Some bits of music gear lay claim to being iconic but few have shaped music like the TR-808…
‘Iconic’ is word thrown around a little too freely in the music world. Whether used with reference to musicians or gear, it’s difficult to say whether someone or something truly deserves the accolade.
However, the Roland TR-808 drum machine is a piece of gear that not only defined the era in which it was created, but decades afterwards, too. There are more bands, artists and songs that reference these devices than I could possibly list here. But what is it about this timeless machine that inspired so many, and enabled it to become the signature sound of whole genres of music?
It was a time before beats…
Once upon a time, a beat was just shorthand term for something a drummer played. Somewhere in music’s dim and distant past, it transformed, and became something else. During the ‘80s, Hip-Hop was busy being born. This musical form initially involved taking the ‘breaks’ (drum solo breakdowns) from records and looping them by switching between two copies of the same record with two turntables.
Meanwhile, the development of synths and drum machines marched on relentlessly, with these new instruments finding their way into studios. Whilst Hip-Hop DJs were beginning to spin the likes of Kraftwerk into their mixes, along with soul and funk breaks, producers were tooling their studios with this cutting-edge gear.
When Hip-Hop became a big enough concern to attract record companies, it was inevitable that those involved would want to recreate the electronic drum sounds DJ’s sometimes played.
The Roland TR-808 appeared in 1980, the perfect time for this revolution in music. Launched with stiff competition from units that far outstripped its technical capabilities. Linn had just released a machine based upon sample technology, recreating drum sounds via actual digital recordings. This made the 808’s analogue tone generation seem slightly archaic. Plus, the reviews the 808 received were far from complimentary. How, then, did the 808 become so iconic and beloved?
Unique, easy to use, and the biggest kick in town
There were several things that went in the 808’s favour. Firstly, the TR-808 was a fraction of the cost of its competitors, which made it far more appealing economically. Secondly, though there were machines available that used samples to create more authentic drum sounds, the 808 had a its own unique sound, whose synthetic flavour was distinctively futuristic. And, if you wanted ‘realistic’ you could always get a real drummer…
The sounds used on the TR-808 were very well chosen, too. The snare had a sharp ‘snap’ that would cut through just about any mix. Balanced with a kick drum that was so low, and huge, it filled an enormous amount of space at the low end of a mix, causing fillings to rattle, chest cavities to resonate, and trousers to flap. Bass had never been so low… All of the sounds were distinctive and occupied a defined area of the frequency range making it pretty easy to mix with. Sounds could be edited, to shorten decays, sharpen tone and more, too.
Ultimately, though, this was a unit that was incredibly easy to use. Patterns featured sixteen steps, each with its own button and LED. To program, you simply turned the dial to the sound you wanted to use, then highlighted the steps where you wanted the selected sound to play. Then, change the sound and repeat. Easy.
So, it was relatively inexpensive, sounded completely unique, and was easy to use. All it needed now was some big stars, and perhaps a new musical movement to embrace it…
It was, perhaps Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ that first brought the 808 to the wider world. This was courtesy of producer, Arthur Baker, who employed it to forge a new, electronic soul sound. It was when he went on to work a new, pioneering act from New York, called Afrika Bambaataa, that he gave Hip-Hop some of its defining and enduring characteristics. Sharp snares, and huge kick drums have been a big part of the Hip-Hop vocabulary ever since.
Can’t be beat
Roland has made many drum machines over the years, but only the TR-909 is subject to anything like the reverence bestowed on the TR-808. Despite the appearance of software recreations, nothing has ever really come close to the original hardware, either. Because of this, it is undoubtedly one of the pieces of gear that synth lovers would love to see Roland re-release. In a modern era, though, what you like to see added (if anything) to the original?
USB and MIDI connectivity, perhaps? Software editor, for easy integration into a DAW? EQ for individual sounds? More bass?
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.