The TR-808 drum machine

A new beat

If you’ve ever listened to popular music in the past 30 years—hip-hop, rap, R&B, rock, techno, bubblegum pop, just about anything—you’ve heard the sound of the TR-808 Rhythm Composer. When the Japanese manufacturer Roland released the 808 in 1980, it was one of the world’s first programmable drum machines. By 1983, it was discontinued. But in those three short years, the two-foot-long drumbox set the course for the next three decades of music history.

BY THE DIGITS

12,000: total number of TR-808s ever produced, between ‘80–’83

$1,195: price of the 808 in 1980 ($3,549.99 in 2017 dollars)

4,150,000: global sales of Kanye West’s 2007 album 808s & Heartbreak

BRIEF HISTORY

The breakthrough session

Before the 808 came along, hip-hop records were recorded using real drums, either live or sampled. But the 808 made “drum” sounds in the same way that red Skittles taste like strawberry. The 808 produces an electronic, not-at-all-realistic idea of drums. 

In 1982, DJ Afrika Bambaataa went into the studio with music producer Arthur Baker and his then-new 808 machine to record the hit song “Planet Rock.” 

Baker and Bambaataa embraced the 808’s obviously synthesized booming kick drums and sizzling hi-hats, effectively kicking off a music production revolution, and directly giving birth to new genres including techno, house, and electro.

TIMELINE

An incomplete list of hits produced with the 808

1982: Marvin Gaye – “Sexual Healing”

1983: Rick Rubin/T La Rock – “It’s Yours” 

1984: Run-DMC – “Sucka MCs”

1984: Phil Collins – “One More Night”

1986: Beastie Boys – “Paul Revere”

1987: Whitney Houston – “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”

1988: N.W.A – “Gangsta Gangsta”

1989: 2 Live Crew – “Me So Horny”

1994: Nine Inch Nails – “Closer”

2003: Jay-Z – “99 Problems”

2004: Usher ft. Lil Jon and Ludacris – “Yeah!”

2008: Kanye West – “Love Lockdown”

2012: Rihanna – “Pour it Up”

2013: Beyoncé – “Drunk in Love”

2014: Taylor Swift – “Blank Space”

MILLION-DOLLAR QUESTION

What was unique about the 808's sound?

The “TR” in TR-808 stands for “transistor rhythm” and Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi says it was defective transistors that created the 808’s unique “sizzling” sound. As Kakehashi (who passed away in April this year) tells it in the documentary “808,”Japanese manufacturers improved their production processes, and by 1983 Roland could no longer source the uniquely flawed electronic elements needed for the 808.

FACTCHECK

About those transistors...

Primus Luta, a writer and artist who has been obsessed with analog and digital sound for decades (and who happens to hold down a day job at Quartz), tells us that some synthesizer aficionados have doubts about the 808 origin story.

“It works for myth building, but the fact that it wasn’t hugely popular during its run was more likely the reason they stopped making it. From a technical perspective, it doesn’t make sense. You can easily replace most transistors with similar values without radically changing the sound. And if indeed a transistor was truly ‘defective’ it fundamentally just wouldn’t work. 

Killing a product because you can’t source a defective transistor is like saying ‘we couldn’t find the right brand of No. 2 pencils so we decided not to write anymore."

VIRAL WONDERS

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A fitting tribute

Creative marketing agency Neely & Daughters made a TR-808 prototype sneaker—Adidas, of course—that features six drum-pattern presets, volume control, and working speakers.

(And if you’d like to see a virtual model the 808 in augmented reality, check out the Quartz app for iPhone; you will need to upgrade to iOS 11.)

THE WAY WE 🎹 NOW

Future sounds

The TR-808’s popularity really only surged after Roland stopped making it. To fill the demand, there were digital emulatorsthroughout the ’90s and ’00s, including a software program called ReBirth, until Roland filed IP infringement claims and forced it off the market.

More recently, Roland has released the TR-8 and TR-08, two digital recreations of original. There’s also the DJ-808, made in partnership with New Zealand-based DJ software maker Serato, which is an all-in-one machine for production and performing.

WATCH THIS!

The analog equivalent

The art collective Sonic Robots created a beautiful contraption: It’s a giant 808 with life-size robots playing the real-life instruments that the original drum machine is supposed to be emulating.

THE FINE PRINT

In yesterday’s email about UN interpreters, Léon Dostert’s name was misspelled “Leon Distort.” 🙈 In the poll, 78% of you said you speak more than one language!Today’s email was reported and written by Elijah Wolfson. Images: Creative Commons via Wikimedia (top image). Reuters/Jim Bourg (Candy hearts). Neely & Daughters (Adidas).

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