Roland AIRA TR-8 and TB-3 First Impressions

Roland AIRA TR8 TB3
Roland AIRA TR8 TB3

Yesterday I walked into Shimamura Music Store in Nagano-city about an hour after it opened and there on the display they had just assembled the new Roland AIRA TR-8, TB-3, and VT-3 over near the DJ area. It was interesting they elected to display the Roland AIRA equipment in the DJ area and not the traditional synthesizer area. I understand this as the Roland AIRA stuff is also geared toward’s DJs but it’s the first time I’ve seen this. Shortly before this I picked up the Roland VT-3 from the same store so basically I was in there to check out if they had the TR-8 and TB-3 in yet.

Quite frankly I was VERY surprised the store had the TR-8 and TB-3 in stock and out on the floor. They literally had placed it out there right when the store opened, so I figure I was lucky with my timing. Throw in the fact that I’m in Nagano ( the countryside ) and not in central Tokyo, I suppose it was natural that I’d have a good chance at getting a first shot at buying these early. I think I played everything for about five minutes and I was then SOLD!!! Oh My! The TR-8 and TB-3 were amazing!

First, I have NEVER owned a real TR-808, TR-909, or TB-303 before. I also have never seen nor heard them in real life other than on a record or Youtube video. So I must first announce that I have absolutely no idea if they are the same or near the same as the real thing. However, I can say that on their own, they sounded incredible with lots of bass, punch, and warmth. Those three things are basically what sold me on the trio. I likely will never find nor be able to fork over the thousands of dollars to get the originals. The TR-8 and TB-3 quite frankly are close enough to a sound that I like and can integrate with my analog poly and mono synthesizers here at home without issue!

I haven’t had much time to play with the Roland TR-8 and TB-3, but I have had some experience now so I can comment on a few things. First I connected the TB-3 into the external input of the TR-8. I then midi’d up the TB-3 to the TR-8. I did this so that I could just throw on some headphones and jam for a little bit. I haven’t hooked these up to my mixer setup yet but I plan to tomorrow so that I can add in a Juno-106 or Polysix for example to hear how they sound together. I then just pressed play on the TR-8 and had fun without the manual tweaking and checking out all the parameters of both machines.

What I found was that everything was pretty easy to figure out without the manual. I have seen a few videos which helped already, but really both machines are very easy to use. The sound as I mentioned above is better than expected which means GREAT!!

Now since I am sort of a one man band during practice, I found the Roland TB-3 had some exceptional capabilities. First the patterns could be changed seamlessly from one to another. This made it easy to create a “verse”, “chorus”, and then “bridge” sort of bassline and be able to swap them easily and seamlessly. I also found the Scatter to be really cool for a couple of reasons. I discovered that Scatter allows you to tap up to about 10 different variations that work very well as fills or even sections of a song if you momentarily hold them in place. I could jam on a bassline verse and the use the scatter to create an improve chorus bassline or bridge based on the original line. Sure it kind of glitches the bassline, but not as you might expect. It can be controlled a little because of the several variations you have. The other thing is that Scatter is very consistent in that you can get the same result each time so you could use it in a song played live easily. It’s not random unless you want it to be. Thus I find the Scatter function to be ideal for creating fills and creating a live momentary verse/chorus/bridge bassline. It’s beautiful for “one man band” setups.

The effects are also pretty good on both machines, but in particular the Roland TB-3. I actually thought the distortion was excellent and it had several variations too all of which fattened the sound up nicely. In addition, the accent was marvelous. I did have to crank it a little to get the desired effect, but once I did it was driving hard on the accents I wanted. With regards to pattern creation I haven’t dived into that yet, but it doesn’t look hard. I think the Roland TB-3 is going to work VERY well layered with something like a Roland Juno-60 arp on the bottom or on top. I can then switch patterns on the TB-3 or simply hit the desired scatter point and change things up really fast.

Finally, I noticed that adding accent on the TB-3 along with some swing on the TR-8 really made the music groove. I mean my butt was shakin with these two machines not too long after I fired them up. Along with the VT-3 Voice Transformer, the Roland TB-3 and TR-8 are exactly what I’ve been waiting for. These machines groove and they make you smile. I have no idea at this point if Roland could have done a better job. I’d say today I really wouldn’t care as they just sounded awesome to my ears. Perhaps my opinion may change as I incorporate them into my setup and perform with them live. For now I can safely say I will have no problem dropping my lust for a real TR-808, 909, and TB-303. These will do and I can now finally move on and enjoy.

