Roland Aira Compact review

This review of the new Roland Aira Compact series appeared on MusicRadar, written by Bruce Aisher, on August 12. The original review can be found here.

Roland hasn’t been shy of revisiting its classics, and this has taken many forms – from hardware to software, targeting specific units, or just distilling parts into entirely new products. 

The Aira range with its black and green livery was one of Roland’s first attempts to provide realistic recreations. More recently the Boutique range has resurrected the sound of the Jupiter-8, TR-808 and many others. 

It is notable however that Roland has stuck with the DSP approach, unlike Korg who has introduced units based around analogue sound generation circuitry (most accessible in the Volca range, where simplicity, small footprint, battery power and low cost have proved a massive draw). 

It seems that Roland has been paying attention as the size and price-point of its new Aira compact range seems to show.

Although the T-8 is diminutive it still pays a slight visual homage to the classic TR-808 drum machine and even embraces some of its sounds and functionality. Let’s start with some of the elements common to this Roland range – the Aira Compact.

As alluded to earlier, they are similar to Korg Volcas in terms of general footprint. A glance along the top of the front panel will perhaps also bring up nods of recognition with its mini-jack Sync In/Out and audio output sockets, diminutive parameter pots and basic 4-character LED display. 

Connectivity here also includes an audio input, which will shortly prove its worth when we power up multiple units. This simple piece of functionality means that no external mixer is required as the units can be easily daisy-chained, with one final one providing the master output. 

On the back panel you’ll find a USB Type-C port and two further mini-jack sockets for MIDI In/Out. Interestingly, the latter provide an additional way to sync the tempo clocks on multiple units by connecting MIDI Out to In using standard 3.5mm TRS cables.

Given the absence of any kind of battery compartment, we initially assumed that the USB connectivity was simply for powering the unit. However, it turns out that the Compacts have their own internal rechargeable power source (which Roland claims will keep you happy for up to 4.5 hours). USB is therefore used to charge the aforementioned battery, but also routes MIDI and audio to/from your chosen external device (Mac, PC, phone etc).

Now we’ve got the formalities out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the specifics offered by the T-8. It’s capable of playing and independently sequencing six drum sounds. 

Interestingly, rather than simulating sounds of one particular drum-machine, Roland has chosen to mix it up a bit with a hybrid approach – muddied perhaps by the overlaps or similarities in sound and circuitry between some of Roland’s earlier analogue drum machines. So, the Bass Drum and Snare are taken from the TR-909, the Clap has an 808/909 flavour, the Toms sit in 606/808 territory and the Hats are derived from TR-606. 

Further variation is provided by the option of switching between two (subtly different) choices of Tom and changing the Clap to a ‘Noise Tom’ or High Tom. 

Front panel controls deal with Tune and Decay parameters where appropriate, though further tweaking is available for some sounds with some menu diving. The main thing to note is that apart from Clap and Toms there is limited scope for making any dramatic changes to the sounds or swapping them for something entirely different.

Although the T-8 is referred to by Roland as a ‘Beat Machine’, it has another important feature up its sleeve: a bass section modelled on the fat and squelchy TB-303. 

Like the drums, sequences can be created using an X0X-style step-time programming system or in real-time employing the buttons as keys. In the same way that the drum section supports additional features such as sub-steps, flams and variable velocity levels, the bass sequencer also allows you to add accents and slides. 

It is a shame, however, that (unlike some of the Korg Volcas that employ ‘Motion Sequencing’) there is no way to automate parameter changes. 

There’s a lot to like about the T-8 as the drum and bass engines make for a fun, usable combination. Roland has also seen fit to add interesting extras such as variable probability for each step in the drum sequencer, and ability to generate randomised rhythm and bass patterns. 

In fact, there are a bunch of other features buried in this little unit: a ducking sidechain effect can be set individually for each instrument (and the effects) and there is an adjustable overdrive ‘circuit’. 

However, these get scant mention in the user manual, and contribute to the more than 40 individual menu items which must be tweaked via the very limited LED display. Though it might have pushed up the cost, a small high-res OLED display would have been a boon here. We found ourselves also having to refer to the manual quite often.