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What does a Roland 808 sound like?

We’ve all heard of the infamous ‘808’ but do you actually know what it is and what it sounds like?

The ‘808’ is an analogue drum machine released by Roland in 1980 that was available for all of three years until it was discontinued in 1983. At the time of release the ‘808’ received mixed reviews due to the ‘unrealistic’ drum sounds it created. However, to the ears of producers this was a new, exciting sound that lent itself nicely to Dance and Hip Hop thanks to its deep, booming kick drum.
The ‘808’ quickly became a cornerstone in music production throughout the 80s and has now been used on more pop songs than any other drum machine.
With approximately 12,000 units manufactured in the short time it was available, no one could have predicted how popular this instrument would become. Now with a cult following and price tag of around £3-4,000 on the likes of eBay, producers are still chasing that authentic sound.

But what does it sound like?
If you can’t pick out an ‘808 snare’ in an audible line up then listen to these tracks…

The Classic!
Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing

If you are familiar with this song, the first time you hear an ‘808’ you may instantly think of Sexual Healing (just listen to those claves!). Upon release this track tore down the walls between genres fusing classic soul with Hip Hop production.

Want to hear the beat played on an ‘808’? Check out this video.

The beginning!
Afrika Bambaataa – Planet Rock

Not necessarily the first, but often documented as one of the leading tracks that helped the ‘808’ gain its fame. Upon its release in the US, Planet Rock was unlike anything else played on the New York City club scene and instantly became a talking point amongst producers. Lending ideas from the likes of Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra, Afrika Bambaataa definitely created something new.

But would it have gained as much popularity without the fresh sound of the ‘808’?

Upsidedown ‘808’ cover can be found here.

Live!
Talking Heads – Psycho Killer (Live)

Often brought out in the studio at Talking Heads sessions, David Byrne also used the 808 in this legendary performance of Psycho Killer.

Appreciation!
Kanye West – Love Lockdown

Kanye West liked the ‘808’ sound so much he dedicated an album to the legendary instrument. ‘808s & Heartbreak’ abandoned Kanye’s conventional production for a minimalist sonic palette that includes prominent use of the ‘808’ drum machine.

Want to know more? Check out this Noisy documentary of the making of ‘808s & Heartbreak’

Staff Pick!
Beastie Boys – Time to get Ill

The Beastie Boys used the ‘808’ on several tracks from their ‘Licensed to Ill’ album and continued to do so throughout their career.

This is a great tutorial showing how to make the beats from scratch on an ‘808’.

Legends!
Yellow Magic Orchestra – 1000 Knives

According to Wikipedia, YMO were the first group to use a Roland TR-808 as early as 1980. Their 1981 album BGM is packed with ‘808’ tones and is now considered a legendary album in Electronic Music & ‘808’ history.

Contemporary!
Daft Punk – Doin’ it right

The return of the ‘808’.
The TR-808 drum machine is still being used in modern production and is yet to sound dated/out of place. A recent favourite is Daft Punk’s – Doin’ it Right featuring Panda Bear of Animal Collective (another band that have been known to use the ‘808’).

 

…and there you have it . By now you should be an ‘808’ expert craving the ‘808’ sound for your next production.

Want the ‘808’ sound?

Dropping £3-4K for a preowned ‘808’ is most likely not an option for the majority of producers/musicians. However there are a lot of products that are similar, current and available at a fraction of the cost.

Here is some of our favourites…

 

Roland TR-8

The Roland TR-8 is a digital drum machine that combines classic sounds from the TR-808/TR-909 with modern functionality.

Available now at Sound Affects Music

 

Roland TR-08

We are yet to see an analog re-creation of the ‘808’ but this is close enough. Roland have faithfully retained the characteristics of the legendary drum machine in this modern digital sound module.

Available now at Sound Affects Music

 

Arturia DrumBrute

For when only analog will do! Arturia offer an amazing all analog drum machine at an incredible price in a similar vein to the ‘808’.

Available now at Sound Affects Music

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