Roland Aira TR-8 Review (the stuff no-one else told you)

– Why I bought the TR-8

(who cares, take me to the review!)

I like drum machines.  I’ve owned many over the years.  I buy ‘em, use ‘em then usually sell ‘em off.

Recently I purged a whole bunch of drum machines, including an MPC because I didn’t use them anymore.  I use NI’s Maschine, and I love it.  I load it up with my favorite samples from previously owned drum machines, and away I go.  I use it on pretty much everything I do, because it allows me to build a song quickly and add details later.  If I get to the mixing stage and one sound doesn’t work, I can easily replace it, or add a plug-in to it.  It’s flexible and it’s fully integrated into my Logic projects.

The biggest problem I had with most drum machines was integrating them into my Logic projects.  Recording beats as audio files, then later needing to re-record them when I decide I don’t want hi-hats in the chorus.  It involves editing audio to make sure it’s in sync, it involves remembering volume settings you used before if you need to record again. It’s a pain, and it hurts workflow.  I liked all the crazy sounds I could get from an Electribe, but it was just easier to sample those sounds into Maschine and use that – instead of re-recording parts all the time during the songwriting process.  I would usually just record stereo files, as trying to record each sound on it’s own track would involve multiple passes with stuff muted, and that process can screw up the sync of your beats – midi is a bit swishy, if you record all in one go, you are mostly fine, but multiple passes of something synced to midi is a pain.

However, I really like to sit on the couch watching TV with headphones on making beats.  I like to be away from the computer making rhythms and I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and want to sketch out an idea on a drum machine, because I’m not going to fire up the computer to use Maschine.  I do miss having a drum machine, so I decided to get something.

1) I wanted something with x0x style programming.  Who would ever live without that?

2) I would prefer sounds that I would actually use in a final mix.  I have made beats on machines and then replaced all the sounds later, and it’s just unsatisfying. The sounds affect the groove so much.

3) I also wanted something easy to use.  I got rid of a Tempest because I spent more time programming kits and playing with it than I did writing songs with it.  It was a fun machine that sucked up hours of my time, but was too deep for me to escape!  I got rid of Jomox stuff as well because it wasn’t so easy to program, took too long to get results.

4) I also want knobs and faders for each sound, not ‘modes’.  When doing live stuff with an Electribe, you have to really pay attention if you are going to play with filters and stuff.  Don’t forget to select a sound so that it doesn’t play. Remember your CC edits will get over-ridden on the next pass by what was recorded, etc. etc. Editing = easy, getting back to where you were = hard. I never felt confident changing settings on the Tempest while it was playing, as some settings could really screw up your sound!

So, my two contenders for a new drum machine were the MFB Tanzbar, and the Roland TR-8.  I know there are other options that ‘mostly’ fit these parameters, but ultimately stuff like the Vermona didn’t fit these parameters enough.

– The Sound of the TR-8

Soundwise, I could live with either.  Honestly, I think they both sound great.  I expected Roland to flub analog modelling as they have done many times in the past, but the TR-8 truly sounds spectacular.  Better than a Novation drumstation, and I would say better than three different Jomox devices I’ve owned.  I’m not concerned that it’s not real analog, because it sounds real good.  In terms of sound, it competes with the best analog machines out there.  In terms of features and usability, it competes more with the Electribes which have sadly been discontinued.  At this price range, it’s hard to say the Machinedrum or Tempest compete with it.

Anyway, the Tanzbar does not have headphone outputs, so I can’t play with it on my couch.  Also, connecting it to Logic would be a pain, unless I bought another audio interface with way more inputs.  The TR-8, has a headphone jack, like all gear should, and you can connect it to your computer via USB and you get separate audio channels for each instrument, and the stereo main output!  This last fact was the most compelling thing about the TR-8 for me – easily being able to integrate it with Logic would be a first in my drum machine experience.  Workflow is very important for me.

– The Review

I’m not going to cover all the features of the TR-8, because there are already many good reviews out there for that.  I’m going to cover the stuff nobody else told you about the TR-8.

First off, you can customize 16 kits, mixing 808 with 909 sounds, and there are usually 3 or more variations of each sound. This is cool, however the way kit memory works, is utterly terrible. Basically there is no real kit memory.  There is no ‘save’ button, if you edit a kit, it’s edited, no need to save.  That seems fine, but recalling that kit later is an issue because the knobs on the machine take precedence, so there is no kit recall – you get the settings you already have.  If you choose a 909 kick and and 808 snare, that part is saved and recalled.  But all your knob settings are irrelevant because whatever the knobs are set to when you choose any of the 16 kits, will take precedence.

