8th August is the official birthday of Roland’s iconic TR-808 drum machine. Yes it’s hard to believe but the venerable TR-808 is now 42 years old – and it’s still going strong!
To celebrate the arrival of the official 808 day I’m going to delve into the history of the 808 itself, present you with some fantastic hand-picked examples of classic 808 tracks and to round things off I will tell you where to get hold of some 808 freebies too in the form of brilliant plugins and sample packs!
A brief history of the Roland TR-808:
Building on the success of the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78, Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland, tasked his engineers with creating a drum synthesizer which could emulate real percussion and with which users could adjust various sound parameters.
Working under Tadao Kikumoto … 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.Roland – The TR-808 Story
In an effort to keep costs down, Roland purchased transistors which had been rejected as ‘out of specification’ and used these as part of the TR-808’s sound generating circuitry. While not actually faulty their quirks did help to shape the 808’s distinctive ‘sizzling’ sound. This distinct, obviously electronic sound proved to be unpopular with both “serious” musicians and the trade press – at least at first – due to the fact it was not at all a convincing emulation of a real acoustic drum kit. The world was not yet ready for the 808 sound!
Distinctive sounds aside, the TR-808 boasted a row of 16 distinctively colored buttons with which users could easily program beats making the machine an easy to use and creative instrument in its own right. The TR-808 is actually the machine that introduced Roland’s ‘TR-REC’ method of creating a drum beat, a method which is still in use to this day.
While the electronic and ‘robotic’ sounds of the 808 triggered some criticism from some sections of the music production community, by the end of its production run in ’82 the 808 was soon being picked up second hand at bargain prices by another section of the music community most notably forward thinking – & dare I say younger? – US based producers drawn towards the very aspects of the 808 that had made it unpopular.
Key to the 808’s adoption by this new wave of musicians and producers was the bass drum in particular. Nothing on the market at the time could compete with the 808’s ability to deliver crowd pleasing, wall shaking, trouser flapping, – and sometimes speaking blowing – bass like the 808’s kick drum. From the mid-eighties onwards, the 808’s sounds would become deeply embedded within an urban youth orientated dance/rave and hip hop culture – music designed to get dance floors jumping.
Inspired by hip hop, electro, new wave and disco music, a new generation of working class – ie broke – and young producers, most notably in Chicago and Detroit but also New York, Miami (and also Manchester, Sheffield and London in the UK) were exploring a new type of uptempo, bass heavy, “futuristic”, proudly electronic and repetitive music aimed mostly at the clubs – the house and techno sound which would soon go on to conquer Europe and then the world – which the 808’s deeps kicks, sizzling hats and snappy snare were perfectly suited to.
With the rise of hip hop and dance music culture, the Roland TR-808 found its place in music history and over the past 42 years the TR-808 has provided the beats to some truly amazing tracks, across a wide variety of music genres.
8 Iconic 808 tracks every producer should know!
Below I have listed 8 tracks associated with the 808. There are a lot of tracks I could have included here so I have tried to provide a varied mixture as well as some of the most important 808 tracks of all time. If you’re a young music producer hoping to have a career in music then you owe it to yourself to be familiar with these songs.
Yellow Magic Orchestra-1000 Knives:
Fun fact: Roland credits the first use in a live performance to the Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra with “1000 Knives” in 1980.
Afrika Bambaataa- Planet Rock:
Fun fact: This massive tune inspired a generation of producers. Without Planet Rock the history of modern music might look very different indeed!
Beastie Boys – Paul Revere:
Fun Fact: Listening to Beastie Boys member Michael Diamond (Mike D) experimenting with a TR-808 drum machine, fellow Beastie Adam Yauch (MCA) wondered what the song would sound like if they played the pattern in reverse.
Daft Punk – Doin’ it Right:
Fun Fact: This awesome track from Daft Punk’s smash hit 2013 album Random Access Memories is the only tune on the album made using only a modular synthesizer (plus TR-808 on drum duties and a vocoder) and no session musicians.
