SH-101 to TR-909: A brief guide to Roland Synths, Sequencers and Drum Machines.
I was recently fascinated by an article about old synths and drum machines which bought back memories of owning some iconic synths, sequencers and drum machines of the 80’s. I spent hours programming TB-303’s and TR606’s and was awestruck by the TR-808. I never owned an SH-101 but was in a band with a friend who had one and it was my introduction to the amazing world of electronic music and a transition away from my trusted guitar. I still have an MC-202 but rue the day I sold the others.
It did make me want to re-live some of those days, so I went digging for information and pictures to satisfy an itch and I’m sharing what I found in a quick guide, in numerical order, from the Roland SH-101 to the TR-909.
“A synth that arguably did more to fuel the early ‘90s house and techno explosion than any other.” —Red Bull Music Academy
Introduced in 1982, the SH-101 was designed with portability and affordability in mind. Compared to the many complex synths available at the time, it offered a basic monophonic structure and characteristic voice that was fast to program and adept at bright, edgy tones and exciting sound effects.
It was very cool, especially for techno, drum&bass and ACID. Its sound lies somewhere between the TB-303 and a Juno bass sound. It has a lot of simple but cool features. You can control the VCF, pitch, LFO or all from the pitch bender. It has a white noise generator, arpeggiator with up, down and up/down patterns and a simple real-time sequencer. The LFO offers random, sine, square or noise waveforms. And normal or auto portamento effects give you that elastic bass sound.
It comes in three different colours - gray, blue or red (there was a rumour of a VERY rare white version too, but never proven)! It can also be strapped on like a guitar for live performance using the optional hand grip - a hit with forward-thinking musicians of its time eager to redefine the image of keyboardists on stage.
Users include: Orbital, Future Sound of London, Überzone, The Prodigy, 808 State, Devo, Aphex Twin, the Chemical Brothers and many more.
Even the most studied aficionado of analogue esoterica could be forgiven for overlooking Roland’s MC-202. And that’s just what music buyers did upon its release in 1983. A dismal failure at the time, the 202 should have been a runaway hit, slotting in perfectly between the company’s much-loved SH-101 monosynth and the legendary TB-303 Bass Line - and not merely in name, but by design, as well.
Of course, the 202’s sequencer would have been a major perk for the very few that bothered to check it out. A two-channel affair (one for the internal synth, one for external instruments), it was capable of storing over 2500 notes… though not across power cycles. Notes could be entered by playing the miniature push-button keyboard in real time, tapping in notes and rhythm separately, or by entering pitch, note and rest values via step input. Accent and glide are also on tap.
Sometimes considered the "poor man's 303", programming the MC-202 was a bit too intense and over done for the simple monophonic bass line. However you can control it externally by hooking up a MID-CV/Gate converter. Then you basically have yourself an SH-101! The LCD display is a great feature too.
The MC-202 holds the distinction of being the worst-selling Roland instrument of its decade, but is finally receiving some recognition. Second-hand prices are beginning to climb, but have not quite reached the heights of the instruments it most closely resembles.
Users include: Autechre, Future Sound Of London, Coldcut, The Human League, Underworld, Aphex Twin, LFO, Jedi Knights, Plastikman, Astral Projection, Sabres Of Paradise, Freddy Fresh, Jimmy Edgar, ProtoType 909 and Taylor 808.
“Few electronic musical instruments have made an impact as big as the TB-303.” —DJ Tech Tools
Designed by Tadao Kikumoto, the TB-303 (TB standing for “Transistorized Bass”) proudly left the Roland stable in 1982 and was originally designed to play bass accompaniment for solo guitarists and accompany the TR-606 drum machine pictured below. It was notoriously difficult to program and, producing a less-than-authentic acoustic sound, the 303 was swiftly relegated to a curiosity in second-hand music stores, where it languished for years—right up until Phuture, a trio of under-funded Chicago musicians, picked one up for a giveaway price and set about experimenting.
What the TB-303 lacked in user-friendliness and authentic bass tones, it more than made up for with its quirky idiosyncrasies and insanely over-engineered tweaking potential via the half-dozen, front-panel rotaries. In 1987, Phuture released Acid Trax, a 10-minute squelch-fest that helped define the Acid sound, a sound that would quickly cross the Atlantic to become a pivotal component of 1988’s nascent rave culture that would come to be known as the UK’s very own “Summer of Love.”
There are many monosynths out there, so just what is it that makes the sound of the TB-303 so unique? In many ways, it’s a simple sound that emanates from that mono output; a single oscillator can be switched between a square and saw wave before sculpting the sound with the 24 dB low-pass filter (often misquoted as 18 dB, 3-pole) that can’t even ascend into self-oscillation. For the truly authentic grind that the 303 is capable of, you’ll need one other element—overdrive or distortion. If you have nothing at hand, then overdrive a channel on your desk to add some crunch.
