The Roland TR-808, the Drum Machine That Changed Music Forever, Is Back! And It’s Now Affordable & Compact

You don’t have to be a gear­head to instant­ly rec­og­nize the sound of the Roland TR-808. Intro­duced in 1980, the leg­endary drum machine is all over the 80s, 90s, and the retro 2000s, from dance prog­en­i­tors like Afri­ka Bambaataa’s “Plan­et Rock” to for­ma­tive Def Jam releas­es like Run DMC’s debut and the Beast­ie Boy’s Licensed to Ill (one of the orig­i­nal machines used on such clas­sics recent­ly went on sale). The 808 pro­vides the back­beat for Mar­vin Gaye’s “Sex­u­al Heal­ing,” New Order’s “Shell­shock,” and LL Cool J’s “Going Back to Cali”… track after era-defin­ing track puls­es with the icon­ic drum machine’s deep, thud­ding kick drum and com­i­cal­ly syn­thet­ic con­gas, claves, mara­cas, hand­claps, and cow­bells.

The 808 inspired a trib­ute cel­e­bra­tion around the world on August 8th (8/08) and stars in its own full-length doc­u­men­tary, “a nerdy love let­ter” to the elec­tric instru­ment, writes Slate. You can buy 808 Adi­das that actu­al­ly play beats, play with a vir­tu­al TR-808 in your brows­er, and enjoy the sounds of Kanye West’s odd­ly influ­en­tial 2008 album 808s and Heart­break. With all this renewed atten­tion, you might think it’s a good time for Japan’s Roland to bring the device back into pro­duc­tion, just as Moog briefly reis­sued its Min­i­moog Mod­el D (since dis­con­tin­ued) amidst a swirl of renewed main­stream inter­est in ana­log syn­the­siz­ers.

Roland has obvi­ous­ly felt the pop cul­tur­al winds blow­ing its way. Yes­ter­day, on 808 Day, the com­pa­ny announced a new iter­a­tion, now called the TR-08, as part of its Bou­tique line. (A pre­vi­ous revival, the TR‑8, saw Roland com­bine the 808 with the clas­sic 909, renowned in rave cir­cles.) The video at the top fea­tures some of the 808’s orig­i­nal adopters—producer Jim­my Jam, rap­per Mar­ley Marl, and DJs Jazzy Jeff and Juan Atkins—marveling over the new prod­uct. Just above, in case you’ve some­how for­got­ten, we have a demon­stra­tion of famous TR-808 beats from tracks like “Plan­et Rock” and Cybotron’s “Clear,” songs that made inno­v­a­tive use of sam­ples and which them­selves became choice mate­r­i­al for dozens of sam­ple-based pro­duc­tions.

The 808 was the choice of drum machine for tin­ker­ers. Its sound was “crowd-sourced,” writes Chris Nor­ris, “with artists build­ing on one another’s mod­i­fi­ca­tions of the device. One of the first major inno­va­tions came about in 1984,” with the “fine tun­ing of the 808’s low fre­quen­cies and fur­ther widen­ing of its bass kick drum to cre­ate the sound of an under­ground nuke test” heard on pro­duc­er Strafe’s club hit “Set it Off.” The new TR-08 has a much small­er foot­print and expands the machine’s capa­bil­i­ties with con­tem­po­rary fea­tures like an LED screen, con­trols over gain and tun­ing, bat­tery or USB pow­er, and audio or MIDI through a USB con­nec­tion.

Arguably “one of the most impact­ful pieces of mod­ern music hard­ware,” writes The Verge, upon its debut the 808 “received mixed reviews and was con­sid­ered a com­mer­cial fail­ure as its ana­log cir­cuit­ry didn’t cre­ate the ‘tra­di­tion­al’ drum sounds” most pro­duc­ers expect­ed. This meant that 808s could be picked up rel­a­tive­ly cheap­ly by bed­room pro­duc­ers and local DJs. As a result, “the trem­bling feel­ing of that sound,” Nor­ris writes, “boom­ing down boule­vards in Oak­land, the Bronx, and Detroit are part of America’s cul­tur­al DNA, the ghost of Rea­gan-era blight” and the renais­sance of cre­ativ­i­ty born in its midst. To get a sense of the breadth of the 808’s musi­cal con­tri­bu­tions, lis­ten to the playlist above, with every­one from Talk­ing Heads to 2 LIVE CREW, Phil Collins, and Whit­ney Hous­ton putting in an appear­ance.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

See the First “Drum Machine,” the Rhyth­mi­con from 1931, and the Mod­ern Drum Machines That Fol­lowed Decades Lat­er

The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sam­pling Rev­o­lu­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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