So here is the diminutive recreation of Roland's most famous drum machine the TR-808 following on from last year's TR-909 recreation, the TR-09. Why on earth they don't use their original names is baffling especially as these devices strive for authenticity in every other department. Ah well, such are the vagaries of Japanese marketing!
Looking at the unit, it is exactly the same dimensions as all the preceding Boutique units and fits both the optional DK-01 dock or should you bizarrely want to, the DK-25 keyboard. The former though is an expensive (£54) add on but almost essential as the angle it provides makes operating the TR-08 much more enjoyable.
Audio outputs are on the dreaded, but understandable given the size, 1/8th inch jacks but midi is thankfully still on full size midi din plugs. Power is provided by a micro usb input or 4 AA batteries. All the original knobs and buttons are here too albeit in a cramped and tiny version. There are a few additional buttons that allow for some secret new features, more of which later.
The TR-08 then is a warts and all recreation of the 1980 classic machine albeit in a much, much reduced size from that original massive, brown, banging box. I say warts as the slightly awkward programming of the original is replicated here in full detail. Little non intuitive quirks like copying patterns by selecting the pattern destination first and content second have returned after every drum box since the 808 does it the other way.
This isn't such a drawback though as using the TR-08 is an excellent history lesson of how to program a vintage unit. Yes, those pesky millennials who have never had it so good, can experience the visceral joys of composing a 6 minute song with a three digit led for company and plenty of knob twiddling and button mashing.
The subtitle of the 808 was Rhythm Composer and was one of the first devices that could allow for the creation of an entire song and the workflow is replicated here with one additional function, a menu mode allowing for a 909 approach to song mode, the difference being in the 808 you essentially create a song in real time adding fills and pattern switching as an editable performance whereas 909 mode allows for step input selection of patterns.
All those glorious and completely overused sounds are here resplendent in their digital accuracy. Yes, this is a digital emulation of the original analogue machine but after spending some time with the unit I found that the way the sounds reacted to parameter manipulation certainly felt quite authentic. In a direct comparison however, the Tr-08 lacks a certain enigmatic quality but I doubt that would make much of a difference in the way the sounds work in the context of a mix. I think only in that direct comparison with an original 808 do any shortcomings in the TR-08's emulation appear.
If a lack of oomph is of concern though the TR-08, like all Boutiques, has a few tricks up its sleeve not included in the original. There is a compressor available for just the kick and snare, this is a fixed affair with only intensity as an adjustable parameter. Strange this isn't available for the other drums but who knows what other facilities will become available in a future update? Yes, take that analogue purists!
Other bionic features of the TR-08 include variable pitch and decay for those sounds that (just like the original) don't have a physical control on the panel plus a useful pan and gain facility. Maxed out the snare but still want a bit more? Another 100 on top of the panel volume control of 100 is available in this menu. There is also a facility to make the kick drum decay longer which I
What maybe the TR-08's killer feature is it's USB audio functionality as 12 separate outputs appear in your DAW of choice. Yes, this is a really pro feature allowing for each element of your meticulously programmed pattern to be recorded on to a separate track. This comprises of ten individual outputs and one stereo mix that you can specify which drum sounds are included in.
I can see many people opting to output the kick, snare and hats on separate channels whilst putting the rest in to the stereo mix.
How you would integrate that with your existing sound card is an interesting dilemma as although you could conceivably use the TR-08 as a standalone sound card you probably wouldn't want to meaning that creating an aggregate device is probably the best way to do that. Pretty easy within Mac OS and possible within windows but please don't ask me how!
Bear in mind though this isn't a class compliant device and drivers will need to be downloaded.
So, at a UK price of £349 is the TR-08 worth it? Hmm it seems a bit expensive to be honest and I think that given you can buy last year's 909 emulation for around £250 for a similar feature set, only the most die hard 808 heads will want to pay top whack for it.
My advice would be to wait a bit for the inevitable price tumble. It is, however, a fun unit that does recapture a bygone era with aplomb. Song composition is actually quite a lot of fun if a bit tedious at times when it comes to editing but it may well be, especially if you are only used to pattern creation with a mouse, a way of generating different rhythms than you would ordinarily.
This may be the reason to invest as the sounds themselves are fairly accurately captured in umpteen software and hardware emulations that you may already own. All said and done though, the Tr-08 absolutely attains what it sets out to achieve in providing a realistic, both in sound and interaction, tribute to this most legendary of drum machines.