How To

What Is An 808 Drum Machine And How Is It Used?

Photograph of the blog post author, Joelle Banton

Joelle Banton

9.5.2020

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Hip-hop and pop lovers will have definitely heard the phrase “808” at least a few times in songs. It may have even left you thinking ‘what does 808 mean?’ This is a reference to the revolutionary TR-808 drum machine introduced in the 1980s. There are many drum machines about, but the Roland TR-808 drum machine was one of the first programmable machines. The 808 is by far the most iconic drum machine of its time. 

“Nothing sounds quite like an 808,”

Beastie Boys, 1998

What Is A Drum Machine?

roland 808 drum machine

A drum machine is an electronic instrument that creates drum sounds, beats and other percussion sounds. Drum machines were introduced to emulate the sound of a drum kit and other percussion instruments. Most drum machines that are produced today enable musicians and producers to programme their own beats. 

These machines also create sounds using samples or from audio synthesis. Drum machines can be used for a range of things from playing simple beats on a loop to producing complex, multi-layered songs in many different styles. The most well-known drum machine was produced by the Roland Corporation, and was invented in the early 80s, . 

Features Of A Modern Drum Machine

Pressure-sensitive pads: These pads make different noises when you tap them with your fingers. Depending on which sounds you allocate to each pad, whether it be a traditional drum sound or new snare, you can tap out a sequence that you can store and use within your music.

Built-in VST Effects

Most modern drum machines will come complete with a range of weird and wonderful VST effects installed. You can experiment with these sounds to your heart’s content.

Programming And Editing Features

These features allow artists to record their own sounds and mix them with the drum machine’s presets. Depending on the type of the drum machine, sequences and patterns can range from as little as 10 to over a thousand.

The History Of Drum Machines

colourful drum machine

In the 80s, drum machines shaped genres of music such as techno, dance music, hip-hop and pop. However, similar, non-electrical instruments have been thought to have been around since 1206. Ismail al-Jazari, an Arabian engineer, designed a programmable drum machine that included levers that created percussion sounds. 

There were also a few instruments invented in the early 20th century, such as the Rhythmicon and the Rhythmate, which had a similar sound to the modern drum machine. Selling around 100 units each, these machines were complex to operate and expensive to purchase. Eventually, these models were discontinued due to their commercial failure. 

The first “compact” drum machine to use drum sound synthesis was introduced in 1972 by Eko. The Compute Rhythm had a 6-row push-button format that allowed the user to play a pattern manually. The main difference between early drum machines and ones produced after Ekos’ Compute Rhythm composer in 1972 was the way in which sound was generated. Older models used audio synthesis to make sounds rather than digital sampling. Many other music instrument manufacturers including PAiA, Ace Tone and Boss also released drum machines, but Roland’s TR-808 drum machine really shaped up the music industry. 

The Roland TR-808 Drum Machine

roland tr 808 drum machine

Drum machines have revolutionised pop and other genres of music, and the most popular machine is the “808”. This drum machine was created in 1980 by Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of the Roland Corporation. Its unique “dribbling” bass drum sound is what gained this machine so much recognition. Nowadays, the quest of the perfect low-frequency sound synonymous with an 808 is a tough process for musicians.

808 Features & Use

The TR-808 made sounds of many acoustic percussion instruments: the bass drum, toms, snares, rimshots, claves, a handclap, cowbell, cymbals, and the hi-hat.The TR in TR-808 stands for “Transistor Rhythm”. Using a step sequencer, musicians were able to program up to 32 patterns, and were also able to place accents on individual sounds using the CR-78 feature. 

The 808 was also the first machine with which artists could program a track from start to end. Producers had complete control over music production using the 808, with numerous audio outputs, volume knobs and DIN sync. It also included three trigger outputs, which could synchronise with other musical equipment such as synthesisers.

808’s Reception

Despite its glory, this drum machine took a while to be adopted by mainstream producers. The machine was only popular amongst a network of underground artists. Its affordability, ease of use and the “booming” bass drum made it become a very sought-after piece of equipment. 

Eventually, its popularity spilt over into the realm of popular music and featured on tracks from artists including Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston. LL Cool J, Run-DMC and Public Enemy. These artists used the 808 during live DJ music sets and on stage, as well as during production. The use of the machine in this way led it to be described as hip-hop’s equivalent to the Fender Stratocaster guitar in rock music. 

The New Yorker even wrote that:

“the trembling feeling of the 808 bass drum, booming down boulevards in Oakland, the Bronx, and Detroit, are part of America’s cultural DNA”.

New Yorker

In the UK, the TR-808 drum machine became popular through the electronic group 808 State, whose name was influenced by the machine. It comes as no surprise that many of the group’s songs heavily featured the 808. 

“The Roland gear began to be a kind of Esperanto in music. The whole world began to be less separated through this technology.” 

808 State’s Graham Massey

The rise of rave culture and acid house in the UK also gave the 808 a new meaning. The machine was prevalent in the dance scene in the UK during this time. The Roland TR-808 is still used in the 21st century. Musicians who have utilised the 808 for hit records include Dr Dre, Fatboy Slim, Bassnectar, David Guetta, New Order and Diplo. 

