The Roland TR-808

The revolutionary drum machine that changed the music industry

Finding similarities in the music of Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and Lil Wayne can be difficult, but the Roland TR-808 Programmable Drum Machine easily connects all three of these very different musicians. With only 12,000 machines made from 1980 to 1983 this product found its way into many different parts of music. The TR-808 created a foundation for House, Techno and Electro and Hip Hop. You may not know this machine by name but you no doubt have heard its sounds and influence in your favorite songs.

Advertisement for the 808 in the 1980s.

The TR-808 is very simple to use, and it wasn’t made for the mainstream. When it first came out it was quickly pushed aside by mainstream artists. It sounded artificial and cheesy, but the low price tag was appealing to up and coming producers. Compared to other drum machines which went for around $5,000 the TR-808’s $1,195 price tag was much more reasonable.

Marvin Gaye — Sexual Healing

One of the first groups to ever use the TR-808 was Yellow Magic Orchestra. In 1980 they used it in a live performance. It was an awesome performance and it is crazy to see how ahead of the times they really were. Another very important use of the TR-808 was “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye is one of the most famous uses of the TR-808. This song was released in 1982 and went straight to the top of Billboard’s Hot R&B Singles chart. Always a perfectionist, Gaye used the TR-808 so he could make sure the beat was perfect. He was the only one to work on the beat (TheNewYorker.com, August 15th 2015). Here someone perfectly remade his beat using a TR-808. The drums make you want to dance and Gaye’s voice smoothly flows over the track. Although the song was well-liked the use of the TR-808 didn’t take off until later in 1982 when Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa was released. This started the revolution of the 808. This song alone started to create a foundation of Dance, Electro and Hip Hop music.

The sounds of the machine really made the biggest impact, and for good reason. The most famous of sound from the TR-808 is the kick. The kick gives a deep bass kick which really hadn’t been heard before. This kick is now referred to in popular culture as “the 808.” This 808 reference has been made by many artist over the years. Lil Wayne on his song “Nymphos” in 2008 “Make the control room boom like an 808.” Britney Spears on her song “Break the Ice” in 2007 “you got my heart beating like an 808.” Madonna on her song “Girl Gone Wild” in 2012 “When I hear them 808 drums/It’s got me singing.” Big Boi from Outkast on his song “Way You Move” in 2003 “But I know y’all wanted that 808/Can you feel that B-A-S-S bass?” Kanye West even named his album after The TR-808 “808 and Heartbreaks”. It is easy to see how much of an impact this machine has made on so many different kinds of musicians.

The kick wasn’t the only important sound from it either. All of the sounds from the TR-808 are well liked. The English musician Chris Carter from Throbbing Gristle gave a great idea of what the sounds are like on 808 in a article he wrote for the Sound of Sound magazine Vol.12 №7. May 1997.

BASS DRUM: The speaker killer, short and clicky or long and velvet deep, almost subsonic.
SNARE DRUM: Bright, tight and ‘snappy’, classic 808.
TOMS: Totally unrealistic, but a great sound, almost a bass drum when tuned low down.
CONGAS: Pitched too high but can sound great when the tuning is swept up and down.
RIMSHOT: Tick tock, sounds like a clock.
CLAVES: A slow Geiger counter.
HANDCLAP: Pretty convincing, and later used on the TR909.
MARACAS: Like shuffling sandpaper.
COWBELL: The weirdest cowbell ever and probably the most notorious 808 sound of all — totally unique.
CYMBAL: Musical white noise with an outrageously long decay.
OPEN HI-HAT: White noise, with a long decay that sounds backwards.
CLOSED HI-HAT: Chiff, chiff, chiff, chiff.

Reading this is great, but you really can’t understand the 808 with out listening to it and feeling its power. Here is a a awesome TR-808 Demo.

This was made by Egyptian Lover, who released one of the top 50 tracks using the 808 ‘Egypt, Egypt’. The Egypt Lover who should really be known as the 808 lover because he owns 6 TR-808 Machines.

“These machines are like my children — I could never get rid of them.” he says in a interview with The Guardian

Now that you have heard the sounds of the TR-808 you will quickly hear that the sounds are everywhere. When you find yourself bobbing your head to a beat there is a good chance it is the 808 or has been influenced by it. With only 12,000 TR-808 ever made, mainstream artist use recorded samples of the 808. Many say the original has its on unique sound so if you are ever lucky enough to get your hands on an original TR-808 (for the current price tag of around $3,000) here is the original instruction manual.

If you are interested in learning more about the TR-808 the film “808” it comes out Dec 9 in a Apple Music Exclusive and Dec 16 on iTunes.

Work Cited:

Anderson, Jason. “Slaves to the Rhythm.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 28 Nov. 2008.

Beaumont-Thomas, Ben. “The Roland TR-808: The Drum Machine That Revolutionised Music.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 06 Mar. 2014.

Kreps, Daniel. “Exclusive: Phil Collins, Rick Rubin, Pharrell Extol ‘808’ Drum Machine in New Doc.” Rolling Stone.

Leight, elias. “The Immortal Soul of the Drum Machine.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company.

Norris, Chris. “The 808 Heard Round the World.” The New Yorker., 13 Aug. 2015.

OV Valle [Roland. “Rob Ricketts TR-808 Programming Posters — Roland U.S. Blog.” Roland U.S. 12 Feb. 2012.

OV Valle [Roland. “TR-808 Drum Machine Flashback — Roland U.S. Blog.” Roland U.S. N.p., 25 Feb. 2014.