TB or not TB
The seminal sounds of 1980s Roland drum machines and synths have played a key role in both the legacy and evolution of popular electronic music, setting the blueprint for dancefloor-ready beats and sounds as we know them.
Despite the units failing to become legends in their own lifetime during their brief production runs, they’re all now highly sought-after, selling for sky-high prices on the second-hand market - but there are a ton of great plugin emulations out there if you don’t want to pay collectors’ prices.
So, let's find out more about these special machines, and discover some of the best ways to get their classic sounds in your DAW. For a wide-ranging feature on recreating vintage hardware tones in software, pick up a copy of Computer Music 218 (July 2015), which is on sale now.
With the TR-808 ‘Rhythm Composer’, manufactured from 1980 to 1984, Roland was trying to create a drum machine with more programming and sound-sculpting potential than the rigid, preset-based drum boxes of the time, but its synthesised sounds were undesirable compared to realistic sample-based rivals such as the Linn LM-1.
However, the 16-part electronic drum machine with programmable 16-step sequencer took on a life of its own once cheap second-hand units ended up in the hands of cash-strapped electro, house and hip-hop producers, and the unmistakable ‘808’ sound has since defined further genres.
The TR-808’s individual hits are instantly recognisable: the snappy snare, tinny hi-hats, clicking rimshot, rumbling toms and ostentatious cowbell are all highly distinctive and synthetic. But it’s the booming, earth-shaking kick drum that defines the 808 sound, even forging its own solo career as a pitched bass element (once loaded into a sampler and played chromatically, since the kick can’t be tuned on the TR-808 hardware).
Roland TR-808 in software
The TR-909 (on sale between 1984 and 1985) received a similarly lukewarm reception to its predecessor, but likewise went on to provide the staple drum sounds of dance music.
Its 11 parts are mainly synthesized - with the exception of the gritty, sampled cymbals and hi-hats - and are somewhat more customisable than the 808’s. The unit is famous for its raw, rough ’n’ ready dancefloor rhythms, now synonymous with house and techno
Roland TR-909 in software
Designed as a bass guitar-emulating synth to accompany a band, the monophonic TB-303 Bass Line (1982-1984) also failed to impress commercially - but the later experiments of Chicago producers took the little silver synth far beyond its intended means to create the coiling, twisting gurgles of acid house.
The TB-303’s unorthodox sequencer, with its famous ‘slide’ function, spits out simplistic gliding patterns, while its four-pole filter and per-note accent function give acid its signature squelch and resonant filter sweeps.
Roland TB-303 in software
Roland’s SH-101 (1982-1986) is an unassuming monophonic synthesiser in which dance music’s history is firmly rooted.
Often partnered with the aforementioned drum machines to provide slick dance bass or FX, the 101 is a compact monophonic synth with a single oscillator, sub oscillator and noise generator, and it is highly intuitive to program thanks to its one-slider-per-function design.