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?
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