The Roland TR-808 drum machine needs no introduction. Used on countless classic songs, spanning multiple genres and decades, it’s no surprise that this iconic instrument has earned its own holiday. Each year on 808 Day (August 8th), musicians, producers, and engineers all around the world celebrate the legacy of the TR-808 and the impact it’s had on our culture over the past 40-plus years. 

It’s tough to say when 808 Day was first truly established, but in the last decade, it’s led to a full-fledged documentary, limited edition streetwear, and a variety of 808 Day events hosted annually. To celebrate, we’re taking a look back at the history of the legendary TR-808. Continue reading to learn more about how this iconic drum machine came to be, its initial mixed reception, and how it grew to become one of the most well-known instruments of our time. 

Inventing The Roland TR-808

Faulty transistors and robotic tones don’t sound like a recipe for success in a rhythm machine. But nothing sounds quite like the TR-808 by Roland, and that was both its limitation and the reason for its ultimate success.

In 1980, artificial drums diverged onto two different paths. On one course, there was the Linn LM-1 and Oberheim DMX, using digital samples of real drum sounds. On the other, was the TR-808, which used analog synthesis to produce a simulation of drum sounds. The cost of computer memory storage was high in those early days, and the $5,000 price tag on the LM-1 reflected that. 

To keep costs down on the TR-808, one of Roland’s chief engineers, Tadao Kikumoto, suggested foregoing the sampling approach and using analog synthesis. This created a much more affordable unit; the 808 was less than a quarter of the price of the LM-1, at $1,200.

The head of Roland, Mr. Ikutaro Kakehashi, intended to make a device that could be used to help create rhythms without the use of expensive studio time and drummers, hence the name TR-808 Rhythm Composer, (the TR stood for Transistor Rhythm, the model number perhaps from the year of its release, 1980). 

Kakehashi hoped that the 808 would be a great tool for making demo recordings. He could never have dreamed how it would become an instrument in its own right, surpassing the demo stage to emerge as a key component in the finished tracks of artists in many genres

Kakehashi was a long-time tinkerer and repaired clocks, radios, and organs in the 1940s and 50s. He started the Ace Tone company in 1960, and by 1967, the FR-1 Rhythm Ace rhythm generator was being used in Hammond electric organs to provide accompaniment. 

After he started the Roland Corporation in 1972, several rhythm devices and synthesizers were produced by the company, and in 1978 the CompuRhythm 78, or CR-78, debuted. This was a big advance, being a much more sophisticated rhythm device that included programmable and storable drum patterns for the first time (Phil Collins used it to great effect on “In the Air Tonight”). The innovation of being programmable led to the next big step, the TR-808.

Pushing Boundaries

Artists often thrive within limitations (Sgt. Pepper’s was recorded on a four-track machine), and the TR-808 definitely had its limitations. The programmable sequences were limited to 32 steps, the drum sounds were limited to 16 types, and Kakehashi hadn’t invented MIDI yet, so it could only ‘talk’ to other devices through a DIN port. 

But there were also many ways of manipulating those limitations. The user could store up to 32 different patterns and connect a total of 12 tracks with 64 measures each for a maximum of 768 measures. Each drum sound had its own level and accent control, as well as individual outputs so that tones could be routed to other processing devices to further shape the sound. It could also be used as a trigger for other machines and synthesizers. The tempo could be altered with both a basic and fine control knob, allowing the user to get precisely the beat they were after. 

This interaction was a character of the machine as a whole. It wasn’t simply a matter of setting some parameters and letting the machine talk; there was an interface of human and machine that made the 808 an authentic instrument. This led to it being used at gigs by DJs like Juan Atkins as a supplement to spinning tracks. 

Being an analog device, no two units sound exactly alike. Temperature and humidity can affect the tonality, as can the age of the components. And it was not only the brilliant circuit design that made the 808 so intuitive and useful; it was also the humble transistor. 

Transistor Rhythm

Part of the design of the 808 used transistors that were out of spec, and would have normally been discarded by the manufacturers. Roland had tested these and realized that they added a unique sonic signature to the machine, what some like to call the ‘sizzle’, and so they were deliberately incorporated into the design. 

