Roland Boutique Modules TR-08, SH-01A & D-05 Review

In its third wave of retro remodels, Roland brings us three more classics in Boutique form. Dave Gale takes a look at these pint-sized clones…

boutique modules

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Price £349 each
Contact Roland | 01792 702701

Boutique Modules’ key features:

  • Three more reboots of Roland Classics
  • ACB/DCB-modelled sound generation
  • Battery or USB powered
  • MIDI socket I/O with MIDI/Audio over USB
  • Internal patch and sequencer memories available
  • Inbuilt powered speaker

In a return to its usual form, at least over recent years, Roland brings us three more reformed machines from its back catalogue. The TR-08 and SH-01A offer a very desirable 808/101 combo, while the D-05 offers an eyebrow-raising clone of the D-50.

Common Factors

We’re getting pretty used to this form, but just to recap, all three of these Boutiques are digital in design, with the TR-08 and SH-01A further exploiting Roland’s proprietary Analog Circuit Behaviour (ACB) technology, which we have seen elsewhere. The D-05 offers us a first glimpse of Roland’s new Digital Circuit Behaviour (DCB) technology, which should not be confused with the same acronym from previous Roland products – I’m referring specifically to the Digital Control Bus, which was a precursor to MIDI in the early 1980s.

The underside of each unit hosts a battery compartment and small speaker, while the rear offers a stereo output in mini-jack form, as well as a Mix In, should you wish to connect other Boutiques to the signal chain. The USB connection of all three devices will handle MIDI and audio data, while the only other elements to the rear are the On/Off switch and the ubiquitous volume control. I’ve always found the volume pot placement on the Boutiques a little fiddly, but at least it’s uniform across the range.

Classic synths 101

The SH-01A is a little bit of a revisit, since we have heard the modelled SH-101 before, in Plug-Out form, as seen in the System series synths and the accompanying software that can be run as a plug-in through a DAW. The major difference this time is that we have a bespoke panel to match all of the parameters of the original, along with a choice of three colours; the original grey, red and blue. Contrary to popular myth, they all sound the same, meaning that it’s all about your chosen aesthetic, and not the ‘red one sounding bassier’, as a friend of mine once joked with me.

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Reaching for my trusty original SH-101, I placed them side by side and ran through some tests. The waves are absolutely identical, the only discernible difference being that the filter on the Boutique has a little more high-end fizz. The net result is just a slightly sharper top end, which could easily be tamed with the Cut Off, if so desired. It could also be that my analogue classic is starting to show its years, being over 30 years old now.

Running further tests with the envelopes, they are completely indistinguishable from my original, with the Time, Curve and Amount being audibly matched across the board. Kicking the internal sequencer into life brings forth that unique 101 sonic footprint, which is so instantly identifiable with the Roland kit from the 80s era.

Adding the Sub Oscillator and Noise into the signal thickens up the tone beautifully, so much so, you just wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s not an original 101, and that, in many respects, is enough. However, Roland has sensibly made some notable alterations, which are exceptionally useful.

The most significant addition is that the SH-01A can be used in one of four voice modes. It ships in a monophonic state, but with some basic menu tweaking, Unison, Chord and even Polyphonic modes present themselves. We are limited to four voices, but that’s four better than the original, and having a polyphonic 101 is an envious achievement. Couple this with the fact that it’s possible to store up to 64 patches and it’s scored some big blows on the original, which lacked patch memories.

Step this way

The step sequencer on the 101 was always simple and easy to use, inspiring many other sequencers to offer similar functionality. That tradition continues here, with a mirrored 100-step capacity, but these can also be stored in up to 64 memory locations.

One further interesting sequencer difference is that the sequencer speed and LFO control were always connected on the original. But the SH-01A offers the ability to disconnect this, allowing for both internal and external sync, while the LFO can free run or be placed in time with the clock.

