When people first hear about Behringer’s new line of Roland drum machine clones, I think their first thought is “oh Behringer is making a new analog drum machine.” That’s what I’ve been hearing from people on the net already. Because of course, why would they make a digital TR-808/909 clone? That might as well be a VST plug-in right?
Well I think that hypothetical opinion is not right. On both counts. By far the most important advance in music technology since the debut of the original TR-808 in 1980 is the digital revolution. It’s far cheaper to design and build a DSP filter than an equivalent Analog filter. I imagine it’s the same with most of the elements that comprise a synthesizer. The low cost and versatility of modern processors make digital far more practical than analog in many cases.
Of course, analog components have a kind of natural musicality; they tend to distort signals in a harmonically pleasing way. It’s often very difficult to simulate an analog synthesizer in its entirety with software. In the case of the TR line of drum synthesizers however, the design may lend itself more easily to simulation.
On the TR-808 for example, no drum has more than 3 parameters. Most of the drums have no parameters, which means that while they may be synthesized on the fly, those drums are essentially static sounds. On the TR-909 three of the drums are actually digital PCM samples (crash, ride, and hi-hat). When you compare the thumps, pops and noisy tonal percussion of the 808 with the intricately programmed modulations of the TB-303 bass synthesizer, you can appreciate that when it comes to being replicable, not all analog synths are equal. Drum machines in particular are quite limited in their sonic range.
All of this is to say, I’m sticking my neck out to guess these new units have an almost entirely digital signal path. I have no direct knowledge of this product. They could totally release this as an analog product, and I could be completely wrong. Part of what makes me doubt it though, is that they say it’s expected be under $400, and it would be quite unusual to see a massive, high-quality, polyphonic synthesisizer along with modern digital features at that price. Behringer have shown that it has an analog filter, which can be applied per drum (cool!). But I would be astonished if those were analog oscillators and filters throughout the signal path. Not because analog wouldn’t be nice, but because the benefit of analog in this case wouldn’t justify the expense.
Analog synths are beautiful things, but not just for nostalgic value. I believe it’s perfectly feasible to make a digital Roland drum machine which is indistinguishable from the original. Putting it into a single dedicated box lets you throw as much computing power as you need at it, and gives you the niceties of a buttons-and-knobs interaction. I can totally see the value of it, even without analog circuits.
The real question for me is, will the price be right, and how will they use software to modernize the experience? I just wanted to comment on the analog expectation, and tell you that it’s shouldn’t be a deal breaker. There are things here to be concerned about here, but don’t count out digital for clone machines like this.
There’s of course the question of copycatting. Is it right for Behringer to make exact replicas of the most popular line of drum machines ever made? I think the category of clone devices is pretty well established, and we’re mostly okay with it. But most of those are one-off projects by bored engineers, like x0xb0x. There is something a bit unseemly about a major company making clones of another company’s devices. It’s not a great look. I’ll leave it to others to sift through the ethics of it. What’s vexing to me is that Roland already resurrected the 808 and the 909 as low cost digital synthesizers. This move just feels profoundly uninspired.