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The History of The Roland TR-808

This is a guest post from Geoffrey Granka of Fresh Produce Productions. Find him online at www.freshaudio.ca and @gmgranka on Twitter.

Like previously covered pieces of gear (Shure SM57, Neve 1073), the TR808 has penetrated music to the point that most of us don’t even notice when we hear it anymore.

Its un-kick-drum-sounding kick drum; snappy, fast-attack snare; chorus-y handclaps and unusual cowbell have made it famous and loved. But it didn’t start out that way.

*flashback music*

Drum machines themselves started out in family home organs as soon as such things became common place (imagine that). Organs were popular in homes because they were crude synthesizers for the time, offering a cost-effective “one-man band” option for the living room. A rhythm generator was a logical addition. Wurlitzer made the Sideman in 1959 and many other organ makers followed suit.

Ace Tone was a relative latecomer to the drum machine game, but they gained ground quickly. By the time Ace Tone had changed their name to Roland and released their first TR series drum machines (standing for Transistor Rhythm), they had made a name for themselves as the electronic drum company. The TR series made themselves onto numerous recordings (Sly and the Family Stone and Phil Collins most notably). But they still had leeway to make in the user friendly side of things…

In 1980, the Linn LM-1 was released. The sounds were the closest to actual drums that synthesizers had ever gotten. It was fully programmable (no more corny “Latin rhythm” button). The LM-1 is $5000. That’s a good chunk of change now, but it was more than $13,000 in 1980. Roger Linn pimped the machines around to his famous friends and the LinnDrum became one of the more revered drum machines in history.

Around the same time, the Roland TR-808 burst onto the scene. It had more intuitive programming than the LM-1 and laughable, yet endearing, drum sounds. The Roland approximations were way off, to the point of being obvious. It went on to sell little more than 12,000 units and was discontinued in 1983 despite being brought to fame in Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” in 1982 and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”.

By the time you could find TR-808s in pawnshops, they had depreciated greatly from their original $1000 MSRP. Cash-strapped producers could cop a TR-808 for a hill of beans and start making beats. Coupled with its association to RnB and early Hip-Hop, the TR-808’s affordability made it a common element in fundamental hip-hop. It was used all over Beastie Boy’s License to Ill album and many other records. Outkast used it religiously: it’s the snappy snare in Lil Wayne song’s “Lollipop”, and featured most recently in Eminem’s “Not Afraid”. Its low, speaker-busting bass drum featured so prominently on Kanye West’s 808 & Heartbreak that it earned its way into the album title.

While relatively few actual machines exist today, I think it’s safe to say that 808 samples come with every DAW in some shape or form. Logic call its TR808 samples EXS808 and Vintage 08, ProTools’ has Eight-0 and Fat 8. Some of my favourite samples are made by Goldbaby, who specialize in tracking quirky drum machines and synths onto beautiful tape machines.

Computer drum sequencing also owes a lot to Roland, with its distinctive 16-button grid representing 16th notes being replicated as often as its sounds.

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