A Guy Called Gerald – Voodoo Ray:
Fun Fact: British music producer Gerald Rydel Simpson is a Guy Called Gerald. Voodoo Ray spent 18 weeks in the UK Singles Chart eventually reaching number 12, and was awarded best selling independent single of 1989 by Music Week and the British Phonographic Industry.
Cybotron – Clear:
Fun Fact: Cybotron’s Clear is a 1983 electro song composed by Cybotron members Juan Atkins and Richard Davis. At least fifty thousand copies of the “Clear” single were sold, according to a 1997 article in The Wire, which describes the song as a “groundbreaking…first-generation piece of pure machine music”.
Beastie Boys – Hold it Now, Hit It:
Fun Fact: The Beastie Boy’s Licensed to Ill – on which 808 beats played a key role – was the first hip hop album to top the billboard chart.
Beyonce – Drunk in Love:
Fun Fact: Yet more proof that the 808 still remains relevant in the 21st century, Drunk in Love won Best R&B Song and Best R&B Performance at the 57th Grammy Awards.
8 interesting facts about the 808:
- The original 808 cost US$1,195 at launch which was a lot of money, back in the day, but considerably cheaper than its rival the Linn LM-1.
- The ‘TR’ in TR-808 stands for “Transistor Rhythm”. The TR-808 eschewed samples in favor of analog synthesis.
- The 808’s distinctive sound is partly due to the fact that Roland sought to keep costs down by using ‘faulty’ transistors.
- Fewer than 12,000 808 units were sold before Roland discontinued the 808 in 1983 due in part to the supplies of the transistors running out.
- A commercial failure at the time, a new generation of producers began to snap up unloved second hand 808 units and the 808 went on to become one of the most influential inventions in modern (post-1980s) music production history.
- The 808 was the first drum machine with which users could program a percussion track – complete with breaks and rolls – from beginning to end thanks to its 32 pattern storage capabilities and advanced step sequencer abilities.
- The 808’s (in)famous deep bass drum sound comes courtesy of a combination of sine oscillator, low-pass filter, and a voltage-controlled amplifier.
- The 808 has featured on more hit records than other drum machine.
Get the 808 Sound in your DAW: 3 Plugins for the 808 Sound:
I have previously written a guide to some of the best 808 VSTs so I’ll just do a brief round up here. Let’s not stress too much about the fact that while nothing in the software realm truly captures the sound of a real, analog 808 100% just yet, there’s plenty of excellent options for producers who want to get close enough to the 808 sound in their tracks without actually having to have to break the bank to own a real 808. The three options below are all analog emulations of the 808 hardware, as opposed to sample based instruments.
- D16 Nepheton – popular emulation of the TR-808 from German developer D16. Check out the D16 Nepheton page for further details.
- Roland Cloud 808 – powered by Roland’s own ‘ACB’ analog emulation technology, this is as authentic an 808 sound as Roland themselves could develop. On the downside, you’ll need a subscription to Roland Cloud use it. (www.rolandcloud.com)
- Softube Heartbeat – fully featured drum synthesizer which draws inspiration from the best analog drum synths from the 1980s. Heartbeat does 808 type sounds and so much more. Sadly there’s no step sequencer so you’ll need to bring your own to the party or rely on your DAW’s piano roll. (www.softube.com/heartbeat)
Best Free 808 plugin:
If you’re looking for a 100% free TR-808 plugin that does not rely on samples then your best bet is the TS-808 Drum Machine by Tactile Sounds. Developer Tactile Sounds has been very generous in giving away this VST which bases its sound generation on the original TR-808 schematics with careful tweaking of the individual waveforms and spectral content to be as close as possible to the real thing. As a bonus most of the TS-808 voices have more parameters than their hardware predecessor.
The Tactile Sounds website seems to be defunct but you can still download a free copy of the TS-808 for free from the Plugin Boutique website here.
Note that this plugin is for PC only.
Best 808 Sample Packs
If you prefer working with samples and sample packs rather than VSTs then there is a huge variety on offer.
