Roland Boutique TR-09, TB-03 & VP-03 Review

There’s been plenty of excitement surrounding the new batch of Roland products, and MusicTech managed to get its hands on the second wave of Boutiques. Dave Gale starts up the reboots…

Details
Manufacturer Roland
Price TB-03 & VP-03: £329, TR-09: £369
Contact 01792 702701, www.roland.co.uk

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And so it came to pass that Roland made some weird and wonderful things in the 80s, many of which fell out of favour with the onslaught of newer and cleaner sounding digital machines. The scene was set for bedroom producers with little cash to snap up last year’s bargains and do something creative with them, and that’s essentially how we got to the point where we find ourselves today, with vintage equipment priced at, and often fetching, rather unrealistic figures.

The TB-303 is the most ludicrous example of this, often commanding fees of £2,500, and if that’s the sort of music you make and you need one, you might be prepared to pay it – but Roland has finally wised up to the phenomenon by recreating some of the classics, the 303 among them, and putting them in Boutique form.

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The Boutique range is expanded to include updates of three Roland classics – the TR-909 Rhythm Composer, the TB-303 Bass Line and the less ubiquitous VP-330 Vocoder Plus

The Second Coming

Let’s just run through exactly what Roland is bringing to the table here. There is the TR-09, based on the TR-909 Rhythm Composer (drum machine to the rest of us), the TB-03 based on the TB-303 Bass Line, and finally, the wild card for many, the VP-03 which is based on the VP-330 Vocoder Plus. These machines all fall into the Roland Boutique range, offering a small footprint of 30cmx12cm – which is very similar in size to an original TB-303 or TR-606, so in this regard the form factor alone, at least for the TB-03, is very similar.

Some will be familiar with the first run of synth-based Boutiques from last year, so this next wave also forms a second coming for the sort of machines that many of us were yearning for. In many respects, I feel that the form is better suited to the drum machine/Bass Line size.

The TB-03 and TR-09 both have removable stands, which allow for the fascia of the units to be angled at two gradients. The VP-03 does not have a stand as part of the deal, but that’s probably because the intention is to place it in the optional K-25m keyboard (£79), which is a plug-and-play two octave mini-keyboard.

Personally, and in line with its first batch of Boutiques, this small keyboard is not what I would want for use with a poly-type synth module, so I would have liked to have had a stand (or ‘Boutique Dock’ as Roland call it) included, rather than as an optional extra, which is what the DK-01 is, for a princely £49.

That makes the VP-03 feel rather more expensive, although all the Boutiques have rubber feet and can be placed standless on a desktop without any issues.

All the Boutiques are powered by four AA batteries, or via a Micro USB-B cable, which is not included. They power up perfectly via USB, which I tried from both my MacBook Pro and also an old iPhone charger.

In my testing, I did not manage to get the Boutiques to run flat, using their included batteries, so I think we can conclude they aren’t too hungry on power. They all offer audio connection via a stereo minijack line output and separate headphone output, with the TB-03 and TR-09 also offering a ‘mix in’, to allow chaining of audio signals.

The addition of the Micro USB will also allow audio and MIDI to and from a Mac or PC, but Roland drivers are required here, and available as a free download. There’s also a welcome MIDI In and Out connection, on the more regular five-pin DIN sockets.

There are stereo minijack line and headphone outputs, and the VP-03 has an inbuilt speaker. Audio and MIDI are input and output to Mac and PC via Micro USB, and there are regular five-pin DIN connections for MIDI. The TB-03 and TR-09 also have a ‘mix in’

I have a strong connection with all of the original incarnations of these Boutiques, having grown up both using them and listening to them, so my next move was to plug in each individually and see how the sound hit me.

Vocoder Masters

The first boxes to get opened were the VP-03 and the accompanying K-25m keyboard, and it was just a case of putting the batteries in the VP-03 and slotting it into the keyboard. Under the boxed Boutique, there’s a cardboard liner containing a little gooseneck mic, with a spare pop shield.

This is a very nice touch, as many will want to get vocoding straight away, and although it’s obvious that at this price point, the mic will not be akin to an SM58, it’s perfectly functional. In fact, with my pretty abundant use of vocoders (I’m a sucker for them), I’ve discovered that often, cheaper mics work better, which is something often mentioned by the vocoder masters of yesteryear, such as the great Herbie Hancock.

Turned on, plugged in, faders up, and there was Metal Mickey! Vocoding was easy and emanated from the inbuilt speaker on the underside of the VP-03, which unsurprisingly is not what you might call hi-fi quality. In fact, it’s pretty poor, so much so, you have to question why Roland bothered with this, particularly when you plug in to your monitoring and hear that it sounds rather stunning. In fact, and this is no surprise, it sounds just like an original VP-330 – quite sublime.

