The 1980's were an extremely exciting time for a teenager like me, with a myriad of new technologies being released on a yearly basis.
Yes, it was sometimes disheartening to not be able to afford these amazing new toys, but at the same time the thrill of experiencing these amazing new instruments in the shops was a hugely rewarding experience in itself.
Going to trade shows for me was like going to a foreign country.
Seeing a product in the flesh for the first time was like getting close to a famous person.
Fantasising about owning one of these pieces of technology was like dreaming about winning the world cup final.
Of course there came a stage where things would become (more) affordable and the romance was slowly starting to fade, which we don't realise when we're in the thick of it.
For me that happened in the year 1986.
My First Drum Machine
I had just been working full time for a year and the TR-505 could not have come at a better time.
News was, that Roland were going to bring out a TR drummachine to counter Yamaha’s affordable RX-21 and this new Roland machine would also include percussion sounds, such as congas and timbales.
Yamaha were going to release an RX-21L, which stood for "Latin", with percussion sounds only.
To have drum and percussion sounds in the one machine seemed way more attractive.
Percussion sounds were not even featured on the more expensive drum machines, so this was big news.
The 505 would also break all price barriers, so expectations rose to new heights.
March 1986, at the age of 17, I took a bus to the small town of Bussum close to Amsterdam, where Roland were doing a product launch in a theatre called ’t Spant.
The products were demonstrated by an American studio drummer, who was also playing keyboards.
He demoed the RD-1000, Super JX-10, Octapad, S-50 & S-10 and the TR-505.
After hearing the sounds of the 505 I had to have one.
The owner of Kick Music was there too that night and I asked him if he would reserve the first one for me.
He kept his promise and 2-months later my TR-505 finally arrived.
As a side note, in those days products weren’t immediately available after they were announced.
It was quite normal that you had to wait a few months for the first small batch to arrive and the numbers were small, sometimes just even a one-offs were sent to the shops to keep customers interested.
Kick Music in Hilversum was not a small dealer, in fact, Kick Music was the number 1 Roland dealer in The Netherlands.
So much so, that Roland had sent two of its Japanese reps to check out how this was possible.
I remember paying 800-guilders for my 505, which was less than half of what a 707 cost.
I was incredibly proud to be the owner of a drummachine, especially as a drummer.
Most interviews I was reading in tech magazines were sceptical and negative about drum machines, as most drummers considered it a threat, where I purely saw it as a great new tool to improve my skills.
Not just that, it was just incredibly fun and exciting to play with a machine that was doing similar things to what I was doing and to combine the two seemed like a logical evolutional step.
The first time I used the 505 live was in early 1987, when I had to perform a drum piece with another student at music school.
He was playing the acoustic drums and I was playing my Simmons SDS-800.
We played along to a programmed sequence on the 505 and then improvised over a repeated section at the end..
People who attended the performance at our music school were not quite sure what to think of it and lots of people came up to me afterwards asking why I would want to play these rubber hive-shaped drums and have a machine lead us.
I guess the general public were not quite ready to see technology emerge at that stage, especially not with hobby musicians.
I was so enthralled in this new technology, that I didn’t give much of a toss about what people thought, as long as I was having fun, but in hindsight I can see how people must have viewed it.
In September 1986 I was put in a Jazz Fusion ensemble at the music school I was in.
I would bring the 505 to rehearsals to practice keeping time.
Fusion music was not widely accepted in 1986.
Even now, with popular acts like Snarky Puppy, Fusion is still very much of a brain bender for many.
As a band we were playing stuff from Weather Report, Steps Ahead, The Yellowjackets, Koinonia, Vital Information and The Mahavishnu Orchestra, but we realised that this material was hard to digest for the average listener and we struggled to get gigs.
We had to adopt a few pieces from the milder side of Fusion, which would now be classified as “Smooth Jazz”.
One particular artist rose to stardom in 1986 with his hit “Songbird”.
Kenny G is now somewhat infamous for his elevator tunes, but that album in 1986 also contained a few nice Electronic Funk tracks that were perfect candidates to attract the average listener to come to our gigs (which they still didn't).
The track we took from that album was called “Slip of The Tongue” and there were some Orchestral stabs in there.
When I got the MT-32 in 1988, which contained an Orchestral Hit sample, I triggered the sample from the 505.
The onboard sequencer was identical to the one on the TR-707.
This matrix style sequencer allows you to program the machine in real time or program it in steps, like the 808, using the 16-pads.
I have always found the 1-bar length limit on the Roland machines a big problem.
Having to program fills into separate bars and trying to place them in the right order of the song was a challenge.
Because the 505 featured MIDI, it could trigger external devices.
The first time I used the 505 as a keyboard sequencer, was when I saw a friend program his RX-11 to trigger MIDI notes from his DX-7.
He showed me how to do that on the 505, as I was completely unaware.
I immediately started programming notes under various pads to trigger my dad’s DX-7.
Famous bass lines, like Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” and Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done” were lots of fun to program, as they only required a few notes.
How this worked was simple: you would turn the levels down of the sounds that you didn’t think you would use, like the Timbales or toms.
Each pad could be assigned its own MIDI note number.
There was no way of saving these assignments, you could only keep the beat.
