The TR-808 helped shaped the sound of house, techno, hip-hop and electro – and remains a studio favourite to this day
There are only a few pieces of musical equipment that could lay claim to being truly iconic. Among them would be Fender’s Stratocaster guitar and Rhodes electric piano, Hammond's B3 organ, Gibson’s Les Paul, and more recently a few favourites used in the production of electronic music, such as the Korg M1 – or the Roland TR-808.
Electronic music lovers with only the vaguest acquaintance with musical equipment have heard of the 808, so ubiquitous is its name in the musical lexicon. Intriguingly, it’s as much of a cultural icon as it is a sonic bedrock, namechecked so frequently in lyrics that even Britney Spears threw her school tie into the ring and 808-themed trainers sold like quilted toilet paper during a global pandemic.
In the beginning
Like most people on the cusp of history, Roland and Boss founder Ikutaro Kakehashi couldn’t in his wildest imaginings have foreseen the impact that the 808 would have upon the modern musical ecosystem. From bowel-worrying electro and hip-hop to plastic AutoTuned H&M pop, the 808 is the undisputed king of machines.
With the modest success of the CompuRhythm CR-78 behind them, Kakehashi tasked a team of engineers led by Tadao Kikumoto to design an intuitive, programmable drum machine. His intention was simply to provide musicians with a rhythm machine with which to practice and make demos: in the late 70s/early 80s, most rhythm machines were pre-programmed waltz and bossanova affairs like you would find on an organ. So the only option for a songwriter to get an original drum track recorded was to get a drummer and hire a studio.
Unlike competitors such as Moog and ARP, whose raison d’être was to make cutting edge equipment for professional musicians, Kakehashi geared his devices to hobbyists and keen amateurs. Simplicity and affordability was always a key motivation in the steering of Roland’s product development.
Designing the future
The aim was to design a relatively affordable machine that would produce realistic drum sounds. A major stumbling block was that the design team were limited by the technology of the time. Memory chips to play back samples were way too expensive and would have made the retail price closer to that of the $5,000 LinnDrum, pricing out all but the wealthiest.
So out of raw necessity, Roland’s engineers set about creating the drum sounds by utilising their previous expertise in analogue synthesis, initially designing the sounds on Roland’s System 700 modular behemoth. The task was then to recreate these sounds in a much smaller unit.
Legend has it that at some point a cup of coffee was spilled on a circuit board and when the prototype was turned on it created the distinctive sizzling sound, much to the joy of the design team. Whether or not this is an apocryphal story, something made Roland decide to purchase a large consignment of factory-rejected transistors in order to aid the sound design of the unit.
So important were these transistors to the overall sound that when the supply was exhausted, Roland discontinued the 808.
A familiar tale
Although the TR-808 did have moderate success upon its initial launch in 1980, hitting the charts with Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing and Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock, electronic music was still very much a curiosity and wouldn’t be in vogue until later in the decade. Rock was still very much the order of the day, as was the general distaste for drum machines, which drummers feared would replace them… perish the thought!
And so, like most of Roland’s products of the time, it was subjected to scorn by narrow-minded professionals. “It’s a toy”, “It doesn’t sound like a real drum kit” etc etc. With their supply of transistors exhausted, Roland stopped production in 1982 with just 12,000 units made. The majority sat in secondhand shops and followed the familiar zero to hero trajectory, awaiting younger, more enlightened hands.
It wasn’t long before these machines started to attain a cult following among underground producers. Anyone who heard them through a soundsystem realised these machines had the uncanny ability to make people move. The futuristic sizzle of the hat, the crack of the snare and clap and the low-frequency devastation of the kickdrum began to work dancefloors from the US and beyond. By the late 80s the 808 was not only thundering though underground clubs, it was making its presence felt on mainstream radio as well.
One kick to rule them all
If we're discussing the TR-808, then it would be a grave injustice not to spend a few moments talking about its kickdrum. From tight and punchy to long and deep, it’s probably the most used kick in modern music. Every other electronic kick is judged by it and many machines have attempted to do it justice by offering a take on it.
The 808 kick is also a strange beast, as it’s often used as a bassline by sampling and then pitching the notes into a melodic phrase. Listen to a handful of current trap or drill records if you don't believe me! While we're talking about basslines, it should be noted that the 808's toms have also been numerously deployed as techno basslines, as well as catchy percussion leads.
The 808 is blessed with a superb workflow – it’s an incredibly intuitive unit to use. The TR-REC sequencer has become an idea that transcends the 808: it's been used on many other Roland machines, including the 808's successor the TR-909, and its design template endures to this day. The sweet spot of the sounds are so incredibly wide that it’s actually very difficult to make it sound bad.
Musical evolution never occurs in a vacuum, and the 808’s enduring popularity is perhaps partly due to other technical advances that came shortly after, namely samplers. Samplers not only made it possible for producers to spread the sound far and wide, they also made it possible for the sounds to be processed in ways the original unit would not allow.
While the success of the Roland TB-303 had a dramatic effect on techno and house music, it could be argued that its reach didn’t extend too far beyond those genres. But from Cybotron to Beyoncé, the 808 broke down the walls between genres like no other machine has done. Over 40 years later it can still be heard every day on the radio and in record shops around the world, holding the modern musical landscape together like a bass-weighted sonic adhesive.
Where would hip-hop be without the 808? It’s a rhetorical question that almost scrambles the mind to ponder. It’s sound has become a fixture of hip-hop culture and it’s many sub-genres. Even previously sentient human, now wobbly political embarrassment Kanye West recently dedicated an entire album to the sound, using it on every single track.
The TR-808 today
Getting the 808 sound thankfully is not too difficult. There are quite a few cost effective clones on the market, but for me the best way is either Roland’s TR-8S or, if you are low on music-making real estate, their diminutive TR-08 boutique range. The sound is still fantastic and it’s great for taking out on the road.
For those who are working solely in the box, Roland Cloud would also be a good place to investigate. Failing that there are plenty of great sample packs available. The Goldbaby samples are a popular choice, with every imaginable setting fastidiously rendered though high quality pre-amps.
Ikutaro Kakehashi passed away in 2017. Like the visionary Victorian landscape architects whose plantings took over a lifetime to grow into their fantastically imagined forms, he never fully saw the fruits of his labour play out. It’s testimony to him and his design team that a machine which essentially dates from another age still sounds box-fresh and is still used in the production of cutting-edge music on a daily basis. All hail the King!
Words: Chris Lyth