I’m not lucky enough to own an original VP-330, but I do have the 330’s guts, in the shape of the equally brilliant vintage SVC-350, which was the rackmounted version of the vocoder electronics.

I have to say that by comparison, the timbre is pretty indistinguishable (allowing for the external carrier signal, which one has to use with the SVC-350, which on this occasion came from my Jupiter-8).

The VP-03 sounds rich harmonically, and even the included mic isn’t bad, although slightly prone to popping on close proximity, with plenty of input level available when the signal reaches the front panel. Thanks to the Balance section, the unadulterated voice can be mixed into the signal, along with the other elements which are on offer here.

However, my love for the original VP-330 is not just about its superb vocoding capabilities, but also about the other sounds on offer – which come in the form of the string-machine sounds and the human-voice sounds.Again, Roland has done an absolutely amazing job of getting them to sound crazy-close to the original. Okay, I can’t make the direct comparison, but I can recall my memory of those wondrous tracks where I heard them, by the likes of Vangelis and Logic System, and all those memories came flooding back.

I was starting to grow a little tired of trying to play large chords on the mini keyboard, so it was time to plug into a full-size controller. Sure enough, with expanse comes glory, as the strings, voice and vocoder signals could all be mixed together, along with healthy doses of ensemble effects, which were always part of the VP sound.
The only issue in this regard is the VP-03 is limited to six-note polyphony, which is such an immense shame.

The original VP-330 was para-phonic, meaning that full chords were the order of the day, with no note stealing, and with the VP-03’s six notes of polyphony, those decaying string tails were getting cut very short. I can’t help but feel that Roland has scored a bit of an own goal on this front, as the appeal of the
string-machine side of the VP will be a huge draw for many – and it feels a little crippled in this regard, which is annoying when it sounds so damn good.

Curiously, the original VP-330 was never regarded as a vocoder with huge experimentation potential, more for those who wanted ensemble sounds and more. So the additional feature of pitch-shifting (Glide) is a nice touch, along with the steadfast vibrato controls from the original.

There are two ribbon controllers, to mimic pitch and modulation wheels, but I found these tricky to get at once the VP-03 was angled in its keyboard case. Still, there’s always the large controller to be called upon, if you want traditional control.

There is also a Chord Memory and Step Sequencer function, controlled by a simple 16-step set of buttons. It’s pretty easy to use and a useful addition, but given the purpose of the VP concept, feels more of a gimmicky add-on than something that might be truly useful; although the options for gated string sounds are tempting and quite useful, in a certain vintage sense.

We have already mentioned how the VP-03 can be powered via USB, but that’s not the end of the USB story. Thanks to a dedicated and downloadable driver, the VP can be hooked into your DAW, for both audio and MIDI purposes. Audio streams are separated, and the carrier and modulating signals can be drawn from a DAW, for additional functionality.

Vo-Coda

I have to say that I was very excited to get my hands on the VP-03, as I’ve always had a very soft affection for the original 330. This remodel looks and sounds absolutely wonderful, with all areas standing out for due credit.

The way that Roland has captured the original String and Voice sounds is exemplary, as are the ensemble effects and the vocoder itself. With a better mic, I got much better results, and I did find that some of the pots were a shade ‘lively’, most likely down to the form factor and short throw of the faders.

But miniature sizing to one side, it’s an excellent voice module. I do have to say that Roland is being a bit cheeky expecting the user to purchase a stand for £49, which starts to make it feel a bit pricey, but otherwise, it’s a thing of joy.

The VP-03 may be limited to six-note polyphony, but it does an exemplary job of recreating the sounds of the original VP-330 Vocoder Plus, down to the classic string machine and human voice settings

What is a Vocoder?

Ever wondered how they get that ‘robot voice’ effect on records and sci-fi films? Well, there are in fact a few ways to get similar effects,but the vocoder was the first to do it.

It’s a device that was developed back in the 1930s, originally conceived for the purposes of telecommunication (its name is a contraction of voice encoder), but quickly transformed into a machine with musical possibilities.

Vocoders use a carrier signal, normally a synth-based sound, which is then modulated by another signal, such as a voice.

The formant qualities of the voice are analysed and used to modulate the carrier, resulting in a unique sound, made famous by the likes of Kraftwerk and ELO back in the 70s.

As stated by Peter Howell of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, there’s nothing like the sound of something which sounds human but is also electronic to capture the imagination of the listening public, and sure enough, the mystique of the vocoder lives on across a diverse range of genres.

Alternatives

The obvious competition to the Boutiques comes from Korg with its Volca range. The biggest difference here is that many of the Volcas, such as the Beats and Bass, are analogue-based, and outstandingly good they are, too; however, they do not share the complexity of programming that the Boutiques have, and in this respect, they can fall short.

