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There are few musical innovations that have defined an entire genre of music and the new AIRA series from Roland pay homage to a group of hardware instruments that have done exactly that. The Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines, as well as the TB-303 groove box, set the foundation for what has become some of today's most popular sounds. Now these iconic instruments have been completely re-imagined for today's studio environments. The TR-8 takes the iconic sound and feeling of the original TR-808 and the TR-909 drum machines, and combines them into one extremely functional, digitally modeled version of the original legends. While the TB-3 Touch Bassline is a detailed emulation of the original TB-303 groove box, a box that is solely responsible for creating Acid House music. 

With the series there is also the VT-3 voice transformer based on the 1996 Roland VT-1, which is an ultra-fast and intuitive way to transform vocals. Finally there is the SYSTEM-1 synthesizer, which at the time of this review I have yet to get my hands on, but it is believed to be the ultimate piece of hardware to complete this masterful collection. And if all of this wasn't enough, Roland made sure that all of these instruments communicate flawlessly with each other to work as one complete AIRA command center for the stage or the studio.

 

What You Need To Know

• There are a total of 4 hardware instruments that make up the complete AIRA series: the TR-8, TB-3, VT-3 and the SYSTEM-1

 

The TR-8

 

• Lightweight, but solid build with an aluminum faceplate. Weighs in at just over 4 pounds.

 

• The TR-8 is based on analog modeling technology, so the sounds are synthesized entirely inside the TR-8 to faithfully emulate the original units.

 

• In Step-sequence mode, you can create beats just like you would on the original TR-808, TR-909 by specifying the steps at which each instrument will sound.

 

• Each sound is laid out on its own individual channel including a bass drum, snare drum, low tom, mid tom, high tom, rim shot, hand clap, closed hi-hat, open hi-hat, crash cymbal, and a ride cymbal.

 

• Each drum sound has a dedicated set of parameters that can be adjusted for each channel. For example on the kick drum you have access to the attack and decay, along with tuning and compression. There's also a volume fader for each instrument.

 

• Instant Record mode lets you play a sound and record it in real time, all while quantizing the notes you play to keep everything tight and in sync.

 

• There are a total of 16 patterns in the TR-8 with two variations (A/B) for each pattern.

 

• All of the 11 instruments are considered to be a kit, and the TR-8 has a total of 16 kits to choose from.

 

• Use roll modes to repeat a sound during playback in 8th note, 16th note or 2 different variation modes. This is a great way to enhance a live performance with on-the-fly edits.

 

• The effects let you shape your sound even further with reverb and delay, each of which can be applied per step or per instrument. For example you can dial in a specific type of reverb for the clap or add a delay on the snare for a unique sound.

 

• The built-in Scatter mode lets you mash-up your beat with a combination of stutters, glitches and other effects while the beat continues to run underneath. This feature is aimed at live performances, but there is no reason why you can't record some of the edits into your DAW for inspiration or a unique fill.

 

• The USB jack can transmit MIDI information as well USB audio data. Make sure you install the correct USB drivers before connecting the TR-8 to your computer.

 

• MIX OUT jacks are your main jacks to your amp or speakers. There's also ASSIGNABLE OUT (A,B) jacks that you can use to output instruments that you specify, for example just the kick and snare on their own individual outputs.

 

• The TR-8 also includes EXTERNAL IN (L,R) jacks so you can connect an external audio source to the system. The input sound will be routed to the MIX OUT jacks and out to your speakers. You can even use the Scatter effect on the incoming sound.

 

• There’s also a side chain feature for your external input sources. Set it per-step to choose when you want to duck the incoming audio.

 

The TB-3

 

• It's compact and lightweight at just over a pound.

 

• Just like the TR-8, the TB-3 utilizes Roland's Analog Circuit Behavior technology that models the actual analog sound of the original using digital synthesis, but the sound is as instantly recognizable as the original.

 

• Roland meticulously created the TB-3 using an original, untouched TR-303 unit to recreate the exact sound using their original spec sheets and other archived data.

 

• For those of you who remember the original TB-303, a lot of features have pretty much been left untouched with the exception of some modern enhancements

 

• The most notable improvement is the addition of an illuminated touchpad interface where you have access to a KEYBOARD to play notes; an XY PLAY mode where you can use the horizontal (x) and vertical (y) axes of the pad to perform pitch and volume control; and the ENV MOD where you can control envelope modulation all at the touch of a finger.

