The Legend of 909

From its humble beginnings in Osaka, Japan, the Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer was born in 1983 with a run of 10,000 units and sold for $1300. Blissfully unaware of the impact it would go on to have, Roland’s engineers delivered their follow-up to the TR-808 and TR-606; which has its imprint on more tracks than any other drum machine in the world and has gone on to shape the foundation of modern club music!

What Made It So Unique?


The 909, like its predecessors, used analog circuitry to create its sounds. However, the thing that took it to another level, was the fact that they combined analog kick and tom drums with sharp and crisp hi-hats and cymbals. These kits were above and beyond anything previously available and with the addition of a built-in sequencer and the ability to add shuffle and flam to your loops, swing and groove could be introduced to your drum patterns as well as connecting more gear to the machine via MIDI. This combination of sounds proved, initially, to be ahead of its time and the machine, with its price tag (approximately $3000 in today's money) meant that it was targeting professional studios, who couldn’t find the use for artificial drum sounds, whereas it was more suited to the ‘bedroom producers’ of that era, who were on a budget and wanted as many sounds as possible on a minimal set-up. Therefore, it was discontinued in 1985.

In the mid-to-late 80’s, the machine started to show up in second-hand stores, for as little as $50, making it accessible for the young, cash-strapped, wannabe producers of that time. This led to the birth of the seminal House and Techno scenes to come out of Detroit and Chicago where countless productions came out absolutely infused with TR-909 sounds and rhythms as their backbone. With a healthy competition between the different scenes in the cities building, around how they EQ their sounds and achieve different levels of productions quality, this help to push the sound forward and harness creativity. The late Chicago House pioneer Frankie Knuckles described the TR-909 as “the foundation of what I do”.


These scenes spilled out further, most notably exploding in London, Manchester and Berlin, each with distinctive scenes of their own! With groups such as The Orbital leaning into the Detroit aesthetic, but bringing forward a treasure-trove of new ideas and techniques to really push the sound further.


Another British group 808 State, took their moniker from the earlier TR-808, but their use of the 909 on the track ‘Pacific State’ gave them the rhythm they needed for this one to really stand out!

 

Hip Hop and the 909


In parallel to these burgeoning underground scenes, the 909 was popping up on pop tracks by artists such as Madonna (‘Vogue’) and The Pet Shop Boys, as well as having been picked up by Hip Hop producers, drawn to the machine by the swing capabilities it was possible to achieve. Whilst it never made the same impact on the Hip Hop scene as the earlier 808, there were some who took notice as to the potential the new machine had to offer. Jazzy Jeff was an early adopter, noticing that more groove could be added into his productions when compared to its predecessor. “The 909 was the first drum machine where you could put swing on the drums. The 808 was straight, from a quantized point of view, but hip hop really started to change when you started to put a swing to the drums. The 909 was responsible for that.” - Jazzy Jeff


Another notable within Hip Hop to use the 909 was RZA and his productions for Ghostface Killah and Raekwon.

The Enduring Appeal


The continued desire for these sounds is evident in the large number of 909 clones and software available. It’s been said to be both a blessing and a curse for the House and Techno scenes. With a sometimes-unhealthy obsession with what was once a futuristic sound, could now be seen as nostalgic-yearning and a slight regressive mentality to what have always been progressive genres. Nevertheless, the sounds have an enduring appeal that can be applied to many modern-day productions, such as this track from Mumdance and Novelist, taking the 909 and sending it into a futuristic Grime-infused direction.


“It’s the kick drum,” states IDM veteran Richard Devine. “It’s definitely my favorite. It has a nice, punchy, fast attack, and it’s actually a very versatile voice. I used it hundreds and hundreds of times.”

“The kick drums definitely got more balls to it than any other drum machine kick drum I’ve heard” - Gabe Gurnsey

“Compared to some recent drum machine layouts, I still don’t think that the classic Roland boxes can be beat.” - John Heckle

Complete 808 & 909 Drum Machines

Over 260 classic 808 & 909 Drum Samples, also ready-formatted for Kontakt, EXS24, Halion and many more.

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