Dubspot NYC tech and Brooklyn Bass founder Dan Snider offers some advice on achieving classic TR-808 and 909 sounds without breaking the bank to get there.
Few hardware pieces are as revered as the 1980s drum machines from the Roland Corporation. These devices, most notably the TR-808 (shown above) and TR-909, changed the future of electronic music. In the late 80s, the 808 and 909 sounds fell out of favor in professional studios, and the devices ended up in pawn shops and second-hand stores at greatly reduced prices. Early house music performers adopted the machines and discovered that with a bit of knob tweaking, they could create earth-shaking subsonic kick drums. The heavy “four on the floor” kick drum was a defining characteristic of house music, and that sound was due in part to the Roland drum machines. Today, these devices (lovingly referred to as the “x0x” series, due to their naming scheme) come with a hefty price tag. The quest for authenticity combined with the scarcity of these vintage machines has driven prices into the thousands.
From small boutique manufacturers, to widely distributed brands like Novation and Korg, it seems like every electronic music gear manufacturer borrows from the designs of Roland. Responding to the high demand for classic gear, hardware recreations, or “clones” have been created which channel aspects of Roland’s masterpieces. In this article, we’ll look at some of the best alternatives to the Roland classics at price tags that won’t break the bank.
Novation Drum Station (Out of production, available in the used marketplace for about $250)
To get 808 and 909 sounds in one package, look no further than the Novation Drum Station. The Drum Station is a rack-mounted, MIDI-controlled unit that features digitally synthesized and sample-based recreations of both the 808 and 909 drum kits. You can adjust the tone, attack, decay, tuning, snap, and distortion of its drum tones just like the real 808 and 909 machines. While it lacks the 16-step sequencer of the originals, the Drum Station is easily controlled by any DAW with a MIDI interface. Or, for the step sequencer workflow, the Drum Station can be controlled by any hardware sequencer with a MIDI out, such as that of the Korg Electribe series.
How well the Drum Station recreates the 808 and 909 kits varies from drum to drum. The kick drums and hi hats are spot on, while the snares and claps leave a bit to be desired. All in all, it’s a great choice for less than 10% the cost of the real thing.
MFB-522 (280 Euro)
The MFB-522 is made by Berlin-based manufacturer MFB. The very compact 522 is a 100% analog box that sounds like a cross between the TR-606 and the 808. A particular highlight of the machine is the huge kick drum, which sounds very close to the 808. The 522 features a 16-step sequencer, tweakable tune and decay controls for each instrument, and MIDI in, so syncing it to the tempo of your DAW is easy. Since the 522 is an analog instrument, the results can be unpredictable. Besides the kick drum, the device sounds pretty raw so the 522 is better suited to techno than cleaner styles of electronic music.
Bulgarian house and techno guru KiNK is an avid user of MFB, and his live setup consists of many of their pieces. Check out the live version of his track “Hand Made” which features the MFB-522 and the MFB Synth II.
Acidlab Miami ($1400)
The Acidlab Miami is perhaps the best sounding hardware recreation of the TR-808. German hardware creator Acidlab is dedicated to the recreation of classic machines–they make a couple of fantastic Roland TB-303 clones in addition to the Miami.
According to Acidlab, the Miami uses the exact same sound circuitry as the original 808. The parameter controls (tone, decay, etc.) of each instrument are the same as the original 808 with the exception of the kick drum. The decay of the kick drum on the Miami can be adjusted to 2-3 times longer than that of the original 808. That’s some serious sub bass. The Miami also features the famed x0x 16-step sequencer and full MIDI functionality.
While the price tag of the Miami is hefty, it’s less than half of the used market value of a real 808. Given that it’s the best 808 clone currently available, many find it worth the investment.
Roland R-8 Human Rhythm Composer (Out of production, available in the used marketplace for about $400)
The Roland R-8 is a good all-around drum machine. It was very innovative for its time, offering “Feel Patches” that alter the timing and velocity of each drum hit to simulate a real drummer (like Ableton’s Groove function, only about 20 years earlier). 808 and 909 sounds were only available in this unit as expansion cards, which can be tough to come by. The R-8 is a Roland product so it’s true to the sound and fatness of the original machines.
Jomox XBase 999 ($1880)
While many hardware companies have 808 clones available, few have tackled the complex sound of the 909. The 909 was interesting because it was a blend of analog circuitry and pre-loaded samples. This gave some of the 909 sounds a more lifelike feel compared to the robotic, computerized sound of the 808. One of the most iconic sounds in house music, the 909 hi hat, is actually a 6-bit sample. The Jomox 999 sounds close to the 909 because it features several sampled hi hat, clap, rim, crash and ride sounds in addition to the rest of the analog kit. Jomox also produces an 808-style drum machine, called the XBase 888.
The 999 is priced at the higher end of the hardware recreation market, but it adds many new features to the tried and true Roland formula. For example, it has filters and LFOs that can be assigned to each instrument, sampling capabilities, a built-in sequencer, and MIDI functionality for easy incorporation with your DAW.
Korg Volca Beats ($150)
We mentioned the Korg Volca series last month and we’re still patiently waiting to get our hands on them. For anyone who wants an inexpensive way to experiment with the Roland style of programming drums, the Korg Volca Beats looks like a good option. While it doesn’t sound as full as the 808 (it’s closer to a 606), some of the sounds are similar, and definitely usable. At only $150 for a fully analog drum machine, these devices will surely sell well. Expect to see artists incorporate these into live house and techno performances very soon.
The sound and feel of real hardware instruments is coveted by electronic musicians of all types. The benefits are numerous–whether you’re trying to spice up a live set, get an authentic sound, or incorporate a hands-on approach and look at your computer screen less. Sometimes the best way to think outside of the box is to start thinking inside a different, smaller box.