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  • Writer's pictureTally G

The Great 808

The Great 808--a brief synopsis of the history of the Roland TR-808 drum machine.

It is largely uncontested that the Eighties was a great decade for music.  It’s the decade where Hip-Hop really came into its own and Synth-pop and New Wave grew in popularity, seemingly paralleling the growth of computers and IT.  With that, the development of synthesizers and drum machines took off and music history has not looked back.

The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer aka the 808 debuted in 1980 and sadly remained in production for just three years as it was not a commercial success.  Regardless, this drum machine and its derivatives remain the most used in the history of popular music as well as one of the most influential inventions for Hip-Hop and electronic music.

Most drum machines at that time came with rhythm presets that were not able to be manipulated.  The 808 was the first machine of its kind to allow users to program their own rhythms.  More importantly, it was the first to create sound through analog synthesis instead of samples; the “TR” in “TR-808” stands for “transistor rhythm”.

Unfortunately, the sounds it made sounded simplistic and rather synthetic for the era and this contributed to its demise.  According to Chris Norris in a New Yorker 2015 feature, “most of the 808’s sounds dated instantly” but the “bass kick had a life of its own”.  Norris continues on to claim that “this bass-rolling subsonic boom has come to be what people mean when they refer to ‘an 808.’”

Future Audio Workshop has described how the Roland TR-808 creates a kick drum sound:  “a trigger sets the circuit in motion, generating a short click pulse.  A portion of this pulse is then fed into a self-oscillating filter where it resonates and creates a sin wave”.  It’s quite amazing that something so simple and straightforward could go on to become one of the most influential creations of all time.

I hope you all enjoyed reading about the ubiquitious and great 808! I will be back in two weeks with a very special interview with a US DNB legend. Big up, everyone!


Tally G

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