Listen closely and you’ll hear the 909 everywhere—from the filter house tracks of Daft Punk, to Madonna’s hit “Vogue” and the minimal stylings of Aphex Twin’s “Heliosphan”.
But what makes the 909 drum machine so sought after and why do producers—especially ones making house and disco music—gravitate to the machine so heavily?
In this article, we’ll unpack everything you need to know about where the drum machine came from, why it’s so popular and how you can get pro-sounding 909s in your tracks.
What is a 909?
909s are a set of drum sounds that originate from the TR-909 drum machine released by Roland in the 1980s. The 909 is characterized by its subtle yet punchy sound that’s well-suited for house, techno, disco, pop and other electronic dance music.
909 drum sounds include hi-hat, snare, kick, ride, crash, clap, toms, and a rim shot.
The original TR-909 sounds were synthesized using analog circuits that used sound design to turn a white noise signal into recognizable drum sounds.
The 909 is characterized by its subtle yet punchy sound.
Today, however, many of the TR-909 sounds you’ll hear in pop music come from recorded samples that have been manipulated by producers to add saturation, overtones, distortion and more.
The 909 drum sound originated from the Roland TR-909. This drum machine defined the sounds of house, techno, pop and disco music throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s.
It’s a rare piece of vintage gear that fetches high prices on gear swap websites today.
Although the drum machine was originally produced to help musicians practice without needing a human drummer, the TR-909 was quickly adopted by early house and techno producers in Detroit and Chicago.
But aside from its functionality within a hardware setup, the machine’s iconic drum sounds helped define much of the percussion behind early house and techno music.
Listen closely—pretty much every electronic house and disco track leans heavily on the 909’s thumpy kick, groovy crashes, chunky toms and overall vibe.
The machine’s iconic drum sounds helped define much of the percussion behind early house and techno music.
Today you’ll still hear the 909 used heavily in pop music—whether they be samples of the original 909, an original TR-909 itself or a modern hardware clone of the original.
How to make great-sounding 909s in your music
You don’t have to shell out thousands of dollars on a vintage gear marketplace to start using 909s in your music.
For starters, if you are adamant about using a real synth engine with analog circuits to make your 909s you might want to look at modern hardware clones of the 909 drum machine.
Roland’s new line of boutique retro synths includes the TR-09 which is a backpack-size version of the original TR-909 that comes with a handful of new features.
Otherwise, Behringer’s full-size RD-09 comes with a very familiar interface to the TR-909, plus the option to use “enhanced sounds” to add a little bit more saturation and oomph to the drums.
But really, you don’t need to buy any hardware to get a great 909 sound—there’s tons of excellent 909 samples out there for you to use royalty-free.
Here’s how to get your 909 samples ready to rock the club.
1. Find a great sample pack
You shouldn’t go with just any 909 sample. The ones that come stock in your DAW are probably not the best you can get.
You need to find a sample pack that focuses specifically on the 909 sound—one made by professional engineers who’ve worked with the drum machine extensively.
These samples will have all the right processing the 909 needs to shine in the mix.
This sample pack by Roger Sanchez, who’s worked with all the greats including Daft Punk—is a great example.
You can grab it and use the legendary producers 909s on LANDR Samples right now.
2. Tune the 909s
One of the coolest parts about the original 909 is that it gave producers the ability to tune the 909s up or down to taste.
Working with 909 samples is no different and tuning them sounds great—especially when it comes to kicks, hats and toms.
Find the perfect thump, make your hats super clicky or super open or turn those toms into a conga—getting creative with tuning is a super great way to get more out of your 909 samples.
3. Know where kick fits into the arrangement
Each part of the drum kit fits into a certain range of frequencies.
The kicks fit into the sub-bass to bass range. You’ll also find the smack of the kick in the mids and upper mids. Snares and toms fit into the mid-range. Hi-hats, rides and rim shots fit into the high-end.
This is important to understand when it comes to EQing your drum track later on.
But, it’s especially important when it comes to getting the best sounding 909 kicks.
Pay close attention to where your kick is sitting in the low-frequency spectrum—20-60hz.
The ideal range for sub-bass is between 40hz and 60hz.
Tune them too low and they won’t cut through or have enough energy to make an impact.
The ideal range for sub-bass is between 40hz and 60hz, since most speakers and the human ear cant handle much below 40hz.
So, unless you want to add some low rumble to a sub speaker—try and keep your 909 kicks tuned above 40hz for maximum impact.
4. EQ 909 kicks to the bottom of the mix
The low-end is often where mix issues occur because it has a tendency to get muddied by the sub-frequencies in other instruments.
The subtle and often inaudible sub frequencies in your toms, snares, synths, vocals and other instruments will quickly take up space that your 909s need if you don’t filter or EQ them out.
As an easy mixing rule, put a low pass filter that gets rid of the bottom end of any instrument that unnecessarily takes up sub-bass frequency space.
5. EQ hats and rides to the top of the mix
The same applies to the harsher frequencies at the opposite end of the spectrum—16kHz and above.
Use filters or EQ to keep instruments like kicks, toms, and snares away from those higher frequencies to reduce harshness.
6. Snare and clap EQ
Snares and claps may clash with the vocals because they typically sit in the same area of the frequency spectrum.
Snares and claps may clash with the vocals.
So watch out for how they’re EQ’d or they might create an unpleasant experience that takes away from the vocal parts.
7. Adding resonance to the toms
A cool discovery you might find is that adding a bit of resonance on a high pass filter will a bit of slap to a 909 tom sound.
To my ear, this simulates the slap of the stick on the skin of the tom to create a subtly human sound—especially when you use automation or an LFO to move the cutoff point of the filter.
8. Play with attack and decay times
The attack and decay of each drum in the 909 drum kit can dramatically change what the sample is doing for the beat.
The attack of you kicks will change the way the kick thumps—a short attack will slap like a hard plastic drum beater, whereas a longer attack witll thump like a softer felt beater.
A longer decay on the kick will give it a more melodic sound—especially when tuned to the key of your track.
The same goes for every other instrument in the 909 too. Different attack and decay levels on the hi-hat will simulate different striking positions and create distinct sounds.
Play around with the attack on the 909 drums and you’ll find the right amount for each.
9. Sound design your 909
There’s lots you can do to get interesting and unique sounds out of your 909s.
Add effects saturation and distortion, put in sweeping filters, add reverb and delay.
Putting compression on your drum track or adding a sidechain to the kick is always a good way to tighten up your drum and create extra movement.
Or you could try adding some bit reduction to break down the sound and give it gritty, lo-fi edge.
The possibilities are truly endless—it’s all about knowing what you want out of your sound and finding a way to get there through experimentation and learning!
It’s 909 time
While the 909 often gets a back seat to its more famous cousin, the 808—it’s just powerful and arguably better suited to certain kinds of music.
I think it’s time for the 909 to make a comeback, the 808 is somewhat overused these days.
So if you want to add some unique zest to your track and get away from the huge, often super subby sound of the 808—give the 909 a try and use these tricks to get the most out of your 909s.
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