Micro-Chopping The Roland TR-808: A Brief History and 40-Track Playlist
On April 1st, 2017 the music community mourned the loss of brilliant electronic music innovator Ikutaro Kakehashi. In addition to founding the Roland Corporation, Kakehashi played a key role in creating and developing several of the company’s most famous instruments. Of particular note was his influence on the Roland TR-808, a drum machine that forever changed recorded music despite being an initial commercial failure.
Originally envisioned as a way for musicians to create demos instead of official album cuts, the story behind the 808’s creation is as legendary as the music it helped produce.
According to Kakehashi, the 808’s distinctive sound came from the bad transistors he was responsible for using when building the machine. After semiconductor technology improved in the ensuing years, Roland could no longer purchase the same transistors used in the original machine.
Other turns of fate played a key role in developing the 808’s sonic qualities. According to an interview with Roland/808 developer Don Lewis in The Verge, the machine’s distinctive crash cymbal came from a near disaster when chief engineer Tadao Kikumoto spilled tea on an open 808 prototype. “All of a sudden he turned it on and got this pssh sound — it took them months to figure out how to reproduce it, but that ended up being the crash cymbal in the 808. There was nothing else like it. Nobody could touch it,” Lewis explained.
“You look at the circuit diagram like you look at an orchestral score, you think, how on earth did they come up with this idea? It’s brilliant, it’s a masterpiece.”- Ableton Co-Creator Robert Henke
Though we could now fill hundreds of compilations with songs that feature an 808, the drum machine may have been ahead of its time when it came on the market in 1980. With a price tag of $1200, the 808 sold less than 12,000 units and forced the company to end production of in 1983.
Fact magazine’s excellent article history of the 808 reports that the price tag fell to $100 not long after Roland halted production. The new level of affordability and the machine’s user-friendly setup soon made it a key player in the development of Detroit techno, Miami bass, rap, and countless other genres and sub-genres. Everyone from forgotten rap acts like The Showboys to platinum-selling superstars like Whitney Houston built songs around the 808's inimitable percussion.
As musicians around the world reflect on Kakehashi’s genius in the wake of his passing, it’s nice to see that the creators of today’s most used music technology admire and appreciate his work. “It’s engineering art, it’s so beautifully made,” Ableton Live co-creator Robert Henke said while discussing the 808 with The Wire Magazine. “If you have an idea of what is going on in the inside, if you look at the circuit diagram, and you see how the unknown Roland engineer was making the best out of super limited technology, it’s unbelievable. You look at the circuit diagram like you look at an orchestral score, you think, how on earth did they come up with this idea? It’s brilliant, it’s a masterpiece.”
Thank you Mr. Kakehashi, for the TR-808 and all of your other masterpieces.