Roland has also included some further additions to the LFO waves, not seen on the original, with Saws heading in both upward and downward directions, alongside the usual Sine, Square, Random and Noise. They have also carefully added the same control elements, linked with the pitch and modulation wheels, with VCO and VCF control available from the pitch wheel, like the original. Similar to other synth-based Boutiques, pitch and modulation are handled via two ribbon strips, mounted to the left of the fascia.

This I find a little curious, as there is no stand included with the SH-01A, presumably because Roland feels that users will want to place it with the optional K-25M keyboard, but this could mean that the pitch and mod controls are placed at a tricky angle to use, when in performance.

It’s fair to say that because of the size of the unit, it’s possible to inadvertently knock adjacent faders, and it’s regrettable that the White Noise amount is located directly next to the filter Cutoff. In use, I found white noise continually creeping into my timbre, as my fat fingers accidentally knocked the amount control northwards.

This regrettably makes it less useable for performance-based work in my view, whether studio bound or out in the wild. However, the addition of an External Clock-in, coupled with CV and Gate output, will happily allow for comprehensive use in an environment with other such equipped toys, even if just sync’ing to other Boutique devices which are clock enabled. It’s also great to see the original arpeggiator included, although you’ll need a keyboard of some kind to utilise this properly.

Hip-Hop time again

Next up, the one that we’ve all been waiting for, and for good reason, as second-hand prices of original TR-808s remain sky high. Offering a much smaller fascia than the original, the TR-08 brings the legendary drum machine to the modern age. Many will want to be critical of the fact that this is not analogue in design, but given that all 808s sound slightly different, due to their analogue makeup, it’s fair to say that Roland have tried to offer the user the perfect 808, in much the same way that they did with the TR-09/909.

The first inescapable point to make is that it looks very much like an original 808. Crisp Roland orange and white fonts emblazon the front panel, right down to the Rhythm Composer mantle. The 16 step buttons are suitably Jupiter-esque in design, albeit about half the size of the originals, in scale with the Boutique form factor, and unlike the other Boutiques reviewed here, the TR-08 includes a matching stand, allowing for flat or tilted operation.

For the most part, the TR-08 sounds as you would remember the original; the sinusoidal nature of the kick, and crack of the white noise in the snare, immediately make you smile with instant reminiscence. In fact, ‘crisp’ is a great way to describe the initial impact, as it has no hint of failing analogue electronics. However, beneath the original fascia, further editing is on offer to rectify some of the shortcomings of the original machine.

Much praise is due to Roland for maintaining the original look, but this offers little clue that menu diving offers instant niceties, such as the tuning of certain instruments, most notably the kick, cowbell, hi-hat and rim shot. The requirement to tune these instruments was very much defined by producers sampling 808 sounds and transposing them, and this will be a very welcome addition.

Other great features include the ability to control the decay of many of the instruments, along with the joyfulness of the long-decay Bass Drum, which will have hip-hop fans shaking the room with excitement. Other refinements include a new level of control which is now available in the tempo section, with the original-style Tempo pot now coupled with an additional Fine control, for increased accuracy.

Where the original 808 scored big for studio use was with the huge number of jack outputs to be found on the rear of the original machine. Roland has catered for this through the use of USB connectivity, which will immediately offer 10 audio streams, into your DAW, allowing for the sort of control that many will want, if choosing to use the TR-08 seriously. While the 808 is very firmly a standalone device, conforming to the original pattern/song makeup that we’ve all come to know, it’s just as easy to keep things DAW-centric and controlled via MIDI.

The numerous connections will make it usable in so many settings, and allow for easy clocking over MIDI, while a dedicated Trigger Out will let a specific pattern to be applied to an external device, without doubling another triggered instrument, as on the original.

Sonically, this is a little firecracker! It sounds exactly as I expected it to, with depth, clarity and detail, made all the better by its modern credentials, which take many forms. The ability to sub-step instrument patterns, allowing for smaller steps in place, also brings the step programming into the modern age, although when programming, the architecture is similarly tricky at first, just like the original, but the reward is great thanks to the thundering kicks and beautifully nuanced sounds from that era. Place this in your track, and you’ll never know that it’s not an original, which makes this a little bit of a bargain.


