I’ve used the Roland TR-8 for just over a year now and I’ve since found many applications for the machine in my studio. These applications include; drum recording, MIDI triggering & live setup, Ableton Drum Rack/Synths, Live Automation, Mixing and DJing with Traktor.
This machine is much more than just an 808 or 909: with the right knowledge the TR-8 can become the most integral part of any studio, and be set up to control several operations at any one time. I will endeavour to breakdown and explain each.
Lets start with the obvious, drum programming and recording. There are a few different ways I like to record the TR-8 drums. Side note, I only have the 808 and 909 kit. I would like to use the newer kits, but don’t want to spend half the price of the machine again to get them. I’ll explain later why I don’t need them in the drum rack section.
The main selling point of the TR-8 to me was the ability to record the full multi-track through USB. So my default way of recording the TR-8, is a multi-track setup in Ableton Live, so that I can record the dry takes of the drums I’ve programmed and jammed. After this I have a clean recording of each drum, which I’m then free to edit or process in any way I feel.
Sometimes I might want to use the inbuilt delays, reverbs or scatter on the TR-8. In this case I might record a second take, which will be recorded as a stereo master out. I can then use this take to to do a dry/wet blend in certain parts of the track.
Alternatively, I might record individual drum takes, recording one drum at a time using the inbuilt TR-8 effects. Then I can be even more clinical in the mix-down process when mixing wet and dry scenes together.
Sometimes I also like to run the drums through other outboard equipment or even just run the drums through an analogue desk to pick up a bit of warmth in the mix.
That’s just a few examples of how I like to use the TR-8 as an in-the-box drum machine.
You might find yourself getting bored of the 808/909 sounds after you made your first few hundred beats with the machine. I looked at some of the recordings I’d previously done and noticed I always added some automation effects over the snare, toms, claps and hats. So I looked at how I could incorporate this into the original live recording take of the drums. Not only would this save time with the mixing and editing stage, but it would actually feel, sound and work much more creatively for the recording process. This could in turn apply directly into a your live on stage setup.
The types of effects I like to use in this way are:
Resonators and delays on the Toms and Snare. I like to MIDI map the resonator’s filter and decay to the snare or tom decay and pitch knobs, so then when you tweak the actual drum sound, you also trigger and control the resonator, giving you a much bigger and more dynamic sound.
Reverbs and other send and return effects on snare, clap and hats. Using a similar method I MIDI map the reverb’s size or decay parameter, the send/return level (A or B buses) and maybe the feedback of a delay, to the decay and pitch knobs of the snare and hats on the TR-8.
Another type of trigger setup I use for the TR-8, is for my live setup, which I use for recording my video podcast ‘SIGNAL’ (available on my Youtube channel Signal Edinburgh). I have different types of hardware coming in and out of my studio all the time for the purpose of recording live jams for Signal using a variety of gear for each episode.
Lately I’ve had the TR-8 setup triggering all the drums on a Vermona Analogue drum machine, as well as sending the master clock to a Minibrute. I do this simply by using a MIDI cable going out of the TR-8 into MIDI in of the Vermona and then another cable out of the Vermona into the MIDI in of the Minibrute.
I then plug the L/R audio out off the Vermona to the L/R audio in on the TR-8. This way I can get both a clean signal in or I can use the Master Output of the TR-8 and effect the Vermona drums with the Scatter or Side Chain. With this set up you can also layer the 808/909 drums over the Vermona (or any other hardware device you decide to use this way).
Alternatively I could trigger the Minibrute and make the drum patterns trigger notes on the synth.
Using these techniques gives you a much bigger and wider spectrum to work on for your drum processing, triggers, automation and recording. You can then use similar MIDI setups for using your TR-8 live on stage, leaving people guessing as to what your doing.
Ableton Drum Rack & Synths:
Now to the next MIDI application: the TR-8 combined with Ableton’s drum rack and synths. Earlier I talked about getting bored with the 808/909 sounds and not wanting to go to the expense of buying the extension packs after forking out (at the time) £450 for the machine.
I realised that I can just use my own samples via drum rack and still trigger them using the TR-8, giving me the hands on ability of the machine and still with a world of flexibility on sounds and samples via Ableton. (or whatever DAW you want to use).
The TR-8 conveniently triggers the drum rack without any mapping setup, but annoyingly does not trigger the drum rack in a nice tidy row on the grid. Instead the samples are scattered throughout the grid on the drum pad in no actual order. So you’ll have to carefully lay out your samples in a way you will remember. I’m sure there is a way round this, but it’s barely an inconvenience to me so I use as is and now I’m comfortable with the abstract layout.
When I have my samples laid out on the drum rack and I’m happy with the pattern I’ve created on the TR-8, I can then start assigning the TR-8 knobs to FX/Filters/Delays/Reverbs that I set up on each of my samples. This enables me to have live automation and bigger dynamics as I mentioned before.
In a very similar fashion you can trigger Ableton’s synths with the TR-8. Each drum pad acts like a different note on the scale, allowing you to build up arpeggio type lead and bass synths to match your drum sequence. Giving you a much more defined groove in your track.
Mixing, DJing & Traktor:
These days dj controllers and sync buttons are all the rage. Personally I come from a turntable background, but unlike some, I don’t mind the new age tech involved in DJ performance and in fact I see them as another creative tool. I often find myself having a blind mix on headphones late at night because I simply don’t have time to practice during the day when I can blast my monitors. Being the considerate neighbour that I am now, I’ve had to find a solution.
One big benefit of using the sync buttons in Traktor is that I can set up all my tracks and trust that they will sync in the mix without having to pre-cue them on headphones. So if you know your setlist well enough, or even if you don’t, you can jump right in and have a mix on headphones.
Now you may ask, where does the TR-8 come into this? Well, having the sync button on does not make a mix, you need a way of controlling the levels and EQs, that’s where the TR-8 comes into play. I map the first 4 drum channel levels as the level control for my 4 decks in Traktor, I then use the drum parameter knobs for each drum and map them to the low, mid and high eq on the mixer in Traktor.
Now I have complete control over the mixer and I can go one step further by mapping additional knobs to the filter or other effects in Traktor. As well as this I have two X1’s to control my play modes, loop modes, FXs and track selection modes, meaning I don’t have to touch the laptop once through the mix.
Using the Roland TR-8 in this way has enabled me to practice and record sets late into the night with out a single noise complaint because I’m monitoring everything on my headphones.
Alternatively you could use the 14 channel levels on your TR-8 in your DAW as a hands-on controller for handling your mix. Even controllers sold exactly for this reason have a standard 8 channels, but with this drum machine you get an inbuilt 14 channel controller. Not only that, you get over 30-40 mappable knobs and buttons, which when used wisely could give you extensive control over your mix and whatever else you can imagine mapping within your DAW.
Clearly we can take away from all of this that the Roland TR-8 is much more than its old 808 and 909 counter-parts: it’s a fully diverse and in depth MIDI controller with hundreds of applications for your DAW, DJ setup and drum recording within the studio.