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Musical Instruments

Understanding The 808 Meaning In Music

Photograph of the blog post author, Annika Hope

Annika Hope


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In this article, we will find out about the 808 meaning in music and its history and impact on the industry. The term “808” in music refers to the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, an iconic drum machine introduced in the early 1980s. This instrument played a pivotal role in shaping various music genres such as hip-hop, electronic, and pop. The 808 is renowned for its deep, booming bass drum sound, which has become synonymous with the term itself.  When musicians or producers refer to the “808,” they are typically speaking about this specific, bass-heavy sound. Its distinctive sonic signature has made it a staple in music production, influencing artists and producers worldwide.

808 meaning

808 Meaning

In the 1960s, drum machines were predominantly used as backing tracks for home organs, only offering preset rhythms like bossa nova rather than programmable options. In 1969, the Hammond Organ Company hired Don Lewis, an American musician and engineer known for his work with modified electronic instruments – a trend that would later be recognized as circuit bending. Among the products he demonstrated was an electronic organ with an integrated drum machine from the Japanese company Ace Tone. Lewis significantly modified this drum machine to create his own rhythms and connected them to his organ’s expression pedal for enhanced percussion emphasis.

When it comes to the meaning of 808 in music, it refers to the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, one of the first programmable drum machines. Introduced in the early 1980s, the 808 has been a staple in various music genres, including hip-hop, electronic music, and pop. It’s renowned for its deep, booming bass drum sound, which has become synonymous with the term ‘808’.

The 808 Music Meaning: A Sonic Revolution

The 808 music meaning goes beyond just a drum machine; it signifies a sonic revolution. The Roland TR-808’s unique sounds, from its bass drum to cymbals, have been used in countless tracks, shaping the sound of entire genres. Its low-frequency bass drum sound is particularly iconic, often referred to simply as the ‘808’, and is a defining feature of many rap and hip-hop tracks.

So, what does 808 mean? In the most straightforward terms, ‘808’ is used to describe a specific drum sound or beat that originated from the Roland TR-808 machine. Producers often use ‘808’ to refer to the sub-bass in a track, which is a distinct, powerful bass sound that can be felt as much as heard. This sound has become a staple in many forms of music, from techno and house to trap and reggaeton.

Decoding What Does the 808 Mean in Rap Music

When understanding what the 808 means in rap music, it’s important to note its cultural significance. The Roland TR-808 played a pivotal role in shaping the sound of rap and hip-hop. Its unique, resonant bass sound became a defining characteristic of these genres. Producers and artists often use the term ‘808’ to refer to tracks or beats that feature this distinctive bass sound.

The 808 Meaning in Rap: The 808 meaning extends beyond the technical aspects. It’s a cultural phenomenon that has influenced the genre’s sound and style for decades. The 808’s deep bass drum sound is often used to create a powerful, driving beat that underpins rap lyrics. This has helped to create a distinctive sonic identity for the genre, with the 808 becoming a symbol of the power and energy of rap music.

man using Roland 808

Sound Features & Influence

In 1983, the TR-909 succeeded the 808, becoming Roland’s first drum machine to utilize samples. Both machines significantly impacted popular music, shaping genres like techno, house, and acid.

The ReBirth RB-338 software synthesizer by Propellerhead Software incorporated 808 samples. MusicTech’s Andy Jones praised it as an “especially incredible” initial software imitation of 808 sounds. However, it was discontinued in 2017 due to Roland’s claim of intellectual property infringement.

Roland has integrated 808 samples into numerous drum machines such as its Grooveboxes from the ’90s and more recently in its TR-8 and TR-8S models from the 2010s which reproduce these sounds electronically instead of using sample playback.

The 808 is recognized for its robust bass drum tone, constructed using a sine oscillator, low-pass filter, and voltage-controlled amplifier. Its decay control lets users extend the sound, producing distinctively deep frequencies that gradually diminish over time, possibly unintentionally. The New Yorker characterized the bass drum as the defining attribute of the 808.

Despite its initial lack of success, the 808 eventually featured in more hit records than any other drum machine, solidifying its status as a seminal invention in popular music. When Roland stopped production in 1983, the 808 was frequently found on the second-hand market, often priced under $100 (equivalent to $294 in 2022). Its user-friendly design, affordability, and unique sound garnered it a dedicated fanbase among underground artists and producers. This 808 meaning led to it becoming a fundamental element of emerging electronic and hip-hop genres.

The Best 808 Machines: A Guide

Roland Rhythm composer

While the original Roland TR-808 is a classic, several modern machines emulate its iconic sound:

1. Roland TR-08: A compact reproduction of the original 808, retaining its sound and functionality while adding some modern features.

2. Behringer RD-8: Known for its accurate 808 sound reproduction, it also offers a 64-step sequencer and multiple connectivity options.

3. Arturia DrumBrute Impact: While not a direct 808 clone, it offers powerful analog drum sounds, including a punchy kick that can emulate the 808 vibe.

The 808 bass drum, which caught the attention of early hip-hop producers, is particularly noteworthy. This is why, in today’s context, the term ‘808’ is often used to describe the popular 808 bass drum sample. However, other 808 sounds such as the snare, clap, cowbell, and cymbal hi-hat are also greatly favored and extensively used by numerous producers.

The 808 bass drum’s ability to vibrate car trunks and make club walls tremble gave it a sense of foreboding and intensity that harmonized well with the lyrics penned by rappers in the early 90s. Before long, producers started modifying the original TR-808 sounds to craft even more powerful versions of the deep, resonating kick.

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, the 808 meaning in music is a testament to the transformative power of technology in art. It’s a reference to a specific drum machine that has left an indelible mark on music, particularly in genres like rap and hip-hop. Today, when you hear a reference to the ‘808’, it’s a nod to a sound, a piece of music history, and a symbol of innovation in music production.


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