Neither do they have the USB Audio output capability, which could prove vital to many, in the sense that some form of individual output would be really useful. At the present time, there is no Korg Volca vocoder, but there were some wonderful pics doing the rounds recently which hinted something might be on the way.

If not, you could always look at the microKorg, which has a very usable vocoder built into a mini-keyboard type design.

The other factor to mention here is that the Volcas are only about a third of the price of the Boutiques, so if you are on a tight budget, you really can get a lot for your money.

Do I Really Need This?

These Boutiques set out to do specific tasks, with the TR-09 and TB-03 appealing to those making any kind of electronic music, with a desire to create that classic sound.

They are so identifiable and will perform the required task perfectly, but they will also appeal to synthesists who just want to have a bit of fun! They work beautifully together and I found it hard not to put on a big smile while noodling around with them.

The VP-03, on the other hand, is a bit Marmite. It is wonderful, except for lacking polyphony, albeit a shade fiddly in Boutique form – but if you want that classic vocoder sound, this is a great place to go.

You’ll also get those wonderful analogue choir and string sounds, but they are just that – classic, and dated in sound. But that’s why you’ll either love it, or hate it. Personally (if you hadn’t already guessed), I love it…

Hardcore: you know the Score

And so to the other two Boutiques in this second wave, in the shape of the TR-09 and the TB-03. Let’s start with the obvious – they are both reboots of the original concepts, making use of Roland’s own ACB (Active Circuit Behaviour) technology, which we’ve already seen in play from other Roland recreations, but in some respects, what we see here is what many had hoped the original Aira range would be.

The TB-03 essentially provides the heart and soul of a TB-303, without having to splash out tons of cash for an ageing vintage model

Both modules have a beautiful metal front fascia panel, and come fitted with the Boutique Dock which is missing from the VP-03, so they can be used flat on a desktop or in two different angled positions. The cases are bespoke to the units, so the colour schemes match, and I have to say that the build quality feels very good.

Being Boutiques, the pots are small – especially on the TR-09, where there are clearly just lots of pots to get on the panel. I have an original 909, and when you place the two side by side, it really makes you realise how large the original was.

When hooked up, the TR-09 has a nice preset stereo correlation, as instruments are sensibly panned across the spectrum, but the addition of the Mix In is a nice touch, allowing one unit to be slaved to another, at least in terms of audio.

There’s no slouching to be had on the sync-connection side, either, as the TR-09 offers a Trigger Out. On the 909, this was a programmed affair, which meant that the RIm sound could not be used at the same time.

Here, however, Roland has made a disconnect, as the Trigger is a straight 16th-note pulse by default, perfect for clocking to the TB-03, which purposely has a Trigger In – but if you want to trigger a different pulse, this can also be programmed within the depths of the settings menu.

As if that weren’t enough, the TB-03 also has CV & Gate outputs, so signals can also be routed onto other CV & Gate devices, which is a great acknowledgement of the number of machines using this format today, clearly including Eurorack.

Syncing is also available via MIDI, with automatic pickup of an incoming clock, if present, via either MIDI sockets or USB. So, what of the sound? Well, to be blunt, they sound stunning and I think it’s important to take this point at absolutely face value.

By just plugging in these modules and getting my hands dirty, I immediately found myself getting lost in what I was doing. They sound very, very similar to the originals, and certainly sound like an original machine that has just been produced. I say that because original 303s and 909s are getting very old, and as part of this ageing will come the deterioration of the circuitry, however wonderful the vintage models are.

Out of curiosity, I reached for my 909 and ran the TR-09 alongside its older brother. They do sound amazingly similar, but in direct comparison, I did find that the 909 sounded a shade punchier, especially on the kick, and in a strange twist, my 909 hi-hats seemed to be tuned about a semitone lower. One particularly noticeable factor was on the closed hats’ decay, which was somehow very polite on the TR-09, and far less so on my vintage machine… even sloppy, which I have always liked.

Roland Boutique

Placing the TR-09 side-by-side with a  TR-909 revealed small differences in the kick and hats sounds – but overall the two sound very very similar

So is this a dealbreaker? Well, no actually, because once the signal is in the DAW, all manner of EQ and effects can be applied to make it sound that little bit more punchy. And that brings us on to the output side.

Apart from the basic Stereo output on the TR-09, the USB Audio Output, available via the downloadable driver, has four routable audio outputs, meaning that your signal can be routed and recorded as required. This is a huge boon, as it opens up potential for live use, allowing for mixing via whatever DAW or audio-interface-based software you choose to use.

