Boom 909! and Boom 808! review – Pulse Code Inc. provide streamlined virtual drum machines

Download from iTunes App Storeboom 909 logoboom 808 logoThere are certain items of music technology hardware from the past that have achieved ‘classic’ status. For example, original (still working) Minimoog synths can fetch a handsome price on the second hand market and this synth has been the subject of various attempts to recapture the sound in hardware ‘re-issues’. Roland’s classic TB303 Bass Line bass synth is another example, while the same companies TR 808 and TR 909 Rhythm Composer units can set you back several thousand US$/UK£ for second hand hardware in decent condition.

Scarcity, popularity, classic status and scary prices combined are just some of the factors that has led quite a few software developers to attempt to capture the essence of these now rare and expensive hardware units in virtual versions. A number of virtual emulations of units such as the TR 808 and TR 909, whether they are licensed clones or simply very close ‘tributes’ to the originals, have appeared over the years on the desktop. Now, of course, the same software recreations are available under iOS.

Boom 808! - a tribute to a Roland classic.

Boom 808! – a tribute to a Roland classic.

And, if you want a slice of the kind of drum sounds that have ruled the Hip Hop and various electronic music genres such as Techo or Acid, but only have a budget based upon the loose change you have found down the back of your sofa, then Pulse Code Inc.’s Boom 808! and Boom 909! apps – both currently selling at UK£1.49 – might be of interest. Both apps are aimed at the iPad only and, given the price, ought to be accessible for almost any wannabe iOS music producer.

Little boxes

While the two apps reflect the livery of the Roland originals that inspired them, some elements of the virtual interface are common to both. This includes the top-most strip of both apps where you can place patterns into a series of slots, with the ability to copy/delete patterns should you wish and also the option to save/reload a series of patterns.

... or if you prefer the 909, then the Boom 909! has you covered.

… or if you prefer the 909, then the Boom 909! has you covered.

You can set up a loop region within this zone if you wish but, equally, simply tapping on a pattern will cause it to be triggered at the end of the currently playing pattern so, once patterns are created in a number of slots, you can easily construct a free-form performance simply by tapping on patterns to sequence them ‘live’.

The remainder of the interface on both apps pays tribute to – without being exact clones of – the original Roland hardware. So, in both cases, the central portion of the display provides access to the sound editing features where you can tweak things like the level, tuning, pan, attack and decay of each drum sound (the exact controls differ between each unit to reflect what was offered on the original hardware). Both apps also include a rather nice compressor, tempo, accent, swing and overdrive controls; if you want to get your beats pumping and crunching, then it is easy to do so.

Both apps can export your sequence of patterns as an audio file if you wish.

Both apps can export your sequence of patterns as an audio file if you wish.

Along the base of the display for both apps is a series of sixteen virtual buttons (mimicking the original hardware) and it is these that you use to program the pattern for each of your drum sounds. Whichever sound you have selected in the central portion of the display (just tap on the drum label to select it) becomes the active drum for pattern programming. Like the hardware equivalent, this is very easy and intuitive to use….  but this is software so the option to switch to a full grid pattern view where you could program parts of all the drums together would be a great addition. Maybe that’s something for an update at some point?

Can you beat it?

I can’t claim to know the original hardware that Boom 808! and Boom 909! are based on other than a very brief encounter in a studio back in the day that had both amongst their equipment list. However, I have used a number of other software emulations and, like most music fans, I’ve listened to countless tracks featuring these rhythm boxes over the years.

The Settings options are similar in both apps, although Boom 909! features a MIDI sync option that is not, at present, available in Boom 808!.

The Settings options are similar in both apps, although Boom 909! features a MIDI sync option that is not, at present, available in Boom 808!.

So, in terms of sound absolutely authentic to the original well, perhaps I better leave that judgement to others….  However, to my ears at least, they do capture the essence of the sounds very well. The 808 seems to have a nice solid kick, snappy snare and splashy open hat that characterised the original. In turn, the 909 is perhaps a bit more clinical but, chuck a few patterns in it, hit the Start button, and it is instantly recognisable.

Both app are happy to respond to incoming MIDI (and you can set the MIDI channel) so, if you preferred, you can program parts in a sequencer. I had no problems using either an external MIDI keyboard to trigger the sounds or when sending MIDI from a suitably configured track within Cubasis.

