ROLAND DRUMS REIMAGINED
From Frankie Knuckles to Aphex Twin, Roland’s classic ’80s drum machines – especially the TR-808 and TR-909 – are as synonymous with electronic dance music as the acoustic drum kit is to rock. Even though the majority of producers have never had their grubby mitts the original machines, we all recognise the sounds instantly thanks to their ubiquity in dance music. Luckily for us mere mortals, having enough dosh for the now-antiquated originals doesn’t matter: not only can we download countless sample collections packed with processed permutations of these drum hits, but Roland themselves have brought hardware fetishists affordable digital replicas of the originals: the Aira TR-8 (a hybrid 808/909) and the new Boutique TR-08 and TR-09. So basically, it’s never been easier to use these infamous drum sounds in your productions.
But with every producer and his dog sequencing these iconic one-shots, it’s become harder and harder to customise and innovate with them. Take the genre of trap (plus its pop/urban crossover offshoots) as one example: you can’t get away from that distorted 808 kick, rhythm-shifting closed hats and skippy snare fills. Likewise, you hardly hear a house or techno record that doesn’t feature the interplay of the 909 closed and open hi-hats; or that robotic, rattling 16th-note snare fill.
So how exactly can we take these sounds into the future? Well, the secret is to maintain the original timbre – after all, that recognition factor is the power of their appeal – but add your own dimension of originality somehow. For instance, use a pitch envelope to bend the 909 OH, then use a short delay to mix in a metallic tone. Heavily distort the 808’s tinny cymbal, then smother it in weird reverb. Or try crazy stereo tricks in parallel on your 808 kick. It’s up to you to take the sounds further and give them a unique sonic stamp.
Another way to give the sounds a shot of life and character is via organic humanisation. Yes, timbrally, these robotic drums are a million miles away from realistic acoustic drum kits, but you can still program them in clever ways. Take the electronic hi-hat: we all know the original machines featured decay parameters for shortening or lengthening the hits. So by manually ramping the decay knob up and down in real time (we’re talking in subtle increments), as well as gently pumping the sound’s level in and out of other parts of your track, you’ll instantly bypass the ‘machine gun’ repetitiveness and give those hats an underlying feeling of authenticity and movement.
However, we’re straying into subtleties here, and this feature is all about sound design. In the modern day and age of unlimited choice, it’s actually quite refreshing to limit yourself to that restricted palette of electronic drum sounds when you need some source material to mangle, distort, filter, loop and generally f••k up. Although it’s a cliché by now, look at the use of the 808 kick in jungle and D&B. It’s no longer a ‘drum’; that kick is considered a low-frequency oscillator that can provide more sub bass and harmonics than your average cheesy synth patch. And since a good ol’ drum machine is as good a studio starting point as any, that makes it a fantastic candidate for processing on those days when you can’t nail a chord progression or synth patch.
We’ve kept this pretty conceptual, but let’s wrap up with a few practical ways to make your drum machine sounds stand out from the crowd. For starters, as you’ll see in our tutorials, mashing up tuned kicks and toms with delicious distortion can create interesting bass and synth loops. Programming-wise, rapidly repeating notes off the grid – or lashings of delay effects – will induce rhythmic oddities that become groove enhancers. And treating percussion like synths and melodic samples will also broaden your horizons beyond the expected. Time to plug in and start experimenting!