The Roland TR-909: “Nobody Could Have Predicted This”

A little while back, we wrote about about Yamaha – a company that literally changed the way we hear music, and this got us thinking about all the legendary gear that has come and gone over the years and decades.

The technology has had such an impact on music production, that it’s changed human culture forever.

And in dance music specifically, one of those bits of gear is the Roland TR-909. This icon of dance music production is perhaps less famous than its older sibling (the 808), but the impact of this device is still felt today.This is our love letter to the Roland TR-909 – its history, why it’s so special, and the legacy it’s left behind for electronic dance music producers today.

From commercial flop to studio legend

The 909 was supposed to be the sequel to Roland’s smash hit drum machine, the TR-808. Today, even non-musicians know what an 808 is (thanks to a certain artist whose name we’d rather not mention), but the 909 had way more functionality.

The 808 played synthesised drum sounds (those “fake” sounding, super-tonal toms and pitched kicks) that gave it an unusual flavour. And artists loved it. The underground hip hop scene adopted it fast, before mainstream artists – including Marvin Gaye – took it on.

The 808 was Roland’s “Stratocaster moment”; a revolutionary piece of gear that put music production into the hands of the masses.

The 909, however, was massively advanced, using real audio samples for crashes and hi hats, as well as synthesised audio. This meant it could take on the Linn LM-1 sample-based drum computer (heard on Wham! records, among countless others), only with far lower cost
and scarcity.

It also used the MIDI standard – making it talk to other devices seamlessly, to become the pulse of a producer’s studio.

Even with such radical advancements, the TR-909 was a commercial flop. Only 10,000 units were built.

Producers and hobbyists at the time still preferred the more realistic drum sounds of Linn drum machines, and while the 808 had inroads with hip hop artists, the 909’s less
bombastic, more punchy tone didn’t appeal in the same way.

However – the 909 became a legendary piece of studio gear in the 90s with the rise of techno, house and acid. EDM was about to truly arrive as a genre, and the TR-909 was the beating heart at the centre of it.

Nobody could have predicted this machine’s success as an artistic tool, its infamy, or its cultural impact. Just listen to it here, playing drum lines from hits by Soul II Soul, Daft Punk, Jeff Mills, Technotronic, and so many more… It’s instantly recognisable, and has “the sound”
of 90s dance.

But, like so many other pieces of legendary hardware, it’s timeless. It still appears in music – but more commonly as a software version.

The musical legacy of the TR-909

The impact of the 909 on the sound of electronic music, especially house and techno, is undeniable.

This is the tool that brought us those punchy kick drums, cutting through thick bass lines. It changed tastes, with a preference for huge claps over snares. Those responsive, percussive hi hats gave 90s dance music the energising swing that married emotion with excitement.

EDM producers who came up long after the TR-909s dominance still fall back to it in sample packs – because it has “the sound”. Not a realistic, authentic acoustic drum sound, but an iconic epicness that hits a very specific vibe.

The 909 was to EDM what the 808 was to hip hop. But it went a little step further.

The tones and sounds generated by the TR-909 are no doubt iconic – but MIDI adoption might be the killer blow that changed how records get made, even today.

By synching with other devices, loops and pattern automation could now be set to multiple devices, driven by the TR-909 – giving solo producers control over an ensemble of devices. This made live performance possible (and exciting), and opened a doorway for MIDI as a
studio standard.

It’s not as if MIDI hadn’t been used before, or elsewhere – it was already ubiquitous by 1983, as Roland, Yamaha, and other industry giants agreed that it would be the standard. But consumer-grade devices were thin on the ground, until the Yamaha DX7 and the TR-909
made MIDI mainstream.

The 909’s sequencer could run entire songs, over multiple devices, via MIDI. And the fact that this thing was a commercial failure meant that it found its way into producers’ hands on the cheap.

Even Roland neglected to notice how the 909 was driving makeshift studios, inspiring creativity, and raising genre after genre from fledgling to mainstream. By the time they’d
caught up, their legacy devices had already become the standard.

Today, everyone knows the 909 sound, even if they don’t know it. It’s the sound of the 1990s, for sure. But it would also become the sound of our collective musical future. Music absolutely would not have evolved in the way it did, were it not for the TR-909.

Studios and future devices wouldn’t have had the same connectivity. An entire generation wouldn’t have been captivated by the infectious rhythms of a decade dominated by dance. It only had about 10 sounds. But the impact this device had on the music you listen to, the music you make – and the way you make it? Well, that’s history…

Make your impact

Urban Rebel does dance music PR for the most exciting emerging talent and established acts. Contact us: call +44 (0) 161 298 6650 or send your message to [email protected].