Can you start out by introducing yourself?

I’m a producer/engineer/mixer – now educator. I’ve mixed or produced hundreds of records for folks ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to Bobby McFerrin, D’Angelo to Miles Davis (posthumously) and everyone in between. I also produced three Grammy winning albums and lots of gold and platinum discs.

Can you talk a little about the industry in the early 80s, when the 808 was released? What were the musical trends and how did the 808 add to or change that?

The early 80s were a strange time for pop music. Disco was pumping, punk was thrashing, and most R&B was either romantic crooning or funky bump music. Oh yeah, Brit-pop from that era sounds pretty silly now. While there were some notable pioneers who used synthetic drums (Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”), it was into the mid-80s before 808 usage became more ubiquitous. That said, “real” sounding drum machines, like the Linn, were very much in use in mainstream pop and dance records. To my ears, it was really the middle of the decade before the sound of obviously “not real” drums – via the 808 – started hitting the mainstream.
 Photos: Daniel Dorsa

“The sound-set became an integral part of the canon, from the tat-tat-tat of the high hat, to the splashy white-noise snare, and certainly the booming, bottom heavy kick.”

Why do you think the 808 took off while its predecessor from Roland and its competitors from other companies didn’t?

I think it had to do with the user interface; one did not have to be a trained musician to use the grid-style programming of it. I think that by the time it hit hip hop in a big way, it had become the norm for that music, and also, it was programmable by someone who didn’t have traditional musical training.
What would you say was the 808’s biggest influence on hip hop and r&b records around that time? Sonic? Rhythmic? Other?

Both. The rhythmic part was the relentless, mechanical eighth note high hat, and the way that the quantization of that box felt. (They all feel slightly different – DJs hear it immediately). Sonically, the sound-set became an integral part of the canon, from the tat-tat-tat of the high hat, to the splashy white-noise snare, and certainly the booming, bottom heavy kick.

How do you feel the 808 changed the way music was being produced?

It was part of an entire revolution – the 808 was instrumental (no pun intended) in getting people to unquestioningly accept the sound of synthesized drums. Also, MIDI hit big by the mid-80s, and as primitive as it may have been, the 808 had already gotten listeners accustomed to hearing quantization and unreal sounds.

What are some of the challenges engineers face when working with 808 sounds?

What most people don’t consider (because they didn’t live through the insanity of trying to make everything work) is how primitive synchronization was back then. Synchronization aside, mixers (like me) had to find a way to fit these way-different sounds into tracks where they were taking the place of their acoustic counterparts. The tough part was that they didn’t sound a lot like the “real” thing.

If one is not careful, the high frequency content of the high hat, and to some degree the snare can, if not handled properly, seem very harsh, and make other elements in the mix sound dull. Then there was the HUGE size of the bottom of the kick that most hip hop records wanted at that time.

Do you remember the first time you heard or worked with an 808? What was your opinion of working with it?

See the above about mixing. Plus, synchronization at that point was a free-for-all. Different manufacturers used different time bases for their sync tones; 24 parts per quarter note, 48, and 96. Until the SBX 80 (another Roland box that translated all this), you would often get sequencers that played half or double time against the track. Feed more or less sync tone from tape to the sequencer, it might speed up or slow down.

Any other 808 anecdotes, reflections, or musings?

The 808 was a milestone in pop music. This only adds to the idea that in recorded music, more than any art form other than videography, technology has influenced this art to a startling degree. Recording technology, instrument technology - all one has to do is listen to records from successive eras to hear this clearly.

Written by
Reuben Raman
Reuben Raman is Splice’s in-house audio specialist and the founder of SoundFarm, a music production studio in Singapore.