With a little effort, I had the TR-09 sounding punchy, gritty and everything else inbetween. It’s worth mentioning that the original 909 was partly such a hit due to the separate outputs on the back, and although the convenience of this is missing from the TR-09, the USB option is very welcome and highly usable. I’ve heard through the grapevine that the TR-09 differs slightly from the previous incarnation that we saw a couple of years ago on the TR-8.

I always thought that the TR-8 sounded pretty good, but apparently, the Roland elves have been at play, refining the sonic architecture even further.

In use, it’s fair to say that the TR-09 is a little fiddly on the pot side, only due to the significantly smaller form factor than the original. But the instrument pots always were a little small, so in this respect it’s quite faithful, albeit smaller still.

Programming, in the traditional drum-machine sense, is a breeze, with the combination of patterns aligned to form a song; but for the more live-based musician, it’s possible to call upon patterns as you require them. Once in play mode, they’ll be recalled perfectly in time, at the beginning of each bar-long stretch.

Turning our attentions to the TB-03, I have to say that it’s largely the same sort of story. I’ve heard criticism from a number of 303 owners that the TR-03 doesn’t sound like the original.

Well again, I think we have to tread carefully here. 303s are fathers now, and if you put several 303s against each other, they will all sound quite markedly different, and I really mean drastically. And then there’s the pricetag of an original 303. At current secondhand values, they command prices up to £2,500.

Now, if you simply must have a 303, and you have that kind of money, then do as you will (and hope the vintage circuitry doesn’t let you down); but for the rest of us who would quite like a 303 but don’t want to pay that sort of money, the TR-03 is amazingly good.The build quality is great, and it looks superb in its included stand, set at an angle, which is great to work with.

The CV/Gate outputs triggered my Eurorack beautifully, allowing me to add colours to the phrases at play, but Roland has cleverly included a couple of new additions, notably on the FX side.

At the end of the signal chain, there’s an Overdrive and Delay path, meaning that we can all do what 303s did back in the day without the need to splash out on an overdrive and delay pedal.

The Overdrive surprised me, as I haven’t been overly impressed with previous Roland distortions, but this one is bright and rips, exactly as Josh Wink would have wanted back in the day. In essence, folks, what we have here is the heart and soul of a 303, all in one place, for sensible money – and for that, Roland must be applauded yet again.

In general use, I have to say I wish Roland had increased the size and distance between the pots a little. The 303 pots were always small, but it feels as though we could’ve had something larger to hang on to.

There’s a healthy set of pre-programmed patterns to get you going; or you could, of course, choose to just trigger the TB-03 from your DAW over MIDI, but half the joy of the 303 was always the ability to ‘glide’ between steps, which is something that can be programmed on the TB-03 itself. Knowing that the original 303 was always a bit of a pig to program, Roland has taken the wise step of giving options here.

You can either work in traditional 303 mode, or you can switch to a newer, easier method of note input, known as Step Recording Mode, which offers an altogether more logical way of entering notes, which will be welcomed by anyone coming at this from the position of a newbie. Ignorance really is bliss here, so I would recommend this latter method, unless you’re a 303 diehard.

Boutique Critique

So here’s the thing – I imagine that many people will come at the new Boutiques from one of two angles; there will be those who want to compare these to the originals and complain about the fact these are digital incarnations and therefore nowhere near as good as the real thing, and if that’s your only interest, then you’ll need to be happy to part with an astonishing amount of money for an original.

Yet there will also be those who simply don’t have large funds at their disposal but just want to explore worlds they’ve not been able to before, and if that’s you, then go ahead – you will not be disappointed.

I’ve had the most amazing amount of fun with these Boutiques and found them to be solidly built, great sounding and offering far more than a passing resemblance to the real things.

I imagine the reason I can hear differences is more down to the ageing circuitry I’ve heard before now, whereas these are sensibly priced and will not require maintenance any time soon. Throw into the equation the addition of things like USB and MIDI (in the case of the TB-03) and you really would be hard pushed to go wrong.

Would I swap my TR-909 for a TR-09? Well, no, I wouldn’t, but that’s because I have one I bought years ago. Would I buy a TR-09 if I didn’t have a 909? In the blink of an eye, yes.

This threesome deserves some serious praise on many levels, with special plaudits going to the TB-03, which, with its similar form factor to the original, is going to make many people very happy.

My biggest wish is that the VP-03 had more polyphony, which I feel is a huge shame, but if you can work with six notes, the recreations are faithful and beautiful, and if you’re after some groovebox-type fun, you will adore the 09 and 03! As the Fatboy himself said: ‘Everybody needs a TB-03…’ (well, nearly, anyway!)

Roland Boutique Series Key Features

● Three new takes on old classics
● MIDI and USB implementation, unlike the originals
● Further connectivity to analogue and Eurorack equipment
● Powered by batteries or USB
● Sonically very close to the originals

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