An Electronic Musician article on Tadao Kikumoto, published in January 2003, describes how the TB-303 came to the attention of the dance world:
One trio of friends collectively identified as Phuture (Spanky, Herbert J and DJ Pierre) stumbled upon the 303 circa 1985 and effectively changed the course of dance music by pioneering a searing, intense new sound: acid. “I went over to [Spanky’s] house, and he had a track playing with this crazy sound on it,” Pierre recalls. “He didn’t exactly know how to work it, but he liked the sound it was putting out. I agreed and proceeded to mess around with the knobs and stuff. We made a tape of it that day and got it right away to Ron Hardy.” That tape, dubbed Acid Trax, ignited a spark that set the burgeoning house community alight. Hardy adopted the sound, and soon artists such as 808 State, Humanoid (who later formed FSOL) and Hard-floor began churning out acid tracks at an alarming rate.
Vintage Synth Explorer acknowledges the TB-303 as “THE sound of acid and techno house music!” and “one of the most sought after vintage synths ever!”. If the TB-303 ever needed justification for its use in electronic dance music one would have to look no further than Norman Cook’s (Fatboy Slim) song, “Everybody Needs a 303” for its heavy use.
PORTABLE POWER-SAMPLER WITH FX
Picking up where Roland’s popular SP-303 sampler left off, the new SP-404 is built on a foundation of more: more features, more voices, more pads, and more memory. The SP-404’s sleek, silver look was new to the SP family, and it surpassed its predecessor by offering battery-power compatibility, a CompactFlash slot, and a built-in microphone for quick, stress-free sampling sessions. Just turn it on, aim, and record — no cables and mics to connect.
It was launched in 2005 and quickly gained fans for its no-nonsense, portable approach to sampling. However, there were also many users and potential buyers that found the SP-404 frustrating to use for a wide range of different reasons.
There was much for such users to grumble about: patterns couldn't be copied easily without a computer and card reader; only one effect could be used at a time; the display was small and cryptic; editing samples was hit-and-miss; and phono jacks were used instead of jacks. And there were a couple of fundamental sticking points, too - the pads weren't velocity-sensitive, nor could samples be mapped easily across an entire octave (as on an MPC).
The SP-404 was amazingly affordable, but newer versions (SX) eventually established it’s cult status.
NEW TOOLS TO INSPIRE NEW PERFORMANCE POSSIBILITIES
Roland first entered the DJ controller market with the DJ-808, a four-channel controller for Serato DJ mixer paired with a TR-8-derived drum machine.
DJ-808 wasn’t the best or user friendly controller due to its size and price. Controllers aren’t always the best option for touring DJs - particularly in the worlds of house and techno where club setups tend to be built around CDJs or timecode setups. It’s therefore debatable whether having your DJ workflow built around a specific - fairly weighty - controller is preferable to simply buying separate drum machine and DJ devices.
On this front, the DJ-505 seems like a sensible compromise. With a street price a little over half that of the DJ-808, it’s much more affordable, and less cumbersome. It is a two-channel, four-deck Serato DJ Pro controller that blends the advanced performance capabilities of Serato DJ Pro with the legendary sounds and sequencing of Roland’s TR-909, TR-808, TR-707, and TR-606 drum machines. The DJ-505 gives you the tools to move beyond mixing music to creating beats and rhythms on the fly that sync to your Serato DJ Pro tracks, enabling the creation of unique transitions, live remixes, beefed-up classic tracks, or your own original music.
Like the flagship DJ-808 and compact DJ-202 controllers, the DJ-505 is a powerful and inspiring instrument that allows unparalleled flexibility to DJ, remix, and produce, empowering exciting new approaches to music performance. And with its standalone mixer functionality, narrow footprint, and Serato DVS upgrade path, the DJ-505 is an ideal controller to pair with turntables or CD players.
A cool little box! So primitive and cute! The 606 was the percussion side-kick to the TB-303. It even looks like the 303. It stores up to 32 patterns and 8 songs. The 606 allows switching between Pattern Play and Write mode while running - making the 606 the only drum-computer in the X0X series that can be edited while performing and switching patterns. It is also possible to link up to 4 consecutive patterns in Pattern Play mode.
The 606 has seven analogue drum sounds which are simple, yet great! Kick, Snare, 2 toms, open hat, closed hat, cymbal, accent. The hi-hats are a very tinny electronic sound and its toms are great for soft tribal patterns. These seven sounds alone are still quite popular today, and the 606 has been used by Überzone, Cirrus, Sneaker Pimps, Download, Aphex Twin, Astral Projection, Nine Inch Nails, Mr. Oizo, Jimi Tenor, Kid 606, OMD, Moby, Freddy Fresh, Autechre, Luke Vibert, Orbital, and Union Jack.
