Few electronic instruments are still as desirable, 16 years after their launch, as the 808, and even fewer become famous enough to have a band named after them. Chris Carter hits that perfect beat.
Unless you've been living in a cave for the last 16 years, or you've only just come into the wonderful world of music, you must have heard of the TR808. In an industry where many instruments are known only by a number, there are few as distinctive and well‑known as the Roland TR808 drum machine. You don't even need to say the whole thing — just say "eight‑oh‑eight" and almost any musician, DJ or clubber will know precisely what you're talking about. Thousands of people on both sides of the turntable can identify the sound of the 808, more than any other drum machine. There aren't many electronic instruments that have such a reputation. It's like saying piano, trumpet, Moog, or Mellotron — instant recognition.
I first heard about the 808 a month or so before it was launched in 1981, and I was so blown away by the specification and price that I went straight down to Rod Argent's music shop in Denmark Street and put down a deposit to secure one from the first shipment, without even hearing it! When they finally arrived I rushed to pick up my new toy and was confronted by a shop full of people huddled round an 808 on demo, all trying to play it, so I didn't even get to try out my brand‑new 808 before I left the shop with it under my arm. During those first weeks of 'discovery' I managed to blow two monitor wedges and a bass bin... that bass drum. I was not disappointed: the TR808 was one of the most inspiring instruments I ever bought.
The Empire Strikes Back
The Roland TR808 Rhythm Composer, to give it its full title, was born (of variable parentage) in 1981 in the land of the rising sun. Previous Roland drum machines had been cheap‑sounding rhythm boxes such as the CR78, aimed mainly at organists and club combos — you know the type — but the appearance of the 808 was part of an attempt by Japanese manufacturers to take on the American‑dominated pro music market. Until the 808 arrived, most musicians' first encounter with a programmable drum machine would have been the humongous (in size and price) LinnDrum or the dinky Paia Drum Set, both USA made. The 808 changed all that, almost overnight, but in an unexpected way.
Sandpaper And Velvet
Whereas drum machines like the Linn were trying to sound like a real drummer playing real drums, the 808, intentionally or not, turned that idea on its head. It didn't sound like a real drummer playing real drums, or like a cheapo rhythm box churning out bossa novas — it sounded like... well, it sounded like nothing else, really, and this is what made it so distinctive. Now it was cool to have a rhythm in your song that sounded as though it could only have been produced by a machine. That long, low bass drum, that tinny (ahem! snappy) snare drum, those classic handclaps and that weird cowbell! A machine of extremes, sandpaper and velvet, and unique.
While the sound of the 808 is undoubtedly its trademark, half the fun of using one is playing it.
People are often surprised when they see an 808 for the first time. At 22 x 12 x 4 (inches), it's a larger‑than‑expected black box with a busy surface and splashes of colour. The rear is a nest of sockets, 19 in all. Each drum voice has an individual output with a level control, and some have further controls for tuning, decay, tone and voice select. There's a large tempo control, switches for A/B variation, a volume control, a Tap button, various mode selectors and, of course, the illuminated step buttons (see box). It comes across as rather bulky and heavy, which it is, but this isn't necessarily a drawback, especially at gigs, where it's not quite as inclined to slide off a stand or table as most small drum boxes and sequencers.
Legend In Its Own Lunchtime
Soon after its launch the 808 started appearing in the charts and on the dance floor. All manner of songwriters, musicians and producers were using 808s in all sorts of songs, from ballads to bollocks, many becoming classics. Who can forget Marvin Gaye's '(Sexual) Healing' and Paul Young's 'Wherever I Lay My Hat', Afrika Bambaata's 'Planet Rock', New Order's 'Confusion' or Paul Hardcastle's '19'? And this was just the beginning: in the subsequent 16 years the 808 went on to appear on more records (probably) than any other drum machine in recent history. It seems as if every style of music has embraced the 808 at some point, with some styles existing almost because of it. Over the years the 808 sound has gone out of fashion, come back in again, gone out again — and so on and so on. All it seems to take is one or two high‑profile remixes or hits featuring an 808 and it's hip again. At the moment the 808 sound is on a slight downward curve in the popularity stakes but, mark my words, it will climb back up at some point, probably as soon as the current '70s revival is over and an '80s revival kicks in. And this brings me to the $64,000 question: is the sound of an 808 sample as good as the real thing?
Is It Real Or Is It RAM?
