Instruments That Changed The Game: The Roland TR-808

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Discontinued nearly thirty years ago, the sounds of Roland’s legendary drum machine TR-808 are still at the heart of dance and pop music alike. A tribute to one of the most iconic instruments of pop culture.
photo provided by wikipedia
In the early 80s Roland released an array of electronic instruments that would change and shape the world of pop music like few before. Roland’s TR-808 Rhythm Composer was one of those machines. Introduced in 1980, it was originally intended to help studio musicians record demos. It used analog synthesis to create its sounds, which didn’t sound like a real drum kit at all. But, it was the artificial quality of its sounds that would eventually turn the TR-808 into one of the most iconic and fetishized instruments Roland ever manufactured.

Pop artists as diverse as soul-icon Marvin Gaye and Yellow Magic Orchestra (watch video here) used the 808 prominently in their songs in the early 80s, but shortly after the TR-808 was released digital sampling using LM-1 Linn Drum appeared on the market and was widely considered to be the superior product. While a lot of studio musicians and most big studios turned their backs on the TR-808, its affordable price made it possible for a whole generation of young bedroom producers to explore its distinct sounds and easy way to program.

By 1984, the production of the TR-808 had ceased, but the sound of the massive sub-heavy kick and the thin claps, snares and hi-hats had become the signature of early electro and hip hop. In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force had released the Kraftwerk-sampling „Planet Rock“ (watch video here) while Juan Atkins and Richard Davis, who worked under the name Cybotron had big underground success with their single „Clear“. By the mid 80s the prices for a used TR-808 were so low that that you could get lucky and buy one in a thrift store for 100 Dollars (the initial market price was around 1000 Dollars).

Comparable to another Roland machine that was considered a failure at the time (the bass synthesizer TB-303), the TR-808 became one of the standard instruments in the burgeoning dance music underground - be it electro, Miami bass, hip hop, house or techno, slowly but surely giving it the iconic status it has today. Juan Atkins, the godfather of techno, once said that his „whole career was built on the 808“ And not just his. The distinct sounds of the TR-808 are still omnipresent in today’s pop and dance music. Hail to the beat.


Published: Jul 30, 2012
by Sven von Thülen (artistxite)
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