TR-808 front panel
|Synthesis type||Analog subtractive|
|Effects||Individual level, tuning, attack, decay, and tone controls for some sounds|
|Keyboard||16 pattern keys|
|External control||Digital Control Bus in/out & DIN sync in|
The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, often referred to simply as the 808, is a drum machine introduced by the Roland Corporation in 1980 and discontinued in 1983. It was one of the earliest programmable drum machines, with which users could create their own rhythms rather than having to use presets.
Unlike its nearest competitor, the more expensive and sample-based Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, the 808 is completely analog, meaning its sounds are generated via hardware. Launched at a time when electronic music had yet to become mainstream, the 808 received poor reviews for its unrealistic drum sounds and was a commercial failure. Having built approximately 12,000 units, Roland discontinued the 808 after improvements to semiconductor technology made it impossible to restock the faulty transistors that were an essential part of its design. It was succeeded in 1984 by the TR-909.
Over the course of the decade, the 808 attracted a cult following among underground musicians for its affordability, 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 Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" (1982) and Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force's "Planet Rock" (1983). The 808 was eventually used on more hit records than any other drum machine, and its sounds continue to be used; its popularity with hip hop in particular has made it one of the most influential inventions in popular music, comparable to the Fender Stratocaster's influence on rock.
In the late 1960s, the Hammond Organ Company hired American musician and engineer Don Lewis to demo its products, including an electronic organ with a built-in drum machine designed by the Japanese company Ace Tone. At the time, drum machines were most often used to accompany home organs; users could not program their own rhythms and had to use preset patterns such as bossa nova. Lewis was known for performances using electronic instruments he had modified himself, 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 the device through his organ's expression pedal to accent the percussion, unique at the time.
Lewis was approached by Ace Tone president and founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, who wanted to know how he had achieved the sounds from the machine Kakehashi had designed. In 1972, Kakehashi formed the Roland Corporation and hired Lewis to help design drum machines. By the late 1970s, microprocessors were appearing in instruments such as the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer, and Kakehashi realized they could be used to program rhythms. In 1978, Roland released the CompuRhythm CR-78, the first drum machine with which users could write, save, and replay their own patterns.
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. Though the engineers aimed to emulate real percussion, the prohibitive cost of memory drove them to design sound-generating hardware instead of using samples. Kakehashi deliberately purchased faulty transistors to create the machine's distinctive "sizzling" sound. According to Lewis, the cymbal sound was created when chief engineer Tadao Kikumoto accidentally spilled tea onto the breadboard of an 808 prototype: "He turned it on and got this pssh sound — it took them months to figure out how to reproduce it, but that ended up being the crash cymbal in the 808." Roland engineer Makoto Muri credited the design of the analog voice circuits to "Mr. Nakamura" and the software to "Mr. Matsuoka".
Design and sounds
Various patterns played by a TR-808
A recording of the TR-808, with the accent trigger used in a musical context
A recording of the TR-808, with the cowbell trigger controlling the sequencer of a Roland JX-3P synthesizer
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The 808 generates 16 different sounds in imitation of acoustic percussion: bass drum, snare, toms, conga, rimshot, claves, handclap, maraca, cowbell, cymbal, and hi-hat (open and closed). It is completely analog, meaning its sounds are generated via hardware rather than sampled; TR stands for "Transistor Rhythm". Users can program up to 32 patterns using the step sequencer, each with a maximum of 768 measures, and place accents on individual beats, a feature introduced with the CR-78. Users can also set the tempo and time signature, including unusual signatures such as 5/4 and 7/8. The machine has multiple audio outputs and a DIN sync port (a precursor to MIDI) to synchronize with other devices, considered groundbreaking at the time.
The 808's sounds do not resemble real percussion, and have been described as "clicky and hypnotic", "robotic", "toy-like", "spacey" and "futuristic". Fact described them as a combination of "synth tones and white noise ... more akin to bursts coming from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop [than] a proper rhythm section." The machine is particularly noted for its powerful bass drum sound, built from a combination of a bridged T-network sine oscillator, a low-pass filter, and a voltage-controlled amplifier. The bass drum decay control allows the user to lengthen the sound, creating uniquely low frequencies which flatten slightly over long periods, possibly not by design. At high volumes, the bass drum sound is powerful enough to blow speakers. The New Yorker wrote: "Less a product of engineering than a force of nature, this bass-rolling subsonic boom has come to be what people mean when they refer to 'an 808'."
