The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer (a.k.a. the "808") was one of the first programmable drum machines ("TR" standing for Transistor Rhythm). Introduced by the Roland Corporation in the early 1980s, it was originally manufactured for use as a tool for studio musicians to create demos. Like earlier Roland drum machines, it does not sound very much like a real drum kit. Indeed, because the TR-808 was released a few months after the Linn LM-1 (the first drum machine to use digital samples), professionals generally considered its sound inferior to sampling drum machines; a 1982 Keyboard Magazine review of the LinnDrum indirectly referred to the TR-808 as sounding like marching anteaters. However, the TR-808 cost US$1,195 upon its release, which was considerably more affordable than the US$5,000 LM-1.
Drum machines in general became an integral part of hip hop music as a cheap and simple way of producing a drum sound. The Roland TR-808 held specific appeal because of the ability of its bass drum sound to produce extremely low-frequency sounds. It also featured various unique artificial percussion sounds that characterized the TR-808: a deep bass kick drum, "tinny handclap sounds," "the ticky snare, the tishy hi-hats (open and closed) and the spacey cowbell." The Roland TR-808 would eventually be used on more hit records than any other drum machine, and has thus attained an iconic status within the music industry. The machine's successor was the Roland TR-909.
Roland credits the design of the TR-808 to two of its employees: Mr. Nakamura, who was responsible for the analog voice circuits, and Mr. Matsuoka, who developed the software. The Roland TR-808 was produced between 1980 and 1983 by the Roland Corporation, with approximately 12,000 units manufactured in that time. Immediately after its appearance it was rendered essentially obsolete by the superior sound and ability to sample of the Linn LM-1. However, the much cheaper price of the TR-808 ($1,195 versus $5,000 for the Linn LM-1) and a distinctive sound (in particular its deep bass kick) made the drum machine popular among hip hop artists several years after it ceased production. By the end of the 1980s, the TR-808 was popular within electronic music and hip hop genres. As with many analogue electronic musical instruments, a great deal of effort was put into sampling the sounds of the TR-808 for use in modern devices; however, some producers consider this unsatisfactory and unduly static and digital. Demand for the real 808 sound is so great that street prices for a used machine have remained close to what the cost of a new TR-808 was upon its initial release in 1980 when adjusted for inflation. The 808 also had a significant impact on dance music due to its ability to program rhythm and drum sounds separately and store up to 32 patterns, which enabled it to become a serious compositional tool. The kick drum of the 808 is little more than a bridged T-network sine oscillator, a low-pass filter and a VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier)[clarification needed]. The output works continuously and that makes it possible to produce an overdub of the same signal even after 32 steps in a medium tempo. The kick is a triggered CV/Gate pulse that is added into the audio signal. The typical flattening of the decay directly after the attack is because of the audio design of the oscillator and appears like a compression.
Use and importance
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At the time of its release in 1980, it was received with little fanfare, as it did not have digitally sampled sounds. Drum machines using digital samples were initially more popular. In time, however, the TR-808, along with its successor, the TR-909 (released in 1983), would become a fixture of the burgeoning electronic dance, electro, house, techno, R&B and hip-hop genres, mainly because of its affordable cost (relative to that of the Linn) and the unique character of its analogue-generated sounds, which included five unique percussion sounds: “the hum kick, the ticky snare, the tishy hi-hats (open and closed) and the spacey cowbell.” In a somewhat ironic twist, it is the analogue-based TR-808 that has endured over time, as the Linn's sampling-based sound became somewhat overused and dated by the end of the decade. The TR-808's beats have since been widely featured in pop music. It began a wave of electronic music around the world and is still used frequently in electronic music today.
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The first band to use the TR-808 was the Japanese electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra, as soon as it was released in 1980. One of the earliest uses of the TR-808 for a live performance was by Yellow Magic Orchestra in December 1980 for the song "1000 Knives", an electro rendition of member Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Thousand Knives" (1978). The hand-clap sound was later publicized by YMO's innovative album BGM, which was released March 1981 in Japan; used again on "1000 Knives" and in "Music Plans," another of Sakamoto's songs. The TR-808 would later be further popularized in 1982, with the release of the mainstream American hits "Sexual Healing" by Marvin Gaye, "Cold Blooded" by Rick James and "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa.
Other early users of the TR-808 include Australian producer Mark Moffatt, with his studio project, the Monitors (1981), and Indian musician Charanjit Singh, who used it alongside a Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer to produce music resembling acid house in his 1982 album Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat. A TR-808 was also David Byrne's sole accompaniment (apart from his acoustic guitar) at the beginning of Stop Making Sense (1984), prior to the gradual appearance of the rest of Talking Heads, although Byrne created the illusion that the sound came from, he said, "A tape I want to play," on a boombox he brought onstage. In 1983, then-new record producers Jimmy Jam And Terry Lewis introduced the Roland TR-808 into popular music by using it in hit songs they wrote for R&B recording act The S.O.S. Band like, "Just Be Good To Me", "High Hopes", "Tell Me If You Still Care", "Borrowed Love", "No One's Gonna Love You", "Just The Way You Like It", and "The Finest" as well as songs they wrote and produced for Alexander O'Neal, Cherrelle, Janet Jackson, and others.
As more realistic drum machines emerged, the TR-808 was discontinued and it became easy to buy a used machine for a low price. Its availability led to a second life as a cheap source of rhythm for hip hop artists in the mid 1980s. The Beastie Boys breakout album Licensed to Ill consists mostly of hip hop rhymes backed by the characteristic TR-808 beats and samples from popular rock songs; its success led to a new surge in popularity.
The sounds of the TR-808 were and still are very often used in drum and bass, hip hop, R&B, house, electro, and many forms of electronic dance music, albeit often unrecognizable after extensive processing. The use of the 808 drum by Double Duce on the 1985 track "School Breakdown" and 2 Live Crew on its third album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, established a foundation for sounds of Miami bass and southern rap. According to Derrick May, the TR-808 was also the preferred drum machine during the early years of techno. The 808 is also an important element of trap music, a popular subgenre of hip hop since the mid 2000's.
A documentary film has been produced about the TR-808, called 808. It is co-produced by Arthur Baker (musician), who considers the TR-808 to be "the rock guitar of hip hop" and notes that 808 drums are still being used by contemporary pop artists such as Taylor Swift, Kanye West and Madonna. It debuted at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in March 2015. The film features appearances from fifty artists who have used the TR-808.
- Tim Darter. The Whole Synthesizer Catalogue. Hal Leonard Corp. ISBN 978-0881883961 "The [Linn Drum] unit is a big improvement over electronic-sounding drum machines that only do 4/4 time and sound like marching anteaters (unless of course you prefer marching anteaters and being locked in 4/4 time)."
- Keyboard 14 (11): 34. 1988. Missing or empty
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- Hess, 2007, p. xxvi.
- System 7 interview with Mark Roland in: Muzik, Issue No.4, September 1995, p.97