Happy 808 Day! We look back at the heritage of the Roland TR-808 – 1500 Sound Academy icon

As an 808 Day celebration, we’re looking back at the history of the Roland TR-808 and how it rose to prominence in global music culture.

While its sound continues to live on in the music of today, the inspiration of its design as a musical instrument continues to influence the way manufacturers approach creating new drum machines.

Long live the Roland TR-808!

Let’s take a look at how the 808 first came about and its transformational role in pop and dance music that contributed to its legendary status today.

How the 808 Story Began

Introduced in 1980, the TR-808 Rhythm Composer was a logical step in evolution from the now famous CR-78 CompuRhythm drum machine. Like its predecessor, the 808 used analogue voices for sound generation, and was microcomputer controlled.

However, it gave the user the ability to pitch and shape some of the drum voices and instead of pre-programmed patterns, it provided an extremely dynamic and versatile sequencer.

The 808 was designed as an affordable solution for creating demos from home, with its sounds originally designed on the Roland System-700 modular synthesizer before being recreated from simplified analogue circuitry.



Instruments of the time

Although there wasn’t a direct competitor initially, the 808 was overshadowed by expensive EPROM-based digital drum machines like the Linn LM-1.

The iconic analogue voices we love today simply weren’t en vogue back in 1980, and it would take some artistic ingenuity to put the 808 on the map.

Another hurdle was the fact that the 808 used limited 2SC828-R transistors to create its sound. So without these, Roland discontinued the 808 in 1983, and it soon ended up in pawn shops.


The 808 Explosion

In 1982, an innovative song was released that brought the 808 sound to the masses and would influence a new generation of artists moving in a more electronic direction within Hip-Hop, Pop, and Dance music.

Producer Arthur Baker moved to New York in 1981, and it was here that he had a major impact on the culture with Planet Rock which featured Afrika Bambaataa and Sonicsoul Force.

The song combines interpolations (not samples) of Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express and Numbers over an 808 rhythm track which gives it a unique aesthetic that still sounds fresh to this day.


The 808 Today

Although its sound is still around in the form of the cicada hat-infested Trap and Drill beats that have dominated the mainstream for years, an actual TR-808 is rarely used anymore.

While sample packs and software instruments rule today’s production workflows, initially it was the 808’s multiple outputs that allowed the user to treat sounds individually with effects or resample them with AKAI samplers as was common in the 1980s.

A vintage TR-808 machine may be out of reach for the majority of us, but there are many ways to recreate the sound and user experience that are far more accessible and artists never cease to reinterpret this magic in their own unique style.


Ride In Style

This year, Roland Lifestyle and 1500 Sound Academy have joined forces to create and auction a once-off 808-styled BMX bicycle designed by graffiti artist, DUROTHETHIRD.

All proceeds generated from the auction will help one lucky student with a scholarship at 1500 Sound Academy, so it’s certainly a good cause.

The auction is live for this week only and bidding closes on August 16 at 11:59 PM PDT, so place your bid now for a chance to own this unique item.


More about the Roland TR-808:

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