Released by Roland in 1985, the all-digital TR-707 had a huge impact on early Chicago house, and acid house in particular. Its snare, claps, and hi-hats helped shape house’s grooving sound, while its toms featured a lovely round decay that got any body rocking.
A very underrated drum machine! It resembles the popular TR-909, and better yet, its hi-hat, cymbals, and clap sound almost identical to the TR-909! The TR-707 is a great source for cheap 909 samples. It has some other cool features too such as its Matrix display which clearly maps out your pattern for you in an easy to read display panel. It also features both MIDI in/out and DIN sync control - the best of both worlds. Why this unit even has individual outputs for each of its drum tones!
Each drum has individual volume sliders and output jacks for each instrument group, which means you can multitrack every single drum into a mixer with ease. Okay, you can’t edit the drum sounds beyond that, but when the hi-hat sounds this good, what is there to change?
For programming, it features a shuffle and flam effect and its programming abilities are very impressive. But it does have its limitations, the only adjustment you can make to each drum tone is volume. And all of its other drum tones are boring (especially ride, kick and snare).
The TR-707 remains far more affordable than the ubiquitous TR-808 or punchy TR-909, making it a great starter drum machine. Today, those looking to get their hands on a TR-707 need look no further than the Roland TR-8S, which comes loaded with every sound from Roland’s sought-after drum machine series, including the TR-707.
From the iconic ’80s acid house of Mr Fingers and Marshall Jefferson to the current experimentations of French trio J-Zbel and Canadian hardware duo Minimal Violence, the TR-707 is still going strong.
TR-808 (That 8 Oh 8)
“It’s almost impossible to imagine the modern musical landscape without the distinctive sounds of the Roland TR-808 drum machine.” —Rolling Stone
In 1980, the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer was released as a quick and easy song writing tool for musicians. At the time, the high cost of memory drove Roland engineers to use analogue synthesis instead of samples for its sounds. Through a series of happy accidents, they utilized unique transistors, creating a one-of-a-kind sound that set the 808 in its own sonic universe. However, it didn’t exactly deliver “traditional” or “realistic” drum sounds, leading to it being dismissed by many at the time, with only about 12,000 units ever made.
Once a few adventurous musicians and producers got their hands on the TR-808 and started tweaking those knobs, the world began to (literally) feel the impact it would leave on music forever. For decades since, the sizzling hi-hats and snappy snare, the clicky rim shot, the unmistakable cowbell, and yes—that booming bass drum—have been heard on worldwide hits and underground classics.
Increasingly revered by musicians and producers around the globe, the TR-808’s influence only continues to grow. New musical genres make heavy use of the 808 sound, with some utilizing it as the main instrument and defining sound of the style. Its influence is so deep that it’s been name-dropped in famous songs, had albums dedicated to it, had bands named after it, has its own 808DAY (Aug 8th) and even been the subject of a feature-length documentary film. For some younger music fans, the 808 is no oddity—it’s simply “what drums sound like.”
Users include: Marvin Gaye, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Beastie Boys, Phil Collins, Mantronix, Joyce Sims& Aphex Twin.
“Like the TR-808 before it, nobody could have predicted the reverence in which the TR-909 would eventually come to be held.” —Sound on Sound
The TR-909 was an analogue/digital hybrid, before it was even a thing.
In 1983, Roland followed the massively influential TR-808 with the TR-909. Around this time, digital samples of acoustic drums had become fashionable, but the sounds in the available devices weren’t very adjustable. And let’s be honest—they still didn’t really sound like real drums. For the 909, Roland engineers took a hybrid approach that used tweakable analogue circuitry for the kick, snare, clap, and toms, while reserving digital sampling for the cymbals.
The influence of the TR-909 drum machine is still heard—and felt—nearly four decades after it was launched. Now, the 909 is available as a software plug-in, delivering the speaker-pummeling power of the original with new features that extend its sonic capabilities and make programming faster and more fluid.
Only around 10,000 TR-909s were made, but the machine’s lasting impact is apparent on dance floors to this day. Much like the TR-808’s dominance in rap and hip-hop, the TR-909 left an indelible mark on electronic music styles like techno, house, acid, and industrial. It’s the sound you hear in your head when you think of floor-shaking dance music.
Users include: Inner City, Soul II Soul Daft Punk Madonna Frankie Knuckles, 808 State
Sources – roland.com perfectcircuit.com vintagesynth.com musicradar.com