Well it's nice to be proved wrong every now and again, with the new Roland Aira units. Judging from YouTube reviews that have been dropping in from a European DJ show where the Airas have been debuting, there's plenty of new information coming out. Now that the dust has settled, I'd like to share some of my thoughts on these units.
While these are not analogue recreations of older gear, to the disappointment of many who were expecting a re-issue of classic hardware instruments, they use a particular new virtual analogue engine called "Analogue Circuit Behaviour" to properly model the sound. I was certainly among the few who were disappointed to initially hear this, but I have to say that I have been impressed with what I have heard so far. It captures some of the imperfections of analogue gear rather than digital samples that sound the same each time. There's also a good lot of I/O going on, with USB, MIDI and Audio over USB as standard in each box, so instantly you can stick them into your DAW and use them, rather than paying for aftermarket mods for the originals.
Looking at the TB-3: simply put it's virtual analogue recreation of the legendary TB-303, with a touch interface, built in effects, more wave forms, a sequencer up to 32 steps and lots of other little features. It definitely sounds like a TB-303 and much more, with a slightly more usable programming system and while it's not an original or "truly analogue", I would bet that most users would not be able to tell the difference.
The same can be said of the TR-8, a more flexible VA drum kit with swapable 808 and 909 kits that you can mix and match. Presumably the digital nature of the machine will also mean that other kits will be available in the future to increase the uses of the unit. After all the 808 and 909 drum sounds are still sought after for producers who make house, trap, hip hop and so on, but given the number of sample kits and emulations of these two machines I wonder if this is a little too late.
The System 1 is where my interest is definitely piqued. It's another VA synthesiser (so far, so normal) with a unique synth engine and effects built in, but it can also be loaded with VA emulations of older Roland gear. In effect, it can be used as a controller for other classic keyboards, so we'll hopefully see lots of other machines be released for people who want the sounds of older Roland synthesisers but in a small unit for portable play. Apparently, you load up the classic keyboard, hit a button to turn the emulation on and the lights on the encoders and buttons indicate which controls are active that affect the parameters of the emulated synth. This seems like an elegant and straightforward way of doing this to me and I look forward to seeing what other synths will become available - apparently the SH-101 is the first on the list.
In terms of dumb notes, my money is on the the voice transforming VT-1 that will probably sell the least units as a fun but limited vocoder system. It's not like any other VA synths are doing vocoders anyway (if you forget that there are literally THOUSANDS of Miniaks, MicroKorgs, MiniNovas and Supernovas out there that are a keyboard synth with a vocoder for not much more than the VT-1).
While this is all well and good and Roland have finally woken up to the fact that they have fans of their brand through a heritage of dance music, the question on my mind is: why wait until now? The 303 was a hallmark of dance music in the late 80s / early 90s and when you actually look back, that was nearly THIRTY YEARS ago. These days, while the 303 is revered by producers for THE acid-house sound, it's been an awfully long time since I heard a 303 on a commercial dance track. Roland tried and failed to capitalise on the popularity of the 303 with the digital MC-303, which wasn't well received. While I can see the drum machine being a success, the 303 is an instrument whose sound is instantly dated over 20 years - unfortunately, things have moved on since then and I feel this is a little too late. Mind you, Moog's voyagers all seem to sound like a Minimoog recreation and they sell well, so maybe it's a nostalgia thing and I'm wrong - the TB-3 might just do well by undercutting the second hand market.
But to me, digital hardware, no matter how authentic it sounds, can always be recreated in software, so the need for a dedicated hardware box for a digital sound engine is a bit meaningless (this is also the reason why I've sold all my VA hardware). While Roland are able to easily update the OS and integrate all the modern conveniences of I/O by using digital sound engines, they will have to work hard to sell the concept that their VA engine is a better way of generating analogue instruments. I consider the move to release these recreations are only to pander to those who want that sound in a hardware box but can't afford the extortionate prices - or were holding out to see if Roland were going to "pull a Korg" and recreate their back catalogue.
Speaking of prices, the TB-3 costs as much as the analogue MicroBrute - I think I can tell what I would drop £260 on if I had to buy more hardware and it would be a monosynth that actually had a keyboard on it. I sincerely hope they do well; a market with Roland and Korg slugging it out for consumer dollars will only mean better products coming out for everyone.