As far as electronic music gear goes, there’s never been a more cherished machine than Roland’s TR-808.
Once chucked in the scrap pile and regarded as a retro-futurist curio, the TR-808 drum machine is now one of the most coveted – and expensive – mass-produced pieces of music gear in the world (some of Moog’s synthesizers, of course, cost more than the average worker makes in a year). A recent survey of the second-hand market shows working 808s are heading north of $3000 to $4000, depending on the buyer’s thirst and the seller’s patience. It’s not quite as high as a Stradivarius violin, but give it time – the violin maker whose stringed-instruments fetch millions had a 250 year head start.
With the price boom and scarcity of Roland’s original 12,000 machines, a number of 808 clones have flooded the hardware marketplace. Though they come in many shapes and sizes, the hardware 808 clones all aim to match the iconic 808 sound palette (how closely they do is a popular, passionate – and never-ending – subject on music production message boards).
Many of them are hobby machines, made more by “enthusiasts” than people who intended to start a business. One, the YOCTO2, even comes in a kit as a pile of boards and buttons you’re required to put together. Ordering is sometimes touch-and-go, involving emails back and forth and a Paypal dump.
Roland’s attitude toward hardware clones has been ambiguous. The only recent legal action that I’m aware of came a year ago, when Roland sent a notice of infringement (often a precursor to a lawsuit) to Propellerhead, better known as the makers of the popular Reason production software. The action targeted not a hardware clone but a software emulator – Propellerhead’s 21 year old “ReBirth” app which emulated 303, 808 and 909 sounds, and had been supported only as an iPad app by that point. Propellerhead quickly withdrew ReBirth from the App Store, setting aside the issue as to whether Roland had a fair claim against clones which closely copy the “look & feel” of the original machines.
The company’s attitude might be revealed this year as two new hardware clones have entered into production, one of which is mass-produced by Behringer, a company that has created a booming side business designing cheap clones of iconic synths and drum machines. Notwithstanding their own two “clones” of the 808 and a plethora of software emulators (including Roland’s own Roland Cloud, the first “official” software emulator, which is possibly the reason the company was targeting ReBirth), we’re likely to see still more entrants into the field as the quantity of original 808s is constantly diminished and the remainder are consequently continually rising in price.
It’s a sure bet, as even some of these clones have gone out of production and have subsequently become “rare” and “coveted” drum machines on their own.
1. Behringer RD-808
Every year on August 8, Roland makes a bunch of announcements as party of “808 Day.” For the last two years, Behringer has crashed the party, releasing teaser videos and cryptic riddles about their own clones of iconic Roland gear. The hype has made the analog RD-808 – which copies everything down to the numbers, literally – probably the most talked about piece of hardware in the scene right now.
After unveiling working prototypes in person, the German manufacturer has outlined a number of features for the 808 clone, including 11 analog outputs, MIDI sync via USB and are teasing a price that may be less than $400 – MUCH cheaper than any similar product and a fraction of what an original 808 would cost you. “We’re just waiting for the final casing and we’re ready to go,” a Facebook comment from the company’s official page reads.
Price: maybe under $400
2. System80 880
The second in-production clone is an 808 for the Eurorack modular synthesizer format. Like Behringer’s RD-808, the hype around System80’s 808 clone has erupted just from short video demos and furiously fanned by social media. The original announcement post boasted 16 analog drum voices with global accent, pattern sequencer with 1-32 steps, 12 banks of 16 patterns, shuffle and roll modes, external MIDI triggering of drum voices and external sync via MIDI clock, DIN Sync or clock pulse.
Many of these are features that the original 808 did not have. The 880 has “blown past two self-imposed deadlines” but just a few minutes ahead of press time the creators began taking pre-orders for the unit.
3. Acidlab Miami
Many (but certainly not all) of the clones on this list have been praised by someone at some time as being “the best 808 clone,” but Acidlab’s 808 clone is one of the better known and most broadly praised machines. Acidlab has a series of clones of different drum machines with fun names. “Bassline” is their most famous product, a 303 clone that at some point may have become more widespread than the genuine 303s out there, “Detroit” is their 909 hardware clone and “Miami” (Vice? Bass?) is their 808. One of the key improvements of the Acidlab Miami (the two names are almost always included) is that it supports both tap write and step write as well as shuffle and built-in MIDI support.
The original personal computers used to come in pieces, and if you want what some (again) claim is the 808 clone with the most fidelity to the original, some assembly will be required. And batteries (and a case) are not included. The YOCTO is an “exact reproduction of the analog part of the TR-808” with the exception of the BA662 VCA Clap, plus a built-in MIDI sequencer and an expanded functionality, including the ability to mute every sound, chain patterns as you want and copy/paste patterns.
The kit comes unassembled at the cheapest price on this list, but also requires additional parts which are allegedly fairly easy to find at electronic part distributors.
