Head to Head: Roland’s ACB 909s

Roland now of­fer two sim­i­larly-priced drum ma­chines that both use their ‘Ana­log Cir­cuit Be­hav­iour’ tech­nol­ogy to em­u­late the clas­sic TR-909. But which is the more au­then­tic, and which is the all-round bet­ter beat­maker?

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Roland un­veiled their ana­logue-ap­ing ACB (Ana­log Cir­cuit Be­hav­iour) tech­nol­ogy with the Aira range in 2014. Since then, it’s been ap­plied to two repli­ca­tions of the iconic TR-909 drum ma­chine – one inside the Aira’s TR-8, an­other as part of the com­pany’s com­pact Bou­tique range. But which is bet­ter?


We’d be sur­prised if there were many who didn’t pre­fer the look of the TR-09. By repli­cat­ing the style and colour­ing of the original 909, it has a ‘clas­sic’ feel. The green trim and mul­ti­coloured lights of the TR-8 are ei­ther eye-catch­ing or gar­ish, depend­ing on how you look at it.


Squeezed into the Bou­tique form fac­tor, the TR-09 is fid­dly to pro­gram and its small ro­taries are dif­fi­cult to be pre­cise with. So it’s not re­ally some­thing we could see our­selves us­ing for live per­for­mances be­yond play­ing back pre-pro­grammed rhythms. The TR-8 is much nicer to tweak and, while the bright coloured lights might not be to every­one’s taste, they make the TR-8 eas­ier to nav­i­gate in low light­ing. How­ever, the TR-09 is def­i­nitely closer to the original 909 on the lay­out front.


The TR-09 features an ana­logue mini­jack trig­ger out­put, which is a nice touch, but aside from that, the TR-8 wins hands-down on the con­nec­tiv­ity front. Nei­ther box has full in­di­vid­ual ana­logue track out­puts, but the TR-8 does have a pair of ad­di­tional routable 1/4-inch out­puts along­side a pair of main outs, head­phones out and an ex­ter­nal au­dio in­put. The TR-09 has just main and head­phone 3.5mm out­puts and a 3.5mm ex­ter­nal in­put. Both of­fer au­dio over USB, with the TR-8 boast­ing dig­i­tal out­puts for ev­ery drum track plus the ex­ter­nal in­put, while the TR-09 only ups the out­put count to four tracks. Both have MIDI in and out.


The TR-09 can be bat­tery or USBpow­ered and has a built-in speaker. How­ever, the TR-8, which is only £100 more ex­pen­sive, also features an ACB-mod­elled 808 kit. It can be ex­panded with 707 and 606 sounds too, al­beit for a £99 upgrade. The TR-8 also has more flex­i­ble sound­shap­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, such as front panel tun­ing for the hats and rim, along with built-in re­verb and de­lay, and ten rhyth­mic Scat­ter ef­fects. The TR-09 has a sin­gle com­pres­sor, while the TR-8 has in­di­vid­ual com­pres­sors for the kick and snare.


Ana­logue freaks will be­moan the lack of au­then­tic­ity but the bot­tom line is both of these are solid-sound­ing drum ma­chines. As­sess­ing which sounds more like an original 909 is a murkier task then you might imag­ine – the original went through a num­ber of vari­a­tions and, be­ing largely ana­logue, dif­fer­ent units can have a no­tice­ably dif­fer­ent tone, par­tic­u­larly 30-odd years later. The TR-09 is sup­pos­edly based on up­dated mod­el­ling and a more pow­er­ful pro­ces­sor, and there are def­i­nitely au­di­ble dif­fer­ences be­tween the two clones. To our ear the TR-09 sounds punchier and does a slightly bet­ter job of recre­at­ing the original’s tight kick. The snare cuts through bet­ter too, and the rim is more au­then­tic, al­though with less tonal vari­a­tion on of­fer. The TR-09 also sounds a lit­tle duller though, which might be a side ef­fect of more ana­logue au­then­tic­ity, but there feels like there’s more life in the TR-8’s hats. But with the ad­di­tion of a lit­tle ex­ter­nal EQ, com­pres­sion and sat­u­ra­tion, both can sound suf­fi­ciently au­then­tic.

Roland Aira TR-8 £435 QUICK SPEC: Features ACB 909 and 808 kits. Can be ex­panded with 707 and 606 sounds roland.com

Roland Bou­tique TR-09 £339 QUICK SPEC: Em­u­lates the 909. Can be bat­tery- and USB-powered. Features built-in speaker roland.com

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