An edited version of this text also appears in
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.12 No.7. May 1997

Retrospective By Chris Carter


Unless you have been living in a cave for the last 16 years or you have only just come into the wonderful world of music then you must have heard of the TR808. In an industry where many instruments are known only by a number, there are few that are as distinctive and well known as the Roland TR808 drum machine. In fact you don't even need to say the whole thing - just say "eight oh eight" and almost any musician, DJ or clubber will know precisely what you're talking about and thousands of people on both sides of the turntable can identify the sound, more than any other drum machine. You have to admit there aren't many, electronic instruments, particularly drum machines, that have such a reputation, even the highly respected TR909 doesn't have quite the same distinction. It's like saying piano, trumpet, Moog, or Mellotron, instant recognition.

The Roland TR808 Rhythm Composer, to give it it's full title, was born (from variable parentage) in 1981 in the land of the rising sun. Previous Roland drum machines had been cheap sounding rhythm boxes such as the CR78, aimed mainly at organists and club combo's, you know the type, but the appearance of the 808 was part of an attempt by Japanese manufacturers to take on the American dominated pro music market. Until the 808 arrived most musicians encounter with a programmable drum machine would have been the humongous (in size and price) LinnDrum or the dinky Paia Drum Set, both USA made. The 808 changed all that, almost overnight, but in an unexpected way.

Whereas drum machines like the Linn were trying to sound like a real drummer playing real drums the 808, whether intentionally or not, turned that idea on its head. It didn't sound like a real drummer playing real drums or like a cheapo rhythm box churning out bossa nova's, it sounded like... well it sounded like nothing else really and this is what made it so distinctive, then and now. Now it was cool to have a rhythm in your song that sounded like could it have only been produced by a machine, especially an 808. That long, low bass drum, that tinny (ahem! snappy) snare drum, those classic handclaps and that weird cowbell! A machine of extremes, sandpaper and velvet and unique.

People are often surprised when they see an 808 for the first time. At 22" X 12" X 4" it's a larger than expected, black box with a busy surface and a splashes of colour. The rear is a hive of sockets, 19 in all. Each drum voice has an individual output with a level control and some have further controls for tuning, decay, tone and voice select. There's a large tempo control, switches for A/B variation, a volume control, a Tap button, various mode selectors and of course the illuminated step buttons. (see box). It comes across as rather bulky and heavy, which it is, but this isn't necessarily a drawback, especially at gigs where it's not quite as inclined to slide off a stand or table like most small drum boxes and sequencers are prone to do.

Soon after its launch the 808 started appearing in the charts and on the dance floor. All types of songwriters, musicians and producers were using 808's in all manner of songs, from ballads to bollix, many becoming classics. Who can forget Marvin Gaye's '(Sexual) Healing' and Paul Young's 'Wherever I Lay My Hat', remember Afrika Bambaataa's 'Planet Rock', New Order's 'Confusion' or Paul Hard Castle's 'NNNineteen'. And this was just the beginning, in the following 16 years the 808 went on to appear on more records (probably) than any other drum machine in recent history, at times it seems as if every style of music has embraced the 808 at some point, with some existing because of it. Disco, hip hop, techno, industrial, electro, newbeat, rap, scratch, jungle and more. Over the years the 808 sound has gone out of fashion, come back in again, gone out again and so on and so on. All it seems to take is one or two high profile remixes or hits featuring an 808 and it's hip again. At the moment the 808 sound is on a slight downward curve in the popularity stakes but mark my words it will climb back up at some point, probably as soon as the current 70's revival is over and an 80's revival kicks in. And this brings me to the $64,000 question, is the sound of an 808 sample as good as the real thing? 

I've read countless interviews where producers, users, DJ's and remixers have voiced opinions on whether the 808 should be sampled or not. Most agree, that no mater how good a sample it may be, nothing sounds quite like the original, particularly in regard to the 808 bass drum, but you can apply that rule to most sounds anyway. Of course there are circumstances where sampling the 808 is entirely justified. Sampling has been the 90's saviour for thousands of musicians who just don't have access , for whatever reason, to instruments they would love to own or play. Using samples or PCM sample cards is a way for a lot of people to try sounds that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. I know this will sound like sacrilege to die hard, 808 purists but there are benefits from using an 808 sample such as the scope it allows for further editing and manipulation. Some sounds sit in a track a lot better if they can be edited or tuned, particularly the cowbell and snare drum. I must admit to sampling my 808 frequently but as an owner I can take as long as I need getting the sample as close as possible to the original sound, the same can't always be said of sample libraries and ROM/PCM card manufactures though. The method I use is to sample the drum sounds as a pattern (a bar, or two) and not as individual beats. These sampled patterns can then be triggered by a MIDI sequencer or used as loops. Even better, if you have enough memory, is to sample each drum channel (through the individual outputs) as a separate pattern and not a mix of all the drum sounds. I am not alone in recognising that not all 808's sound the same either and when listened to side by side subtle differences in tone and tuning can be heard. Some users (me included) have also noted that some 808's need to warm up from a cold start. When first switched on some can sound 'flat', particularly the bass drum and toms which can exhibit a slight inconsistency in tone from beat to beat, after 20 minutes or they sound as good as ever though. But these quirks are to be expected with a 15/16 year old, all analogue instrument and if anything they add to the character of the machine.  