To start with you should check out Goldbaby’s famous 808 packs of which the SuperAnalog808 is my go to 808 sample pack. It consists of a hefty 1168 x 24-bit/96 kHz wav samples, 16 Maschine packs, 16 Geist kits, 73 Battery kits plus Logic Pro EXS24/Sampler patches and Kontakt kits. GoldBaby has clearly put a lot of time and effort into this pack and all the samples benefit from high-end studio hardware, including EM-PEQ eq, UBK Fatso and a Great River 32EQ.
While you’re on the Goldbaby website be sure to check out the The Tape808 pack for beautiful tape saturated 808 sounds and the rest of the impressive Goldbaby library including the generous selection of free sample packs.
808 Samples for Ableton
If you’re an Ableton Live then make sure you download the free Ableton Drum Machine pack. The pack gives you 24-bit 96 kHz samples meticulously recorded and programmed by Puremagnetik. As well as a set of 808 sounds you get 909, 707 and many more classic drum machine samples. Drum Machines offers a choice selection of classic drum machines in tweakable drum rack format with plenty of macro controls to shape the sounds to your own tastes. To get you up and running quickly, each instrument offers a wide selection of presets with effects and accompanying MIDI patterns too. You can download Drum Machines from the Ableton website here.
Free 808 Sample Pack
If you need free 808 samples then be sure to grab Wave Alchemy’s 808 Tape kit. For the price of absolutely nothing you get 300+ 808 drum samples all of which have ben recorded directly to 1/4” analogue tape via a Studer A80 Mk1 tape machine and each sound boasts multiple saturation settings! Download 808 Tape for free here.
808 Kontakt Instruments
If you’re a Kontakt user then check out Wave Alchemy’s Drumvolution and Revolution Kontakt instruments.Both offer a stunning selection of drum machine samples combined with powerful step sequencers and effects. The two Wave Alchemy instruments are significantly different so you’ll need to decide which suits your needs best (or you could just buy both!). For my money Revolution – with its focus on iconic, vintage drum machines – is the most useful of the two if you’re looking for authentic and high quality 808 samples in particular.
Drumvolution and Revolution are available in Standalone, VST, AU and AAX instrument formats. Drumvolution is powered by the FREE Kontakt Player from Native Instruments (full version of Kontakt is NOT required).
Check the Wave Alchemy virtual instruments product page for further details.
3 Modern Hardware Drum Machines for the 808 sound
Looking to recreate the classic 808 sound via a modern hardware drum machine? Here’s 3 superb options to consider:
- The Behringher RD-8 MKII
- Roland Boutique TR08 Rhythm Composer
- Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer.
The Behringer RD-8 MKII is an update of the original MK 1 which I discussed in detail here. You get 16-drum sounds; a 64-step sequencer; Wave Designer and dual-mode filter. The RD-8 MK II features an optimized circuit design with replicated BA662 chip for enhanced sound quality.
There’s advanced sequencing and beat making options including step repeat, note repeat, real-time triggering and live step-overdubbing plus storage for up to 256 patterns and 16 songs.
Roland’s Boutique TR08 Rhythm Composer 808 is a lovely little machine capable of an impressive sound thanks to Roland’s Analog Circuit Behaviour (ACB) technology. Not only does the Boutique TR-08 look and sound the part, but Roland have ensured it has some modern features and conveniences. This is a great option if you are looking for a truly portable 808.
If you’re willing to splash a bit more cash you could opt for the Roland TR-8S Rhythm Performer. This is Roland’s flagship digital drum machine, inspired by the classic 808 and 909 models. As well as emulations of the 808 and 909 you get virtual analogue emulations of lots of other lovely vintage Roland boxes including the 606 and 707 plus the ability to import your own samples.
Roland celebrates 808 Day with a limited edition 808 Jacket!
To celebrate 808 day 2021 Roland’s Lifestyle division have come up with an 808-themed bomber jacket, priced at $808.
This is a strictly limited-edition piece of clothing with only 88 of the handmade jackets available to purchase and each jacket is numbered for authenticity.