As soon as you programmed the notes for a different bass line, your sequence would be lost, so I wrote down charts for each sequence to quickly go back to them.
Another limitation was of course that we’re dealing with Note-On-Off messages, so notes could not have a different lengths and were really short.
This didn’t stop me from having endless fun and the memories are priceless.
The 505’s onboard sounds were very similar to the 707, albeit a little tinnier sounding.
Because Roland needed to cut corners to offer it at that price, there was only 1-kick and 1-snare sound.
They could have included more, but then they wouldn’t have been able to fit in percussion sounds as well.
I was very pleased with the way it sounded and back then we were not very demanding, as there was nothing else like it on the market.
The sound of the 505 has not become as classic as that of the 707, more on that later.
List of sounds
Closed Hi Hat
Open Hi Hat
These sounds could not be edited in any way and possibly the biggest disappointment was that they could not be tuned.
The volume of the sounds on the TR-505 had to be controlled internally through entering the Level button.
The pads on the machine were not velocity sensitive, however, velocity sensitivity was supported via MIDI, so playing it via a MIDI keyboard or Octapad would give you velocity level control.
My TR-505 happened to have individual outputs, which I had put in by Safe Sound in Amsterdam.
This was a fairly cheap option that Safe Sound had done by some technician for a limited time.
The eight 1/8” Jacks outputs were positioned on the right side of the unit.
Even though it was a very useful option, I never really got the chance to utilise it well enough, as you needed a larger mixer to make full use of it and mixers in those days were also costly.
We had a D&R Sixmix at home and the 6-channels were not enough to route the individual outs to.
Sometimes I would take the Clap and run it through a separate channel to add reverb from the Alesis Microverb, but this meant that another instrument on the mixer had to run in Mono.
I was also hoping that I could tap the Rim sound and send it to a headphone amp so I could play to the click, but as soon as you used the individual outs, the main outs got disabled.
I mentioned before that there was no tuning, well…..
My 505 would sometimes come on and be pitched 2-octaves up.
The first time this happened to me I immediately turned the unit off again to see if it stayed, but it came back on with the normal tuning.
I was completely baffled.
The second and last time it happened I recorded it onto cassette.
The 505 is somewhat of a forgotten child in Roland’s stable of drum machines, which is sad in a way, because it opened the drum machine world to so many who could not afford a 707 or any other drum machine of that type.
The 505 was the first entry level drum machine of its kind, with full programmability and sampled sounds.
Its success was short lived, with the TR-626 arriving soon after in 1987.
The 626 was like an extended 505, with more sounds that sounded a bit more up to date.
This quickly made the 505 obsolete and especially when synths and modules started to feature drum sounds, the 505 became an even lesser attractive item to keep in studio.
It definitely felt like that to me, as I got the MT-32 in early 88 and soon found that the 505 was not being used anymore.
I guess the 505 was lucky to have just profited from that short pricy drum machine period, where Linn 9000’s, SP-12’s and the RX-5 ruled the airwaves and young lads like me dreamt of being able to program those grooves in their bedrooms.
If you were there in early 1986, you would remember that feeling of excitement that finally digital drum machines had come within such close reach.
Sound quality was becoming a major factor though, with technology focussing on a new standard called “The Compact Disk”.
Even though the CD had been introduced in 1983, it wasn’t until 1986 that it really started to enter people’s living rooms and became a world standard.
Because of the 16-bit / 44.1kHz spec (Red Book), everything in the recording world had to match that pristine quality, so ditching 8-bit drum machines seemed a logical development at the time.
Soon 16-bit drum machines entered the market, like the Alesis HR-16, Roland R8 and Akai XR-10.
Later, during the 90’s, when the 2nd hand market got filled up with cheap old 8-bit drum machines including the 505, young kids were exploring new things on them and we got to hear these drum machines being used in a completely different way.
Instead of the drum machine mimicking a drummer, they were now used more like a rhythmic element that didn’t have to sound like a drummer at all.
House, Techno, Acid and the many other styles of electronic music that followed, were very repetitive and didn’t need to be programmed to the Verse, Chorus, Middle-8 format.
Instead they were treated like individual musicians, where each had a specific task.
Each drum machine was programmed to do their own thing and were then mixed in live to create changes and variety.
This whole new approach resulted in some drum machines being more favoured over others.
Especially the analog 808, 909 and (digital) 707, because they had built-in mixers that could be controlled in real time.
This is why the 505 has always fallen a bit by the wayside, because it didn’t have a built-in mixer.
The 707 sounds similar (though better) and it has a built-in mixer, which is ideal for mixing in elements during live performing.
Having said that, the 505 has definitely been used a lot in Dance music.
The kick and snare may not often be used as the main elements, but the other sounds definitely work really well.
Because the 505 is not as desirable as a 707, prices are really affordable, so if you can pick one up for around $100 and it’s in great condition, give it a go and you will be pleasantly surprised of what it can do and how well it can sound in a modern dance production.
It’s just an overall fun machine to use and a great introduction to classic drum machine style programming.
If you are looking for a 707 type machine, but can’t spend that type of money, then the 505 is a perfect substitute.
It has a totally unique character, which cannot be found in any other Roland product.
So far it has not been modelled for the Roland TR-8 or Roland Cloud, unlike the 808, 909 and 707.
The more reason to pick one up.