It’s not that the transistors were faulty; they certainly worked, but they worked in a way that gave the 808 a very unique sound. It was so important that it gave its name to the model – TR for Transistor Rhythm. Yet, it was this very character that brought the eventual demise of the 808. 

As manufacturers got better at making transistors, eventually there weren’t enough discarded ones to keep making the 808, and so it was discontinued in 1982. Much like the Neumann U 47 was stopped when the VF14 tubes were no longer available, the very thing that helped create the 808 also made it impossible to keep producing them.

Commercial Failure Or Cult Classic?

It is often said that the TR-808 was a commercial failure, but in context, it really wasn’t. Selling about 12,000 units in two years is not exactly a failure; by comparison, the Linn LM-1 only sold about 525 units, and the LM-2 about 5,000 units; neither of these is usually called a commercial failure. 

The “failure” of the 808 was in not making authentic drum sounds, which is exactly why it was eventually successful: its unique tone was prized by young artists who found the units at a cheap price on the used market in the early 80s. Technology was moving fast back then, as it always does in the music business, and newer and “better” machines were coming on the market. But the affordability of used 808s brought them into the hands of musicians and producers who were eager to utilize the machine to create new sonic textures and beats. 

TR-808 In Popular Music

The earliest use of the TR-808 was by the Yellow Magic Orchestra out of Tokyo, who had employed them in live concerts soon after their release in 1980, and on their fourth album BGM in 1981 - the first use of the 808 on a record. A year later, Marvin Gaye brought the 808 tone to the masses on his smash hit “Sexual Healing”. Meanwhile, the same year saw the release of “Planet Rock” by Afrikaa Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force, a highly influential single that was one of the earliest Electro tracks, lifting inspiration (and sequences) from the German group Kraftwerk. 

From that point on, the use of the 808 only increased, as Electro, Detroit Techno, Chicago House, Miami Bass, New Orleans Bounce, UK Acid House, and other genres began to develop and then explode across the musical landscape. Even after the 808 faded from the New York hip-hop scene, it was still heavily used in Southern rap and krunk, primarily for its explosive bass drum sound (whose expandable decay had been employed to great effect by Rick Rubin). The number of genres that employ the 808 is almost as large as the number of hits created with it. 

From Pop to R&B and all manifestations of Rap and Hip-hop, the sound of the 808 is inescapable. The records made with it are far too numerous to list. Some of the biggest and most influential are: Whitney Houston “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”, Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”, the Beastie Boys “Paul Revere”, Strafe “Set It Off”, Cybotron “Clear”, Tupac “Changes”, Justin Timberlake “SexyBack”, Aphex Twin “Xtal”, Outkast “The Way You Move”, and Kanye West “Love Lockdown”, from the appropriately titled “808s and Heartbreak” album. 

There are countless others from bands both huge and unheard-of. It would be easier to name who didn’t use the 808 than who did. And they all tap into the seemingly endless potential of a seemingly simple device, the TR-808.

Future Iterations

Roland incorporated some aspects of the 808 in their follow-up machine, the TR-909, which upgraded the cymbals to digital samples but kept everything else analog. More recently, Roland issued the TR-08 in 2017, a miniaturized version of the original, followed by software emulations in 2018. And in 2020, they received the ultimate accolade, the TR-808 was inducted into the NAMM TECnology Hall of Fame.

The TR-808 has a distinctive bass drum tone that is often likened to a heartbeat. One could expand the analogy and say that the 808 itself is the heartbeat of Hip-hop. Like the Strat or Les Paul in Rock music, the multitude of genres of Electronica and Hip-hop would sound vastly different without the 808. It has become the signature of an entire musical landscape. 

Pretty impressive for a machine that was supposed to be a simple compositional tool. But that’s like saying the six strings of a guitar are just for playing notes and chords in a certain sequence to write a song. The 808 is about far more than simply creating a demo. It’s about creating a whole new musical world.