Do I really need this?

If you’ve had your eye on these vintage classics, but the prospect of buying second-hand is too daunting financially, these are a little bit of a no-brainer. The SH-01A is a very creative synth, especially when coupled with its newfound polyphony, while the TR-08 is a timeless classic, for good reason.

The D-05 is not for everyone, but if you feel the allure of those late-80s sounds, it will warrant a viewing – although, at £349, the D-05 is more expensive than an original second-hand D-50, which will offer a full five-octave playing experience on full-size keys. However, unlike a second-hand purchase, these three Boutiques will not potentially fail you any time soon!


The Roland dimension

Finally, to the wild card in the pack – the rather curious D-05, offering a miniature-sized incarnation of the D-50. This is straight out of the leftfield; not least because the D-50 was Roland’s first all-digital synth design. The original used a system of synthesis called Linear Arithmetic (LA) synthesis, being one of the new breed of Sample and Synthesis architectures of that era.

It was very much the darling of the late 80s, with crystal-sharp sounds that cut through a mix like a knife, and sure enough, wandering through the preset patch list is very much a trip down memory lane! The ‘Fantasia’ bells, ‘Soundtrack’ and ubiquitous ‘Digital Native Dance’ are all here, along with a new set of fresh and exciting ‘presets’, which is a word which has to be heavily linked with this generation of synth. The D-50, along with other machines of this era, was a little bit of a pig to program, which explains why so many users became dependent on the preinstalled patches.

A simple joystick and buttons provide access to the architecture beneath, making this very different from all of the other synth Boutiques to date. The immediacy of programming is very different here, requiring keyhole surgery to make any alterations, meaning that you are either reliant on the presets, or need to go menu diving pretty swiftly to make the most basic of edits.

Once under the hood, you’ll find envelopes described as Time Variant Amplifiers (TVA), with similar elements for the filter (TVF), but I have to question who might truly want to go here? Although the D-05 display and buttons are identical to the original, many D-50 owners invested in the PG-1000 control surface to bring analogue-style programming alongside, thanks to a large number of dedicated faders, and this is something that is very firmly lacking with the D-05.

Sonically, it sounds great, being sharp and clear, with certain patches offering almost analog sensibilities, but overwhelmingly, it feels like a date-stamped product, at least sonically, and I can’t help but wonder who Roland is hoping to grab with this incarnation. Possibly the same people that yearn for FM synthesis to make a hearty return.

However, with 16-voice polyphony, it’s beyond any of the other Boutiques in the chordal stakes, and alongside the aforementioned 384 presets, there are another 512 user-patch locations, as well as a 64 step sequencer, so there’s plenty to get busy with, should you be drawn into this late 80s sound world.

The final boutique critique

Having spent some time getting to grips with the range, it becomes clear to see that all three of these new Boutiques fulfil exactly what they set out to do, with the SH-01A and TR-08 coming in for particular praise, thanks to their vintage styling and great modelled sound. The D-05 appears to be more of a period piece, but if that’s the sound you want, you’re in luck!

With nice levels of accessibility, control and connectivity, they are highly enjoyable devices to use, and without the extortion of second-hand pricing, should prove very popular. The size of the Boutique form will always be a shortcoming for me, but if you can work around this, there’s no doubt you’ll be hugely rewarded.


Alternatives

Korg
Volca Range £125-plus

These offer very similar credentials: the biggest differences being they’re simpler and often analogue in design, with a much-reduced price tag. The Volca Beats, Bass and Keys have always been firm favourites.

Roland
TR-8 £349

If you’re wanting something larger from your drum machine, the Roland TR-8 can’t be ignored. Offering multiple sound pallettes, including 808 and 909, it’s a packed powerhouse of electronic-drum potential, with a much larger form factor, and also offers lots of performance effects.


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