Roland | The TR-909 Story

Within the realms of house and techno, it’s almost certain that the Roland TR-909 has powered more tracks and live performances than any other drum machine. 909DAY (September 9) is for everyone who loves dance music—whether you’re at an open-air festival, an underground club or in the depths of the studio, cooking up the sounds of tomorrow. You already know the 909 sound—read on to discover its story.

‘A MAN, A TR-909, AND A CAST OF THOUSANDS’

It takes a very special machine to keep a crowd of people moving at the end of a festival

PART 1

THE ORIGIN
1983, JAPAN

In the early ‘80s dance music as we know it didn’t exist. Of course, there had been disco and some uptempo soul records would definitely get you moving, but the ‘lights-out, heads-down’ vibe of house and techno was nowhere to be seen or heard. This was especially true in Osaka, Japan, where a team of engineers at Roland Corporation began working on the successor to the TR-808, unaware of the impact it would have on electronic music and culture.

Roland TR-808 - The Sequel

TR-808:
THE SEQUEL

In 1982, when Roland stopped producing the TR-808, the industry was changing fast. The TR-808 had been in development from 1978, so with a replacement on the horizon there was much to consider. Lessons had also been learned on what people liked—and disliked—about drum machines on the market. And since engineers always want to try new things, the key question was “what shall we do differently?”

ANALOG
& DIGITAL?

For the TR-909, Roland was still pursuing the idea of an analog ‘drum synthesizer’ rather than a machine that played back digital samples of ‘real’ drums. The analog approach gave the user extensive control over the sound—for example, you could de-tune the kick drum or toms for some very creative results. But it was decided that the hi-hats and cymbals of the TR-909 should be digital recordings of their acoustic counterparts, as the engineers felt a more realistic sound would help the TR-909 feel like a substantial upgrade compared to the all analog TR-808.

TR-909 - The Sound

THE TR-909
SOUND

Combining punchy analog drums with crisp, sharply defined hi-hats and cymbals yielded a potent collection of sounds. On their own, they didn’t really fit into the genres of the day—for example, the kick drum and toms sounded too powerful to come from an acoustic kit. And yet, as the TR-909 seemed to blend really well into a mix and as producers explored new sonic territories, the TR-909 would be slowly incorporated into the emerging blueprints for house and techno.

THE MIDI
CONNECTION

The TR-909 was Roland’s first drum machine to feature MIDI, which back in 1983 was a new technical standard that allowed electronic instruments to ‘talk’ to each other. By using MIDI-equipped gear, people could build small studios, typically comprising a drum machine, sampler and effects processors—a DIY ethos that would cause a shift in power from record companies to the people making the music. Just a few years later, many classic house and techno records would emerge from these relatively sparse setups, often with a TR-909 at the center.

TR-909 - MIDI connection
TR-909 Sequencer

THE
SEQUENCER

One of the key upgrades of the TR-909 was the sequencer, which allowed ‘patterns’ to be created using the 10 built-in drum sounds. The TR-909 sequencer had features like ‘flam’ and shuffle, to make pattern playback feel a bit more human, and less machine-like. Critically the TR-909 could make patterns swing and— combined with its ability to drive other MIDI-equipped gear like samplers—it was often found at the heart of early electronic music studios, providing the timing (and drums) for the entire track being produced.

The Roland TR-909

Launched in 1983 for $1300, the Roland TR-909 was only produced for a year—with just 10,000 units made. Even though it offered an array of improvements over the TR-808—including MIDI connectivity, a powerful sequencer, external storage and superior sound quality—it had a shorter life than its predecessor. In hindsight, instead of targeting professional studios, the TR-909 was probably more suited to ‘bedroom’ producers who needed drum sounds and a versatile sequencer that could power additional equipment—so that they could create an entire piece of music with a minimal setup. And that’s exactly what happened once the TR-909 appeared in second-hand shops, acquired by people with some rather interesting ideas about where music was headed...

The Roland TR-909 Back panel
Part 2 - Players + Places
PART 2

PLAYERS + PLACES
1985 TO 1995: HOUSE AND TECHNO

By the mid-eighties, and now in the hands of young music producers from Detroit and Chicago, the TR-909 started to appear on records which became the classics of a brand-new music scene. These ground-breaking productions encoded the TR-909’s sonic DNA into early house and techno, acting as a signpost to future generations of producers who would eagerly seek out the machine that gave dance music its kick. And as electronic music exploded, the shockwave expanded far beyond the places where it was originally made. London, Manchester, and Berlin all became epicenters for a powerful and thriving youth culture that still exists today. Here are just a few of the legendary tracks that defined house and techno—with just a little help from the Roland TR-909.

