lost for the drivers and whatever OS they’re tied to. So all of that functionality you have now, immediately disappears down the road. That’s kind of lame.

    That said, the price is right. It’s hard to tell over the 128kps stream of Soundcloud, but to me the TB-03 still sounds VERY digital and I swear I could hear audible aliasing. The same could be said for the Aira one as well. The drum sounds fair much better.

  • James

    Good article. It is puzzling how people can be unhappy about this because of the guts of the machine, esp. Given all the alternatives out there. I bought a Boutique JX and am happy, sits okay alongside my Tetra, although I wonder how many dinky toys I really need…(answer: a lot).

    To analogue purists and angry dads: a whole bunch of people can go out and get the experience of a 303, for better, worse, same, different. We are living in good times!

  • Weltenbuerger Bryan

    does anyone know a video / soundcloud that shows the tb-03 control some analog gear via cv/gate … im very interested cause i believe the sequencer is part of the magic … im particularly interested if the slide works and sounds good controlling that gear … obviously the original does a great job but the slide on the tb 03 doesnt have that nice curve ( in the examples i heard ) … anyone ?

  • dustinw

    Again … why no driver-less class compliant mode? I would love to connect these to my iPad.

  • John McIntyre

    The only detail Roland overlooked (AFAIK) is providing 24ppqn DIN Sync capabilities.

    How hard would it be to give users the ability to change the MIDI OUT jack to a DIN Sync OUT, either as a master to drive other DIN Sync gear, or as a converter from MIDI clock on the MIDI IN to DIN Sync.

    A couple of the x0x drum machines had both DIN Sync and MIDI in some capacity, but they missed the boat on including options to covert between the two.

    Seems like they did the same on this go-around.

  • Hans Schnakenhals

    Component modelling aside as it is not needed based on the examples I shall give. This looks a bit like being too prone to advertisement, specifically with much better clones available such as the xoxbox or the tt303 at not too different price points. A better 909? Jomox. Offered already a better 909 years ago. I’m actually somewhat amazed that those alternatives don’t find a mention in the text.

  • dogma cruise

    I can’t found a manual yet online, but I am wondering to know if this machine can act as a (good) drum sequencer for other gear (or software) . It sounds like it can, but I would like to know F.E. if the sent midi note numbers can be changed and things like that.
    But maybe beatstep pro is a better choice for that anyway

    Also I am very curious about the extra control compared to the original.
    ( I think 909 kick needs adjustable attack. But I am sure that’s not added 😉

    b.t.w. I hate the 4 x 96khz only choice. I dont want a cpu hog, I want to add effects… 8 times 44 khz would have been fine. well, much better…

  • dogma cruise

    and when hooked up to the optional keyboard, will it give tuned drums spread over the keyboard? would be great for kick and toms!

  • D.r. Snook

    The Drum Machine, you can get away with analogue modelling, sort of, but the acid bassline. It needs to be analogue, it needs to be voltage controlled and is possible it would be good if it was made from the same ‘slightly unreliable’ parts which gave many 303’s there own sounds distinct even from other 303’s. If you want a digital version of the 303, get ABL2 or ABL3 for a fraction of the price, all sound tests show they are far close. But in my opinion if you want a 303 sounds with even better, deeper sequencing and you don’t want to pay quite as much as you would for an original. Take a look at the Avalon Bassline. It’s the real deal.

    • D.r. Snook

      May I just take a short moment to apologise for my horrendous grammar and typos.