I didn’t comment much on the Roland TR-8 mainly because it worked fantastic right out of the box. The preset patterns kick and you really don’t need to tweak them much to get a good sound. I found myself migrating more to the TB-3 simply because the TR-8 was doing it’s job so well straight away. I did however go back and tweaked the bass drum, snare, and claps with much satisfaction. The effects were a bit tricky to figure out and so I may have to consult the manual on that. I wasn’t quite getting the effects placed on the right drum sounds as I wanted but that is a user issue and not a problem with the TR-8. I also didn’t find the Scatter on the TR-8 as useful ( to me ) as the Scatter on the TB-3. The scatter on the TR-8 was a bit more random which is nice, but I’ll have to again consult the manual to see how much control or variation I have. Again, it’s probably me and not the TR-8.

Let’s see what else… flipping between drum kits was simple. Changing patterns was easy and it was nice having an A/B selection. Bringing the sliders down would effectively mute each part. The buttons and overall build quality on both machines was good. Are they durable? Yes, but I did feel that if I dropped them even once they could break. That’s not good really so I would definitely say you should be a little careful with these on stage. Many people are saying they are solid and built well which I would agree with, but I don’t think they will sustain too many drops. The colors, especially on the buttons of the TR-8 are really cool. It just gives it a great retro feel even if one might not like the green all the time. The green is not a problem for me, but I have heard not everyone likes the color.

I have not seen or heard of the Roland AIRA System 1 yet. To be honest, I’m not that interested in it yet basically because I have quite a few capable old analogs that will work including the ones which the System-1 is trying to emulate. The videos haven’t excited me much and so I’m still on the fence with that particular piece of the AIRA setup. We’ll see how that goes after more info. I believe the System-1 is set to be released in Japan sometime in June which is actually quite far away.

I can highly recommend the VT-3, TR-8, and TB-3 if you do not have the originals nor plan to ever get or afford them. The AIRA set will work in their place just fine. I’m not saying better though because I am not qualified to give that info, but I can definitely say they will hold their own nicely!!

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Roland VT-3 Voice Transformer – Rock Rock Planet Rock!!

Roland VT-3 Voice Transformer
Roland VT-3 Voice Transformer

Over the weekend here in Nagano-city, I picked up the new Roland VT-3 Voice Transformer on display at Shimamura music. They had just received two in stock and was lucky enough to buy one to enjoy over the weekend. They had one setup in the store which I tried out and was instantly impressed. I know the VT-3 doesn’t have midi and I also understand so far there is no way to sync much with it, but that is ok. What this does to your voice is really cool and it will sit nicely with my TC-Helicon Voice Live Touch setup. In a couple of weeks the new Roland TR-8 and TB-3 should be available also but I’m not sure yet if I’ll pick those up or not. I actually was mainly interested in the VT-3 because I felt it would be great for creating vocal phrases and effects over analog synth jams and songs.

BOSS VT-1 Voice Transformer
BOSS VT-1 Voice Transformer

I used to own the BOSS VT-1 Voice Transformer but sold it after a short while. It didn’t really sit well with me in the mix and I felt it was rather limited in just creating robot and changing the pitch of my voice. The formant didn’t do much for me either, however there is reverb which is nice. However, the VT-3 is a whole new machine and instantly I felt it was very musical when playing around with it.

I also thought it was extremely easy to use and the size could sit on one of my analog synths quite easily. You also had additional effects such as Synth, Lead, Bass, Megaphone, Radio, Scatter, Auto Pitch, and Vocoder.

What impressed me the most about the VT-3 was the sound and how easily I felt it could be added to a song or groove. Switching the rotary dial allowed you to easily create different characters or vocal phrases on the fly. Limitations might be the lack of more presets to store patches. As I mentioned earlier there is no midi to sync the Scatter effect although that “might” work over USB. It might have been cool to have an on board looper like on the Boss RC-505, but I understand all that stuff likely would have increased the price. For live performance though, having this thing on my Korg Polysix or Juno-60 is going to be real fun.

Roland U-20 Synthesizer Review

Roland U20 RS PCM Keyboard
Roland U20 RS PCM Keyboard

Yesterday I posted an article about fixing the dead keys on my newly acquired Roland U-20. I got the synth for free and didn’t really know much about it. Today I spent the majority of the day playing around with the U-20 and it was quite frustrating to start primarily because of the manual and lack of “how-to” information on the web. The terminology Roland chose for the U-20 along with it’s terrible manual had me overlooking the most brilliant aspect of the Roland U-20. I just had to write a follow-up article because it has become apparent that most people I’ve encountered talking about the Roland U-20 have missed one hugely important detail. The Roland U-20 can be easily split and layered or both at the same time locally without using MIDI. Amazing!!