 

• The TB-3 has a total of 64 patterns (8 patterns x 8 banks) that can be recorded by step recording or playing the recording patterns in real time. When in Pattern Select mode the display will show you the bank and pattern number you are currently working on.

 

• Use the PTN SELECT button to select a pattern you want to work with either by selecting it on the touchpad or by using the VALUE knob.

 

• Use Step Recording to enter notes or rests, accents and slides/ties at each step. Each pattern is divided into 16 "steps" or grid locations, which can be changed to 32 if you need a finer grid resolution.

 

• Press the REALTIME REC button to choose the recording mode where you can record and play notes in real time right into the TB-3. Note the current pattern you're working on will be overwritten.

 

• The sound of the TB-3 comes from state-of-the-art synth tones, powered by four oscillators and effects, which also include Roland's faithfully reproduced classic TB-303 tones (A01: TB-303 saw tooth wave, A02: TB-303 square wave)

 

• There are five control knobs including VOLUME, CUTOFF, RESONANCE, ACCENT and EFFECT to edit sounds with. Use the filter cutoff to control the brightness of the sound, the resonance to add character, accent to increase or decrease the amount of accents in your pattern, and effects to add more depth.

 

• You'll also find a Scatter mode on the TB-3 just like the one on the TR-8 that will create unique variations of your pattern. Hold down PTN SELECT and SCATTER to create a completely random version of the currently selected pattern, or hold down the KEYBOARD button and SCATTER to randomly change the octave, slide, shift and accent parameters without changing the character of the pattern. Each version can be recorded to save the variation as a new pattern.

 

• The TB-3 connectivity includes a DC In jack; OUT jacks, MIDI in and out, and a headphone out.

 

The VT-3

 

• Simple and straightforward, the VT-3 is easy to operate and can create instant vocal effects including auto tune, vocoder, synth, lead, bass, megaphone, radio and scatter.

 

• Lightweight and just a bit shorter in width than the TB-3, the VT-3 also weighs in at slightly over a pound.

 

• Connectivity on the VT-3 includes an XLR/TRS combo input jack, stereo mini PHONES jack (front), mini MIC IN jack (front), USB port, OUT jacks, and a place to connect a footswitch (sold separately) if desired.

 

• One additional note on the OUT jacks, when the SELECT switch is set to “BYPASS-MONO”, you can output the processed sound and the unprocessed sound separately.

 

• Phantom power is available via the PHANTOM switch for mics that require it.

 

• Modifying your voice is easy. Just plug your mic into either the rear XLR/TRS combo input or the front mini input on the VT-3 and adjust the mic sensitivity accordingly. Then select the desired effect and raise the MIX BALANCE fader to increase the amount of the applied effect.

 

• A note from Roland suggests that it is important to set the mic sensitivity level so that the PEAK indicator lights up occasionally to make sure the effect will work properly. Too much or too little signal can make for an undesired performance.

 

• The Character Knob is where you select the type of effect you want applied. Choose from AUTO PITCH1 & 2, VOCODER, SYNTH, LEAD, BASS, MEGAPHONE, RADIO, and SCATTER.  

 

• There are also sliders on the VT-3 to adjust pitch, formant and reverb for some unique sound shaping characteristics.

 

• The VT-3 can transmit audio via USB. You can playback audio from your computer out of the VT-3’s output and headphone jacks, send the processed mic sound from the VT-3 to your computer, or loop-back the sound from your computer into the VT-3 and back out to your computer with the mixed mic signal added.

 

• The VT-3 has 3 Scene Memory buttons that can store up to 3 scenes to instantly recall settings of the ROBOT button, Character Knob, and the sliders.

 

Limitations

• There is no way to save patches on the TR-8 and recall them at a later time, so whatever beat you're working on remains in the unit until you're ready for the next creation. This however isn't necessarily a bad thing as it can keep your creativity fresh by making you start over to create a new song, and you can always record your favorite patterns into your computer and save them as custom loops.

 

• The roll function is a performance only effect and cannot be recorded directly into a pattern, but again you can always record the effect into a workstation and use it as an audio clip in your productions.

 

• There's no way to copy a pattern to the next slot while the unit is running the current pattern. This would be a great feature for performances where you're creating patterns live.

 

• There are some extra steps involved with adding effects that can be a bit confusing at first. In addition, you only have reverb and a delay to choose from, but you do get multiple types of each effect that you can apply.

