Classic Instruments: The Roland TR-808

When you think of instruments and pieces of music making equipment and their impact on the music industry, fewer have shaped the sound of modern music more than the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer.

This analogue drum machine was manufactured by Japanese electronics company Roland at the start of the 19880s and was the first truly programmable drum machine.

Every sound in the Transistor based 808 is instantly recognizable. From the Sub heavy kicks that influenced numerous genres to the snappy bright snares and other worldly cowbells, each has become iconic in their own right. This amazing pallet of sounds coupled with the powerful built in sequencer made the 808 a producers dream.

The 808 had a few brushes with popular music during its early years. Notably on Afrika Bambaata’s ‘Planet Rock’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ however it took a while for it to reach cult status. Starting it’s life a as a play along musicians aid the use of such instruments in real life production was often frowned upon by the industry.

Because of the way that the sounds were created they sounded synthetic and when rival Linn released their LM1 drum machine, which had more realistic sounds, in 1982 the 808 could not compete. The problem with the sound coupled with the relatively high price of $1,195 meant that the 808 was not a great commercial success and production of the machine ceased in 1983.

 

After it was discontinued the 808 could regularly be found in second hand shops for less than $100. This drop in price led it to being picked up by cash strapped early hip-hop, house and techno pioneers breathing fresh life into machine.

During the early 80’s forward thinking electro artists like Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra had embraced the 808 then in 1983 Detroit techno producer and one half of Cybotron, Juan Atkins got hold of one and which can be heard in their classic breakdance electro track ‘Clear’.  As house music evolved the 808 was always a prominent feature. Its use alongside Roland’s TR303 Bass synth shaped acid house. An example of which can be heard in Adonis’  ‘No way back’

 

The 808 has been a prominent feature in hip-hop ever since Afrika Baambaata brought the sound to the scene. In the late 80’s the Beastie Boys frequently used it and more recently the likes of Outkast and Kendrick Lemar have put the machine to good use in their tracks.

Whole genres of have spawned from the 808. The late 80’s saw the emergence of Miami Bass and Baltimore House both of which can be defined by their booming 808 kick drums. In Brazil that same 808 kick is the backbone of Baile Funk, the electronic sound of the favelas. More recently the development of Trap music has again been built around the 808-drum pallet with artists such as Chance the Rapper, Lunice and TNGHT taking it into more urban driven realms.

The prominent development of this drum machine icon has seen artists including Mount Kimbie, XXXY and Addison Groove use it as a focal point in their productions. This resurgence has seen the price of the original machines soar to close to £3000 and prompted Roland to resurrect the 808 in 2014 with the launch of their TR8 machine; a hybrid of the 808 and their other seminal drum machine the TR-909.  The evolution of Roland’s drum machine range looks set to continue with the more recent release of their miniature ‘Boutique 909’ leading to rumors of an 808 reproduction.

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