A Brief History of the TR-909 | Features | MN2S

TR-909 drum machines have played a vital part in the history of electronic music. We look at the story of this influential electronic instrument.

Continuing our series covering the history of electronic music’s most important instruments, this is the history of Roland’s TR-909. The follow-up to the infamous TR-808, the TR-909 was just as important to the development of electronic music, playing a large role in the development of techno and the formation of acid house alongside its cousin, the Roland TB-303.

The sounds of the 909

Released in 1984, the 909 continued the tradition of its predecessor by using mostly unique sounds instead of accurate drumkit reproductions. There was, however, a key difference. This video details how Roland’s engineers came up with the sounds of the 909. They once again created bass and snare drum sounds using analogue synthesisers, but they struggled to find the perfect sound for the cymbals and hi-hats.

As you can see, they opted to use digital samples of real cymbals and hi-hats. This is the biggest difference between the 808 and the 909. Even though the cymbal sounds used real samples, the sound files were compressed to 6 bits, allowing for users to modify them with a volume envelope and tuning.

As with the 808 and the 303, the 909 was successful not for its accuracy but for its idiosyncrasy, flexibility and, perhaps most importantly, affordability. Once again the instrument took off in lower income neighbourhoods like Chicago and Detroit, and the 909’s unique sounds began to permeate the two cities’ emerging genres of house and techno.

The users of the 909

The 909 was popular with producers from all the emerging electronic producers. DJ Deeon incorporated the instrument into his ghetto house tracks and he still uses it in his work today.

The late Chicago house pioneer Frankie Knuckles was given a 909 by Derrick May, and since then he was “in love with it.” In a Red Bull Music Academy interview he called the drum machine “the foundation of what I do.” He explains that in his opinion, the bottom end of a house track should be felt, not heard. A 909 bass drum tuned way down makes this possible.

Fellow house luminary Kerri Chandler has stressed the importance of 808 kicks and 909 kicks to house music. And British acid house trailblazer A Guy Called Gerald recently worked with Red Bull Music Academy on a project to celebrate the drum machine on 909 day this year.

The 909 was also popular in hip-hop. RZA’s productions for Wu Tang Clan members Ghostface Killah and Raekwon often featured 909s, and Kurtis Mantronik of Mantronix is a known user, most notably on the song ‘Bassline’.

The TR-909 was also popular with more mainstream musicians such as Phil Collins, whose ‘Sussudio’ took the drum machine all the way to the top of the charts worldwide.

The 909 today

As we have touched on, many musicians who start using the 909 never stop, and its sounds can be heard all across the musical landscape today.

Roland certainly haven’t ignored the enduring popularity of one of their flagship instruments. They declared the 9th September this year as the official 909 Day and celebrated the instrument’s legacy and announced the launch of several brand new music production products. One of them was the Roland TR-09, a direct tribute to the 909, intended to look, sound and function in a similar way.

But for all the ways the 09 is similar to the 909, there is one key difference: the 09 does not use analogue technology. For enthusiasts of the original, this will be a huge disappointment. Luckily for them, if they know where to find one, an original TR-909 is still every bit as usable today as it was in the 1980s.

Header image from Wikimedia Commons. Original by Brandon Daniel, edited by Clusternote.

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