The 808 Edition
On hardware, culture, and expression
Colin here. My experience with drumming comes from the analog kind. But I’ve found myself in a weird wormhole lately, watching videos of drum programming and understanding some of the nuance behind it. All roads lead to the Roland 808, the drum machine behind some of the most familiar tones. On its face, the sounds are rudimentary and the interface is simple. Yet many artists have managed to coax a ton of expression out of the electronic box.
For example Marvin Gaye:
In this instance, some of the unique sound came from the pattern of closed and open hi-hats. We’re all familiar with the result, being burned into our memory from a famous song, but it is interesting to go in and break down the building blocks.
I wrote about this dynamic awhile back (about a different machine, the Akai MPC) with how J Dilla was able to re-wire the pre-sets to make stuff that sounded imperfect, and at times melted, to satisfying effect:
[Dilla] knew his MPC, in this case, an MPC3000, so well, that he knew how to subvert the presets and humanize them. One such example is when you are programming a track, there’s a setting that subtly autocorrects you if you are slightly off time. He turned this off and kept in the small smudges and misfires. Questlove, the drummer for the roots said some of the beats sound like a “drunk three-year-old” (which he was saying as a compliment) and called it a “liberating moment” in his thinking about making music. The point here is that Dilla knew the machine so well that he could actually bend and twist the settings and the robotics to make something that felt wobbly, warm, and imperfect.
Why is this interesting?
Despite its tremendous cultural exhaust, the Roland-built device was actually only in production for a short amount of time. It came out, and was soon replaced with something the market thought sounded better at the time.
According to the manufacturer:
The Roland TR-808 was officially in production for just two years—from 1980 to 1982. Around 12,000 units were manufactured and although it received support from early adopters like Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra, it wasn’t considered a commercial success. In 1982, the competitor LinnDrum was launched, helping shift the trend away from analog and towards digital sample-based drum machines. The TR-808 started to look like its time had come and gone...but ironically, its premature demise was merely the beginning.
The 808 was initially criticized for being stiff and limited. But the creativity of the musicians building around it made up for the limitations. In fact, the limitations were actually the genius. Here’s a rundown of famous stuff that was made on the machine. It’s astounding.
While the first devices are likely collectors items, the TR-808 lives on in pre-sets and modules within software. It’s worth watching the “king of the 808” Egyptian Lover on the role of the machine in his music and culture. (CJN)
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing.