Roland TR-808

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Roland TR-808
The TR-808 front panel: a black box with rows of colored buttons and dials.
TR-808 front panel
Price$1,195 USD
£765 GBP
¥150,000 JPY
Technical specifications
Synthesis typeAnalog subtractive
Storage memory32 patterns, 768 measures
EffectsIndividual level, tuning, attack, decay, and tone controls for some sounds
Keyboard16 pattern keys
External controlDIN sync in/out

The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, commonly known as the 808, is a drum machine manufactured by the Roland Corporation between 1980 and 1983. It was one of the first drum machines to allow users to program rhythms instead of using preset patterns. Unlike its nearest competitor at the time, the more expensive Linn LM-1, the 808 generates sounds using analog synthesis rather than playing samples.

Launched when electronic music had yet to become mainstream, the 808 received mixed reviews for its unrealistic drum sounds and was a commercial failure. After building approximately 12,000 units, Roland discontinued the 808 after its semiconductors became impossible to restock. It was succeeded by the TR-909 in 1983.

Over the course of the 1980s, the 808 attracted a cult following among underground musicians for its affordability on the used market, ease of use, and idiosyncratic sounds, particularly its deep, "booming" bass drum. It became a cornerstone of the emerging electronic, dance, and hip hop genres, popularized by early hits such as "Sexual Healing" by Marvin Gaye and "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force.

The 808 was eventually used on more hit records than any other drum machine. Its particular popularity in hip hop has made it one of the most influential inventions in popular music, comparable to the Fender Stratocaster's impact on rock. Its sounds are included with music software and modern drum machines, and it has inspired numerous unlicensed recreations.


The TR-808 is a piece of art. It's engineering art, it's so beautifully made. If you have an idea of what is going on in the inside, if you look at the circuit diagram, and you see how the unknown Roland engineer was making the best out of super limited technology, it's unbelievable. You look at the circuit diagram like you look at an orchestral score, you think, how on earth did they come up with this idea? It's brilliant, it's a masterpiece.

Robert Henke, musician and co-creator of Ableton Live[1]

In the 1960s, drum machines were most often used to accompany home organs. They did not allow users to program rhythms,[2] but instead offered preset patterns such as bossa nova.[3][4] In 1969, the Hammond Organ Company hired American musician and engineer Don Lewis to demonstrate its products, including an electronic organ with a built-in drum machine designed by the Japanese company Ace Tone.[2] Lewis was known for performances using electronic instruments he had modified, decades before the popularization of instrument "hacking" via circuit bending. He made extensive modifications to the Ace Tone drum machine, creating his own rhythms and wiring it through his organ's expression pedal to accent the percussion.[2]

Lewis was approached by Ace Tone president and founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, who wanted to know how Lewis had achieved the sounds using the Ace Tone machine.[2] In 1972, Kakehashi formed the Roland Corporation and hired Lewis to help design drum machines.[2] By the late 1970s, microprocessors were appearing in instruments[5] such as the Roland MC-8 Microcomposer,[6] and Kakehashi realized they could be used to program drum machines.[5] In 1978, Roland released the CompuRhythm CR-78,[6] the first drum machine with which users could write, save, and replay their own patterns.[5]

With its next machine, the TR-808, Roland aimed to develop a drum machine for the professional market, expecting that it would mainly be used to create demos.[7] The concept was to build a "drum synthesizer" with which users could program drum sequences and edit parameters such as tuning, decay and level.[8] Though the engineers aimed to emulate real percussion, the prohibitive cost of memory drove them to design sound-generating hardware instead of using samples (prerecorded sounds). Kakehashi deliberately purchased faulty transistors that created the machine's distinctive "sizzling" sound.[9] Chief engineer Makoto Muroi credited the 808 voice circuit design to "Mr. Nakamura" and the software to "Mr. Matsuoka".[5]

Sounds and features[edit]

The 808 produces sounds in imitation of acoustic percussion: the bass drum, snare, toms, conga, rimshot, claves, handclap, maraca, cowbell, cymbal, and hi-hat (open and closed).[10] Rather than playing samples, it generates sounds using analog synthesis; the TR in TR-808 stands for "Transistor Rhythm".[11] The sounds do not resemble real percussion,[3][7] and have been described as "clicky and hypnotic",[7] "robotic",[9] "spacey",[4] "toy-like" and "futuristic".[3] Fact described them as a combination of "synth tones and white noise" that resembled "bursts coming from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop" more than a real drum kit.[10]