Both apps worked nicely within Audiobus.

Both apps worked nicely within Audiobus.

And, as both apps are quite happy to sit in the Audiobus Input slot, it is also very simple to get audio out of the 808 or 909 and back into Cubasis. In fact, Boom 909! includes the option for MIDI Clock sync (although Boom 808! does not). However, while the transport of the app responded to Cubasis as the MIDI Clock master, there was something odd going on in terms of the timing (on my test system at least) which was a bit of a shame.

Given this, I think if I wanted to do any serious work with these apps in a wider context, I’d be creating MIDI parts in Cubasis (which gets everything in time with the rest of your project) and then recording the audio back to Cubasis via Audiobus. This works very smoothly but it does mean you miss out on the rather retro – but fun to use – programming options in the two apps.

Sending MIDI to either app, and getting audio back via Audiobus, proved to be very straightforward.

Sending MIDI to either app, and getting audio back via Audiobus, proved to be very straightforward.

Do note, however, that both apps also include a recording option so you can capture a performance within the app and then export it as audio if you prefer to work that way. Options for SoundCloud, iTunes File Sharing, AudioCopy and Email are supported.

In summary

Neither Boom 808! nor Boom 909! are going to break anyone’s bank. What we have here are two further examples of just how good a deal iOS music apps can be. Nope, these are not ‘do it all’ virtual drum machines and there are other apps you can turn to that cover these sorts of sounds plus more besides (DM1 for example) but the interfaces are clean, clear and uncluttered and the basic feature sets of both apps pay pretty good homage to the Roland hardware that inspired them.

I’d love to see the ‘true to original’ spec stretched to providing at least an option for a full grid editor in both apps. This is software… so bend the rules a bit if it makes the user’s life a little easier. Equally, it would be great to see if there is anything more that could be done in terms of the MIDI Clock sync and getting that working in both apps. We all know MIDI sync under iOS is a bit of a minefield but, hopefully, this might come? It would mean the internal pattern programming could be used with other apps more easily. Finally, IAA support would also be great to see in an update somewhere down the line.

All these things said, both of these apps are great fun to use. In Boom 808! and Boom 909!, Pulse Code Inc. have captured the essence of both the sound and specification of the Roland originals. And given that you can now access that experience (admittedly in a form that hasn’t quite got the same street cool as the original hardware) at a mind bogglingly cheap price, there is very little not to like. Two apps for vintage beat box fans and, frankly, any iOS musician with some spare change in their pockets left over from lunch.

Boom 808!

Download from iTunes App Store

Boom 909!

Download from iTunes App Store
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    1. Thanks for the review! I did buy both of these quickly after release – not because I “needed” them, but because they were cool, simple interfaces for 99 cents. The lack of a grid feature, which John addressed, is the most divisive aspect of the Boom! apps.

      I find the argument that it NEEDS to be added a little baffling, however. Is there really a shortage of grid-based 808/909 samplers? I have probably a dozen rhythm apps on my devices that use either grid or MPC-style pads (or both) with a full assortment of 808/909 sounds (or any other samples you import in).

      I don’t think that was ever the point of Boom808/909! The point was to give you a single screen, stylized representation of an actual Roland TR-808 or 909 machine. Much the way people sometimes prefer Flying Haggis guitar sim over more feature-laden apps like JamUp is precisely because all of the controls are on a single screen and allow you to get to work.

      You could argue that “it wouldn’t hurt” to add in grid programming (kind of like DrumPerfect did in a later update), but then you’d have an after-thought of a grid that can only play the sounds of one device. And if they did it well enough to offer features that other apps don’t, it should probably be more than a dollar. Nobody’s required to like it at all, but I like the Boom! apps for what they are. I’d just like to see the loop export through ACP made a little easier so you can clearly export a number of measures (perhaps 1-4) at the exact length it should be.

    2. I bought this app based on this review. All I have to say: This is not a serious 909 emu. Is it worth the price? Guess so, but you do get what you pay for, no more.

      • Hi jm2c…. thanks for the feedback. I think I’d go a bit further than you in terms of the value for money obtained here…. I think both apps are pretty impressive given the App Store pricing model. That said, if you have a suggestion or two as to some alternatives that work better for you then please feel free to point me at them and I’ll take a look. Always happy to get recommendations from readers here…. Thanks again and very best wishes, John

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