When it comes to popular music, very few pieces of studio equipment boast an iconic, emblematic presence outside of production circles. I mean, you don’t see folks at the mall donning Avalon t-shirts all that often, correct? The Roland TR-808, though, is the one black box that reached mainstream as an unmistakable symbol of hip-hop culture. The 808 is for rap music what the Marshall stack is for rock – instantly recognisable and timeless-sounding.
Its successor, the TR-909, is no less iconic but it belongs to techno – a smaller subculture compared to hip-hop’s overwhelming reign, yet incredibly significant. And then comes the TR-606 – somewhat overlooked due to the 808 and 909’s mammoth presence, but a classic nonetheless.
5 of the best Roland drum machine plug-ins
While the original units have become obscenely priced collector’s items, the sounds of Roland’s classic drum machines are masterfully preserved for this and the future generations. The easiest and most efficient way to inject them in your productions are the many synthesis and sample-based plug-in recreations available. Here are our 5 favorites among them:
Nepheton (TR-808), Drumazon (TR-909), Nithonat (TR-606) by D16 Group
Polish developer D16 Group has been peddling picture-perfect emulations of Roland boxes for longer than I can remember. Nepheton, Drumazon, and Nithonat are 100% synthesis-based and leave no stones unturned. D16 maxed these out in both the visual and sonic aspects. The result feels like having the original boxes before you but you must click them with a mouse. At EUR 99 apiece or EUR 299 for the Classic Boxes bundle (which includes Phoscyon, a TB-303 emulation of the same caliber), getting in on the fun is reasonably affordable. D16 takes 40% off the prices a couple of times per year, so waiting for a sale is also an option.
Roland Cloud – Drums
If the D16 stuff is only 100% authentic, the Roland Cloud emulations are 101% there. This is the same software that powers the manufacturer’s hardware replicas of its classic x0x boxes, but for your computer. YouTubers ran the comparisons long ago – Roland’s circuit modeling is practically indistinguishable from the long-extinct originals. Maybe ever so-slightly cleaner-sounding, as is the nature of digital.
The Roland Cloud subscription is free to explore, has three price tiers, and is filled to the brim with Roland history. If subscriptions make sense to you, this is probably the most cost-effective way to tap into legitimate TR sounds alongside the rest of Roland’s electronic instruments.
Samplephonics 808 is a rock-solid example of a sample-based approach to emulating the TR-808. It only took 4500 multi-samples recorded through obscenely posh gear (Chandler pres, Studer reels, Neve desk, the works) alongside all the scripting and housekeeping involved. It’s a commendable effort which goes beyond convincing – it sounds fantastic! If you prefer the untouched, unadulterated sound of the TR-808 instead, it’s also there. The instrument is available in Ableton Sampler, EXS24, Reason NN-XT, Kontakt 4 and Kontakt 5 formats for EUR 54.39.
Synsonic BD-808 and BD-909 (free!)
About 4 years ago, Synsonic released a pair of plug-ins modeling the 808 and 909 bass drum synths – all for free. The developer didn’t stop at nailing the core sounds. It also added fine tuning, extended decay, and MIDI modulation (note velocity controls tuning and accenting) to the 808 emulation. If you want them, they are right there alongside the original Accent, Level, Decay, and Tone parameters. For the 909, additions include distortion, noise decay, tune depth, hold and pitch.
Analog Mania RC-808
Analog Mania is made up of the ex-Roland people behind the x0x series. Recognising the significance of their achievements, they run a fully independent operation of preserving and promoting their groundbreaking work. Part of this is the RC-808 software which presents a working conceptual model of the TR-808’s originally intended architecture. While you are at it, the Analog Mania website offers lots of further reading and you can participate in an upcoming “drum rap” contest. It’s truly a fan site like no other – I mean, it belongs to the guys that made the very machines!
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- D16 Nepheton: D16 Group
- D16 Drumazon: D16 Group
- D16 Nithonat: D16
- Roland Cloud Drums: Roland Cloud
- Samplephonics 808: Samplephonics
- Synsonic BD-808: Synsonic
- Synsonic BD-909: Synsonic
- Analog Mania RC-808: Analog Mania