Roland | Happy 808 Day

It’s hard to believe that a drum machine introduced in 1980 would be celebrated today by lovers of culture, music and design. 808DAY (August 8th) is about the people who ‘got’ the original 808, the artists who took it to another level and most importantly, everyone who loves the music that the Roland TR-808 inspired. Welcome to the continuing story of the most popular drum machine of all time—and thanks for being part of the journey.

LARRY SMITH AND THE ‘NEW YORK 808’

“This my father’s original TR-808…This machine is Run DMC’s first two albums, all of Whodini, and also Licensed to Ill by Beastie Boys.”

Part 1 - 808 Origin
PART 1

THE ORIGIN
LATE 1970S, JAPAN

In the late 1970s, the idea of a ‘drum machine’ was unusual. Although people made music at home, it was typically with a piano, organ or guitar. And since most households didn’t own an acoustic drum kit, an electronic drum machine would give families an easy and enjoyable way to include rhythm in their music making. It was at this point that Roland started work on developing a rhythm machine for the masses...

Roland CR-78

CR-78: THE
FORERUNNER

Launched in 1978, the CompuRhythm CR-78 was Roland’s first drum machine that created and stored patterns. Even though it was meant as a rhythm accompaniment device for organs—hence the abundance of waltz and bossa nova patterns—it became fairly popular with established musicians, including Phil Collins who used it several years later on ‘In the Air Tonight’.

THE
ENGINEER’S
DILEMMA

Tasked with producing the CR-78’s successor, a young team of Roland engineers sat down to exchange ideas. Working under Tadao Kikumoto (seen here with an early prototype), Hiro Nakamura was asked to develop the analog voice circuits for the unnamed product, which was intended to help pro-musicians create demos. But there was a problem: late ‘70s analog technology wasn’t very good at creating realistic drum sounds.

Tadao Kikumoto
TR-808 - The Sound

THE
SOUND

The goal for the new machine, now called the TR-808, was to include realistic-sounding drums. Memory chips (needed to play back sampled recordings of ‘real’ drum sounds) were too expensive, so the engineers used analog synthesis to recreate the sounds—initially on Roland’s System-700 modular system before recreating the parameters on the TR-808’s analog circuitry. Although a simple choice born of necessity, choosing analog over digital technology would have a profound impact on music in the years to come.

THE SECRET
WEAPON

Transistors which had been rejected as ‘out of specification’ were purchased by Roland and used as part of the TR-808’s sound generating capability. Although they weren’t faulty, they did exhibit some very particular qualities that helped give the 808 its distinctive sizzling sound. In fact, this tiny component, also known as an 2SC828-R, was so important to the final sound, that once supplies were used up, the TR-808 was discontinued. It’s also partly why most modern analog takes on the TR-808 don’t really stand up to scrutiny.

TR-808 - 2SC828-R
TB-808 - THE SEQUENCER

THE
SEQUENCER

Look at the front panel of a Roland TR-808 and you’ll see the words ‘Rhythm Composer’—a reminder of the designers’ original intention. Through a row of 16 distinctively colored buttons, people could easily program (and store) their own beats which meant that the TR-808 became an accessible and creative instrument in its own right. It was also the first appearance of Roland’s ‘TR-REC’ method of creating a drum beat—which is still in use today.

808: THE
SPEAKER
KILLER

Since the 808 sound was analog, many tonal adjustments were possible—less sizzle in the hi-hats, extra snappiness in the snare and, critically, more punch in the kick drum. Being able to extend the decay of the kick drum to reveal more of that warm analog tone, gave the TR-808 something very special indeed—the power to make people move. Much to the delight of speaker manufacturers, a cranked-up 808 track would regularly blow out speaker cones.

TR-808 - The Speaker Killer
The Roland TR-808

The Roland TR-808 was officially in production for just two years—from 1980 to 1982. Around 12,000 units were manufactured and although it received support from early adopters like Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra, it wasn’t considered a commercial success. Some people even complained that drum machines meant less work for professional drummers. In 1982, the competitor LinnDrum was launched, helping shift the trend away from analog and towards digital sample-based drum machines. The TR-808 started to look like its time had come and gone...but ironically, its premature demise was merely the beginning.

Part 2 - The Players
PART 2

THE PLAYERS
1980S, FROM JAPAN TO NYC (VIA BELGIUM)

Although not a huge success when in production, the Roland TR-808 certainly appeared on some notable productions—including Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’. Once the TR-808 was discontinued however, a familiar story unfolded when units started to appear in second-hand shops, swiftly acquired by younger artists with a penchant for risk-taking and rule-breaking. The next ten years would see the 808 sound deeply embedded within a variety of electronic music scenes that had one thing in common—the music appealed to people who loved to party. Here are some of the musicians who helped bring it to life.

YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA

Back in 1980, the influential Japanese group became the first act to use a TR-808 live, during a performance of their track ‘1000 Knives’. The TR-808 was also used extensively on the band’s well-received studio album ‘BGM’ alongside the Roland MC-4 and MC-8 Microcomposers.

MARVIN
GAYE

In 1982, Marvin Gaye released the Grammy-award winning Sexual Healing, which was written while he was living in Ostende, Belgium. A year previously, having struggled with depression, Marvin was looking to leave America and found solace—and a place to start writing again—in Europe. Not wanting to spend time with other musicians, the studio he was renting contained a TR-808, which became an accomplice on one of the most beloved tracks of all time.

