Swiss Museum & Center for Electronic Music Instruments (SMEM)
Mikael Dürrmeier @smem
If out of all the stories about drum machines, we could only keep one, it would surely be that of the TR-808. It is no exaggeration to describe it as one of the instruments that has most changed the history of music in the last 40 years. Without the TR-808, techno, house, and all their subgenres might never have existed, and club culture would undoubtedly be very different from what it is today. Its impact is not limited to electronic music, since the TR-808 brought about a profound transformation in hip-hop and pop culture, too. And yet, its story begins with a failure…
Drum machines were initially designed for musicians who wanted a rhythm section to back them up while they played. Due to technological limitations, the first drum machines, like the Chamberlain Rhythmate (1949) and the Wurlitzer Sideman (1959), offered only a selection of prerecorded rhythms, which could only be changed in terms of the volume and tempo. Over the decades, other functions were added, and these instruments began to be used by musicians as real tools for creating music.
The Roland TR-808 is a revolutionary computer-controlled rhythm machine which offers up to 768 measures of programming at a time. In addition, this unit offers more percussive variations and more effects than virtually any other unit on the market. With it you can visualize patterns and real-time processing, program complete songs, and do just about everything else a rhythm machine should do with more accuracy and less trouble. (Published by Roland, 1981)
The TR-808 stood out from its competitors for the possibilities it offered for creativity and variation—allowing the user to record a complete track (verse, chorus, and variations)—and, above all, for its editing system, which used a step sequencer. Offering a more visual and intuitive experience, this soon became the standard for all kinds of sequencers.
However, the TR-808 had an Achilles heel compared to its contemporaries: its sounds. Unlike drum machines like the LinnDrum, which used sound samples, the TR-808 worked as an analog synthesizer, with transistors and filters (hence the name "TR," which stands for "Transistor Rhythm"). This technology was a lot less expensive, but the result wasn't realistic—and that was a fatal flaw at the time.
After three years on the market, sales had failed to take off. Then, in 1983, Roland halted production. There were 12,000 units in existence and most of them ended up on the second-hand market. The Japanese company followed up by launching the TR-909, an improved version that sought to win musicians over by combining an analog synthesizer with samples. One year and 10,000 units later, this machine met with the same fate.
However, its unusual sounds had nonetheless appealed to a select few pioneers like Marvin Gaye, who used a TR-808 on his hit song Sexual Healing in 1982. The same year, a then-unknown band released a track that changed the course of history for electronic music, which until then had been seen as something new age or just experimentation with sound. That track was Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and The Soulsonic Force, who hailed from New York.
It combined elements of hip hop with vocoder-edited vocals, melodies inspired by Kraftwerk, echoes of Yellow Magic Orchestra, and, of course, the sounds of the TR-808. This innovative blend was a resounding success from the moment it came out. The track's signature sound—an extraordinary kick drum—surprised and fascinated all who heard it. From a historical perspective, Afrika Bambaataa and The Soulsonic Force had just invented electro.
During the first half of the 1980s, hip hop producers used these new sounds increasingly often, resulting in the first electro productions. At the same time, a new scene was emerging in Chicago: house, which was a blend of A cappella versions of disco and Italo disco—a subgenre that already incorporated electronic sounds. A few hours away from Chicago, three young students from Detroit, the Belleville Three—Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson—were also hard at work writing the first few lines of history in another new genre: techno, which was more focused on the sounds of the future and outer space.
What all these genres had in common was that they were based on the innovative sounds of synthesizers and drum machines. Initially, the TR-808 was used mostly in electro and hip hop, whereas house and techno preferred the sounds of the TR-909, because its cymbals were sampled and therefore more realistic. However, it didn't take long for the TR-808 to also find a place for itself in the music coming out of Chicago and Detroit, alongside its younger sibling. Within a few years, both machines had gone from commercial flop to legendary instrument, and their prices took off on the used instruments market.
Today the TR-808 is seen as a cult instrument. There is no end to the articles, books, and documentaries paying tribute to it—like 808: the movie—as well as albums, song lyrics, T-shirts, goodies, and even cushions, sneakers, a beer, and a day named in its honor: 808 day, which naturally takes place on 8/08. Its rarity and continuing high price have led to numerous recordings of samples, as well as imitations and emulations of the machine—both virtual and physical—including programs like RVK-808, D16 Nepheton, E-licktronic Yocto, Acidlab Miami, and Eurorack modules by Tiptop Audio among others. Recently, Roland brought out three new drum machines which simulate the sounds of the original: the TR-8, TR-08, and TR-8s. All this is more than a mere product of nostalgia, because in fact, the machine's musical fingerprint can be.
From being rescued off the scrapheap to becoming an integral part of our cultural heritage, the story of the world's best-known drum machine bears all the hallmarks of a legend. Albeit unintentionally, the TR-808 was simply ahead of its time. As things stand, it seems as though it will never go out of fashion, but will continue to influence new generations of musicians.
And the beat goes on…