Essentially if you move all the knobs all the way to the left and choose a kit you thought you had saved, it will load, and will sound different because all the knobs are set all the way to the left.  Every kit loaded will sound weird because all the knobs are set all the way to the left.  To recreate a kit, you have write down the knob settings.  What year is this?

Not being able to save custom drum kits is stupid.  And it’s something nobody would expect.  Why did no reviewer mention this?  It’s the first thing that surprised and irked me.

The review mentioned that the TR-8 knobs send midi CC’s, but don’t respond to them. This is not the case, they must have had an early beta version.  I can confirm that midi CC knob movement can be recorded in your DAW and played back into the TR-8 no problem.  You can tune your kicks up and down all you want.

I must say that the TR-8 is probably the most simple device that Roland has made in a while, with the idea being hands on control, and buttons for everything.  There is no display screen other than for tempo, so no menu diving.  However that being said, you will need to read the manual – not all the functions are obvious, and some are even hidden.  It’s easy to learn, but not as “out of the box intuitive” as it could be.  In fact I would say the lack of a menu screen probably hurts this device, and will make it harder to add features or options in the future that will be obvious and easy to use.

There are only 16 memory slots for patterns.  Now that is some cheapskate deal.

– Integration with Logic

I wanted to set up the TR-8 with Logic and see how that went.  But it did not go well at all.  This was not really the TR-8′s fault, but it’s worth knowing for those who are looking to buy this machine.

With Logic, you can only use one audio device, so you have to make an aggregate device if you want to use inputs from two devices.  Years ago I tried this and it was all buggy, so it’s not something I would prefer to do.  I totally forgot about this when I bought the TR-8.  It’s a Logic thing.

I created an aggregate device to test.  The TR-8 outputs are 96k 24bit!  WoW, that’s up there!  I know a lot of people think higher sample rates are so much better, but I find it to mostly be a waste.  I usually record 44.1k 16 bit.  The issue with 96k is that I then had to run my audio interface (RME FF400 btw) at 96k, because you can’t make an aggregate device with mismatched sample rates.  You can set one of the devices to “resample”, but this did not work, perhaps because the RME is 32 bit and the TR-8 is 24.  I had to run the RME at 96k.  My Lexicon PCM80 is digitally connected to my RME, and it will only run at 44.1 or 48, so it’s out of the picture for this test.  At this point I realized that I was probably never going to use the USB outputs of the TR-8. . . .

So, I chose the aggregate device in Logic, and it didn’t provide the right inputs from the TR-8.  It seemed to double the inputs from my RME.  I tried a few different options when creating the aggregate device, but none of this worked.  Perhaps my RME at 32 bit and the TR-8 at 24 was just never going to work, even if both were running at the same sample rate.

I decided to continue testing by choosing just the TR-8 in Logic as my input device.  This gave me all the 14 outputs no problem, the stereo main the 11 individual instruments, and the mono audio input also passes in via the USB.

Another thing about this high sample rate, is that although I have a fast 8 core i7 imac with 8G Ram, and I was testing just the TR-8 with no other music or tracks in Logic.  Recording 11 individual instrument tracks at 44.1k, 16bit, made Logic cough blood.  My usual buffer settings were not adequate, and I need those low because I can’t have latency when playing live e-drums or synths along with a track.  I could not record more than 20 seconds before it crapped out.  I’m not saying that will happen to everyone, but I use fast disks, and keep my system running fast and efficient, yet it all came down to buffer settings I am not willing to compromise on.  For many users, this is a legitimate concern.  A 96k input signal may just be too taxing to allow you to record all channels of the TR-8 in one go.

Something I should clarify here.  I was not recording the audio at 96k, I was recording it at 44.1, but the TR-8 outputs run at 96k, it’s fixed and there is no option to change this, as there is with my RME, and many other audio interfaces.  So the audio was being converted down, and that was the bottleneck.  I tried the same test but this time set Logic to record the audio at 96k, and Logic was much happier with this, and I was able to record without it crapping out. Hard to believe at first, but that’s how it went.  Also something I will never do.  It would be nice if Roland allowed the outputs to run at lower rates to allow for better compatibility with different recording set ups.

