Roland Goes Back to the 80s With Its Aira Compact Groove Boxes

They’re simple and cute, but not for beginners

  • Roland’s AIRA Compacts take on Korg’s purse-sized Volcas.
  • They combine classic drum machines, bass sequencers, synths, and FX from Roland’s history.
  • The oversimplified controls might be confusing for beginners.
Roland's T-8 Beat Machine, J-6 Chord Synthesizer, and E-4 Voice Tweaker

Roland

Roland is jumping into the portable groovebox market with its new AIRA Compact line, but are these boxes just too good?

Over the past few years, the mini synth, drum machine, and sampler market has really taken off. The most visible are Korg’s Volca range, which are cute little boxes the size of a paperback novel that pack some seriously big sounds. Now Roland has joined in, adding some interesting features, while keeping to the idea of a portable, fun device. They’re cut-down and modified versions of the existing full-sized AIRA line. But who, exactly, are these boxes for?

"I was skeptical when my neighbor invited me round to show me his shiny new Volca beats machine. It's for amateurs, I thought. But I was struck by how quick and intuitive it was to use. It reminded me that making music doesn't have to be a drawn out intellectual exercise. It can be fun too," musician, TV composer, and former university music lecturer Daren Banarsë told Lifewire via email. "The Aira range looks more interesting to me, though. They have retro sounds which could really be useful in a track."

Compromised

There are three AIRA Compacts so far, costing $199 apiece. There’s the T-8 Beat Machine, a combo drum machine and bass sequencer; the J-6 Chord Synthesizer is a teeny-tiny Juno synth with a built-in chord player; and the E-4 Voice Tweaker is a vocal effects box with a built-in looper. This is the only one that doesn’t seem like it’ll be left in the back of a closet after a few weeks. 

All the AIRA Compacts have built-in rechargeable batteries, unlike the Volcas, which use AAs. They also have MIDI jacks, a USB-C port for both audio and MIDI, plus what Roland calls "mix-in" and "mix-out" jacks, which let you daisy chain the units and send the audio along the line. 

Roland T-8 Beat Machine in a backpack

Roland

But the problem with all these little boxes is they’re neither as capable as bigger devices, nor are they simple enough for beginners, even though the low prices make them seem perfect for musicians who are starting out. 

"[T]here’s this assertion that devices like this are ‘great for beginners getting into synths.’ I think that this is wrong, and bad advice, and I don’t even fully understand the rationale," writes musician Nate Horn in an internet forum post. "I don’t think these are inherently bad instruments—things like the Volcas and [Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators] especially can be incredible in the right hands and are clearly important pieces of peoples setups—but none of those people are beginners and I’m not sure they were when they bought them either."

Beginners

Beginners don’t necessarily need simplified equipment or software, but they do need an accessible way in. Sometimes that way in, for musicians, is a bunch of nice-sounding presets. Other times it’s a particularly well-thought-out tutorial from YouTube, which allows the noob to understand a small part of a more complex instrument peel enough to ignite their interest.

These small boxes hide too much away. They simplify the user interface to the point that the novice is left guessing and turning knobs at random until they find something they like. And even then, they have no idea how that sound is made. Experts already know enough that they can understand and coax out sounds through these opaque controls, but they’re also likely to own or prefer more capable devices.

Roland E-4 Voice Tweaker

Roland

Let’s use the guitar as an analogy. You learn the guitar by starting with a few chords, a simple pentatonic scale, and learn a basic song. But you learn it on a normal guitar. You don’t see a two-string guitar with automatic tuning and think, "That’s ideal for beginners." It’s the same here. By hiding the controls behind presets, or by assigning several partners to one knob, these boxes won’t teach a beginner much at all.

That’s not to say they aren’t fun, or that limitations don’t spark creativity. And in the end, you’re only out by $200 if it’s not for you.

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