Roland hasn’t been this buzzed about in a very long time. But in its carefully-calculated teaser campaign for Aira, the company is back in a big way. And we’re slowly getting to see the four Aira devices to be introduced this week.

We know Aira will include a drum machine. We know there will be a TR-08. We know there was a video recalling the history of the TR-808. Now, Roland is talking TR-909 history. You can either take that to mean something about the TR-08, or that a TR-909 reboot will accompany the TR-08.

Teaser campaign aside, fans of drum machine history will certainly get a warm, fuzzy feeling watching this video. Atsushi Hoshiai, the engineer behind a lot of the best-known 80s Roland machines, recounts the story of the original 909 sample – and then shows you the very cymbal that he used for the sound.

Roland may also be priming us for a bit of the philosophy behind these remakes. The 808 video emphasized the importance of making something “new and exciting” – a reboot, not a remake. (Think more KORG volca than KORG MS-20 mini; Minimoog Voyager rather than Minimoog clone.)

Now, we’re reminded that some of our favorite drum machine sounds from the 80s were digital, not analog. And that’s a point the unwashed masses do often miss, assuming “vintage” and “analog” equate.

Conventional wisdom is that some hybrid of analog synthesis (for sounds like the bass drum) with digital synthesis (for sounds like the hats) make a whole world of sense. The former isn’t hard to do with analog circuitry, the latter isn’t hard to do with clever sample manipulation.

But this could, in turn, explain why we’ve seen conflicting rumors about the Aira machines. “It uses SuperNATURAL digital sounds.” “It’s analog.”

The TR-909 video could give away the answer: the Aira drum machine might actually be both. It’s a fair bet, and certainly what a lot of us might wish for. (That or else it’s all digital, and this is just a sort of pro-digital story – but doing analog drum circuitry still makes a lot of sense from an engineering standpoint, even before you get to marketing. I may have to change my money to “hybrid” before the big race. Now I remember why CDM doesn’t usually do rumors, though we couldn’t quite resist this one.)

Bored by a techno drum machine? There may be more…

What’s unclear is what hardware we’ll see come from Roland. We know there’s a drum machine, and that there’s a vocal effects box / vocal transformer with vocoder. There’s other vintage Roland gear on the testbed in the video, but that doesn’t necessarily mean each is getting its own remake – least of all when Roland specifically say they’re making new things. It may be that the 909 video simply tells more of the story of the TR-08.

You may have noticed what Roland hasn’t mentioned is a synth. At least one source tells CDM to expect the drum machine and vocal effects to be accompanied by a keyboard and synth. We’re hearing about a fascinating synthesizer that might just be more interesting to readers here than the 808-style machine.

We’ll know soon enough.

It’ll be interesting to see this as it evolves. Like KORG, Roland still has many of its earlier engineers working on new projects – check out Mr. Hoshiai’s impressive patent portfolio. Recently, all three major Japanese companies – Roland, Yamaha, and KORG – have begun to let those of us outside Japan know a little more about those personalities, and to consider their history in new ways. I hope these videos mean more exposure to the design process at Roland. Either way, we’ll know a whole lot about what the company views as important when we see the resulting hardware.

In the meantime, this is probably the most effective teaser campaign before NAMM in recent history – including those by Roland’s rivals.

808, 909, side by side. One thing you definitely don't want Roland to recreate is the size. Photo (CC-BY-SA) bdu.

808, 909, side by side. One thing you definitely don’t want Roland to recreate is the size. Photo (CC-BY-SA) bdu.