The 808 is noted for its powerful bass drum sound, built from a sine oscillator, low-pass filter, and voltage-controlled amplifier.[12] The bass drum decay control allows users to lengthen the sound, creating uniquely low frequencies that flatten slightly over time, possibly not by design.[12] The New Yorker described the kick drum as the 808's defining feature.[9]

The 808 was the first drum machine with which users could program a percussion track from beginning to end, complete with breaks and rolls.[13] Users can program up to 32 patterns using the step sequencer,[5] chain up to 768 measures,[14] and place accents on individual beats.[5] Users can also set the tempo[5] and time signature, including unusual signatures such as 5
and 7
.[15] The machine includes volume knobs for each voice, numerous audio outputs, and a DIN sync port (a precursor to MIDI) to synchronize with other devices.[5] Its three trigger outputs can synchronize with synthesizers and other equipment.[16]


The 808 launched in 1980 with a list price of US$1,195 (equivalent to $3,753 in 2020).[10] Roland marketed it as an affordable alternative to the Linn LM-1, manufactured by Linn Electronics, which used samples of real drum kits.[10] The 808 sounded simplistic and synthetic by comparison; electronic music had yet to become mainstream and many musicians and producers wanted realistic-sounding drum machines.[7][10] Many reports state that one review dismissed the machine as sounding like "marching anteaters", though this was likely referring to machines that predated it.[15] Contemporary Keyboard wrote a positive review, predicting that it would become "the standard for rhythm machines of the future".[13]

Despite some early adopters,[10] the 808 was a commercial failure[14] and fewer than 12,000 units were sold.[17] Roland ended production in 1983[3] after semiconductor improvements made it impossible to restock the faulty transistors essential to its design.[9]


Though the 808 was commercially unsuccessful, it has had a lasting influence on popular music and was eventually used on more hit records than any other drum machine.[18] CBC News credited its first use to the Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra.[19] The first records to feature the 808 were released in 1981: Yellow Magic Orchestra's BGM[20] and the Monitors' "Nobody Told Me".[11] In 1982, the American R&B artist Marvin Gaye released the first hit single that featured the 808, "Sexual Healing".[4] Gaye was drawn to the instrument because he could use it to create music without other musicians or producers.[9]

Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Yutaka DJing in 2004
In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa (left) and the Soulsonic Force released "Planet Rock", one of the first hit singles to use the 808.

By the time Roland discontinued the 808 in 1983, it had become common on the used market, often selling for less than $100.[10] Its ease of use,[7] affordability, and idiosyncratic sound earned it a cult following among underground musicians and producers,[10] and it became a cornerstone of the developing electronic and hip hop genres.[4] In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force released their single "Planet Rock", which made extensive use of the 808 to create "strange, futuristic percussion that became hugely popular on dancefloors".[21] The track influenced the development of electronic and hip hop[22] and subgenres including Miami bass and Detroit techno, and popularized the 808 as a "fundamental element of futuristic sound".[4] According to Slate, "Planet Rock" "didn't so much put the 808 on the map so much as reorient an entire world of post-disco dance music around it".[7]

The 808 was subsequently used by hip hop acts including Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy.[9] It has been described as hip hop's equivalent to the Fender Stratocaster guitar, which dramatically influenced the development of rock music.[23][24][25] The 808 bass drum, in particular, became so essential that Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad production group declared that "it's not hip hop without that sound".[9] The New Yorker wrote that the "trembling feeling of [the 808 bass drum], booming down boulevards in Oakland, the Bronx, and Detroit, are part of America's cultural DNA".[9] Even after the 808 fell out of use by East Coast hip hop producers in the 1990s, it remained a staple of southern hip hop.[10]

The 808's limited pattern storage encouraged artists to push its limits; according to Slate, "those eight-bar units became veritable playgrounds for invention and creativity".[7] Artists manipulated the bass drum to produce new sounds,[7] such as on the 1984 single "Set it Off", in which producer Strafe used it to imitate the sound of an underground nuclear test.[9] Producer Rick Rubin popularized the technique of lengthening the bass drum decay and tuning it to different pitches to create basslines.[26] On their 1986 track "Paul Revere", the Beastie Boys reversed a recording of an 808 to produce backwards-sounding percussion.[27]

The 808 saw extensive use beyond hip hop, such as on Whitney Houston's 1987 pop hit "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)".[28] In the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, singer David Byrne performs "Psycho Killer" accompanied by an 808,[29] stumbling against its "gunshot"-like sounds.[30] Songwriter Phil Collins found the machine useful for looping rhythms for long periods, since human drummers would be tempted to add variations and fills.[26] The New Yorker wrote that "the introduction of Roland's magic box was indisputably the big bang of pop's great age of disruption, from 1983 to 1986. The 808's defiantly inorganic timbres ... sketched out the domain of a new world of music."[9]