While the sound of the 808 is undoubtedly its trademark half the fun of using one is playing it. Users have tried to analyse what it is about programming an 808 that makes it any better or worse than any other drum machine but it's difficult not to be seduced by the grooves it produces. Programming the 808 is a once remembered, rarely forgotten experience, which to the newcomer can seem idiosyncratic and inscrutable, but persevere and the rewards are great. At its simplest level is step-time programming, which is a piece of cake. You just select a drum sound with the rotary selector and start pressing the coloured step buttons while the pattern is running, then move onto the next sound, building up your rhythm pattern, any mistakes are cancelled by pressing the button a second time. An LED in each button lights up to confirm which beats are being triggered for whichever drum voice is selected, instant visual feedback and nicely reassuring. Real-time programming is just as easy, you simply hit the Tap button in time with the rhythm and the beats appear on the flashing LED step buttons. Any mistakes are erased by pushing the relevant step button to deselect the beat. Each pattern can be divided into two parts, with each part having a different number of steps if necessary, (to a maximum of 32 steps) and each part can have a further A or B version which can be set to alternate manually or automatically between the two variations. A separate bank of four rhythm patterns, with their own A/B version switch, can be used as Intro/Fill-in's and are triggered by the Tap button. It's possible to programme a total of 64 different rhythm patterns into the 808, not vast by today's standards but perfectly adequate for most purposes.

There are two ways of playing back patterns, one is Manual Play the other is Rhythm Track Compose. Once you have programmed some patterns/parts you can chain them all together to make a song. In Compose mode (with the memory cleared) there is space to record 12 different rhythm tracks with each track holding 64 bars, however if you wish to record more than 64 then it's possible to record continuously, to a maximum of 768 bars. Unusually when the 808 reaches the last bar it loops back to the beginning without a breath, this 'feature' can't be disabled so it's usual to have a couple of blank patterns after the last bar to indicate the end of a song. Patterns are recorded into a Rhythm Track in real-time by pushing the coloured pattern buttons while the 808 is running in Compose mode. If a mistake is made while laying down a Rhythm Tracks you either have to start again from the beginning, or play the track through and overwrite your mistakes as you go. No step editing here I'm afraid. Playback is dead easy though and you can add further variations to the track by using the A/B version switch.

In my opinion Manual Play is one of the most fun ways of playing an 808 and is deal for trying out ideas, jamming with other musicians and improvising with other instruments such as sequencers etc.

An ideal set-up would have the 11 individual drum outputs running through separate channels on a mixing desk, with EQ if necessary and some effects patched in, for added spice. A sequencer, synth or some sampled loops running in sync would add to the mixture nicely. Put together a bunch of groovy rhythm patterns and include a few fancy Fill-Ins. Make sure you have a blank pattern for breaks and maybe some patterns using the gate outputs to trigger other gear( drum pads, noise gates, samples, FX units etc.).

It's also a good idea to have some patterns chained together in a Rhythm Track but with the Rhythm Track Play mode off, initially anyway. Now the fun begins, set the tempo, press start and away you go. Just switch from pattern to pattern, inserting Fill-Ins and breaks as your fancy takes you, and because the 808 always starts the next pattern on the first beat of the following bar you never have to worry about being spot on with you timing. If you need to adjust levels, add effects or alter the drum controls (decay, tuning, tone etc.) then turn on the Rhythm Track Play mode and let the 808 take over for a while, then return to Manual Play when you're ready. The whole process is very intuitive and a refreshing change from cursors, menu's and mice. This is real hands on rhythm composition and improvisation,a bit like playing a keyboard full of perfectly synced rhythm patterns. I can't think of any current drum machines and sequencers that include this method of playing back rhythm patterns in such an easy way, although I suppose you could trigger sampled rhythm loops from a MIDI keyboard to achieve a vaguely similar effect. But it wouldn't be as much fun.

The popularity of the 808 started to decline about a year ago (1996) when the rarer TR909 took it's place as 'the' dance floor drum machine to use. This came about for various reasons, the 909 gives more control over the drum sounds, has better programming and includes MIDI as standard, it also currently sells for between £900-£1100. The 808 is still quite collectible and although maximum prices for the 808, peaked at about £700-£800 things have calmed down a little and the price has dropped to £450-£550 depending on condition and whether it has been MIDI retrofitted. There have been quite a few MIDI options available for the 808 from various sources over the years, some better than others. If you're buying an 808 with this option try and check that the MIDI works as it is supposed to. Dealers I contacted said the 808 generally has a good reputation for reliability (which I can vouch for, being a long term user myself). However bear in mind that this machine has been around for 15 years or more so beware of the following points:

Try all the buttons as these get more use and abuse than anything else particularly the Tap button and the step keys with the built-in LED's. Look for any dead LED's as these blinking lights are the only visual indication there is and with even one non functioning LED there will problems when programming and playing back rhythms.