ARTHUR
BAKER

The story of how Arthur Baker walked into a New York recording studio, hooked up an TR-808 and ended up at the helm of a stone-cold game-changer is the stuff of legend. In the summer of 1982, the track booming from every speaker was ‘Planet Rock’ and it sowed the seeds for hip hop, electro and even techno. Fitting then, that the equally diverse TR-808 provided the beats for the track that changed music forever.

PHIL
COLLINS

Strange that a drummer as accomplished as Phil Collins would pull up a TR-808 and start writing. But that’s exactly what happened on 1984’s ‘One More Night’ which is revered for its sparse arrangement and delicate instrumentation—testament to the TR-808’s ability to handle a wide variety of styles and genres. Phil would often write with just the TR-808, as it would keep going at the same tempo without “showing off” (Phil’s words) as some drummers have been known to do.

RICK
RUBIN

In the early 80s, a post-punk Rick Rubin was gravitating towards New York’s nascent hip hop scene. An avid networker, he hooked up with Jazzy Jay and T La Rock and in 1984 produced ‘It’s Yours’. This 808-infused club track would set the pace for the NY hip hop sound over the next few years. And Rick would go on to work with many other rising stars of rap including RUN DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy—all of them adding the 808 sound to their imposing sonic arsenal.

BEASTIE
BOYS

Legend has it that the Beastie Boys bought a TR-808 with some of the proceeds from a court case settlement. What’s indisputable is that the 808 appears all over their 1986 platinum-selling debut ‘Licensed to Ill’ (also produced by Rick Rubin). Stand-out 808 tracks include Brass Monkey and Paul Revere, which sees the NY trio drop lyrics over a reversed 808 beat, complete with weird—and awesome—‘warping’ bass drum.

Part 3 - The Culture
PART 3

THE CULTURE
LATE ‘80S TO PRESENT, WORLDWIDE

Thanks to its ability to ‘blow the doors off’, the term ‘808’ started appearing in song lyrics, where it still gets name-checked to this day. Tracks (Timbaland’s 808), albums (Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak) and even band names (808 State) were all coined under its influence. There’s even the unsubstantiated rumor that 808 is the code used by American police to describe a disturbance of the peace. With the TR-808’s DNA fully absorbed by hip hop, techno and other electronic genres, its rib-cracking sound also surfaced within the urban music scenes of Miami, Atlanta, Europe and beyond—proof of music’s role as a global cultural conduit.

JOIN THE 808 CELEBRATION
Post your 808 stories and memories with the #808day hashtag and we’ll feature the best below.

    Miami Bass

    MIAMI
    BASS

    When it comes to Miami, it’s all about the bass—especially when it’s shaking through a beefed-up car audio system. From early breakout acts like 2 Live Crew to the current crop of producers and rappers, when it comes to bass at its most visceral, the Miami sound is among the loudest of all—underpinned by the 808’s battle-tested analog waveforms. Buckle up!

    DEEP
    SOUTH

    Characterized by sub-divided hi-hats, deep 808 sub-bass, and often dark lyrical themes, Trap music emerged from the USA’s southern states in the late 1990s. The Trap sound itself has also evolved, first into the Latin Trap genre and then crossing over into pop music, where it’s influence (along with those 808 kicks and hi-hats) can be heard on daytime radio. The Atlanta scene is particularly vibrant, even hosting an annual summer festival called 808 Fest—held, of course, on August 8th.

    Trap music emerged
    PART 4

    THE LEGACY

    “EVERYBODY GETTIN DOWN MAKE NO MISTAKE NOTHING SOUNDS QUITE LIKE THE 808.”

    PUBLIC ENEMY, “POWER TO THE PEOPLE” / FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET, 1990

    TR-808 Back Panel
    Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast

    TWENTY THOUSAND HERTZ

    The Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast explores the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. Check out their recently published episode featuring DJ Jazzy Jeff, who helps explain how the sounds of the 808 ‘quietly cemented themselves in the cultural lexicon.’

    THE ROLAND
    TR-808 TODAY

    If you want the classic Roland TR-808 sound, you’ve got several options. If you can find one—and afford one—an original issue, early-eighties TR-808 will do just fine. But there are other options that are more affordable and surpass the sound and performance capabilities of the original.

    ORIGINAL
    TR-808

    With only 12,000 ever made, units from the original production run are becoming increasingly rare and sought after. But if you want ultimate bragging rights then an original Roland TR-808 could be the way to go. Just keep it locked up in a safe and don’t tell anybody you have one.

    Original TR-808
    Aira TR-8S

    AIRA TR-8/TR-8S

    The AIRA TR-8S re-imagined what a Roland TR-808 would sound like if it was developed today - including the ability to include samples, and a host of performance-based effects.

    FIND OUT MORE

    TR-08
    ROLAND
    BOUTIQUE

    The Roland TR-08 is the best way to recreate the authentic TR-808 experience. There’s the same user interface (although it’s much simpler to program and construct patterns now), and you also get onboard effects like distortion and delays, as well as a four-digit LED screen for ease of use.

    Roland TR-08 Boutique
    Roland Cloud

    808 ROLAND CLOUD

    The Roland TR-808 is part of the Roland Cloud suite of on-demand plug-in instruments, deployed directly into your DAW. With a variety of improvements and the ability to run multiple instruments simultaneously, the cloud-based TR-808 is a powerful addition to the always-growing Roland Cloud platform.

    FIND OUT MORE

    V-MODA M-100
    MASTER 808

    Meet the latest in V-MODA’s line of pure analog headphones, with improved sound, comfort, and durability. Influenced by the iconic style of the Roland TR-808, these limited-edition headphones are only available until September 9th (909 day).

    FIND OUT MORE

    V-MODA M-100 MASTER 808 Headphones
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