I've read countless interviews where producers, users, DJs and remixers have voiced opinions on whether the 808 should be sampled or not. Most agree that, no matter how good a sample you have, nothing sounds quite like the original, particularly when it comes to the 808 bass drum. Of course, there are circumstances where sampling the 808 is entirely justified. Sampling has been the '90s saviour for thousands of musicians who just don't have access, for whatever reason, to instruments they would love to own or play. Using samples or PCM sample cards is a way for a lot of people to try sounds that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. I know this will sound like sacrilege to die‑hard 808 purists but there are benefits to using an 808 sample — such as the scope it allows for further editing and manipulation. Some 808 sounds sit in a track a lot better if they can be edited or tuned, particularly the cowbell and snare drum.
I must admit to sampling my 808 frequently, but as an owner I can take as long as I need to get the sample as close as possible to the original sound; the same can't always be said of sample libraries and ROM/PCM card manufacturers, though. My method is to sample the drum sounds as a pattern (a bar or two) and not as individual beats. These sampled patterns can then be triggered by a MIDI sequencer or used as loops. It's even better, if you have enough sample memory, to sample each drum channel (through the individual outputs) as a separate pattern and not a mix of all the drum sounds.
Whereas drum machines like the Linn were trying to sound like a real drummer playing real drums, the 808, intentionally or not, turned that idea on its head.
I'm not alone in recognising that not all 808s sound the same: when two 808s are listened to side by side, subtle differences in tone and tuning can be heard. Some users (me included) have also noted that some 808s need to warm up from a cold start. When first switched on, some can sound 'flat' — particularly the bass drum and toms, which can exhibit a slight inconsistency in tone from beat to beat. After 20 minutes or so, however, they sound as good as ever. These quirks are to be expected from a 16‑year old, all‑analogue instrument and, if anything, they add to the character of the machine.
Come Play With Me
While the sound of the 808 is undoubtedly its trademark, half the fun of using one is playing it. Programming the 808 is a memorable experience: to the newcomer the 808 can seem idiosyncratic and inscrutable — but if you persevere the rewards are great.
At the simplest level is step‑time programming, which is a piece of cake. Just select a drum sound with the rotary selector and begin pressing the coloured step buttons while the pattern is running. Now move onto the next sound, building up your rhythm pattern; any mistakes are cancelled by pressing a given button a second time. An LED in each button lights up to confirm which beats are being triggered for whichever drum voice is selected — instant visual feedback and nicely reassuring. Real‑time programming is just as easy: you simply hit the Tap button, having selected the drum sound you want, and the beats you've tapped in appear on the flashing LED step buttons. Build up a pattern from different sounds, and erase any mistakes by pushing the relevant step button to deselect the beat. Each pattern can be divided into two parts, with each part having a different number of steps if necessary (to a maximum of 32 steps). Each part can also have a further A or B version, and you can alternate manually or automatically between the two variations. A separate bank of four rhythm patterns, with their own A/B version switch, can be used as Intro/Fill‑ins and are triggered by the Tap button. It's possible to programme a total of 64 different rhythm patterns into the 808 — not vast by today's standards, but perfectly adequate for most purposes.
There are two ways of playing back patterns: Manual Play and Rhythm Track Compose. Once you've programmed a few patterns/parts you can chain them together to make a song. In Compose mode (with the memory cleared) there's enough space to record 12 different rhythm tracks, with each track holding 64 bars. If you need to record more than 64 bars, it's possible to record continuously, to a maximum of 768 bars. Unusually, when the 808 reaches the last bar it loops back to the beginning without a breath. This 'feature' can't be disabled, so it's usual to have a couple of blank patterns after the last bar to indicate the end of a song. Patterns are recorded into a Rhythm Track in real time by pushing the coloured pattern buttons while the 808 is running in Compose mode. If a mistake is made while laying down a Rhythm Track, you either have to start again from the beginning, or play the track through and overwrite your mistakes as you go. No step editing here, I'm afraid.
Total Real‑Time Control
In my opinion, Manual Play is one of the most fun ways of playing an 808 and is perfect for trying out ideas, jamming with other musicians and improvising with other instruments or sequencers.
An ideal setup would have the 11 individual drum outputs running through separate channels on a mixing desk, with EQ, if necessary, and some effects patched in for added spice. A sequencer, synth or some sampled loops running in sync would add to the mixture nicely. Put together a bunch of groovy rhythm patterns and include a few fancy Fill‑Ins. Make sure you have a blank pattern for breaks and maybe some patterns using the gate outputs to trigger other gear (drum pads, noise gates, samples, and so on). It's also a good idea to have some patterns chained together in a Rhythm Track but with the Rhythm Track Play mode off — initially anyway.
It seems as if every style of music has embraced the 808 at some point, with some styles existing almost because of it.
Now the fun begins: set the required tempo, press Start and away you go, switching from pattern to pattern, inserting Fill‑Ins and breaks as your fancy takes you. Because the 808 always starts the next pattern on the first beat of the following bar you never have to worry about being spot‑on with your timing. If you need to adjust levels, add effects or alter the drum controls (decay, tuning, tone, etc) turn on the Rhythm Track Play mode and let the 808 take over for a while, then return to Manual Play when you're ready. The whole process is very intuitive and a refreshing change from cursors, menus and mice.
