The Iconic Sound of the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer: Electronic Music Backbone

Updated: Aug 11



The Roland Transistor Rhythm (TR) 808 composer was launched by Roland Corporation in 1980. It was the first drum machine that allowed the user to program sequenced rhythms instead of using rhythmic presets. The sonic trademark of the 80's electro scene was the renowned sound of the Roland TR-808 analog drum machine. It features voices emulating real drum/percussion sounds—such as bass/snare drum, claps, toms, rimshot, hi hats, claves, cowbell among others. The TR-808 operates under the application of analog synthesis rather than sampling technology. The user is able to program up to 32 rhythmic patterns using the step sequencer.


During the launch period, the Roland TR 808 drum machine did not attain commercial success due to its controversial sonic qualities: the synthetic/or unrealistic drum sound.


A limited amount of 808 drum machines were produced, and later on (around 1983), the 808 was discontinued. Subsequently, there was a price drop, and it wasn't difficult to find a TR-808 drum machine in second hand shops and in the used-item market.


Despite its commercial pitfall, the TR 808 drum-machine miraculously had a greater acceptance among early hip-hop and dance music producers specially because of its affordability—it was relatively cheap comparing to other analog drum sequencers such as the LinnDrum module.


The TR-808's deep-bass voice earned its reputation by being on the bottom end of most rap, and dance tunes during the '80s. Since the 80s, and until now, the boom of the 808 bass rattles the car windows, and resonates throughout the speakers of ghetto blasters across the streets of New York. As a result of its programming capabilities and its distinctive established sound, this drum machine has become the cornerstone in the production of electronic dance music. Nowadays, there are digital devices and sample kits emulating the sound of the original 808 module. But, the result is not accurate enough for the complete satisfaction of purist electronic music producers. Henceforth, this drum machine has attained longevity in the industry, and you can find the vintage Roland TR-808, and its predecessor the TR-909 still selling on the market for very high prices.


The sound of the Roland TR-808 played an integral part in the drumbeat programming of pioneer electronic artists like the Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra, and the German group Kraftwerk. Many old-school tunes, or b-boy classics such as "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaata, "Al-Naafysh" by Hashim, and "Supersonic" by J. J. Fad featured the popular sounds of this analog drum module. You can also hear it in "Clear" by the electro group Cybotron and in the song "Sexual Healing" by the well-known R&B singer Marvin Gaye. The deep bass drum, the frosty hi-hats, the galactic handclap and the analog detuned cowbell was the TR-808's signature on most of the electro boogie compositions during the early eighties.


Nowadays, electronic music genres such as trap, drill, and grime make use of distorted 808 deep-bass slide lines as their trademark sound.


If you are a fan of electronic music, or you are an electronic DJ/or producer you should know the impact that the Roland TR-808 Rhythm composer has had in contemporary electronic music.


The above text includes extracts from 'Rock it' by Herbie Hancock from the album 'Future Shock' (1983 CBS Records).


Click on the link for a more detailed information about the Roland 808 drum-machine's technical history.


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