5. Novation Drum Station
With the lesser-known sibling to their Bass Station 303 clones, Novation staked a fair claim at creating the original 808 clone with its Drum Station. Released in 1995, the Drum Station (which also clones the 909 sounds as well) never attained iconic status but was used by many producers who either couldn’t find the original machines or needed a rack-mounted alternative to the 808 and 909. The Drum Station came with MIDI support and can also be synced via DIN, which enables syncing with an original 303, 808 or 909 or other Roland product from the same era. The sounds – which claim to be “Analog Sound Modeling,” which Novation defined as “digitally synthesized models of original waveforms” – are distinct from the 808 and 909 to most ears. Discontinued but still in use, the Drum Station is not in high demand and is available for relatively cheap.
Price: $250 to $500ish
Perhaps it’s the romance of the original beatbox but the most interesting and unusual of the 808 clones seem to be the creation of musician/technicians who first and foremost wanted to create a drum machine for themselves. While claiming high fidelity to the original in its components, the 8raw8 completely redesigns the face of the 808 – this is certainly nothing that infringes upon the original machine’s “look and feel.”
A smooth black box on the outside, the creators of the 8raw8 claim the “exact same reference” as the parts used the original 808 (again with the exception of the BA662 VCA Clap). “It took ages to find the real deal,” they say. The 8raw8 is “handbuilt in southern France” and they seem to produce a few at a time. Ordering begins by sending an email to email@example.com.
7. JoMoX XBASE 888
The JoMoX XBASE 888 was never the most popular machine but provided the bass kick for many’a’record’s pseudo-808 sound. The interface for this analog drum machine (including an LED readout) was highly regarded as making the device easier to use and program than many of the others on the list. In addition to what they liked to call a “vintage” and “metal-ized” snare and hat, the XBASE 888 had a sound palette of its own, meaning it could be used when you wanted something other than the 808 ambiance. It’s been discontinued, and prices have begun to rise accordingly.
Price: $800 to $1000
8. Roland TR-8 & TR-8S
Roland’s own clone of the TR-808 was alternately praised or reviled for its flashy look but received surprising acclaim for coming close to the analog sound of the original and some of its well-known quirks. The price point made it an easy choice. In addition to its proximity to the 808 sounds, the TR-8 could also stand in for several other Roland drum machines (909, 707, etc.). Put maybe the best way: if your sound is based upon old school 808 fidelity, keep looking, but if it’s a necessary component but only a component to your music, the TR-8 (upgraded later to the TR-8S) is probably the gear that will fit most closely.
Price: $439.99 to $499.99
9. Roland TR-08
This was part of Roland’s “boutique” line which took their classic machines, compacted them down and provided them as relatively cheap toys that nevertheless provided something of the experience of the gear they were inspired by. I always wondered if Roland didn’t launch this line to show that the design, look and feel of their classic machines were at all times in use, in order to provide backing to future legal claims. They certainly confused the marketing, as the company now sells both a TR-8 and a TR-08 but not the TR-808 they’re based upon… But I like the boutique line – they’re fun, if somewhat limited by their reliance on a DAW and laptop and limited sound editing, and you might have to hide them from all the gear dudes you’re trying to impress.
10. MFB-522 Drumcomputer
This small hunk of plastic is not really an 808 clone but is often included in the discussion so we’ll include it too. The MFB-522 looks like the kind of transistor-based gizmo you might find in a ’70s child’s toy box next to the Speak’N’Spell and Simon. But don’t let its quirky appearance fool you: quite a few producers have a small space set aside for the German-made “drumcomputer” in their studio or live kit; Octave One, who have no shortage of “sexier” analog gear at their disposal, among them. The MFB-522 tries to replicate the classic Roland drum machine sounds through circuitry and doesn’t quite succeed, but does come up with its own unique palette with kicks, snares, toms, claves, rims, congas, cymbals, highhats and claps. The faceplate, devoted entirely to knobs and buttons and pads, also seem to invite interaction and experimentation – a far cry from the intimidating feeling of some analog machines.
Price: $200 to $350
11. Korg Volca Beats
Another not-really-a-clone but Korg did their damnedest to make it look like one. Beyond the familiar spatial reference, Korg designed these inexpensive and mobile modules with a hybrid analog and digital palette in mind, with about half of the sounds generated via circuitry. The Volca Beats machines carry a very small footprint and will feel a bit like trying to play a Fisher Price plastic piano live.
The Volca series has taken a hit after the release of Roland’s TR-8, which does about 100x as much for not much more money, but the Volca series was intended and priced to capture a certain sliver of the market that was (at the time) being ignored.
Price: $150 to $200
12. MFB Tanzbär
It may not look like it, but this serious-looking box is the successor to the small, toy-like MFB-522. Berlin designer Manfred Fricke created both, aiming at widely different types of producers. The Tanzbär is a powerful analog “drumcomputer.” In contrast to its predecessor, theTanzbär looks almost intimidating but is certainly better constructed. TheTanzbär features 14 analog sounds and a synthesizer for bass and melodic voices, storage of 144 patterns and a coveted fill function for chaining long sequences. MFB also claims that the ability to call up functions on the fly while the unit is running makes theTanzbär “ideally suited” for live performance. This is another of the products which involves more planning than a simple point and click to buy. You have to email firstname.lastname@example.org and they’ll give you payment instructions, as if you’re buying mushrooms off the dark web.