The introduction of the TR-909 in 1984 transformed the landscape of electronic dance music permanently. If the 808 defined the sounds of the early 80s, the 909 was the next logical step in the evolution of technology shaping music and music shaping technology back. Like the 808, every voice on this drum machine is a classic - instantly recognizable (for better or worse), and deeply nostalgic yet increasingly relevant in today's music. And despite what anybody says we still have yet to see an emulation nail this sound perfectly.
Like the 808, the 909 is analog, but with one major difference: it uses crunchy 6 bit samples for the cymbal and hi hat. These can punch through a mix in a totally different (crunchier?) way than the previously analog hats because they're sample-based, providing an amazing contrast to the 909's analog voices. In fact, so much of the movement from disco to house and techno can be boiled down, at least partially, to this shift in hi hats.
Like the 808, the analog bass drum is famously huge and warm. Both are capable of deep sub kicks around which you can base entire albums of music. But while the 808 bass drum is incredible, it can be hard to fit with a big bassline. The sustain is huge and you also just don't really have a punchy envelope to play with. On the 909, though, the introduction of pitch modulation means you can get a super punchy kick because you're effectively raising the pitch of that attack envelope, and the difference (the decay) between that initial attack and the lower, fundamental sustain is where the punch lies. Plus, while you're raising that attack, you're also decreasing the length of the low sub sustain, thus making room for your huge bassline.
The snares are wide ranging. On the lower end of the "tone" control, they're thicker than the 808's (moving closer to the 90s) and on the other side of that "tone" knob things can get quite trashy quickly depending on your unit. If you sweep this knob, along with the pitch envelope, you can get those crazy, energetic 909 rave snare rolls that people lost their shit to in the 90s.
Overall the 909 is quite a departure from the 808, but none of this is to say it is better than the 808, but rather that these differences are what make them the perfect companions. Which is better depends on whom you ask, and mostly its due to taste and musical inspirations / aspirations. So, the 909 is either the best or second-best drum machine ever made. Not bad!
We recorded our 909 through the legendary SSL 4000 G+ analog console (the trick is to use the gate to make the drums punchier) to a mastering 1/4″ tape machine. Once the signal was recorded at 15 ips, we then changed the speed of the tape machine, and played back the 909 hits at different analog tunings. Tunings that the original drum machine didn't have, and tunings that will sound better than your DAW doing that. Speaking of which, the final step was formatting kits and individual hits for WAV, Ableton, Kontakt & Logic.