GOOD LIFE
INNER CITY

Following hot on the heels of 1988’s Big Fun—and with both tracks featuring the Roland TR-909— this song from Kevin Saunderson’s Inner City proved that techno could cross over and find a mainstream audience. For a track to emerge from the underground and end up dominating daytime radio was quite the achievement in the late ‘80s, and it marked the start of electronic music’s invasion of popular culture.

ENERGY FLASH
JOEY BELTRAM

Credited as having revolutionalized techno—twice—by the age of 21, NYC-based Joey Beltram kicked off his production career with Energy Flash. A sinister, relentless juggernaut of a track, the drums on Energy Flash arguably show the TR-909 at its most effective, with metallic hi-hats, reverb-drenched clap and a concussive kick drum that punched through the smoke and strobes of the early nineties. Never bettered.

STRINGS OF LIFE
RHYTHIM IS RHYTHIM

Think about the most influential—and most beloved—techno tracks of all time and it’s hard to imagine a list that doesn’t have Strings of Life at the top. An audacious amalgam of strings, piano and nononsense drums, Derrick May’s masterpiece employs the TR-909 to euphoric effect, resulting in a record that proved—once and for all—that electronic could also be emotional.

CHIME
ORBITAL

Released right at the end of the eighties and forged in the London raves that gave the band its name, Chime is the track that propelled Orbital into the major leagues. With a respectful nod to Detroit but also full of its own energy and ideas, Chime finally put the UK on the map and set the standard for years to come. Three decades on and still causing mass outbreaks of ‘hands in air’.

JEFF MILLS
THE WIZARD

When it comes to the TR-909, Jeff Mills is the undisputed master. A founding member of Underground Resistance, the Michigan-born DJ became renowned for brutal techno sets, as well as his ability to wield a TR-909 to devastating effect during live performances. With one eye on the dance floor, and the other on the future of music and technology, Jeff Mills’ relationship with the TR-909 is one of techno’s most enduring partnerships. Man and machine in perfect harmony.

ALTITUDE
SYSTEM 7/DERRICK MAY

If music can transport you to another place then prepare for a trip into the future, courtesy of this Derrick May production. A collaboration with Steve Hillage’s System-7, this thought-provoking track conjures visions of a dense atmosphere on a distant planet, with the TR-909’s metallic machinelike clattering at its core. A masterclass of texture, movement and pressure. Sonically sublime.

PART 3

THE CULTURE
LATE ‘90S TO PRESENT, WORLDWIDE

Today, electronic music is everywhere. Whether it’s the EDM cathedrals of Las Vegas, the hedonism of Ibiza and Miami, or Amsterdam’s 909 festival—if you love dance music, the 909 sound is all around you. The influence of Detroit, Chicago and Berlin continues to inspire and evolve, motivating partygoers and producers alike to keep the flag flying. And even though electronic music now comes in many flavours, one thing is certain: when the lights are down and the hands go up, the TR-909 comes out—nearly forty years on and still going strong.

JOIN THE 909 CELEBRATION
Post your 909 stories and memories with the #909day hashtag and we’ll feature the best below.

    The TR-909 Today
    PART 4

    THE TR-909 TODAY

    FROM NOW INTO THE FUTURE

    If you want the classic Roland TR-909 sound, you’ve got several options. If you can find one—and afford one—an original issue, early-eighties TR-909 will do just fine. But there are other options that are more affordable and surpass the sound and performance capabilities of the original.

    ORIGINAL
    TR-909

    The OG. With only 10,000 ever made, units from the original production run are becoming increasingly rare and soughtafter. But if you want ultimate bragging rights (and that hardto- emulate hardware sequencer swing) then an original Roland TR-909 could be the way to go. Just keep it locked up and don’t tell anybody you have one.

    Original TR-909
    Aira TR-8S

    AIRA
    TR-8/TR-8S

    The AIRA TR-8S re-imagined what a Roland TR-909 would sound like if it was developed today - with the ability to include samples, and a host of performance-based effects.

    FIND OUT MORE

    TR-09
    ROLAND
    BOUTIQUE

    No longer in production, the Roland TR-09 is part of the Roland Boutique range of classic reissues. There’s the same user interface (although it’s much simpler to program and construct patterns), and it’s also battery-powered so you can drop some 909 flavours wherever you fancy.

    Roland TR-09 Boutique
    Roland Cloud TR-909

    ROLAND
    CLOUD 909

    Analog meets digital on the dancefloor! Roland Cloud’s software TR-909 integrates the original’s sample ROM, modeling the early digital technology of the vintage hardware. Create multiple instances of the 909 within your tracks and “drag and drop” patterns directly from the 909 into a project as MIDI or audio. Plus, the 909’s 16-step sequencer now has an EDIT function which expands to include an individual lane for each instrument, allowing for effortless programming.

    FIND OUT MORE

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