The first thing everyone notices when seeing the AIRA line for the first time is the design. While there are definite correlations to the original machines' layout, they come with some distinctly neo-Roland touches. From the green trim to the neon green LED lights, this thing doesn't exactly blend in. Once you get past that, what remains is a pretty straightforward layout: 11 instruments segmented the same way as on the original TR-808. Each carries a volume slider and knobs to shape tone that sit above a multipurpose selection/mute button. For most sounds, the tone shaping is limited to two knobs, decay and tune; the exception is the bass and snare drums, which also have a compressor effect and controls for dialing in attack and snap, respectively.
16 is a magic number for many musical instruments, and the TR-8 is no exception. There are that many patterns available, which can be played by one of the 16 different kits, and each pattern has 16 steps per sound. Each pattern also has two variations, A and B, and they can be chained to give a possible 32 steps per sound. However, this is currently not very straightforward to set up, since you can't copy from A to B or vice-versa. I would expect a fix for that in the near future, though. If and when it arrives, it will increase the TR-8's playability greatly. Sitting above the two variation buttons are buttons for last step and scale. Having the scale button here is a bit of a dangerous proposition, as you could easily change the time signature of your pattern without meaning to—an accident that could ruin a live performance.
Programming the TR-8 is straightforward and intuitive. You can either play it "live" in the INST PLAY and INST REC modes, or you can enter steps TR-style with the TR-REC mode. When in INST PLAY mode, trigger buttons 12-16 serve a special purpose. (The first 11 trigger the sounds.) The 12th through 15th buttons allow you to perform different variations of roll, and you can hold down a combination of two of these to access even more variations. You can also latch a roll by holding the INST PLAY button before starting one of the roll variations, but this took some practice to get used to in our tests. Button 16 toggles the TR-8's ever-useful mute mode, which allows you to mute or unmute sounds either with the trigger buttons or the sound selection buttons.
Step sequencing the TR-8 is also fairly simple, but there's complexity lying underneath. When in the TR-REC mode, the sound selection buttons switch the focus to the sound and allow for the 16 steps on each pattern variation to be set for it. Moving above the sounds, though, you'll find four other items that can be step-sequenced: delay and reverb, accent and a sidechain effect for the audio coming into the TR-8's external input. Sequencing effects may seem odd, but it kind of makes sense once you try it. In essence it allows you to specify which steps of the pattern will trigger the effect on, but you still control dry/wet and effect parameters with dedicated knobs.
The workflow to assign which sound gets routed to each effect is a bit odd—it requires you to first press the KIT button, the primary purpose of which is to select from the 16 drum kits. When in this mode, if you hold down one of the effect module's step buttons, you can use the sound selection buttons to turn the effect on or off for that sound. This leads to one of my biggest gripes with the TR-8: the amount of mode-switching that's necessary to get the most out of the unit. In my test sessions, I was constantly switching between the TR-REC (to step sequence the sounds and effects), INST PLAY (to play in parts live), INST PLAY mute mode (to mute sounds), INST REC (to record the live parts) and KIT (to switch the effect assignments) modes. With some practice, this becomes fairly natural, but Roland could smooth out the experience a bit.
The final question, then, is how it sounds. And if you've seen or heard a demo already, you'll know it sounds great. The DSP engineers at Roland did a fantastic job capturing the sounds of the original 808 and 909 sounds and infusing them with the character and movement of a vintage analog machine. Some people have said that the TR-8 sounds like the 808 did when it was brand new, lamenting that it doesn't capture the effect of 30 years of aging. My only complaint on the sound is the behavior of the hats—the closed hat cuts off the open hat, the opposite behavior of the original 909.
It would be a surprise if Roland doesn't address some of these minor shortcomings with upcoming firmware updates. Even if they don't, though, if you're looking for a modern edition of the 808/909, the TR-8 is absolutely worth the money. It's not as feature-filled as its more expensive competition out, and it does require some practice and hands-on tweaking due to its copious modes and lack of automation. But in some way that further solidifies it as a throwback to the vintage drum machines that inspired it.
Ease of use: 3.5/5