The 808 is the most iconic electronic instrument in the world. Most of the people who use it have never touched one.
Just 12,000 Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composers were born into this world. An untold amount of them probably exist in pieces at the bottom of landfills. Though a revival was deemed improbable thanks to a limited run of a faulty, essential transistor, it seems unlikely that Roland would have continued creating the machine even if they had been. For the first few years after its introduction – like the musical genre it spawned – the 808 was considered a disaster, then a fad, and then just a mistake.
Chased by the IRS and haunted by a failing marriage and the final break of his relationship with Motown Records, Marvin Gaye had wintered in Belgium in 1981, drying out while searching for a new inspiration that would cure a lingering sense of depression. He had recently completed a short tour of the UK and with the sound of reggae ringing in his ears, Gaye and musicians Gordon Banks and Odell Brown put together an instrumental track that seemed to evoke reggae’s dubby, reverb’d sound.
“Sexual Healing” was not the first single to showcase Roland’s TR-808, but for many years it would be its signature. The opening notes would showcase the 808’s signature synthetic sounds – its thin handclap and spacey snares stay lodged in memory for years after the last listening. The song was pure Marvin Gaye, while still creating the separation in sound he desired after his break from Motown. And instinctively he seemed to understand the TR-808, using it in a way that Roland (allegedly) never intended.
The 808 was the first of several famous Roland products used in these ways never anticipated by its inventors – or at least by its marketers. While not as left-field as what Phuture would do to the 303 when they transformed a synthetic bass into the first acid box, professionals using the 808 in such a prominent way on a pop song was really not part of the 808’s marketing plan.
Ikutaro Kakehashi had no formal music training when he started Roland in Osaka, Japan in 1972. In this he shares something in common with the vast majority of the 808’s users over the years. It may be a cliche to claim a legendary figure like Kakehashi was ahead of his time, but he saw a future which was filled with people quite like himself.
The 808 looks iconic now, but at the time it felt like a quintessential piece of Cold War machinery, reclaimed + liberated by the funky + the damned of the Earth.
Most of Kakehashi’s successful products over the years tapped into this market of self-taught savants. This wasn’t a market one could sell into in 1980 as it didn’t really exist. Instead, Roland had to think of one that did, and conceived of the 808 as the type of machine that would make studio demos more efficient and cheaper to record. It would be a machine that would make amateurs sound more professional and professionals able to work faster and with fewer hands on deck to get their ideas sketched out on tape.
The drum machine was not a new invention or even very novel, but most were not programmable (imagine the preset “Bossa Nova” pattern on cheap Casio keyboards. That’s mostly what drum machines did.) Innovations in the price and capacity of microprocessors (the same innovation that drove the explosion in personal computing in the late 1970s) made it possible to create and save unique drum patterns and indeed program a complete track.
The famously peculiar and synthetic 808 drum sounds would have never been created had memory been more affordable (most personal computers of this era used only floppy drives for storage, and sometimes audio cassette). Unable to find a cheap solution, it was likely chief engineer Makoto Muroi who directed the team to use sound generators instead of recordings of real drums.
Its look is iconic now, the color scheme instantly identifiable and lending itself to fashion and even shoes, but 808 wasn’t regarded as a pretty little sound box when it was released in 1980. Synthesizers at the time looked like giant switchboards or magnetic tape readers with wood paneling on the side. Despite its portability, the 808 looked like you might flip a few switches and accidentally send the launch codes to the nuke silos. In retrospect it has the quintessential look of late Cold War machinery.
Engineers of the era were not rock stars and those who worked on the 808 never signed the inside of the case, as the original Macintosh team would four years later at Apple. Nevertheless, latter day hardware wizards who have torn down the 808 are continually impressed at the genius written in the transistors and solid state electronics at the heart of the machine. These made the 808 capable of programming up to 32 patterns using the 16 original drum sounds, most of which could be edited and which had individual volume knobs.
Among those sounds is the 808’s killer feature, what’s been described as “the mother of all kick drums.” The lengthened bass drum decay is what’s pretty much come to define the “808 sound” to listeners. Graham Massey described the bass kick as “devastating, which if you turn it up can absolutely shake a room.” (He was so infatuated with the machine that he named his group, 808 State, after it.)
