New series links today's performance needs with Roland's legacy EDM gear
It's hard to believe that electronic synths, sequencers, and beat machines have been with us for going on four decades now. Roland led the march of the microprocessors that transformed the sounds of modern music; by the early 1980s the company's groundbreaking drum machines and synthesizers were reshaping the musical soundscape.
In particular, Roland's TR-808 programmable drum machine made its impact felt on huge hits such as Marvin Gaye's ultra-smooth "Sexual Healing," a template for what would become neo soul. The insistent TR-808 sound soon turned up on Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," leading to the birth of modern dance music genres such as house, trance, and later, acid house and trip hop. Roland gear continues to exert an enormous influence on rap and hip-hop to this day. You'd be hard-pressed to find A-list dance music producers who don't have legacy Roland goodies in their bag of tricks.
Now Roland is digging back into its past to bring the vaunted sounds of its pioneering gear into the 21st century. By creating entirely new electronic instruments that draw on the company's deep well of innovation while adding user interfaces that are as fresh as tomorrow, Roland is laying the groundwork for decades to come.
The new Roland AIRA line is a tightly integrated collection of performance and music production gear that merges revered old-school EDM sounds with turn-on-a-dime control.
The ABCs of Roland's ACB Technology
With electronic dance music's bigger than ever role in music culture, and given Roland's undeniable techno cred, its newly announced line of AIRA gear makes perfect sense. The unifying principle behind the initial four units in the product lineup is something Roland calls Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB). Roland's aim is to conjure up the sound and response of its legacy gear that was built around analog circuits while taking into account the demands of modern performance and music.
In designing the new AIRA line, they've gone back to the circuit designs and the engineers who created the gear that carved out Roland's trademark sounds in the first place. They've taken a forensics-like approach in analyzing the original circuitry in infinite detail using carefully preserved synths and drum machines stored in the Roland archive. To reproduce the iconic '80s synth and beat box sounds, they've exhaustively analyzed the tones and other characteristics of the originals. You won't find any sample-based sounds here; everything is generated by real electrons coursing through real circuits.
To seal the deal, Roland has made each AIRA unit compatible with all the others in the line. Control and syncing via audio and MIDI data with USB compatibility means you can run several AIRA devices seamlessly without the timing and latency hassles that can plague other setups.
AIRA is scheduled to hit the street by the end of June, 2014.
TR-8 Rhythm Performer
The TR-8 is the 21st century direct sonic descendant of its two granddaddys: the fabled TR-808 and TR-909 groove boxes. Where it parts company with its ancestors is in the host of user-friendly functions and features that make groove creation, tone shaping, and live performance fast and intuitive.
Take the Scatter function for instance. It gives you full control over pattern changes in realtime for turn-on-a-dime live performances. With Scatter you can apply a bucket load of effects to both your patterns as well as those coming from external devices. Slice-and-dice moves include reverse, glitch, gate, truncate, and stutter while maintaining perfect time syncing. A large and ergonomic dial lets you adjust the intensity of effects on the fly and toggle Scatter on and off for endless variations. The possibilities Scatter offers range from huge glitchy bursts to subtle musical transformations.
Back in the day, house and techno producers did aftermarket mods on their TR-808s and TR-909s installing different resistors to lengthen decays and tweak other factory parameters. In creating the TR-8, Roland engineers paid attention to these mods incorporating many into the new box.
