While he was undoubtedly a visionary, it’s been said that Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, who died in 2017, didn’t always appreciate the innate possibilities of his musical creations.
Released in 1980 amid much fanfare, the TR-808, which would go on to play a groundbreaking role in popular music, didn’t even warrant a mention in the company’s 25th anniversary catalogue (published in 1997). Elsewhere, the TB-303, the backbone of acid house, was originally marketed as an electronic ‘stand-in’ for a bassist in a traditional rock group.
In 1983, Roland unveiled a similarly epoch-defining piece of kit, the TR-909. This enabled the programming of 96 patterns of up to 896 measures – a serious amount of computing power at the time – but it was soon usurped by more realistic-sounding drum machines.
In his memoir, I Believe in Music, published in 2001, Kakehashi summed up his (and Roland’s) vision thus, “Those of us who design and manufacture electronic musical instruments need to be extremely careful in the matter of ‘new’ products. The single most important consideration for a performing artist is the the instrument be reliable.
“Artists seek instruments that allow them to express their sensibilities, and it is true that many artists also have the desire to create unprecedented, ‘new’ sounds. Usually it is the creative skill of the artist that develops the new sounds, but modern technology can also be used for this purpose.”
In the case of the TR-909, it was a little bit of both, as the ‘rhythm composer’ – and its iconic kick drum – would go on to be the starting point for a generation of techno revolutionaries.
In an advert placed in its own Roland Users Group Magazine in 1984, featuring the catchy slogan Roland Makes It Happen, the electronics giant’s description of the new unit was clearly meant to appeal to traditional pop combos. Click the images below to open in a new tab.
“We don’t call the TR-909 a drum machine for some very good reasons,” it said. “True, it’s a machine that makes drum sounds, but that’s the end of any similarities between run of the mill drum machines and the TR-909 Rhythm Composer. In fact, playing with the TR-909 is more like playing with a real drummer than anything else.”
Tellingly, the advert also includes a prescient nod to the unit’s promising future. “So what does this mean? It means that years from now, when other drum machines are sitting in the closet gathering dust, your TR-909 will still be on the job.”
Also in 1984, a four-page brochure to introduce the Roland TR-909 dives more into the technological capabilities of the machine, promoting its ‘eleven kinds of sound sources’ (with ‘shuffle’ and ‘flam’ effects), different loading modes, three MIDI jacks, 5-pin DIN Sync jack and a ‘tape interface – for data storage on cassette tapes’.
As the excellent Retro Synth Ads blog puts it, “The front cover [of the brochure] is split in half, sporting a lovely photo of the machine on the bottom. The theme colours used in the other brochures are also present – light pinks and greens. But we get a real treat when we open it up to reveal that page 2 and 3 share an awesome black background colour.
“It works so well with the light-coloured 909 that it looks simply dashing!”
Notably, on the back cover, the same brochure also highlights two other Roland devices that users could consider operating alongside the TR-909 – the MSQ-700 multi-track recorder and the fantastic wood-panelled HP-400 electronic piano.
As to whether either of these ‘optional extras’ were utilised by the early pioneers of techno, we’re not entirely sure. Check out this video here of Detroit legend Jeff Mills pushing Kakehashi’s creation to its limits.
Happy 909 Day everybody! 🙂
[Images taken from Retro Synth Ads]