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 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 preset patterns.
Unlike its nearest competitor, the more expensive Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, the 808 is completely analog, meaning its sounds are generated non-digitally via hardware rather than samples (prerecorded sounds). Launched when electronic music had yet to become mainstream, the 808 received mixed reviews for its unrealistic drum sounds and was a commercial failure. Having built approximately 12,000 units, Roland discontinued the 808 after its semiconductors became impossible to restock, but units remain in use around the world. It was succeeded in 1984 by the TR-909.
Over the course of the 1980s, 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" and Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force's "Planet Rock". The 808 was eventually used on more hit records than any other drum machine; 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. Its sounds continue to be used as samples included with music software and modern drum machines.
In the late 1960s, 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. 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.
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 Roland MC-8 Microcomposer sequencer, and Kakehashi realized they could be used to program drum machines. 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 that created the machine's distinctive "sizzling" sound. The cymbal sound was created when chief engineer Tadao Kikumoto accidentally spilled tea onto the breadboard of an 808 prototype; according to Lewis, Kikumoto "turned it on and got this pssh sound — it took them months to figure out how to reproduce it." Roland engineer Makoto Muri credited the design of the analog voice circuits to "Mr. Nakamura" and the software to "Mr. Matsuoka".
Sounds and features
Various patterns played by a TR-808
A recording of the TR-808, with the accent trigger used in a musical context
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The 808 generates sounds in imitation of acoustic percussion: the 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 by hardware rather than sampled; the TR in TR-808 stands for "Transistor Rhythm". Users can program up to 32 patterns using the step sequencer, chain up to 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 808 was the first drum machine with the ability to program an entire percussion track from beginning to end, complete with breaks and rolls. It includes volume knobs for each voice, numerous audio outputs, and a DIN sync port (a precursor to MIDI) to synchronize with other devices through the Digital Control Bus interface, which was considered groundbreaking. The machine has three trigger outputs, which can be used to synchronize with synthesizers and other equipment.
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 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 that flatten slightly over long periods, possibly not by design. 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 US$1,195 (equivalent to $3,549 in 2017). Roland marketed it as an affordable alternative to the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, manufactured by Linn Electronics, which used samples of real drum kits. 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. Contemporary Keyboard wrote a positive review, predicting that it would become "the standard for rhythm machines of the future".
Despite some early adopters, the 808 was a commercial failure and fewer than 12,000 units were sold. Roland ended production in 1983 after semiconductor improvements made it impossible to restock the faulty transistors essential to its design.
Impact and legacy
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Though the 808 was commercially unsuccessful, it has had a lasting effect on popular music and was eventually used on more hit records than any other drum machine. Roland credits the first use in a live performance to the Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra with "1000 Knives" in 1980. The first records to feature the 808 were released in 1981: Yellow Magic Orchestra's BGM and the Monitors’ "Nobody Told Me". 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 because 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 single "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 reorient an entire world of post-disco dance music around it".
The 808 was subsequently used by hip hop acts including the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy. Wired and Slate both described the 808 as hip hop's equivalent to the Fender Stratocaster, which had 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." 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 manipulated to produce new sounds, such as on the 1984 single "Set it Off", in which producer Strafe used it to imitate 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)". In the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, singer David Byrne performs "Psycho Killer" on acoustic guitar accompanied by an 808, stumbling against its "gunshot"-like sounds. Songwriter Phil Collins found the machine useful for looping rhythms for long periods, since human drummers would 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 electronic group 808 State, which took its name from the machine 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." With the rise of UK rave culture, a precursor to acid house, the 808 became a staple sound on British radio.
Rapper Kanye West used the 808 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, David Guetta, and New Order. It has been referenced in lyrics by artists including the Beastie Boys, Outkast, Kelis, TI, Lil Wayne, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, R Kelly, and Robbie Williams. Its bass drum has been used 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"; 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 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. In August 2017, Roland announced the TR-08, a miniaturized 808 reissue featuring an LED display, MIDI and USB connections, expanded sequencer control, and a built-in speaker. In 2018, Roland released the first official software emulations of the 808 and 909 as part of its Roland Cloud service.
- 808 (film) – 2015 documentary about the instrument
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