The Roland U-20 has four modes called KEYBOARD, SOUND, PART, and RHYTHM. This is where the confusion really starts. What the heck do these mean? The manual is not clear and it took me all day to figure out a VERY simple concept. The most important mode is the SOUND MODE. That should have been called “PATCH MODE”. Now inside this “PATCH MODE” you have 6 parts and 1 rhythm part. Instead of parts, lets call these LAYERS!! To create and use a layer, you need to set the MIDI channel to 1. This allows you to play the sound locally. If you now go to layer 2 ( part 2 ) you can set the Midi channel again to 1. You now will have two stacked sounds. Continue this on all parts and you effectively have created a 6 layer sound patch. Powerful!!! You can then set the key range for each layer and split the keyboard up to seven different sections including the rhythm part. Perhaps you want to create two splits with up to three layers assigned for each split. The level of each layer can be adjusted as well. In Korg lingo, a patch could also mean Combi or Combination.

Roland also at the next level has what they call Timbres and then Tones. To me, Timbres pretty much means voices with most synths nowadays. Tones are used to create the Timbres ( Voices ). The limitation here is you can only assign one tone for each voice. You can’t layer the tones or at least I haven’t figured that out yet. So, you can create two Timbres or Voices and then detune them when creating a layered patch as described above. Thus you can fatten up existing Timbres or voices if so desired. You also have ADSR control with each voice as well.

It’s funny when you search for Roland U-20 patches on the web, you pretty much only find the default factory patches. Why is that? Someone mentioned it was because the Roland U-20 was so easy to program so why post patches. Well yes, BUT only if you truly understand how to program the darn thing. I suspect most people do not understand the full concept of programming the Roland U-20. As a result, they are stuck with factory patches without a clue that there is so much more to the Roland U-20.

The first thing I did after I figured out the U-20 patch system, was to take the very first patch and rename it to something like “Layer_Split_01”. I then created three splits on the keyboard with two layers each. All of the layers were set to midi channel 1 and layer key limits were set accordingly. I then assigned a Timbre/Voice to each layer/part and voila I had a great performance patch. This just opened up a whole world with the Roland U-20. Again pretty amazing for such a cheap synth.

Now there is a catch to this. Both the Arp and Chord Memory affects all of the layers allocated to Midi Channel 1. You can’t split the Arp and have it play on the lower left of the keyboard while playing piano for example on the right. Chord memory is the same. So if you are going to layer up and split your U-20 with a complex patches like this you will have to likely forfeit using the Arp and Chord Memory unless you want it to affect the whole key range. You can set the arp to Midi channel two and assign it a layer to be played by an external midi device or sequencer. That is fine, but my aim here is to keep the synth in performance mode without tethering it up to a sequencer or secondary controller.

If you boost the release on any given layer you can effectively create a “hold” or “sustain” which is a very cool effect. You can sustain or hold string on a particular split while you play a bass line or piano chord over it.

Also, you can create velocity layers and trigger them by how hard you press the keys. This adds even more possibilities for dynamic playing in live performances with the U-20. The U-20 also allows for two U-110 PCM expansion cards to be inserted to increase the number of voices. This is cool too.

Here is an example of a patch I did that was really fun to play.

Lower Section of the keyboard I had two layers set to overlapping Synth Bass and Slap Bass.

The Middle Section had two layers set to overlapping Strings1 and Chorus Piano. I also added a third layer with about 7 keys of JP Brass to add some punch on there too.

The Upper Section had two layers set to synth bells and strings1 ( Same strings from the middle section just extended up to the upper area by setting the appropriate key limit ).

I honestly don’t think most people realize you can do this with the Roland U-20 locally and not just via midi.

Finally another huge question was how do you save all this? The answer is you have to press the “data” button and set SOUND to write. Then write the SOUND into an Internal slot or on your memory card. I use a memory card so that I can keep my internal SOUNDS stock for backup. ( For now at least ).

The Roland U-20 is actually an amazing synth for the money. It’s two weakest points are the bad contact keys and horrible manual. If you can get the keys fixed and wrap your head around the patch creation process by chucking the manual, I think you’ll find a hidden gem with the Roland U-20. There are tons of patches to be created with this synth and many of the tones were not carried over into later products I’ve heard. Indeed the Roland U-20 is a rompler, but it can be layered and split to create some exciting performance patches that I suspect most don’t know about thanks to the cryptic manual.

The attached Roland U-20 Editor screenshot below is from MidiQuestXL which gives you a visual of the patch parameters I tried to outline. If you think in terms of layers and not midi parts, it becomes easier to understand. EnjoY!!

Roland U-20 Synthesizer
Roland U-20 Synthesizer