In the UK, the 808 was popularized by the electronic group 808 State, which took its name from the machine[10] and used it extensively. 808 State's Graham Massey said, "The Roland gear began to be a kind of Esperanto in music. The whole world began to be less separated through this technology, and there was a classiness to it—you could transcend your provincial music with this equipment."[3] With the rise of rave culture, a precursor to acid house, the 808 became a staple sound on British radio.[4]

Rapper Kanye West working in a studio
The 808 continues to be used in popular music; rapper Kanye West (front) used it on every track on his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak.

Rapper Kanye West used the 808 on every track on his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak,[31] which Slate described as "an explicit love letter to the device".[7] Other artists who have used the 808 include Bassnectar, Damon Albarn, Diplo, Fatboy Slim, David Guetta[32] and New Order.[4] It has been referenced in lyrics by artists including the Beastie Boys, Outkast, Kelis, TI, Lil Wayne, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, R Kelly[4] and Robbie Williams.[10] Its bass drum has been used as a metaphor for a heartbeat in songs by artists including Madonna, Rihanna, and Kesha.[10]

The 808 is one of the most influential inventions in popular music.[7][26] In 2019, DJMag wrote that it is "probably the most used drum machine in the last 40 years".[8] Samples of its sounds are common in music software, and it has inspired numerous unlicensed clones.[3][33] Flavorwire wrote that "the 808 has become so ubiquitous over the years that its beats are almost a language of their own—you know the sounds even if you have no idea what a drum machine is, and as such, you also notice when somebody messes with them or uses them in unusual contexts".[22] The New Yorker wrote in 2015 that the 808 was the bedrock of the modern "urban-youth-culture soundtrack", particularly in trap music, and had influenced a new blend of dance and retro hip hop that "embraces and fetishizes ... street music from the past".[9] According to Slate, it was instrumental in pop music's shift from conventional structure and harmonic progression to "thinking in terms of sequences, discrete passages of sound and time to be repeated and revised ad infinitum".[7]


The TR-08, a miniaturized 808 reissue released in 2017
The RD-8 Rhythm Designer, a clone released by Behringer in 2019

The 808 was followed in 1983 by the TR-909, the first Roland drum machine to use samples. Like the 808, the 909 was influential on popular music, influencing genres such as techno, house and acid.[14]

808 samples were included in ReBirth RB-338, an early software synthesiser developed by Propellerhead Software.[34] According to Andy Jones of MusicTech, ReBirth was "especially incredible as it made the sound of the TR-808 and TB-303, two iconic Roland dance beasts that everyone had tried to recreate in hardware, and here was something doing it… in software?"[34] ReBirth was retired in 2017 as Roland said it infringed on its intellectual property.[34]

Roland has included 808 samples in several drum machines, including 808 its Grooveboxes in the 1990s,[14] the TR-8 in 2014,[21] and the TR-8S in 2018.[35] In 2017, Roland released the TR-08, a miniaturized 808 featuring an LED display, MIDI and USB connections, expanded sequencer control, and a built-in speaker.[36] Roland released the first official software emulations of the 808 and 909 in 2018.[37]

In 2019, Behringer released an unlicensed recreation of the 808, the Behringer RD-8 Rhythm Designer. Unlike Roland's TR-08 and TR-8S, which use samples and virtual synthesis to recreate the 808 sounds, the RD-8 uses analogue circuitry.[38]

See also[edit]