The 808 launched in 1980 with a list price of $1,195 USD. Roland marketed it as an affordable alternative to the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, manufactured by Linn Electronics, which uses samples of real drum kits. However, 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. Many reports state that one review dismissed the machine as sounding like "marching anteaters", though this was likely referring to machines that predated it. Despite some early adopters, the 808 was a commercial failure and sold fewer than 12,000 units. Roland ended production in 1983 after semiconductor improvements made the faulty transistors that were an essential part of its design impossible to restock.
Impact and legacy
Though the 808 was commercially unsuccessful, it has had a lasting impact on popular music and was eventually used on more hit records than any other drum machine. It was first used by the Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra, on their 1980 track "1000 Knives". In 1982, the American R&B artist Marvin Gaye released the first hit single that featured the 808, "Sexual Healing". Gaye was drawn to the instrument as he could use it to create music without other musicians or producers.
By the time Roland discontinued the 808 in 1983, it had become common on the used market, often selling for under $100. Its ease of use, affordability, and idiosyncratic sound earned it a cult following among underground musicians and producers, and it became a cornerstone of the developing electronic and hip hop genres. In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force released their track "Planet Rock", which made extensive use of the 808 to create "strange, futuristic percussion that became hugely popular on dancefloors." The track informed the development of electronic and hip hop music and subgenres including Miami bass and Detroit techno, and popularized the 808 as a "fundamental element of futuristic sound". According to Slate, "Planet Rock" "didn't so much put the 808 on the map so much as it reoriented an entire world of post-disco dance music around it."
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The machine was subsequently used by hip hop acts including the Beastie Boys, Run–D.M.C., LL Cool J, and Public Enemy. Wired and Slate both described the 808 as hip hop's equivalent to the Fender Stratocaster, which dramatically influenced the development of rock music. The 808 bass drum, in particular, became so essential to hip hop that Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad production group declared that "it's not hip hop without that sound." 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, the ghost of Reagan-era blight." Even after the machine fell out of use by East Coast hip hop producers in the 1990s, it remained a staple of southern hip hop.
The 808's limited pattern storage encouraged artists to push the limits of the machine; according to Slate, "those eight-bar units became veritable playgrounds for invention and creativity." The bass drum was often manipulated to produce new sounds, such as on the single "Set it Off" (1984), in which producer Strafe used it to recreate the sound of an underground nuclear test. Producer Rick Rubin popularized the technique of lengthening the bass drum decay and tuning it to different pitches to create basslines.
The 808 also saw extensive use beyond hip hop, such as on Whitney Houston's 1987 pop hit "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)". Phil Collins found the machine useful for looping rhythms for long periods, whereas human drummers would always be tempted to add variations and fills. Chris Norris of 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." The 808 was popularized in the United Kingdom by the electbronic group 808 State, formed in 1984, who took their name from the machine and used it extensively. With the rise of UK rave culture, a precursor to acid house, it became a staple sound on British radio. Graham Massey of 808 State 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."
In 1994, Nine Inch Nails used the 808 to create "doomy menace" on the single "Closer", making the sound ubiquitous on North American alternative rock radio stations. Rapper Kanye West used it on every track on his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak, which Slate described as an "an explicit love letter to the device". Other artists who have used the 808 include Damon Albarn, Diplo, Fatboy Slim, Talking Heads, David Guetta, and New Order. The machine has also been referenced in lyrics by artists including the Beastie Boys, Outkast, Kelis, TI, Lil Wayne, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, R Kelly, Kelis, and Robbie Williams. Its bass drum has been used numerous times as a metaphor for a heartbeat, in songs by artists including Madonna, Rihanna, and Kesha.
The 808 is one of the most influential inventions in popular music. According to Sound on Sound, the machine "spawned an industry of clones and sample libraries"; it continues to be used in popular music and samples of its sounds are common in modern music software. 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." The New Yorker wrote in 2015 that the 808 is 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." 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."
The 808 was followed in 1983 by the TR-909, the first Roland drum machine to use samples (for its cymbal and hi-hat sounds) alongside analog sounds. In the 1990s, Roland included samples of the 808 in its commercially successful Groovebox devices. In February 2014, Roland announced the TR-8 drum machine, which recreates the 808 and 909 through a combination of modeling and sampling.
- 808 (documentary) – 2015 documentary about the instrument
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