Human beings have a strange relationship with expectations, and that strangeness tends to be amplified where specialist interest, fueled by the global Speakers Corner of the internet, latches on. Even before Japanese giant Roland had officially announced the existence of this new range of gear a couple of weeks ago at the annual NAMM conference in California, those expectations had gone toxic. Rumours abounded that various stars of the electronic music firmament such as A Guy Called Gerald and Hardfloor had been approached by representatives of the Synth company and shown…something. Was it a brand new take on the TB 303 or the TR 808? Could it possibly be that Roland had, at last, listened to the hordes who had been demanding they make a return to the vintage analogue boxes that came to define the sound of so many classic records? That must be the answer, the hordes told themselves, surely Roland had bowed to the wisdom of the masses at last? Surely the answer was ‘yes’?
Well, it appears the answer was ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Through the yapping storm of the hordes vocal excitement there were calmer voices pointing out that it was incredibly unlikely that Roland had gone back to their roots, and time and time again it was pointed out that Roland is first and foremost a company that heavily tailors it’s production and it’s marketing to what was perhaps unfairly labeled the ‘Keyboardist in the Church Band’ – or working performers who were gigging on a regular bases rather that bleary eyed studio-rats losing entire night of sleep to microscopically tweaking snare sounds and running reversed acid lines through saturated reverb just to see whether it would create something worth resampling. The calmer voices were closer to the truth: NAMM revealed that Roland had no intention to recreate it’s famous analogue lines – not in real terms anyway – and, instead, they brought to the conference several new machines that were very different to what most people imagined.
Roland describes the Aira machine as running on ACB (Analogue Circuitry Behavior) engines which more or less means that they are digital boxes designed to ‘faithfully’ recreate the warmth and quirks of analogue circuitry. This is an idea that actually isn’t that new, but the fact that there has often been a disconnection between the theory and practice meant it has remained something of a holy grail. First reports, though, suggest that Roland have done a pretty good job and, coupled with some quite frankly impressive prices, means that they will probably be flying off the shelves when they finally arrive in the stores.
The full range consists of the VT-3, a vocal effect unit, the System-1, an interesting looking synth idea that will allow users to load what is essentially Roland based VSTS, and the two that most people were waiting for, the TR-8 drum machine and the TB-3, a modern take on the famous TB 303 bassline.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve only heard a handful of videos of the new gear in action. The TR-8 sounds pretty nice: a full, rounded and surprisingly analogue sound that more than recalls the 808 and the 909. Whether it is any better than a DAW loaded with samples of the aforementioned drum machines remains to be seen. One thing is certain, though, at 400 quid a pop, it’s going to be a much more attractive purchase than any of the competition: Elektron’s brand new RYTM analogue drum machine looks likely to be closer to £1500, and a second hand 808 is going to cost even more.
As for the TR-3, I have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed with what I’ve heard of it so far. I’ve listened to several videos of it doing screechy leads, but i’ve always loved the 303 when it gets down and dirty – there are very few synths that can do that snarling, grimy sounding low end thing so well. I’ll withhold my judgment for the time being. At less than £250 it might well be great buy but I’ve not heard anything that would get me away from my X0Xbox. If anyone can point me to a video that would change my mind, though, let me know – I’m more than willing to be wowed.