If you're an old hand on the TR-808 or TR-909, the TR-8's TC-REC 16-step sequencer will feel immediately familiar, only much easier to use. You'll recognize the 808's unmistakable tonal variation that occur as you add instruments in accented steps. What's new are a slate of evolutionary tools and functions that make the TR-8 a full-fledged live instrument that goes far beyond its forerunner's capabilities. These include:
- 16 stunning kits made up of 11 instrument types, including custom dream kits that use both TR-808 and TR-909 sounds
- Large Tempo knob with Tap Tempo button and continuous Fine and Shuffle adjustment knobs
- Control the intensity of the Accent function with a dedicated knob
- Per-step reverb and delay effects with dedicated knobs
- Mix sources connected to the External In jacks with built-in per-step Side Chain function for rhythmic ducking and gating effects
- Scatter lets you freak and tweak your grooves with real-time control and perfect sync
- 7 segment, 4 character LED display and 16 per-step pads with bold, full-color LEDs
- Real-time pattern creation up to 32 steps with on-the-fly step count adjustment
- Rec/Play modes have been eliminated, enabling seamless switching between step input and real-time pattern making and performance
- Real-time play of 4 different types of rolls (8th, 16th, VARI 1, VARI 2) and per-instrument mutes
- Pattern copy and pattern randomization for rapid, spontaneous creativity
- Two assignable analog outputs and full parallel outputs via USB for total mixing flexibility
Roland has built tons of ergonomic smarts into the TR-8. All controls are designed with performance in mind. Multicolored status lights and highly responsive faders and knobs with a predictable touch give you sure-handed feedback as you lay down grooves that no mere human drummer could aspire to.
TB-3 Touch Bassline
The original TB-303 Bass Line on which the new AIRA-infused version is based arguably had as big an impact on electronic dance music as its TR-808 stablemate. Produced from 1982 to 1984, it did for basslines what the TR-808 did for drums: offering endless ways to shape, twist, and color the throbbing underpinnings of dance music.
Though its 16-step sequencer was challenging to master, the sonic payoff was huge, and over time the TB-303 grew to be a must-have tool for house music creators and adventurous DJs. With the debut of the new TB-3, Roland has preserved everything that was loved about its forerunner while giving it a far more accessible and intuitive interface.
The square and saw oscillator waveforms that characterized the TB-303 have been re-created while the attack, slide, and tie functions interact in the same way they did originally.
What's different is a collection of performance tools you can harness easily for awe-inspiring realtime performances. Central to this is a large, brightly lit pressure-sensitive touch pad. Aside from controlling pitch and volume, you can shape filters and modulations simply with finger pressure. Imagine controlling parameters like decay and envelope modulations just by pressing. With finger gestures you can chain or switch patterns and transpose keys. The keyboard has internal partitions with intervals that give the touch pad fantastic playability.
From classic squelchy '80s waveforms and sinuous rubber-band bass sounds to over-the-top, massively distorted basslines, there are enough variations built into this box to keep you happily tweaking till the cows come home. In the old days, DJs and producers would run their TB-303s through distortion and other effects pedals to get new sounds. You don't need any external processors with the TB-3; all the effects you could want along with single-function knobs and faders make it all deliciously accessible and usable.
Here's a brief rundown of the functions that make the TB-3 a manageable monster in the quest for extraordinary basslines that can go from seething to stuttering with endless tonal shifts:
- Pressure-sensitive touch pad
- 134 captivating sounds, including the original TB-303 tones and new four-oscillator, effects-processed basses, leads, and sound effects
- Dedicated Tempo control with shuffle and tap tempo functions
- Control built-in effects with smooth, responsive knobs
- 7-segment, 3-character LED display
- Seamless switching between pattern creation and performance
- 16-step indicator lights to aid in pattern creation
- Pattern support for up to 32 steps
- Easy access to shuffle control for bass lines that groove
- Enter steps manually or record in real time on the touch pad
- Change step count during playback to alter the length of phrases
- Random pattern generation and pattern modification
- Pattern copy function
Like the TR-8, the TB-3 has a Scatter function for spicing your creations with instant stutters, glitches, and other variations that in the past took laborious work on a DAW to achieve.
Another interesting bit of legacy that's built in comes from the TB-303's sometimes erratic sequencer that would generate accidental sounds as users worked through its labyrinthine workflow. Automatic and random pattern generators add back in the element of chance that was a love-hate situation with the original.
VT-3 Voice Transformer
Since the 1970s vocoders and similar devices have been used to to radically modulate the human voice in pop music. Kraftwerk's LP Autobahn was among the first records to make a popular splash. Since then robotic voices, chipmunk-like utterances, and alien sounds have become an accepted part of the musicscape. That's especially true with EDM—it's rife with highly processed voices that sometimes barely reveal their origins in the human larynx. Traditionally, creating these sounds has taken a lot of work, and their use in live performance was daunting. That's about to change when the Roland VT-3 Voice Transformer is unleashed later this year.
