Forget 808 day – sorry. The really good news from Roland this month is that their current drum machine just got a whole lot more powerful, with a free update.

Just look what’s in there:

  • FM tone generator engine with morph controls (on top of sample-based sounds, custom samples, and modeled 808/909 sounds)
  • New instrument effects: saturator, frequency shift, ring mod, and spread
  • INST FX now has a shortcut for CTRL (oh, God, yes, finally)
  • Reload function (ditto)
  • Delay now has reverb send

FM synthesis alone is huge. This isn’t an Elektron Digitone – but it is an FM take on the TR-8S, with a morph control that combines depth, ratio, and feedback to make new metallic/futuristic percussive sounds. (Sound samples coming soon – I’m practicing, shhh.) And those pair well with sample-based sounds and our own custom kits, with all these new sound design-focused effects.

How the FM synthesis works is a little odd – in that you have to do a bit of menu diving. I’ll write it up in detail in a bit (it appears we’re waiting for the manual addendum to go live even though the firmware is already there). But basically, you can use FM like the other sound engines – and then assign the Morph parameter to CTRL knobs so you can mess with it live. The bonus is, you can record Motion data once that’s done, so you can automate some of your FM madness.

The new engine also means there’s new preset content, all as one installation. You will have to wipe everything to install the update, so backup your kits first, obviously.

But all of this is a big deal – and it’s a free update, which is way better than having to buy new hardware. The only thing missing, really, is an easier way to load and manage sample audio. (Manually importing from an SD card is … not ideal.)

Look – if you like drum machines, it’s really hard not to like the TR-8S. It’s got just about the most accessible, playable layout anywhere, with both x0x controls (the row of buttons for step sequencing at bottom), and a ton of faders and knobs. Its modeled 808/909 sounds make it sound (more or less) like the original machines, and give you more parameters to tweak. And while the sample loading facility is cumbersome, the ability to load in your own samples lets you build your own kits.

Add to that a ton of effects, USB audio, and external audio input, and this thing is a beast for live jamming – and that’s the point, right?

And sure, this thing sheds knob caps off its cheap pots the way a Bernese mountain dog sheds hair. But who cares… if the knob caps are still on, you’re not playing hard enough. Just order a nice colorful bag of knob caps and a water bottle to spritz yourself off and then you’re good to go.

Now the MC-707 should have changed all that, by expanding audio manipulation features. But the 707 lacks the TR-8S’ workflows and its modeled sounds – and it just feels clunky to use it with samples compared to other modern hardware and software. (It is vastly better after some firmware updates, and – because I like small things, I’ll soon take a look at what that means for the MC-101.)

So back to the TR-8S. Sure, it’d be nice to have some of the extra MC-707 audio manipulation engine functionality – but the 101/707 has a different internal engine, and ultimately there’s more than enough to play with here. Most people I’ve seen playing and loving the TR-8S have no particular need for it to be either Ableton Live or an Elektron. (If you really want sample manipulation, see also Pioneer’s TORAIZ SP-16, which has aged well, if you can get a deal on it.) The FM engine doesn’t mean the TR-8S competes with the Elektron drum synths, either. But it does mean the 8S is still more versatile for those who want something covered in faders.

I’ll be honest – my TR-8S has sort of gone off to a corner of the studio to sulk for a while, since the pandemic has killed live gigs. Enough. Don’t wait for gigs to come back. FM synthesis and some extra effects – hell, just fixing that CTRL shortcut – is enough to refresh this and add the TR-8S to some jams.

Let everyone else figure out how to obsess even more than everyone already has over the legacy of the 808 and 909 and… the… sorry, dozed off for a second there. Yeah, I’m off to grab a beer and crack open a bag of fresh knob caps.

The TR-8S is just stupidly fun to play right now.

More details soon on how to use those features, as it’s time for a new live performance guide.

Hey plus since we aren’t going anywhere, maybe the TR-8S wants a lux stand? (thanks, Ingmar!)