When recounting the history of music production, one cannot overlook the profound influence of the Roland TR-808. Launched in 1980, this groundbreaking drum machine was a bold venture that aimed to merge the worlds of music and technology. Its unique sounds, powered by analog synthesis and step sequencing, were unlike anything heard before.
The TR-808, however, was met with skepticism upon its release. The music industry, then reliant on ‘real’ acoustic sounds, found the synthetic tones of the 808 alien. However, the underappreciated machine gradually found an audience among the pioneers of burgeoning music scenes who saw potential in its unique sonic characteristics. Even though the TR-808 ceased production within three years of its launch, its influence was set to echo through the decades that followed.
From the driving pulse of dance music to the gritty undertones of hip-hop, the 808’s sounds became an omnipresent element across a spectrum of genres. Its iconic bass drum, known as the ‘808 kick,’ has become a cornerstone of modern music, underscoring hit records around the globe.
Of all the TR-808’s sounds, it’s the deep, resonating ‘boom’ of the 808 kick that has carved a niche in the annals of music history. This iconic sound was a product of Roland’s ambitious endeavor to create a drum machine that could mimic real drum sounds. The result was far from conventional drum sounds, but it stood out with a unique personality that caught the attention of forward-thinking musicians and producers.
The 808 kick is characterized by its extended low-frequency response, which gives it a powerful, resonant tone. However, the tonal flexibility of the 808 kick is perhaps its most valuable trait. It lends itself to an array of manipulations—stretching, compressing, pitch-shifting—yielding an entire spectrum of tones and timbres. This versatility provides producers with a vast playground for their sonic explorations.
The TR-808 has shown chameleonic adaptability across genres, contributing to its enduring relevance. From its early adoption in hip-hop to its integration into electronic and pop music, the 808 has become ubiquitous.
The relationship between hip-hop and the 808 has been rich and symbiotic. The rhythmic complexity of hip-hop found a perfect partner in the wide array of percussive sounds the 808 could produce. The deep, resonant 808 kick provided a solid foundation for layered rhythms, while the machine’s snappy snare and crisp hi-hats punctuated the rhythmic structures. Over the years, the 808 has been at the heart of countless hip-hop classics, from the works of legendary groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A. to modern artists such as Drake and Kendrick Lamar.
The rise of electronic music provided a fertile ground for the 808. The genre’s experimental nature and the emphasis on synthesized sounds made the 808 an indispensable tool for electronic music producers. Its sounds were manipulated, processed, and repurposed to create a multitude of sub-genres like techno, house, and breakbeat. The 808 has been an integral part of the sonic identity of electronic music, providing the rhythmic framework for pioneering artists like Aphex Twin, Kraftwerk, and the Belleville Three.
As we journey into the world of pop music, the 808’s presence remains pervasive. Pop artists embraced the versatility of the 808, using it to weave complex rhythmic patterns and lend a rhythmic consistency to their tracks. Whether it’s the booming kick in a Beyoncé anthem or the rhythmic percussive elements in a Justin Bieber hit, the 808’s influence is unmistakable.
Embracing the 808 in your music production involves more than just triggering its iconic sounds. It’s about understanding the 808’s architecture and learning how to manipulate its parameters to craft a unique sonic signature.
The 808 is a complex machine, and getting the most out of it involves understanding its architecture. Each sound on the 808 comes with a unique set of parameters, enabling you to shape the sound to your liking. The 808 kick, for example, provides controls for tuning, tone, and decay. Mastering these controls allows you to manipulate the kick’s pitch, timbre, and sustain, tailoring it to fit the context of your track.
One of the most potent techniques in music production is layering, and the 808 is a perfect tool for this. Layering involves stacking multiple 808 sounds to create a richer, fuller sound. By layering multiple 808 kicks, for example, you can create a massive, punchy sound that provides a solid rhythmic foundation for your track.
The 808 is not just about the raw sounds; it’s also about how you process and shape those sounds. Applying effects such as distortion, saturation, or compression can enhance the 808’s natural characteristics and imbue your tracks with a unique sonic personality. Sound processing allows you to fine-tune the 808’s sounds, transforming them from simple rhythmic elements into complex, textured sounds.
Getting the 808 kick to sit perfectly in your mix is a task that requires a blend of technical know-how and creative intuition. Here are some pointers to help you achieve that perfect 808 kick sound in your songs.
One often overlooked aspect of working with the 808 kick is tuning. Just like any other instrument, the 808 kick has a definite pitch, and it’s crucial to tune it to match the key of your track. This ensures that your kick resonates harmoniously with the other elements of your song, enhancing the overall cohesiveness of your mix.
Equalization (EQ) and compression are two powerful tools that can help shape your 808 kick. EQ allows you to enhance or attenuate specific frequencies, letting you mold the kick’s tone to your liking. Conversely, compression can help control the kick’s dynamics, ensuring it maintains a consistent presence in your mix.
Sidechain compression is a popular technique used to create space for the 808 kick in the mix. By applying sidechain compression to other elements of your mix—like the bassline—you can create a ‘pumping’ effect where these elements momentarily dip in volume each time the kick hits, allowing the kick to shine through.
While the original Roland TR-808 is no longer in production, its iconic sounds live on through modern digital tools. Today’s music producers have access to a host of software plugins that faithfully emulate the sounds of the 808 while also providing enhanced control over sound shaping and manipulation.
Roland has carried forward the legacy of the 808 with their Roland Cloud TR-808 software plugin. This virtual instrument recreates the sounds and interface of the original 808, providing users with a faithful digital replica of the iconic drum machine.
Native Instruments’ TRK-01 is another modern tool that brings the power of the 808 to the digital realm. This plugin offers a dedicated 808 engine and advanced sound design capabilities, allowing you to shape and sculpt your 808 sounds.
Serato Studio is a comprehensive beat-making suite that offers a variety of 808 sounds. Its user-friendly interface and powerful editing tools make it a great choice for beginners and seasoned producers alike.
As we look back on the journey of the Roland TR-808, it’s clear that this humble drum machine has transcended its physical form to become a symbol of musical innovation. Its iconic sounds have permeated the fabric of modern music, and its influence continues to inspire artists and producers around the world. The legacy of the 808 is a testament to the power of sound and its ability to shape our cultural landscape.
The Roland TR-808 is an iconic drum machine that was introduced in 1980. It was one of the first drum machines to incorporate analog synthesis and step sequencing. Its unique sound palette, which included the famous ‘808 kick,’ quickly found a place in various music genres.
The 808’s popularity in music production is due to its unique sonic characteristics and versatility. Its wide range of drum sounds can be manipulated to fit various genres, making it a versatile tool for producers. The ‘808 kick’ has a distinctive deep, resonant tone that has become a staple in many modern music tracks.
To get the most out of an 808 kick in your mix, consider the following tips:
The original Roland TR-808 is no longer in production, but its sounds live on in digital format. Many software plugins today emulate the sounds of the 808, including Roland’s own Roland Cloud TR-808, Native Instruments’ TRK-01, and Serato Studio.