Another major point of infatuation with the 808 is that sound generating software. Unlike sample-based drum machines, each drum hit is created from nothing every time its used. And the onboard sequencer provides what many consider the best timing of any drum machine, then or now.
Kakehashi attributed the then-unique synthetic drum sound of the 808 – its “sizzle” is how he put it – to a small batch of defective transistors. It’s become something of a folk tale at this point, but Craig Sue and Steve Jones broke down much of the mystery in an excellent teardown which includes samples of the mysterious transistor that made the 808 so unique.
The Second Coming
Roland debuted the 808 in 1980, retailing for $1,195 ($3,870 in 2018 dollars adjusted for inflation). Obviously, many amateurs or aspiring musicians wouldn’t be buying one at that price. Its intended market never adopted it en masse.
Another drum machine, the Linn LM-1 debuted in the same year, and though it boasted an even larger price tag, many rock musicians and engineers preferred it. Ironically, the Linn founder Roger Linn created the LM-1 almost in reaction to Roland’s evolving drum machine line and its synthetic drums that “sounded like crickets.” Later he would design the cheaper LinnDrum following a meeting with Kakehashi, who encouraged him to diversify his product line. (In 1988, Linn’s greatest success, the Akai MPC sampler and sequencer, was released.)
The 808’s commercial performance also suffered to some degree from another Kakehashi intervention, this time a positive one. In 1983, Kakehashi and Sequential Circuits president Dave Smith would debut a new technical standard called MIDI, which allowed many different electronic instruments and devices to communicate with one another (Kakehashi and Smith would be awarded a technical Grammy in 2013 for this.) Whether it was its lack of built-in MIDI support or just a general dissatisfaction with the machine, 808s soon began to be sold at rock bottom prices in second hand shops and pawn shops, which is when they attracted the attention of a distinctly different audience.
Despite his innovative use of the machine, Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” was not the first record to feature the 808. Neither was Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “1000 Knives,” which is often mistakenly included as the “first 808 on record” (though they likely used it in live performance first, in 1980). The first was actually a track an Australian pop band lead by Mark Moffat called The Monitors. Their 1981 track “Nobody Told Me” charted in the Top 40, though the studio band broke up the following year.
From there the boulder tumbles downhill quickly. Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” and 1983’s “Clear” by Cybotron buried the 808 sound in the DNA of hip-hop and techno like a cybernetic implant. The second-hand and scavenged history of Roland’s drum machine seems to reverberate most of all with that of house music – a genre considered synthetic, disposable, and often too queer for the mainstream.
Though the original machines are rare to find in the open market and expensive in any context, just recordings of its synthesized sounds have launched entire genres of music, from the tinny futurism of Electro to the booming 808 kick at the heart of Miami Bass. Roland itself claims that the 808 is on more hit records than any other drum machine, which might be clever marketing but is hardly able to be disputed.
Two full-length documentaries, Nelson George’s All Hail The Beat and 2015’s 808 have attempted to quantify the dominance of this simple, once unloved machine over popular music and much of the story is still yet to be told.
In the latter film, Kakehashi is depicted just two years before his death. His body was failing, with tubes pumping oxygen into his lungs. Seated at his desk (he had started a new company and was dreaming of still more strange music machines all the way until the end), Kakehashi tells the familiar tale of those faulty transistors that provided the 808 with its distinctive “sizzle.” He says a few percentage out of the manufacturer’s run were faulty, and he bought them all. The 808, he implies, could have lived on, Roland’s genius engineers creating more miracles, had more of these transistors tested faulty. But it was not to be. “No way to come back!” he says.
The 808 was not a failure, he seemed to be saying, just like the faulty transistors were not a mistake. He picked them out that way; the only reason the 808 worked the way it did was because of these misfit transistors at its core. The only reason electronic music sounds the way it does today is because of this misfit product and its strange sounds.
Could Kakehashi have seen that far ahead? One finds that hard to believe. But who would believe the rest of the story anyway?