You can’t claim Roland doesn’t honor its legacy. In Hamamatsu, Japan the company maintains an exquisitely designed museum in which their historical products are brandished with a sanctity usually reserved for works of religion or art. Roland hosts international symposia about their iconic products and deck their company in the colors and vibe of the original machines upon which their reputation is made.
But they won’t make a revival.
Earlier this year, 5 Mag reported on Roland’s under-the-radar (and very tardy) registration of several trademarks related to their iconic 808 and 303 brands. These were widely seen as preparation for a lawsuit as several companies – most notably Behringer – moved forward with clones of synths and drum machines Roland had ceased producing more than 30 years ago.
In July, Behringer responded by doing… the absolute minimum. Behringer’s MS-101 synthesizer (a clone of the Roland SH-101) was quietly renamed as the “MS-1.” As the synthesizer is already in production, it’s presumed Behringer will change the name on the faceplate and marketing materials moving forward. More notable, Behringer’s “Rhythm Designer 808” – the company’s low cost hardware clone of the iconic Roland TR-808 – has been renamed as the “RD-8.” In addition, the latest photos of the “RD-8” show that at some point in the production process the colors on the iconic switches have been reversed – from red to orange to yellow to white on the original 808, reversed as white to yellow to orange to red on the RD-8. The look and feel of both products outside of these cosmetic alterations is mostly unchanged.
There’s no question Roland has the right to defend its company’s intellectual property (though many applicable patents have allegedly expired). But it’s hard to feel all that passionate about it. For years there has been a sizable market crying out for a Roland hardware revival. It’s probably larger than ever before now – several magnitudes larger than when the TR-808, 303 and 909 were written off as expensive flops. And Roland seems to be doing absolutely everything except making what the people want.
You can buy 808-themed sneakers. They’ll probably be 10% off on August 8, or #808 Day.
You can buy Roland’s “boutique” instruments – Roland’s recent product line featuring tiny takes on the 303, 808 and so on and which fit the exact specifications of hardware that exactly no one actually wanted. It’s more expensive than a toy, less robust than the real thing and priced not much cheaper than a clone. Essentially it’s a 3D model of an iPhone app.
You can buy products from Roland’s AIRA line, which many knowledgeable people have insisted does as good a job of emulating classic sounds as anything and does a whole lot more, too.
According to industry types, fans who want classic-style hardware are miscreants, purists who will fuss at any change or imperfection from their holy ideals of yesteryear. But it seems the irritating “purist” market may not be so hard to please after all.
You can subscribe to Roland Cloud and pay a monthly fee to have software emulation that is pretty well done, just like it’s been pretty well done by many others.
You can go to the Roland Museum and observe the company’s iconic instruments and machines under glass.
But you can’t buy a new 303, 808 or 909. Not from Roland, anyway.
The only reason Behringer’s clones exist is because Roland won’t make them.
A Chicago producer who told me how much he liked the offerings from Roland’s AIRA line has also set aside the money to buy Behringer’s 808 clone. Behringer has a reputation for many things but quality isn’t necessarily one of them. It doesn’t matter, he told me. If it does 75% of what a real 808 does at 1/5th to 1/10th of the price of a real 808 on Reverb, he’ll be pretty satisfied. At $330, who really cares?
This is pretty shocking. According to industry types, fans who want classic-style hardware are miscreants, purists who will fuss at any change or imperfection from their holy ideals of yesteryear. Yet I’ve repeatedly seen them making this sort of argument – that they’d gladly eat whatever is spread out for them.
I mean nobody is thinking they are going replace a real 808 in their studio with Behringer’s clone. But they didn’t replace a real 808 with Roland’s “boutique” TR-08, either.
Through this new initiative of better living through cloning, Behringer has proved that a company can bring out these products and maybe even make a decent business out of it.
So why didn’t Roland? It’s a question frequently repeated in music production communities (though rarely above the comment section on sites and blogs, whose writers usually see the pro-industry side – I mean “neutral” side – of everything).
An industry insider I was interviewing about an unrelated matter offered this: Roland feared revival editions of their classic products wouldn’t be up to snuff, and might cannibalize similarly priced product lines. When the company committed to AIRA, it didn’t make any sense to Roland to bother making more limited machines that would sell in a similar price range.
Roland moves very slowly – their product initiatives are usually telegraphed years in advance. There are signs that the company can’t keep up with the accelerated pace of the modern hardware industry, in which fewer engineers than ever are turning out twice as many products in a time span that is constantly halving. Roland also has a bad case of what folks in the hardware and software industries called NIH Syndrome. It stands for “Not Invented Here,” the belief that the company itself can do better than anyone on the outside, which explains why such a large company rarely buys out other music companies to use their technologies. Suggesting the company license or outright buy any of the multitude of 808 clone makers to jump back into the classic hardware market, for instance, will probably get you funny looks around the office at Roland. The “boutique” items were Roland’s attempt to satiate this large market that is demanding a hardware revival of the company’s classic machines and synths. And that was, I’m told, a massive internal compromise.
Studying Roland’s internal dynamics is a modern day form of Kremlinology, but it appears that a company has abandoned development of the products to which it owes its fame, but still may sue anyone who treads too closely to them. Behringer is the first “major” manufacturer to try with a mass produced product (many smaller scale clones of vintage Roland gear exist, of course). They still may crash and burn. But it seems the irritating “purist” market may not be so hard to please after all. Just make something close enough and cheap enough and they’ll overlook the differences. Pint-sized toy or “cloud versions” aren’t enough, though.