A common fault in instruments this old are noisy or troublesome pots. These can affect the sound quite considerably, making sounds thin, weak or unpredictable.

Examine the back-up battery compartment, underneath and check for signs of corrosion from leaking batteries, replace with new batteries if necessary.

Take a good look at the sockets on the rear for any that might be loose or broken and check the little sync in/out switch as these are easily damaged or occasionally pushed inside the casing.

One last point: the instruction manual is pretty essential, unless you already know enough about the 808 to program it without one.

Being realistic for a moment, amongst all this nostalgia, most people won't ever get their hands on an 808 because of it's rarity and and many will be put off by the price but there are other options. Using a 808 PCM card and a MIDI drum machine such as the Roland R8 or a DR660, with built-in 808 sounds, is one option and using samples or a Novation Drumstation and something like the Cubase drum edit page is another. However if you really are tempted to seek out an original 808 I don't think you will be disappointed, it's full of classic sounds, has a simple intuitive interface, and is bursting with energy and character. Just be careful with that bass drum...




Original price: £765 inc. VAT.
Sounds: 16 analogue drums.
Memory: 64 patterns and 768 measures.
BPM : 33 to 300
Outputs: 11 drum, 2 mix/mono, 3 gate/trigger.
Sync: Roland DIN sync in/out
Foot switch: Start/Stop, Intro/Fill-In.

Realistic drums sounds
Stereo output
Pattern Copy or Insert
Tape sync
Saving and loading
Tape or disk storage
Headphone socket
BPM indicator

Bass drum. The speaker killer, short and clicky or long and velvet deep, almost subsonic.
Snare drum. Bright, tight and 'snappy', classic 808.
Tom's. Totally unrealistic but a great sound, almost a bass drum when tuned low down.
Conga's. Pitched too high but can sound great when the tuning is swept up and down.
Rim shot. Tick tock, sounds like a clock.
Claves. A slow Geiger counter.
Handclap. Pretty convincing, later used on the TR909.
Maracas. Like shuffling sandpaper.
Cowbell. The weirdest cowbell ever and probably the most notorious 808 sound of all, totally unique.
Cymbal. Musical white noise with an outrageously long decay.
Open hi-hat. White noise, with a long decay that sounds backwards.
Closed hi-hat. Chiff, chiff, chiff, chiff.


Here is a brief explanation of a few of the most used controls:

• Instrument/Track Selector
This is a 12 way rotary switch for selecting drum sounds or Rhythm Tracks.

• Mode Selector
Switches between: pattern clear, 1st part write, 2nd part write, Manual Play, Track Play and Track Compose.

• Step buttons.
16 illuminated buttons for inputting beats, these also double-up as pattern select buttons, the last four buttons are also used as Intro/Fill-in selectors.

• Start/Stop button.
Also controllable through a rear jack socket.

• Tap button.
For triggering the Intro/Fill-in buttons and inputting beats in real-time, also controllable through a rear jack socket.

• Pre-Scale.
This is a four way switch for choosing the time signature or number of steps needed for each pattern e.g. for a 3/4 rhythm with 12 steps or a 4/4 rhythm with 16 step use position 3, for a 5/4 rhythm with 15 steps use position 1.

• Auto Fill-In.
This selector adjusts the number of bars before a fill-in, from Manual to 16,12 ,8, 4, 2.

• Clear button
This erases either a selected pattern or Rhythm track.


I first heard about the 808, a month or so before it was launched in 1981, I was so blown away by the specification and price that I went straight down to Rod Argents music shop in Denmark Street and put down a deposit to secure one from the first shipment, without even hearing it! When they finally arrived I rushed to pick up my new toy and was confronted by a shop full of people huddled round an 808 on demo, all trying to play it, so I didn't even get to try it out before I left the shop with a brand new 808 under my arm. When I opened the box I was surprised to find a bunch of stapled photo copies and a typed sheet of amendments in place of an instruction manual, a few weeks later Roland sent me a nice package full of goodies, including a proper manual. During those first weeks of 'discovery' I managed to blow two monitor wedges and a bass bin. oohh... that bass drum. I was not disappointed, the TR808 was one of the most 'inspiring' instruments I ever bought. 

While on tour in Germany in 1991 our 'electro/industrial' support band had a 'customised' 808 with a Hammerite, gunmetal finish. Everything was painted, buttons, knobs, lettering, everything except the LED's. It sat on a stand in the middle of the stage like a slab of metal, plugged in to nothing at all, with the LED's dancing up and down while the band did their stuff around it, like some sort of ritual, weird! Funnily enough and I have this on good authority, some newer, gigging dance bands buy 808's just because of the reputation and kudos it carries, even if they don't actually use it, shock horror!

Copyright © 1997 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.
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