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Roland AIRA System-1, TB-3, and TR-8 Product Review cover

Roland AIRA System-1, TB-3, and TR-8 Product Review

Roland’s recent release of their new AIRA product line marks a significant shift in the company’s approach to releasing instruments which will certainly shock many vintage lovers and traditionally purist analog enthusiasts.

The System-1, TR-8, and TB-3 are each uniquely modern in appearance and circuitry, although Roland has made significant successful efforts to mimic classic vintage analog tones with their new and unique analog circuit behavior. So while these products are not 100% analog, do not worry! They sound almost identical to the standard analog products while offering digital flexibility that older models never could, all at affordable prices much lower than old-fashioned analog synthesizers.

In many ways these products remain true to their vintage roots while venturing beyond those purely analog capabilities to produce a hybrid instrument with unique interfaces that all the while sounds like models of old.

The AIRA System-1 is undeniably the powerhouse of the product line. Although a fine instrument in its own right, the System-1 has plug-out capabilities to work in tandem with the TR-8, TB-3, and other compatible models, software, and hardware. It looks elegantly sleek and modern with green back lighting and loads of knobs and buttons, and the design is portable and lightweight with a length of just 24 keys. The tones are typically analog but do not emulate any specific older model, although these are available as plug-outs.

The System-1 contains classic analog features such as an LFO, noise generator, and two oscillators, with both high- and low-pass filters; the Color option allows further interesting waveform modulations while the Scatter feature replaces the traditional mod wheel and doubles to bend pitch. The cross, ring, and sync mod features allow for traditional oscillator manipulation reminiscent of many older models. Although certain features like the pitch envelope may not stand up to pure analog synths, the System-1 is fully capable of reproducing these analog sounds and, in some cases, it even surpasses them.

The AIRA TB-3 Touch Bassline product is a throwback to Roland’s TB-303 with similar analog circuit behavior to the System-1. The TB-3 is small and compact, and it contains a large touch-pad that makes up a majority of the interface. It only reacts to one touch at a time, similar to monophonic sounds, and it is also touch-sensitive, although this feature is certainly not perfected.

The unique touch-pad modes include a one-octave keyboard, a pattern selector, envelope control, and scatter mode. There are six closely-packed single-function knobs for ease of use, which control a range of features such as volume, decay, resonance, and attack. Although layout of the TB-3 significantly different from the classic 303, it sounds almost indistinguishable from it and provides excellently rich electronic bass lines and tones. The USB and MIDI ports are also extremely handy improvements, as well as its update capabilities which will definitely come in handy with future software and hardware releases.

The powerful TR-8 model is an obvious nod to the vintage TR-808 and 909 drum machines, and it does a wonderful job recreating those rhythmic tones while also providing users with added bonus features that go beyond the functionality of those older instruments all while using the analog circuit behavior of the other products. The scatter feature, for example, is great for adding glitchy-sounding fills or rhythmic alterations, while the shuffle and swing features allow the machine to sound less rigid and much looser, making it less robotic and more human. Each beat and instrument can also be controlled by delay, reverb, tuning, decay, or other effects controlled by various knobs and buttons for use on the fly.

The interface is simple and easy-to-use, especially for use in a live setting, and the lack of a comprehensive digital display is actually a blessing for those who enjoy the product’s simple layout yet incredibly versatile sound. Although it does not contain any storing abilities, this problem is remedied by using a MIDI controller. The TR-8 is a fusion of the standard 808 and 909 drum machines that goes beyond what either product could ever hope to achieve on their own, and it will surely please purists and new enthusiasts alike.

The new instruments in Roland’s AIRA product line have the versatile ability to work in conjunction with each other in unique ways for use in both live and in-studio settings. The TR-8 is an excellent drum machine that, when used with the TB-3, create an amazing drum and bass combo. The TR-8 can control the bass line rhythms from the TB-3 so that the two work in perfect harmony, and the scatter features can create intense drops or fills with random effects. When the System-1 is thrown into the mix, especially with its plug-out capabilities, the options become endless. It is perfect for analog lead sounds and melodies, but it can also be used for ambient notes or for other ethereal qualities.

This combination, in addition to the VT-3 Voice Transformer, is the perfect set-up for a DJ or musician wishing to incorporate as much as possible into one package. With vocal, rhythmic, and tonal control over every aspect of the music as well as full MIDI functionality, it is amazing how much can be done by just two hands! Each of these instruments also has the ability to stand up on their own for studio use.

These products serve as the perfect fusion between the best features of the vintage analog synths and the digital functions of modern instruments, making them extremely versatile while still being tonally pure. Although certainly not perfected yet, these products make assertive and bold technological and logistical steps forward, although their interface and layout may certainly be improved in future models.

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