Zoë Blade\'s notebook

Roland TR-808

The TR-808 was an analogue drum machine made by Roland in the early 1980s.

Its sounds were all synthesised with analogue electronics, giving it a distinctive stylised sound. Conversely, those sounds were triggered by a digital microprocessor, allowing its rhythms to be fully programmed from scratch. While it wasn't the first programmable drum machine, the sounds were much better than previous efforts, and even slightly tweakable. They also had separate outputs, so you could level and EQ them independently, and even add effects to only specific sounds.

Especially with the 808, Roland probably did more than any other company to elevate drum machines from playing tacky backing rhythms for home organs to being fully-fledged compositional tools in their own right. Of course, it later helped that it was fully embraced by Black American musicians as a cornerstone of both techno and hip hop.

Quotes

You know, it's like when the ensemble string sounds first came out, and everyone was using them. After a while, it seemed better to use the string synth as a string synth than to try and get it sounding like an orchestra, and that's what we've done with the 808. The secret is to take the technology and use it for what it is, not what you want it to be. I mean, I don't know who's down there at Roland, but if that's supposed to be a real authentic cowbell sound... shoot 'em, man! But we like it. That's why there's so much of it on Hangin' On a String.

— Carl McIntosh, Loose Ends, 1985[1]

I used the 808 because it was the sound I wanted more. A Linn is great but it doesn't give you too much of an electro sound, it's too realistic! I love the 808, it's a classic. Ideally what I'd like to do is get all the sounds out of the 808 made into chips for my Linn, because the 808 is a pest to program.

— Paul Hardcastle, 1985[2]

It's a wonderful machine. I don't know why, but there's something unique about it. We bought a TR-707 first, and when we used that we were really disappointed. It sounded so mechanical, so black and white. The 808 seems to have rounded edges. It doesn't seem to have attempted to sound like a drum at all. It's got its own character.

— John Whitehead, It's Immaterial, 1986[3]

I did something called Bass Machine with T La Rock, where I took the 808 snare and pitch-changed it. People thought "wow!" because nobody'd ever done that with an 808 before.

I sample it. With the 808, that also means I can take the quantization off. You can't do that on the 808 itself. When I make a beat, I make the kick drum really off. I take, like, 4/4 time and really change it up and make it more funky that way. After I've sampled something, I get something new and forget about it. I have the sounds, so I can use them again.

— Kurtis Mantronik, Mantronix, 1987[4]

I still use the 808 and 909. I don't like Roland's latest drum machines, but the 808 and 909 are classics. The 808 has a real techno feel. Everything on that drum machine has an electronic feel, it's not like digitally-sampled real drums.

Juan Atkins, 1988[5]

The whole of dance music for the last seven years has been guided by one drum machine, the TR-808. And it's taken eight or nine years for Roland to re-release those same sounds on a card for their new digital drum machine. If the 808 hadn't been invented we'd all be doing something different now. It literally changed the course of dance music. Nick Martinelli made his name on the 808 cowbell, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis made their name on the 808, and without the 808 what would the whole Miami bass scene be doing?

I rang Roland and they told me they didn't want to look backwards, they want to look to the future, which is something I totally agree with. But we're not looking to the future of the same market; they're looking at Sting and Dire Straits and ignoring the people who were brought up on the 808 and 909.

It's what people want, why is it taking so long? The 808 was never MIDI, thankfully the 909 is MIDI and that's why it's getting so much use at the moment. Don't these people buy Inner City albums and hear Kevin Saunderson using 909s and 727s until he's blue in the face?

— Simon Harris, 1989[6]

References

  1. Loose Connections Electronics & Music Maker, Jun 1985
  2. 19 Ways to Number 1 Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music, Aug 1985
  3. Immaterial Gains Electronics & Music Maker, Sep 1986
  4. Music Madness Music Technology, Apr 1987
  5. Future Shock Music Technology, Dec 1988
  6. The Bassment Tapes Music Technology, Sep 1989

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Drum machines: Novation DrumStation | Roland TR-606 | Roland TR-808 | Roland TR-909