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Roland TR-808

The Roland TR-808 was the first drum machine that allowed users to create their own drum rhythms instead of using pre-set patterns.

Our wonderful intern Daniel Evans spent some deep time with the Roland TR-808. 

Users can program their own unique patterns by utilising the built-in step sequencer, and tweak the sound with various tone, tuning, and decay knobs. The 808 generates sound by utilising analogue synthesis rather than using recorded acoustic samples, and it features 16 percussive sounds to choose from.

It was a commercial failure at the time of its release in 1980, being left out of the conversation due to the Linn LM-1 drum machine that used authentic acoustic drum samples to trigger sounds. The 808 eventually became an extremely sought-after product and ended up being utilised in more hit records than any other drum machine, it stood the test of time and is still a very popular machine to this day. Its ease of use, affordability (at the time), 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.

CBC News credited the first use of the 808 to the Japanese electronic music group Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1980, who then used it heavily on their album BGM that released in 1981. The 808 was first overlooked by most composers and producers, but several years later, hip hop and electronic producers caught on that the 808 drum machines were selling for very cheap compared to retail price and decided to start using the 808 for hip-hop, house, and techno production.

The huge impact from the analogue synthesis style of sound generation got producers and listeners hooked, especially the kick drum paired with its decay parameter.

The kick drum’s decay was utilised to turn the kick drum sound into a sub bass drone, giving hip hop and dance tracks a lot more energy. This then became a composition trick and tactic, and many drum machines and synthesisers re-created that 808 bass sound in their own devices, and the sub bass sound that was birthed by the Roland TR-808 became known simply as an 808.

Many famous songs have used the iconic drum sound over the years including, Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing, Afrika Bambaataa – Party Rock, Egyptian Lover – Egypt Egypt, Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Run DMC – It’s Tricky, Outkast – The Way You Move, Kanye West – Love Lockdown.

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 HenkeMusician and co-creator of Ableton Live