Using a simple, easy-to-grasp work surface, you can sing and talk your way through an awesome range of voice modulations from extreme, otherworldly effects to subtle formant shifts and gender-bending sounds. Whether you use it in your studio or onstage, the VT-3 puts an awe-inspiring array of tools at your fingertips. At less than two pounds. its backpack-friendly, and it seamlessly integrates with all the other AIRA instruments.
Here's a sampling of the VT-3's capabilities:
- Create heavily processed vocal sounds in real time
- Smooth control with dedicated Pitch and Formant sliders
- Large dedicated Reverb and Mix Balance sliders
- Save three favorite settings for instant recall
- Connect an optional footswitch for additional control in live performances
- Pure green LEDs and brightly lit controls for great visibility
- Lightweight and durable construction for easy portability
- Standard XLR/TRS combo jack (with phantom power) and 1/8-inch mic jack (with plug-in power)
- Stereo outputs can be configured as separate mono wet/dry channels
- Built-in USB audio interface with loopback recording to overdub vocals on existing tracks
- Great for podcasts and live web streaming
- Powered by USB bus or included AC adapter
The VT-3 comes preloaded with a slew of vocal character types ranging from subtle to silly to splendid:
- Create VP-330-style Vocoder sounds without the need for a keyboard
- Scatter function for glitchy effects that sound like something's broken (in a good way)
- Loads of lo-fi character with Megaphone and Radio settings
- Synthetic sounding voices with the Robot button
- Synth, Lead, and Bass settings for synths you can sing
With built-in reverb, smooth wet//dry fader control, and instant bypass, you can easily transition from humanly musical to maniacally deranged sounds with the flick of a wrist. The smooth faders allow subtle transformations, something that's especially useful with such functions as sung synth sounds and basslines. Intrepid vocalists and DJs who want to inject their own voice into their shows are gonna love this thing.
SYSTEM-1 PLUG-OUT Synthesizer
The SYSTEM-1 owes its DNA to Roland's 1970s modular and semi-modular synths, especially the SYSTEM 700 with its sounds that helped redefine the electronic music of its era. Though those vintage sounds are a critical part of the ACB vibe that Roland has built into this latest descendant, the SYSTEM-1 goes far beyond anything that could have been conceived in the '70s.
Take for example its 96kHz resolution that produces lead synth lines far smoother than any of its forerunners could manage. Add in its bank of four oscillators that produce fat tones and chords unimaginable in the old-school monophonic synth world.
What ultimately will make the SYSTEM-1 a serious contender to become the heart of your music production and performance rig is its ability to host software plug-in versions of some of Roland's most revered synths and other electronic instruments. Roland is developing the SH-101 soft synth with this capability in mind. A collection of additional soft synths are slated to follow, meaning that over time your SYSTEM-1 will continue to grow in its power and versatility. With its 73 physical controls, the days of sifting through endless menus to shape your sounds will be at an end.
Factor in its USB connectivity that will bring the SYSTEM-1 into your computer-based production realm and its ability work seamlessly with the other AIRA devices, and you've got a world-beating rig. With full MIDI implementation you'll also be able to sync with other external gear sending and receiving MIDI clock and audio data. The SYSTEM-1's modest footprint and shallow-depth form factor means it will sit comfortably on your desktop surrounded by your other gear.
Here are some the preliminary features:
- Four oscillators for buckets of fat synth tones
- Oscillator colors create continuous waveform changes from simple to complex
- All parameters can be controlled with physical knobs and sliders with LED indicators
- Advanced arpeggiator with Scatter function
- Scatter jog dial offers 10 different phrase variations with dynamic, real-time control over 10 stages of depth
- -12 dB and -24 dB filter types with independent high-pass filters
- Tone knob for easy tonal balancing
- Crusher knob for modern edge
- Integrated delay and reverb effects
- Tempo syncing for LFO and delay
- Innovative thin keyboard with 25 normal-sized keys
- Comfortable to play, yet the most compact Roland synth ever
Since the announcement of SYSTEM-1, Roland has announced the SYSTEM-1m, a module version with no keyboard.
Related: Check out our coverage of Roland's 2016 909 Day product announcements including SYSTEM-8, TR-09 and more.