The Birth of a Drum Machine

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If you turned on the radio in the early 80’s, you probably would have heard the synths and sax of Daryl Hall & John Oates’ “Maneater,” the unforgettable guitar chord progression in Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” or maybe the heavy riffs of Joan Jett’s rendition of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

But then, one day in 1982, you might have turned on the radio and heard something different. A sound unlike any you’d heard on popular radio before. A rhythm section of computerized clicks and taps that felt more like the programmed output of a machine than the result of a drummer playing a drumset.

Those were the sounds of the Roland TR-808. And that song was Marvin Gaye’s hit “Sexual Healing.”

Short-lived in its original production, yet enduring in impact, the Roland TR-808 drum machine stands as one of the most notable calling cards for modern music. The instrument skyrocketed into the public eye -- or rather ear -- with Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and went on to shape popular music history. From its computerized hand claps to its distinctive cowbell, the 808’s sounds are defined musical eras and icons, from the likes of Gaye, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force to Kanye West. Here, we take a look back at the 808’s history and legacy.

Kakehashi image via Midi Association, Rhythm Ace via Main Drag


The Man Behind the Machine

An electrical engineer with a passion for music, Ikutaro Kakehashi founded Ace Electronic Industries in 1960. Four years later, the company unveiled its first drum machine: The R1 Rhythm Ace. It was a primitive take on the instrument -- a push-button percussion machine without pre-programmed preset patterns. It wasn’t much of a commercial success.

The company’s first preset-stocked drum machine -- the FR-1 Rhythm Ace -- hit the markets in ‘67. The product was much more successful than its predecessor and was licensed by the Hammond Organ Company.

Soon, Kakehashi, who passed away earlier this year, founded the brand that would be his legacy: the Roland Corporation. At Roland, he continued to develop drum machines geared toward organists, like the TR-77, which was designed to sit atop an organ and featured preset patterns like “bossa nova” and “waltz.”

It wasn’t until 1978, that the drum machine as we know it was born. With Roland’s CR-78 CompuRhythm, users could create and store their own drum patterns for the first time. The future had arrived.


The Programmable Drum Machine

Two years later, the TR-808 quietly hit the scene. It was analog, its strange percussive sounds generated entirely by hardware. Roland anticipated the machine that would go on to be featured in so many popular songs across so many genres would mostly be used for recording demos.

Priced at around $1,195, it was a more accessible buy compared to the $5,000 Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, a sample-based machine that used digital recordings of acoustic drums. But the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer sounded like a real acoustic drumkit and the 808 emphatically did not. The critics didn’t know how to react, and the instrument that would go on to be as iconic as any in popular music got tepid reviews on launch.

Image via Retro Synth Ads


That Sound

The 808 has 16 sounds. They were distinctly futuristic for their time, stark, sizzly, and snappy, in part because Roland developed the 808 with faulty transistors.

The 808’s calling card – its bass drum tone, deep and buzzy – is what comes to mind for many when they hear the machine’s name. Simply google “808 bass” and you’ll get dozens of tutorials guiding producers through modern-day recreations of the sound. While the bass adds depth to tracks, the handclaps and hi-hats cut through the high end of the spectrum.
Unmistakable and unique, these 808 sounds became the cornerstone of the burgeoning electronic music and hip-hop scenes as envelope-pushing musicians swapped out traditional acoustic samples with neat hits of electronic experimentation.
The 808’s sounds didn’t belong to any existing genre. They were new sounds, without cultural connotations. So early-adopters felt free to use the machine across many genres, and the 808 soon touched everything from R&B to pop to house to hip hop. 


Short-Lived But Long-Lasting

Roland stopped the machine’s production in 1983. The faulty transistors that were a part of its initial design were too hard to find. The 808 was just another Roland release, a notch on their technological belt. Roland shut down the production of 808s after producing only 12,000.
But the instrument continued to gain popularity as musicians began picking it up cheaply from secondhand stores, its relative affordability allowing a wide range of tinkerers to explore the gadget.

Some of the earliest adopters of the 808 were the Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra. It was Afrika Bambaataa's “Planet Rock,” released in 1982 that introduced the 808 into the hip-hop zeitgeist. Whitney Houston used the the 808 on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (a chart-topping single) and Phil Collins on “One More Night” – both pop hits that brought the instruments distinct sounds to new audiences. In the 90’s, the instrument showed up on songs by artists as different as Jay-Z and Nine Inch Nails. Indeed, the list of iconic songs (and even entire albums -- see Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak) built around the 808 is a long one, and we’ll analyze a handful of them in a piece later this week, so stay tuned.

GIF via Giphy

Adidas MI photo via Neely and Daughters
The discography of songs that use the 808 only tells part of the story. The instrument is more than an instrument. It’s a legend, as culturally significant as the legends who have used it. And like all legends, it’s been researched, analyzed. It’s been the subject of college courses and documentaries. It’s even been been co-opted for commerce, its iconic interface gracing an exclusive line of Adidas and its name leveraged for a Scotch targeted toward the “music-loving generation.” It’s been revered, mythologized, and celebrated. And now it’s our turn to give our tribute.

Written by
Allie Volpe

Allie Volpe is a music, entertainment, food, lifestyle and culture writer based in Philadelphia.

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