Roland TR-8 Rhythm Performer ローランド
It's incredibly easy to get up and running as a live performance instrument. Patterns are easy to write, and all controls are large and easy to tweak in real time. The scatter function gives you the opportunity to randomize your beats on the fly.
However, the TR-8 really shines in the studio. If you use aggregate audio devices on Mac or ASIO4ALL on your PC, you can set-up your audio interface and other synths as audio inputs. By using the USB interface on the TR-8, you get access to Midi and MIdi CC (there are VST plugins that enable you to save and adjust parameters) but also a complete audio interface with separate inputs for each drum sound. This is similar to what you would get with an actual 808 or 909, just without the slew of TRS cables and audio interface jacks. This means you can effectively apply effects and EQ to every single sound. The boutique 909 offers 4 assignable channels of USB audio, which works decently, but this gives you complete separation. I believe the new 808 boutique has fully separate channels, which is an improvement.
So why this over the boutiques? If you only want 909 or 808 sounds and prefer the admittedly awesome retro look of those machines and can get past the tiny knobs... then go for one of those. However, if you want an infinite amount of variety and access to the entire Roland vintage drum kits, the TR-8 allows you to expand beyond the 808/909 to the 7x7 and 606 sounds. More importantly, you can assign kits across models, meaning you could have a booming 808 bass drum, a 909 hi-hat, a tight 707 snare, a 727 whistle, and 606 toms.... or any other combination.
As far as the sound quality, I can only speak to the comparison to the TR-09, but the sounds are basically the same to my ear. When you add up the cost of two boutiques, you're getting both for much less - with more variety and options. When you include the expansion, you get access to those three additional machines for a fraction of the cost.
I do wish it looked more vintage, but the TR-8 is here to stay in my studio. Don't judge it by it's looks, and be sure to understand what's under the hood.
There are a lot of great features that the vintage boxes didn't have, such as the volume sliders. The application of onboard effects is amazing. Reverb and Delay can be applied to specific steps on the sequencer. The pattern sequencer can also gate an external signal by selected step. Then there is "Scatter" which provides varying degrees of groovy randomness to the pattern being played. The results can be downright wicked. This is great for fills or breakdowns.
The pattern sequencer also allows flams and varying degrees of accents. These are essential for some dynamic breakbeats or a more "live" feel.
Being a performance drum machine, it is most dynamic when it is being manipulated live. The pattern sequencer allows for two variations, A and B. A pattern will play to its last step when another selected before starting the next pattern. There is no song mode.
I've updated my own unit with the 7X7 expansion ($110) from Roland US which expands the sound palette to include TR-707 and TR-727 sounds. I have put the TR-8 with the 7X7 expansion against my trusty old TR-707 and it is convincing enough. There are also TR-606 sounds that are comparable to my old TR-606. The controller knobs in the instrument section can tweak these voices in ways that the original drum machines could not as they only had individual volume controls.
A few other performance oriented drum machines on the market are the Korg Volca Beats and Akai Professional's Rhythm Wolf and Tom Cat. These three drum machines are all analog voices and $200.00 or less. The TR-8 is about $500.00 and digital with Roland's proprietary circuit modelling. The TR-8's features alone set it apart from the others, but it is the Roland brand that ultimately demands the price tag. Some folk in the blogosphere lament the "retro" worshiping instruments that company's like Roland and Korg produce. I would counter that the legendary drum machines of yesteryear, the collector's prices they fetch, are driving the market. Thus, the Roland name and the simulation of their legendary beatboxes make sense. If that is what you seek in a drum machine, you have found your drum machine. Otherwise, the Roland TR-09 will start hitting retailers next month. Aside from having a song mode, it will most likely provide the TR-909 sounds of the TR-8 for about $400.00. A TR-08 may be in the future, too. Right now, the TR-8 provides much more at a lower price point.