Another issue, is that although the TR-8 responds to midi start, it doesn’t care about ‘record’ so if you want to record it in sync with a song, you need to hit play first, then punch-in record.  Many drum machines have a sync mode, where any midi clock will start the device, so you can sync-record them into your DAW.  The TR-8 has no such mode.  So I had to hit play, then record to punch in, and of course the audio was not lined up in sync as it should have been.  This however is due to Logic’s external midi handling, and messed up PDC.  I also tested recording using Logic’s low latency mode, and the issue was the same.  The audio was not in sync, in fact it was early.  Meaning Logic is sending midi data out early to compensate for latency on the audio input path.  (That is a topic I could cover another day in great anguished detail.)

Also, I recorded the TR-8 stereo outs into with my RME not using the TR-8 USB audio, and the input was also recorded early, since Logic is sending the ‘play’ command early.

Another thing I should note, is that the effects section does not respond to midi clock/tempo on the first pass of the pattern.  So you will hear delays go wonky as they sync up.  On subsequent repeats of the pattern, the delays play back as you would expect them too.  For recording, just ignore the first pass (if you can punch in record that fast anyway!).  For live use, there will be a distinct stylistic element added to the beginning of every song, by every DJ, in every dance club in the world. . .

Recording the midi output from the TR-8 was in sync though, and I noticed something interesting. Sounds played on the same beat were never on the exact same beat in logic, they were predictably off by one 240th (is that 96th notes?).  In Logic you have 240 ppq. Well no sounds ever fell on the same 240th, they were spaced apart, and it seemed as if it was in order.  Kick on zero, snare 1/240th after, clap 1/240th after that.  I wonder if that’s how it works inside the TR-8?  I wonder how it worked in the original 808 or 909?

There is a driver for the TR-8, and it gives you settings in the system preferences page.  You can set buffer size for the audio interface, and something called “Recording Margin” and “Recording Timing” which allow you to adjust for latency – however I’m uncertain what they specifically do, or how they inter-relate. The driver instructions are vague on this.

So, my tests concluded that I am not going to get the drum machine integration into my Logic projects that I had hoped for.  Mind you this is not primarily the fault of the TR-8, it’s Logic’s need for an aggregate device, and the sample rate compatibility issues with my RME interface, and sample rate settings/buffer settings, that I’m not willing to make.  I’m not losing the ability to use my Lexicon digitally for the sake of a drum machine.  I’m never going to switch audio interfaces in the middle of recording a song.  I’m not going to change my buffer settings to get a better TR-8 recoding.  I am however probably going to troubleshoot the PDC issue so I can at least record stereo tracks using the main and aux outputs of the TR-8.

Someone using Ableton won’t need an aggregate device, and might have a different experience, and I’m curious to hear it.  Someone using a different audio interface might have better compatibility with the TR-8, and may be able to make a functioning aggregate device.  However 96k! wow, that’s up there.  I assume that’s how Roland got the TR-8 to sound so good.  But I do pray that Roland provide the option for a variety of sample rates to allow for better compatibility.  If it’s done in the machine and not the driver, it should reduce any bottleneck issues.

Final Thoughts

So, despite all that.  It is a really fun drum machine that sounds great.  I will use it on my couch, and enjoy it for what it is.  I would have felt better if there were some extra buttons on there for eventual feature upgrades, but I can’t expect there will ever be any.  Parameter locks would be awesome.  More kits would be cool.

But I think the top priority for Roland has to be a way to reliably recall the kits you previously worked on. Perhaps the originals didn’t have this, but one of the benefits of using digital technology, IS the ability to save patches.  Because of this, I am likely to program beats that work with my song, then sample all the sounds into Maschine, where I won’t lose my settings.  Back to the way I’ve always done things.  (long live Maschine!).

After fixing that, they should allow you to save more than 16 patterns. Seriously?.

Of course they didn’t include extra buttons to prepare for new features, so added features will begin to remove the ‘ease of use’ factor, as they add more button combos, which they should have avoided in the first place.

I do want to end by speaking about the sound.  One thing that really impressed me, is the usability of the 808 kick. With some 808 clones, the kick is a thin low end puff that is hard to fit into a mix.  You often need to enhance the attack, and thicken the sound with something.  I had this issue with the MFB 522, and to a lesser degree the Jomox kicks.  The 808 kicks from those always needed to be processed to fit the mix.  But the compression and attack controls on the TR-8 are enough to get a really satisfying 808 kick that fits in your mix nice and thick.  Don’t get me wrong, the 909 kick is awesome too, but I’ve never had a problem getting any 909 emulation to fit in a mix.