During the late '70s and '80s, Roland was synonymous with innovation and quality. In the ‘golden days,’ starting at 1978 with the release of the CR8000 Compurhythm, Roland released an impressive list of machines, most notably the TR909 and TR808 (released in 1980 and 1983, respectively). These machines transformed the musical landscape irreversibly and are still indispensable. As of today, Roland seems to focus mainly on reliving past successes to maintain relevance in a new landscape of innovative hardware manufacturers—and as we all know, the past successes are numerous and worthy of being relived.
But let's be honest, making a new, smaller and cheaper version of one of their quintessential drum machines, the TR909, is not an easy task. It is like re-writing Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon: you can be pretty sure you won’t improve the original—you can also be pretty sure that everyone is watching you step by step. But then again, haters will hate and with the current prices of the TR-909, there is definitely a market for a more affordable and portable version.
How it looks.
When it comes to looks, the TR-09 is pretty much a direct copy of the TR-909, if you shrink it, and then shrink it again. The look makes the TR-09 easier to embrace for the traditionalist then, for example, the Roland TR-8, which has a far more modern look and bright colored lights that are a bit of an eye-sore, especially when working in a dim-lit studio at night. The overall construction seems decent—sturdy housing with a metal front panel and rotaries that will survive some heavy weekends on the road.
Size does matter.
Like most frequent travelers and live performers, I'm a big fan of small, light, and efficiently built gear. Over the years, it has even become one of the most important criteria for selecting new live-gear, together with sound quality and functionality. Logically, the new Roland Boutique series—with its familiar looks and travel-friendly sizes—instantly caught my eye. The problem with this device is that it is down-sized to such a degree that it compromises the functionality. The buttons are placed so close together that you have to pay close attention not to twist the wrong rotary, not to accidentally pitch up the kick, instead of cracking up its volume. When tweaking the buttons, especially the ones on the second row (attack, decay, tone, and tune controls), your thumb and index finger touch all of the surrounding buttons in sequence—and these problems already occur if your fingers aren’t particularly big. When making small adjustments, these problems are negligible, but when you want to turn the turn the kick all the way up, from 0% to 70%, your cuticles are likely to find some obstacles on the way. This can result in some pretty painful fingers and nails after one hour of heavy Jeff Mills-style tweaking, and won’t have a positive effect on the durability of the rotary controls, as they are basically pushed off axis.
For studio use, the same problems occur, even though you might be less hindered with the small rotaries when carefully tweaking the punch of a snare or adjusting the decay of a kick—it all depends on your workflow.
I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t use the 10 cm on the left side of the device that is now reserved for the Start and Stop button, to spread out the knobs and create a bit more finger-space. This would also mean the TR-09 would look even more authentic as on the TR-909 the whole width of the machine is used for the rotaries, with the start and stop buttons simply placed underneath. This doesn’t have to be a deal breaker when you are not planning hour-long jam sessions and you just want to record some grooves into your DAW, but still, it's worth considering before purchasing this device.
How it works.
The TR-09 is equipped with a number of mini-jack slots on the rear of the machine, offering several connectivity options. Besides the obvious headphone and main out jacks, the machine also comes with a ‘mix in’ insert, which simply passes on the input signal to the output.
The TR-09 doesn't come with a custom power supply, but with a mini-USB connector to power up the device. This can be connected to your laptop, or directly to the power supply using an additional adapter. Even though a small and universal power supply sounds like a blessing, the problem with this system is soon apparent: a ground hum (of which the volume varies, depending on your electricity circuit) is not filtered out by a custom adapter and thus is audible. The hum might not be instantly noticeable, as it's relatively low in volume, but is certainly undesirable on recordings and becomes more noticeable and problematic when the signal is amplified.
Alternatively, the TR-09 can be powered by four AA batteries, which is the only real option when you want to use the machine in a live environment, over a big system. Experience teaches that the TR-09 burns through its battery so quickly that you might have to replace the batteries during an extended set, which again is highly undesirable.
The last addition to the list of questionable design decisions is the built-in-speaker functionality. The TR-909 sound—the deep thumpy kick and aggressive mid-focus hi-hats, for example—is not exactly flattered by the tiny built-in speakers. It makes the machine feel even more like a toy. Why Roland decided to invest in a built-in speaker system instead of a custom adapter is a mystery.
How it sounds.
When you put aside the questionable design decisions and get the sequencer rolling you will soon find out that the TR-09 actually sounds really good and is incredibly fun to play with. If you had the pleasure of playing on the TR-909, you will recognize the TR-REC style of programming, with a choice of Step or Tap write modes, with added functionalities.
In the TR-09, Roland implemented their newly developed technology—Roland's ‘Analog Circuit Behavior,’ a digital modelling method in which the behaviour of the original components of the TR-909 are analysed and reproduced digitally. The original engineers that developed the TR-909 back in the '80s closely worked together with the new team at Roland to develop this new technique. Even though the same technology is used in the previously released AIRA series, The TR-09 sounds notably different—better—than the 909 sounds that are featured in the TR-8.
Hearing the TR-09 straight over a festival-sized Funktion One sound system, with no additional compression or EQ, further convinced me of the serious capabilities of this small machine—it's a wolf in a bit of clumsy sheep outfit. It's also got the TR-909 swing that we all love so much. With a little analog processing—bouncing some TR-09 takes to a reel-to-reel tape-machine and/or through some juicy pre-amps—it will be very hard to tell the difference between the TR-09 and its ancestor, the legendary TR-909.
With the TR-09, Roland succeeded what they set out to do: creating an affordable, portable, and ‘authentic’ successor of the TR-909. But (unfortunately) not without compromising on the functionality. The mini-jacks instead of the usual 1/4 inch jacks, usb-power, and tiny rotary controls might not a deal breaker for everyone, but can be a serious liability, especially when using the machine in a professional environment.