Roland released the TR-909 in 1983. Analog machines were beginning to be replaced by digital drum machines that featured more realistic-sounding samples. Roland’s TR-808 was being challenged by drum machines that didn’t sound so artificial in a mix.
For the TR-909, Roland responded to this by combining technologies, using analog sounds where they worked well, and sampled sounds where they sounded best (Hi-Hats). The result was a best-of-both-worlds collection of sounds.
Roland also added MIDI to the TR-909. This gives it a great deal of flexibility, because it can be synced to machines that use Roland’s own sync standard, such as the TB-303, and it also can be synced to sequencers and keyboards that use MIDI.
The best feature of the TR909 has to be the sounds. The kick cuts through a mix. The hi-hats were very realistic for the time, and, if not entirely convincing, they had a great sound of their own. Each of the sounds is a classic, and recognizable by anyone that’s heard an electronica or dance track in the last twenty years. The sounds have become such standards that it’s rare to find a modern drum machine that doesn’t include them.
Both the sampled and analog sounds can be tweaked for a wide range of effects. This is one of the best features of the TR 909. Tone and decay can be controlled on the fly for most of the sounds, making the sounds longer or shorter and brighter or duller. This ‘tweakability’ adds a lot of flexibility to the sounds, and can be used to add excitement to an otherwise static rhythm.
Another great feature is the individual outs. Each sound has its own volume control, and a separate jack on the back. This lets you use a variety of effects on the sounds, creating an even larger of palette of sounds to work with. For a basic setup, the sounds can be plugged into a mixer individually, and each sound can panned uniquely, and then treated to a different level of reverb, making some sounds seem closer or further away in a mix. Another approach is to put a different effect on each sound coming out of the 909. Many musicians will compress some sounds, especially the kick, more than others, making a louder, punchier drum track.
The swing on a TR909 has a unique feel, too. Many users feel that the fact that it is analog adds some slight imperfections to the swing that make it more realistic.
These features, and the ease of programming it, have made the Roland TR-909 the standard drum machine for techno, trance, and house music. This has kept the price of the 909 high. They sell on eBay in the range of $800-1100 for a machine in good shape. This has led to an explosion of devices that have sampled the 909 sound. Unfortunately for musicians, machines that sample the 909 don’t offer most of the great features of Roland’s classic box, such as individual sound outs, the great feel of the swing, and the abilty to tweak the sounds. One exception is Novation’s Drumstation. While it matches the 909’s sound, it unfortunately doesn’t attempt to duplicate the 909’s hands-on sequencer.
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