 

• The TR-8 has a dazzling light display that comes on only moments after the unit has been sitting idle, and as cool as it looks, it can be quite distracting in a low-light studio environment. However, after some research I did find out that there is a way that you can just shut off this feature.

 

• There are effects on the TB-3, but you don’t have the ability to select which one is applied. There is an effect that is automatically applied to best suit the sound you’re using.

 

• The TB-3 doesn't have a dedicated knob for envelope depth like there is on the original TB-303, but you can access the envelope modulation window on the touchscreen for similar control. 

 

• You don’t have access to the synth engine, or the effects on the TB-3. Everything is done under the hood for you.

 

Conclusions

First and foremost is the sound. Being that this entire series is based on some of Roland’s most iconic instruments, I was interested to see just how close they could come to the real thing. The result? I think they nailed it, and they did so without any analog circuitry inside. Roland’s ACB (Analog Circuit Behavior) technology faithfully models traditional analog circuits right down to the way they behave, and the sound proves it. The 808 and 909 kits in the TR-8 are the closest I’ve heard to the originals.  The sound shaping ability on each individual drum channel really lets you dial in the exact sound you’re looking for with very little effort, and with a hands-on precision that you just can’t get with software emulations. Within the first few moments of powering up the unit I was able to get an 808-kick sound that shook the walls of my studio.

 

As for the TB-3, the ACB technology again mimics the original unit with exceptional detail. The TB-3 also adds in a whole range of effects like distortion and compression, eliminating the need to run the unit through external effects like what was once a common practice with the original TB-303. Bank A on the TB-3 is aimed at that niche TB-303 sound of Acid House music, but what’s nice is there are 2 more banks of bass and other synthesized sounds that leave the TB-3 open to a wider range of musical styles.

 

So it sounds good, but how does it work? Natural and intuitive is the best way I can describe it. In less than 10 minutes I was able to plug-in the TR-8 and start making my first pattern. If you have prior experience with drum machines, you should see instant results like I did. If this is your first time with an instrument of this type, it still will not take you very long to get your head around it. It’s fast and easy to comprehend. Some more in depth features like applying effects might take you a few times to learn, but once you’ve got the button combinations down, you’re good. The TB-3 on the other hand might take some people a little longer to learn, but it will eventually return the same results. The step-editing feature on the TB-3 is a very fast and easy way to create your own sound, or you can take any number of the already loaded presets and make them your own.

 

And let’s not to forget the VT-3, this little box packed a huge surprise for me. Small, compact and full of life the VT-3 sounds amazing and is quite simply, well… simple.  Just plug in a mic and select and effect and it’s already doing its thing. I was able to get some pretty inspiring vocal effects out of the VT-3, from a crazed robot, to an old-time radio.  Now here’s the fun part. Taking the VT-3 a bit further is where you’ll find it is most fun in the studio. Using only my voice and the VT-3 I was able to make a drum&bass inspired bass patch that was just as, if not more insane than some synth patches I commonly use in my productions. It was as simple as selecting the BASS preset, pitching it down a few semitones, adding a touch of reverb and making some really unique variations with my voice. Using the VT-3 as an effects processor is another way to integrate this little gem into your existing set up.

 

I didn’t get the chance to use the AIRA lineup outside of the studio in a live performance environment, but I can imagine that it would be an amazing centerpiece to any performance that could benefit from its sound. All of the units were extremely easy to sync together with just a standard MIDI cable, and without the need to be tied down to a laptop makes it an extremely attractive attribute.

 

While I believe there is no substitute for the real thing, these instruments are the equivalent of a photo finish, and for a price point that is much more accessible than trying to track down their vintage ancestors. All in all, these are the next-generation versions of the original, made for any modern studio or stage.

Resources

Shop Roland AIRA gear at musiciansfriend.com

Learn more about the AIRA Series at rolandus.com

 

Mark Merlino is a certified audio engineer, producer, DJ and sound designer. A graduate of SAE Institute in Miami, he has worked with a wide range of artists both in and out of the studio, including time on the road with Ms. Lauryn Hill during her world tour. With over 15 years of DJ and electronic music production experience, he has a firm grasp on the current trends in drum&bass, dubstep, house, hip-hop and many other styles. He is also a published copywriter for Musician’s Friend and Harmony Central, staying up-to-date with the latest music technology.

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