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Music Tech: A brief history on TR-808

You might have heard the term “808s” being tossed around in reference to drums that have a low sub-heavy kick. The term originated from the legendary TR-808 drum machine produced by the Japanese electronics company, Roland.

Back in 1980, when hip-hop producers were primarily sampling drum breaks from jazz, blues or rock records, Ikutaro Kakehashi, founder of the Roland Corporation created the TR-808. It was one of the earliest programmable drum machines that allowed the user to program custom rhythms. The feature that made the 808 different from other drum machines was that the sounds did not resemble real drums or percussion. Instead, they were Roland’s futuristic interpretation of the classic drum sounds. The machine particularly stood out for its powerful bass drum sound. The main reason for the 808 failing commercially was that the sounds were perceived as unreal and toyish.

Over the next few years, the TR-808 had garnered a strong cult following. The hip-hop producers that were mainly crate-diggers, now had the opportunity to program their own unique drum patterns without the need for having search for samples or record a live drummer. What was also interesting was that rather than playing pre-recorded samples, this machine generates its sounds using analog subtractive synthesis. The TR-808 led to the rise of a lot of bedroom producers because of its simplicity of use and the lack of a need for any sort of training in music.

The impact of this drum machine was felt by almost all forms of electronic music but it played a massive role in the direction that hip-hop was heading towards. Producers began to move from more musical sample-based instrumentals to a stripped-down synthesized sound. The tracks that earlier used to focus more on the melodic section were now starting to prioritise the rhythm. This not only affected rap instrumentals but the style of rapping itself. Rappers began adopting more syncopated and tighter rhyme schemes in order to sit well with the new kind of instrumentals. After almost 40 years of its release, the TR-808 is as still as relevant as ever. Modern hip-hop subgenres such as trap and grime heavily use the signature low kick sound and sharp hi-hats and claps. Countless copycat drum machines, plugins and sample packs that replicate the vintage 808 sound are available today.

Apart from hip-hop, genres such as RnB, house, drumnbass and EDM rely heavily on the use of the TR-808. Numerous producers such as Pharrell, Rick Rubin, Questlove, Kanye West, Phil Collins and Lil Jon have relied on the 808 to produce timeless hits.


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