A continuation from the Post-Punk Drum Machines and Other Gear post, the Roland TR-606 deserves a post all of its own, having been used by bands such as The Sisters of Mercy and Nine Inch Nails.
The Roland TR-606 Drumatix is a drum machine built by the Roland Corporation from 1981 to 1984. It was originally designed to be used with the Roland TB-303, a monophonic analog bass synthesizer, to provide a simple drum and bass accompaniment to guitarists without backing bands.
Sound Behind the Song: “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails
“Closer” by Nine Inch Nails is built around a densely layered groove featuring the TR-606. The edgy track achieved great chart success for the band.
Roland articles – Nine Inch Nails
The TR-606 was used by punk rock/noise rock band Big Black and was credited on their records as “Roland”. Steve Albini later reflected on the TR-606:
“When I first got the 606 I carried it around and listened to it like a Walkman, and over the course of a day I would gradually build and re-build a rhythm until it was satisfying to listen to on its own… Drum machines can be cool instruments with a lot of character. I was always disappointed when I heard one being used clumsily, which was most of the time.”
The Sisters of Mercy also used it, on their early records, where it was credited as a band member named “Doktor Avalanche.” Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark had it listed in the liner notes of their album Dazzle Ships. Nine Inch Nails used it in their hit single “Closer” from the album “The Downward Spiral” and Dave Rowntree of the Britpop band Blur uses one on the track “On Your Own” from their 1997 self-titled album Blur.
Outside of rock music, the TR-606 was commonly used by electronica artists C. Balardo, Uwe Schmidt, Plastikman, Aphex Twin, Mike Ink, and Autechre. Even artists that preferred breakbeats to four-on-the-floor rhythms used it, seen when 4Hero credited the TR-606 on its well-received album Parallel Universe. Another example was Massive Attack‘s 1994 album Protection, which prominently used the machine on some tracks, and the CD booklet included a photo of the TR-606 connected to a TB-303. The Swedish electronic band Covenant has used it, citing it as “one of the most beautifully distortable drum machines ever made”.
The electronic musician Kid606 mentioned the TR-606 as an inspiration in interviews and confirmed it as an inspiration for his stage name.
The TR-606 has seven synthesized sounds: Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Hi Tom, Lo Tom, Cymbal and Open/Closed Hi Hat.
An additional function labeled accent serves to modify the volume of the entire drum mix on a given beat. This allows, for example, a louder beat 4 in a simple drum pattern: boom-chik, boom CHIK. There is no “swing” parameter on the TR-606. The output is mono.
The Lo Tom and Hi Tom tracks have outputs to trigger an external sound source.
When the closed and open hihat are played together, a 3rd hihat sound emerges.
When the trigger output is in use, the corresponding internal sound still functions normally. The tom track could be employed, for example, to trigger a kick drum synth module.