This is real hands‑on rhythm composition and improvisation, a bit like playing a keyboard full of perfectly‑sync'ed rhythm patterns. I can't think of any current drum machines or sequencers that allow you to play back rhythm patterns in such an easy way, although I suppose you could trigger sampled rhythm loops from a MIDI keyboard to achieve a vaguely similar effect. But it wouldn't be as much fun.
Prices & Availability
The popularity of the 808 started to decline about a year ago, when the rarer TR909 took its place as the dance floor drum machine to use. This came about for various reasons: the 909 gives more control over the drum sounds, has better programming and includes MIDI as standard. It also currently sells for between £900 and £1100. The 808 is still quite collectable, and although maximum prices peaked at about £700 to £800, things have calmed down a little and the price has dropped to £450‑£550, depending on condition and whether it has been MIDI retrofitted. There have been quite a few MIDI options available for the 808 from various sources over the years, some better than others. If you're buying an 808 with this option, try and check that the MIDI side works as it should. Dealers I contacted said that the 808 generally has a good reputation for reliability (which I can vouch for, being a long‑term user myself). However, bear in mind that this machine has been around for quite some time, so beware of the following points if you're looking at buying one:
- Try all the buttons, as these get more use and abuse than anything else, particularly the Tap button and the step keys with the built‑in LEDs. Look for any dead LEDs, as these blinking lights are the only visual indication there is of what's going on with the 808, and even one non‑functioning LED will cause problems when programming and playing back rhythms.
- A common fault in instruments this old is noisy or troublesome pots. These can have quite a detrimental effect, making sounds thin, weak or unpredictable.
- Examine the back‑up battery compartment, underneath, and check for signs of corrosion from leaking batteries; replace with new batteries if necessary.
- Take a good look at the sockets on the rear for any that might be loose or broken and check the little sync in/out switch, as these are easily damaged or occasionally pushed inside the casing.
One last point: the instruction manual is pretty essential, unless you already know enough about the 808 to program it without one.
Into The Sunset
Being realistic for a moment, most people won't ever get their hands on an 808, because of its rarity, and many will be put off by the price — but there are other options. Using an 808 PCM card and a MIDI drum machine, such as the Roland R8 or Boss DR660 with built‑in 808 sounds, is one option. However, if you really are tempted to seek out an original 808 I don't think you'll be disappointed: it's full of classic sounds, has a simple, intuitive interface, and is bursting with energy and character. Just be careful with that bass drum...
Set The Controls
Here is a brief explanation of a few of the most often‑used controls:
- Instrument/Track Selector: This is a 12‑way rotary switch for selecting drum sounds or Rhythm Tracks.
- Mode Selector: Switches between pattern clear, 1st part write, 2nd part write, Manual Play, Track Play and Track Compose.
- Step buttons: 16 illuminated buttons for inputting beats; these double up as pattern select buttons, and the last four buttons are also used as Intro/Fill‑in selectors.
- Start/Stop button: Also controllable through a rear‑panel jack socket.
- Tap button: For triggering the Intro/Fill‑in buttons and inputting beats in real‑time, also controllable through a rear‑panel jack socket.
- Pre‑Scale: This is a four‑way switch for choosing the time signature or number of steps needed for each pattern.
- Auto Fill‑In: This selector adjusts the number of bars before a Fill‑in, from Manual to 16, 12 ,8, 4, or 2.
- Clear button: This erases either a selected pattern or Rhythm track.
The Prop Department
While on tour in Germany in 1991, our 'electro/industrial' support band had a customised 808 with a gunmetal Hammerite finish. Everything was painted — buttons, knobs, lettering — everything except the LEDs. It sat on a stand in the middle of the stage like a slab of metal, plugged in to nothing at all, with the LEDs dancing up and down while the band did their stuff around it, like some sort of ritual. I have it on good authority that some newer, gigging dance bands buy an 808 just because of the reputation and kudos it carries, even if they don't actually use it!
- Original price: £765 including VAT.
- Sounds: 16 analogue drums.
- Memory: 64 patterns and 768 measures.
- BPM: 33 to 300.
- Outputs: 11 drum, two mix/mono, three gate/trigger.
- Sync: Roland DIN sync in/out.
- Footswitch: Start/Stop, Intro/Fill‑In.
- Realistic drum sounds
- Stereo output
- Pattern Copy or Insert
- Tape sync
- Saving and loading
- Tape or disk storage
- Headphone socket
- BPM indicator
Drum Major: Those Sounds
- 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.