How To

What Is A TR-909 Drum Machine?

Photograph of the blog post author, Joelle Banton

Joelle Banton

11.5.2020

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You may have heard of an 808 drum machine – but what is a 909 drum machine? Introduced in 1983, the TR-909 Rhythm Composer was one of the first drum machines to include MIDI technology. It was also one of the first hybrid drum machines, using both samples and analogue sound. Although the TR-909 was discontinued just one year after it was brought to the market, the 909 influenced many genres of music such as techno, dance music and acid.

TR-909

The 909 drum machine was so influential, Roland created a day just to honour this machine. Fittingly taking place on September 9th, every year thousands of dance music lovers take part in 909DAY. Read on to find out more about the origins and legacy of the 909.

History Of The TR-909 

TR-909 music

Following the discontinuation of its predecessor, the TR-808, the Roland Corporation introduced the TR-909. This drum machine was designed by Tadoa Kikumoto. The Roland TB-303, a machine that simulated the sound of bass guitars, was also designed by Kikumoto. On release, the TR-909 sold for around $1,195. Only around 10,000 machines were produced and sold. Many producers at the time favoured drum machines that had more realistic sounding samples, such as the LinnDrum. 

The first known use for the 909 in commercial music was on the album ‘Remission’ by Skinny Puppy. The TR-909 was made very popular in the late 1980s by Detroit and Chicago producers such as Jeff Mills, Derrick May and Frankie Knuckles. As this drum used MIDI, many producers also used it to synchronise and sequence digital instruments and machines. Roland didn’t even anticipate for the TR-909 to be used in this way, and therefore the Roland Corporation has also been credited for the invention of MIDI technology. 

A smaller, more advanced version of the TR-909, the TR-09, was introduced in 2017. Selling at around $350, this reissue maintains the sound, charm, and user interface of the original 909 machine. 

TR-09 drum machine

TR-909 Features

TR-909 drum machine

Compared to the 808 drum machine that was popular for its ‘booming’ sound, the TR-909 is known more for its punchy sounds. 

This analogue drum was one of the standard pieces of equipment for House and Techno. The Roland 909’s sound includes a snare, a hand clap, open and closed hi-hats, kick, a rim shot and crash cymbals. All of these sounds can also be accented and edited using the updated accent feature. The TR-909 also includes SNAPPY, DECAY and ATTACK knobs, which can be used to further edit sounds.

The MIDI controller and the drum machines’ compatibility with most DAW software is probably the greatest elements of the TR-909. The 909 even includes a MIDI learn function so that its sound parameter can be completely controlled by MIDI messages! If you are struggling to come up with the perfect beat on the 909 (or any MIDI drum machine from Roland), downloading a classic 909 beat and then playing around with note arrangements and accents can give you a good starting point. 

Roland TR-909 Drum Machine

Where Can I Get A TR-909?

Be warned – getting your hands on an actual TR-909 will be tricky. If you do manage to find a decent second-hand machine, be prepared to pay the $2,500-$4,000 price tag. Even some of the biggest mainstream hits from the 80s and 90s were produced on second-hand or borrowed consoles. 

Another reason that Roland introduced the TR-09 is the steep price tag attached to an original 909 machine. However, the original drum machine is still a very sought out piece of music equipment. 

Not prepared to fork out a fortune for a Roland console? No need to worry! Because the TR-909 drum machine paved the way for dance and acid music, most drum kits aimed at techno and dance music producers include many of the 909s unique sounds. There are also drum kits entirely dedicated to the Roland TR-909. Roland themselves have recently brought out the TR-909 Software Rhythm Composer to give producers an authentic cloud version of the classic 909. 

Popular Songs Produced On The 909 Drum Machine

Dance music nightclub

Phil Collins – Take Me Home (1985)

When most people think of ‘909’, they probably also think of Phil Collins. Although Collins wasn’t the first mainstream artist to use the 909, classic 909 sounds such as the claps, hi-hats, and toms can be heard on many of his tracks such as ‘Take Me Home’.

Schooly D – P.S.K (What Does It Mean) (1985) 

This classic hip-hop song produced predominantly on the 909 influenced a lot of hip-hop songs to come. Artists such as Notorious B.I.G and N.W.A did their own rendition of this track, even adding further 909 elements. Said to be the first gangsta rap track, ‘What Does It Mean’ and other songs from Schooly D also inspired the likes of Ice-T and brought a whole new sound to hip-hop. 

Rhythm Is Rhythm – Strings Of Life (1987)

Complex Magazine said in 1987 that “If Detroit techno were its own country, this would easily be the national anthem”. Produced by Rhythm Is Rhythm (one of the aliases of techno legend Derrick May) this track was a favourite amongst techno lovers in Detroit

Joey Beltram – Energy Flash (1990)

This iconic anthem by Joey Beltram carried a darker tone compared to other techno and pop songs that utilised the 909 during this era.

The Martian – Star Dancer (1993)

Another track originating from the Detroit techno scene, ‘Star Dancer’ was featured on the second EP from the Martian. The Martian is widely believed to be legendary producer Mad Mike. 

Jeff Mills – The Bells (1996)

‘The Bells‘ is arguably Jeff Mills’ most well-known song. This techno track makes great use of the driving thump of the 909, and other unique accents of the drum machine. 

Robin S – Show Me Love (1993)

Iconic dance anthem ‘Show Me Love’ was released in 1993, and instantly became a roaring success. Written by Alan George and Fred McFarlane, this song really catapulted the House genre and the TR-909 into the mainstream spotlight. Elements of this beat were later sampled in Kid Ink’s 2013 hit ‘Show Me’.

Chambray – Rub (2014)

It is hard to say just from listening to this track whether an actual 909 was used or simply 909 samples, but the legacy of the drum machine still lives on in the 21st century in this track. In contemporary dance and techno music, it is hard to find a track that doesn’t have at least one sound from the 909. After all, the entire genre was shaped around this one piece of music gear!

Conclusion And Advice 

Although techno and acid music were at their peak in the late 80s and early 90s, there is no reason why these genres shouldn’t live on in the 21st century. Music from these genres that heavily uses TR-909 and similar drum machines is usually very upbeat and lively. It is the type of music that we need to keep our spirits up in this crisis – even if it means raving to such tracks in your living room!

The sounds of the TR 909 drum machine aren’t only reserved for the music of ravers and dance floors. Many songs that use the TR-909 have been sampled in modern rock, pop and indie music. Producing tracks using 909 samples or downloading hit 909 beats and then adding a modern twist to them is a great way to keep the legacy of the TR-909 alive – so why not give it a go?

Feeling inspired by the 909 and the amazing tracks that were produced on it? Why not replicate the sounds and make your own? Allow us to help you amplify your musiccollaborate with others, and even get your music in TV, film and more. Why not try Music Gateway for free?

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