  • 808 (film) – 2015 documentary about the Roland TR-808


  1. ^ Walmsley, Derek. "Monolake in full – The Wire". The Wire. Retrieved 6 January 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e Wolbe, Trent (30 January 2013). "How the 808 drum machine got its cymbal, and other tales from music's geeky underbelly". The Verge. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Beaumont-Thomas, Ben (6 March 2014). "The Roland TR-808: the drum machine that revolutionised music". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Anderson, Jason (27 November 2008). "Slaves to the rhythm". CBC News. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Kirn, Peter (2011). Keyboard Presents the Evolution of Electronic Dance Music. Backbeat Books. ISBN 978-1-61713-446-3.
  6. ^ a b Reid, Gordon (November 2014). "The history of Roland: part 1". Sound on Sound. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hamilton, Jack (16 December 2016). "808s and heart eyes". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  8. ^ a b Jenkins, Dave (1 February 2019). "Roland TR-909: The history of the influential drum machine". DJMag. Thrust Publishing. ISSN 0951-5143. Retrieved 14 September 2019.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Norris, Chris (13 August 2015). "The 808 heard round the world". The New Yorker. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Everything you ever wanted to know about the Roland TR-808 but were afraid to ask". Fact. 16 January 2014. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  11. ^ a b Valle, OV (13 February 2014). "TR-808 drum machine flashback – Roland U.S. blog". Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  12. ^ a b Reid, Gordon (February 2002). "Synth secrets: practical bass drum synthesis". Sound on Sound. UK: SOS Publications Group. Archived from the original on 15 February 2004. Retrieved 25 November 2015.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  13. ^ a b Contemporary Keyboard, Volume 7, Issues 1–6, 1981: "The Roland TR-808 will undoubtedly become the standard for rhythm machines of the future because it does what no rhythm machine of the past has ever done. Not only does the TR-808 allow programming of individual rhythm patterns, it can also program the entire percussion track of a song from beginning to end, complete with breaks, rolls, literally anything you can think of."
  14. ^ a b c d Reid, Gordon (December 2014). "The history of Roland: part 2 | Sound On Sound". Sound on Sound. SOS Publications Group. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  15. ^ a b Werner, Kurt (29 November 2015). "The Roland TR-808 and the tale of the marching anteaters". Ethnomusicology Review. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
  16. ^ Suzanne, Ciani (1982). "Riding the new waves". DB Magazine: 32.
  17. ^ Marsden, Rhodi (15 December 2008). "Rhythm king: the return of the Roland 808 drum machine". The Independent. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  18. ^ Wells, Peter (2004), A Beginner's Guide to Digital Video, AVA Books, p. 18, ISBN 2-88479-037-3, retrieved 20 May 2011
  19. ^ Anderson, Jason (27 November 2008). "Slaves to the rhythm". CBC News. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  20. ^ Jones, Mikey IQ (22 January 2015). "The Essential... Yellow Magic Orchestra". FACT Magazine. Retrieved 24 August 2017.
  21. ^ a b Beaumont-Thomas, Ben (14 February 2016). "Roland launch new versions of the iconic 808, 909 and 303 instruments". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
  22. ^ a b Hawking, Tom (16 January 2014). "10 great songs built around the 808". Flavorwire. Archived from the original on 8 July 2019. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  23. ^ McKee, Ruth; Grierson, Jamie (2 April 2017). "Roland founder and music pioneer Ikutaro Kakehashi dies aged 87". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  24. ^ Baldwin, Roberto (14 February 2014). "Early hip-hop's greatest drum machine just got resurrected". Wired. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  25. ^ Richards, Chris (2 December 2008). "What's an 808?". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
  26. ^ a b c Leight, Elias (6 December 2016). "8 ways the 808 drum machine changed pop music". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
  27. ^ Kaufman, Gil (24 May 2012). "Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz Talks MCA Death". MTV News.
  28. ^ "Roland TR-808: The drum machine that refused to die". BBC News. 21 March 2014. Retrieved 19 January 2016.
  29. ^ Hamilton, Jack (5 December 2012). "Select-a-Rhythm". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  30. ^ Zacharek, Stephanie (17 September 1999). "Stop Making Sense". Salon. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  31. ^ Greene, Jason (22 September 2015). "The coldest story ever told: the influence of Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak | Pitchfork". Pitchfork. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
  32. ^ Kreps, Daniel (15 October 2014). "Phil Collins, Pharrell praise 808 drum machine in new doc". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 16 January 2014.
  33. ^ Warwick, Oli (8 April 2017). "Attack of the clones: Is Behringer's Minimoog a synth replica too far?". Fact. Retrieved 30 November 2018.
  34. ^ a b c Jones, Andy (27 November 2017). "Rewind: Propellerhead ReBirth RB-338 - the first soft-synth emulation". MusicTech. Retrieved 14 November 2020.
  35. ^ Truss, Si (23 May 2018). "Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer review". Music Radar. Retrieved 13 November 2019.
  36. ^ "Roland unveil Boutique SH-01 & TR-08 and AIRA sampler". Sound on Sound. 8 August 2017. Retrieved 26 September 2017.
  37. ^ Wilson, Scott (25 January 2018). "Roland is releasing official software versions of its 808 and 909 drum machines". Fact. The Vinyl Factory. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  38. ^ Sherbourne, Simon (January 2020). "Behringer RD-8 Rhythm Designer". Sound on Sound. SOS Publications Group. Retrieved 27 November 2020.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]