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 musical revolutionaries.
‘Makes A Good Noise’
As the wonderfully titled One Two Testing magazine put it in April 1984, the TR-909 ‘does make a good noise. The bass drum has attack, decay, and pitch controls, and can be made to move mountains; the toms have decay and pitch, and can also put out a mighty racket.’
As countless techno producers would discover in the years to follow.
The same magazine also quotes Alan Townsend of Roland UK, on the challenges in building on the firm’s already iconic TR-808, “Roland needed to make a new rhythm unit, and of course, it had to be a good ‘un. Good sounds, that was the first priority. But they realised that there are certain disadvantages in just sampling real drums and having digital sounds. It would have been very easy to do that – for example the cymbals are PCM – for all the drums, but there are certain disadvantages.
“First, they analysed real drum sounds with a 16 bit processor, and compared it to the sounds they made using analog technology. Where they’ve been able to do that, and have admitted defeat, as in the cymbals, they’ve used PCM technology – digital sounds. We think our analog system is an advantage; the reason I say this is people have got it into their minds that ‘digital has to be best’.”
Elsewhere, as Electronics & Music Maker magazine put it in March 1984, the initial £999 price tag may be a stumbling factor… at least for those unwilling to explore the unit’s potential.
“The Roland TR-909 is not exactly cheap and in the face of the burgeoning competition this may prove a vital factor,” the magazine put it. “What it does have in its favour is the MIDI connection facility, and extreme ease of programming.
“Will this be enough to attract potential customers? Only time will tell.”
Roland Makes It Happen
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.”
The Latest ‘Rhythm Machine’
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]