Many lyrics in popular songs and electronic music have also referenced the 808 machine and its unique sound, such as lyrics by Beastie Boys, Lil Wayne, Kelis, Beyoncé, Outkast, Britney Spears and more. 

Discontinuation & The TR-909

After selling around 12,000 units, the TR-808 was discontinued in 1983, but left an enduring effect on music. With the rise of samplers, digital audio workstations and other musical innovations, standalone drum machines became less common. You may still be able to find an original 808 machine on places like eBay.

Following the discontinuation of the 808 drum machine, in 1984 Roland brought out the TR-909 – the first drum machine to use MIDI. This meant that the newer model was synchronised with other musical instruments that were built by different manufacturers (as long as they also used MIDI). 

The TR-909 was also one of the first machines to use samples for sounds. The TR-909 was not as successful as the 808 and it was ultimately discontinued a few years later, however, many cheaper alternatives were brought to the market by other manufacturers. Kakehashi has also been accredited for many other musical revolutions such as MIDI technology. 

How To Use An 808 

The most important element of the TR-808 machine is its sequencer. Through a row of 16 distinctively coloured buttons, musicians can easily program and store their own beats. Each of these 16 patterns has a first and second part, along with an A and B variation. This allows you to create a 32-step pattern when switching the pattern write knop to the 2nd part).

To start off with, you must ensure the variation switch (top left) is in the A position. To start adding instruments into your pattern, use the instrument select knob to choose the sound you want to use first i.e. bass drums. Simply click the step buttons where you want the beats to happen, and you should hear the drum hits. The positions where you sequenced in your drum machine hits will always stay lit up.

There are also a set of controls (top right of the machine) that will allow you to adjust sounds in real-time – this is where you can get creative. To programme the 2nd part of steps, turn the pattern knob button to “2nd part” and select which pattern you want to edit in the same way. After you have programmed a collection of patterns and set pattern lengths, it is now time to turn these patterns into a song. You will need to turn the mode knob to “manual apply”.

See a TR-808 in action playing some of the most famous 808 beats below: 

Some Great Songs That Feature 808 Drum Machine

There are tons of great songs that feature the TR-808, so let’s take a look at some standout examples!

Planet Rock – Afrika Bambaata and the Soulsonic Force

Produced in 1982, Planet Rock paved the way for a new sound in hip hop and techno. The crazy-sounding 808 kick and hi-hats pattern was one of the firsts songs to incorporate an 808 drum machine.

Sexual Healing – Marvin Gaye

The first time the world probably heard a hit track using the TR-808 drum machine was in ‘Sexual Healing’ by Marvin Gaye. This song blended many signature 808 sounds such as the kick drum. 

Raga Bhairav – Charanjit Singh 

You could really pick any song off the Indian composer’s extraordinary ‘Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat’ a 1982 album that used the sound of 808 in new and strange ways. Many of Singh’s’ songs from this era also used the bass synth TB-303 in equally creative ways. 

Love Lockdown – Kanye West

Love Lockdown is centred around simple, yet iconic 808 beats – like many other tracks on Kanye West’s ‘808s and Heartbreakalbum.

Let The Beat Build – Lil Wayne

Only three sounds from an 808 machine make up the end part of this classic Lil Wayne track: a looping sample, a kick and a snare. It was also produced by none other than Mr West himself! 

Drunk In Love – Beyoncé Ft Jay-Z

Another popular song from this century that really brought back the sound of the 808. A classic from the 2013 ‘BEYONCÉ’ album, Beyoncé’s ‘Drunk in Love’ single featured harsh processed drums, hi-hats and snare beats throughout.

Where Can You Get An 808 Drum Machine?

Although many 808 drum machines have been replaced with modern samplers and outputs with a range of functions, the 808 sound is still common in hip-hop music. There are many TR-808 machines out there, but you will probably have to hunt the internet to find them.

The rise in Lo-fi music and other genres that pay homage to early hip-hop and pop has influenced many companies to make replicas of the machine. Boss, Alesis and Zoom produce machines that sound similar, if you’re searching for 808-like sounds.

If you’re after the classic 808 but don’t want to invest in an actual drum machine, many hip-hop and trap drum kits include samples from the original machine. 

Conclusion And Advice

The legacy of the iconic Roland drum machine is still alive, and you can add to its vestige by producing your own music that pays tribute to the 808’s booming sound. Coming across an original 808 may be tricky, but many drum machines can imitate the sound.

Pretty much all drum machines are also compatible with DAW software, so you have the chance to be even more creative with this piece of equipment! At Music Gateway, we also offer a range of free drum kits that include samples from original drum machines such as the Vintage Hip-Hop Kit and the West Coast Drum Kit. Experimenting with these samples will have you making 808 inspired beats just in time for 808 day!

Now you have learned about the 808 machine, you will hopefully be inspired in your own music production! Allow us to help you amplify your musiccollaborate with others, and even get your music in TV, film and more. Why not try Music Gateway for free?



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