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Snap and Shutter: how Roland’s TR-909 escaped failure and built a legacy

jeff mills the history of the roland tr-909

Some of the most groundbreaking music ever composed only has its genius realised retroactively. The same could be said for pieces of gear such as the Roland TR-909, a drum machine which has continued to influence dance music far beyond its introduction in 1983.

Riding the coattails of its big brother the TR-808, which was manufactured between 1980 and 1983, many hoped the 909 would be destined for greatness. They were right, but a total commercial failure came first.

jeff mills the history of the roland tr-909

From total commercial failure to supernatural levels of power: find out how the Roland TR-909 far outlived its mediocre beginnings.

Finding a Rhythm

The TR-909 was first introduced in 1983 for a handy price of $1,195 USD, and lasted just one year on the market before it was discontinued. Roland only built 10,000 original units, which explains the $5,000 resale prices you see today.

What distinguished the 909 from its predecessor, the TR-808, were a few features. It was the first ever Roland drum machine to use pre-recorded samples – on the crash, ride, and hi-hat sounds – but also fell back onto synthesised analog samples for the rest of the sound board. It was the first Roland drum machine to use MIDI (which has certainly helped the love affair as time goes), and the sequencer was considered quite powerful at the time.

Serendipitously, the popularisation of the 909 mirrored that of the 808; both machines had the plug pulled by Roland at roughly the same time (1984 and 1983 respectively), but as disco, hip hop, and pop were picking up on on the 808, the earliest whispers of dance music were falling for the snappy sounds of the 909.

The first commercial use of the TR-909 goes to new age industrialists Skinny Puppy, who employed the rhythm composer on their 1984 album Remission. However, it really started to pop when the Chicago club scene started employing the machine. Those airtight claps and punchy kicks were everywhere during the early years of house music; from Frankie Knuckle’s once-in-a-lifetime anthem Can You Feel It to Derrick May’s Strings of Life.

By the time the late ’80s rolled in, the damage was done. Those measly 10,000 units were punching way above their weight.

Revolution 909

In the late ’80s, Detroit house laid the foundations of techno, a genre of club-moving music that relied almost entirely on percussion. Here were rhythms that no drummer could dream to play on a kit, both for their complexity and their precision.

The 909 turned out the be the perfect instrument for techno’s teething years and subsequent popularisation. Artists such as Jeff Mills adopted leftover units greedily, pushing them to their outer limits, even composing entire songs or sets within their bounds.

“The way that the machine was made, it’s possible to actually play the machine, not just program it”, said Mills of the 909. “And if you’re really good, to play it almost as if you’re a live drummer playing a drum kit.” 

As Mills, Heard, and co. were lighting clubs on fire, the broader pop music space began taking notice. In 1989 Technotronic employed a 909 on their massive single Pump Up The Jam, and the next year Roland really tasted the fame monster when Madonna busted out their little “commercial failure” on Vogue.

At the same time acid house was rolling sublime in the UK, led in tandem by the beats of the TR-909 and the distorted squelch of Roland’s TB-303 bassline workhorse. Which, hilariously, was also discontinued after three years – but that’s another story.

The TR-909 became a staple drum machine, not just amongst its house, techno, and acid forebears, but far beyond. During the the ’90s Roland’s little rhythm composer had been utilised by artists such as Orbital, Schooly D, Moby, and Björk.

This love affair proliferated throughout the decade, and in 1997 Roland earned the kind of free advertisement which comes along once in a lifetime; a track on Daft Punk’s debut album Homework named Revolution 909. ‘Revolution’ was barely a hyperbole.

The Highest Form of Flattery

The legacy of the TR-909 was a bi-product of its short lifespan. As demand for the now-iconic samples grew and grew, Roland drew a hard line on reproducing the classic. A score of hardware clones and rip-offs were created in the 909’s monumental shadow. With the rise of the DAW, these clones started flooding the VST and plug-in markets and now, you’re spoilt for choice. Ableton Live even comes pre-shipped with an imitation 909 sample kit.

After a solid 35 years of silence on the matter, Roland eventually announced their own TR-909 clone as part of their cute Boutique series. The TR-09 is a faithful reproduction of the original module, packed down into a bite-sized chassis. And, unlike its big daddy, the world was ready for it; the TR-09 has found a great deal of success amongst producers and live performer who sought the (now widely available) 909 samples alongside the haptic quality hardware can provide.

Which, in the end, is what was so magical about the 909. The samples in time became iconic, but there was always a physical quality to the shutter, snap, and hiss that this drum machine produced. The kick drum was a fist pump, the clap a straight-up slap on the cheek, the flutter of hi-hats a clenched jaw.

Whether these beats are being flung out of the PA at a warehouse rave or bubbling beneath a Radiohead tune, the TR-909 is one of those magical sound devices which carry a real-world weight behind them. From humble beginnings to total domination… it makes you wonder, which overlooked contemporary piece of gear could change the world tomorrow?

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November 9, 2019