Roland TR606 Drum Machine modifications

The TR606 and TB303 were a cute set back in the 80’s. Supposedly they were meant to accompany guitarists with drums and bass respectively. The TR606 was horrible as a drummer, and the TB303 was horrible as a bass player.

But they were achievements as far as microcontolling goes, you could easily create beats and save them. Although they didn’t quite make it as a choice rhythm section in their day, they gained heavy popularity at the outbreak of techno and house. Especially the TB303 which has been used to death.

The TR606 was soon replaced with the superior 808 and 909, and for the most part the 606 became the poor mens’ choice for analog beats. The main problem: lack of sound shaping controls. The preset sounds consisted of: Bass drum, Snare drum, Low Tom, Hi Tom, Hi Hat and Cymbal. Each had its own level control and all were combined into one output.

I always liked the way it sounded, but yes.. the 808 and 909 were much more useful, and although the kick and snare have their own thing going for them, the place were the 606 really shines is in its high hats. This little grey box spits out the best high hats, which easily win over the ones used in the 808 and 909.

My next mission was to modify my old TR606 to give me more control. I’ve been fantasizing about this for a good few years. Most of the modifications were found on this here ancient resource, but I added a few touches of my own. The entire thing was boxed in an old wooden portable turntable box, as that was the only thing I had lying around at the time that was the right size.

Here are my added mods:

Bass drum controls:

Range, Pitch, Decay, Tone, Sweep (triggered with the Low Tom drum), Sweep Decay

Snare controls:

Pitch, Tone, Decay, Noise (this effects the Cymbal sound as well)

Hi Tom controls:

Range, Pitch, Sweep Amount, Kick, Sweep on/off

Low Tom controls:

Pitch, Noise (used primarily as sort of a reverb effect)

Hi Hat controls:

Low Pass filter, Band Pass filter, LPF on/off, BPF on/off, Closed Hi Hat Decay, Open Hi Hat Decay, Audio In selector, Audio In Level

Cymbal controls:

Ring, Hi Pass filter, Decay, HPF on/off

and also

Individuals outputs for each instrument, Mute button for each instrument, External sync option, External Audio in (needs more work) and an internal power supply so that the box can be plugged in directly to the wall socket.

As you can see it’s still a work in progress and since I modded it I have had a good few ideas as to how I would want it finally done. I want to box it differently with a well made front panel, make it more spacious and add a few more features. I’d also love to have switchable kick sweep source switch. The sweep is now triggered from the Low Tom. Very convenient when running the box as a standalone, but external CV control over the kick drum would be great and quite easy to add. As I crack my way through with microcontrollers I would love to add full MIDI compatibility as that would turn the 606 into a sound module. I may also want to add separate volume controls for both toms, and possibly tweak a few values around to make the mods better suite my tastes. But even as is, the machine truly rocks. I mean, you can do all sorts of shit with it!

Most importantly, the mods DO NOT make the 606 sound like a different machine! It sounds like a tweaked 606, and that is good – I love it for what it is!

Here is a demo of it.

BTW, I used to own the TB303 as well. It was given to me by some dude who worked in a record store in 1987. He didn’t know what to do with it and neither did I for quite a few years. Ten years later I was working in a record store and a tweaker came in and offered me a trade. I gave him the TB and got an Ensoniq EPS Classic sampler and an analog Yamaha CS5 in exchange. Looking back on it I realize that he got the better deal by a long shot BUT I was using the gear I got from him a lot more, making good use of that crunchy EPS 13-bit sampling power and that extra wide LFO and excellent filters on the CS (especially in the HP range in my opinion). Of course, I could have bought a dozen of those with the money I could sale the TB for only a few years later. Oh well..