EAV Classics - 002.
Every year there are huge waves of new equipment for musicians. Each new product and idea claiming to change the way that we will make music, the way we interact with music or the way it sounds. Every now and then a product will fulfil those promises and genuinely change things but sometimes no matter how many times an idea is jazzed up and rebranded there could still be a product from decades ago that just does it better.
In this series of blogs we’re looking at a few innovations that we believe have achieved that classic status and maybe even gone on to become landmarks of design in their field. Designs that have been imitated and copied but never surpassed.
Let’s take a moment to look at a product that not only become a classic but actually spawned new genres and changed the path of music forever, it continues to do so 36 years after its initial release. This product is genesis for modern electronic music. An instrument that has been on more hit records than another of its kind.
Upon its release it was something of a failure and was ridiculed in the music production community. But this product had the last laugh and is possibly the underdog of the century. Ladies and gentlemen… the world heavy weight champion, the immovable TR808:
To you maybe this machine requires no introduction. Or maybe you’ve never heard of it. But there’s absolutely no doubt that you will have heard it. Its impact is etched on the fabric of modern music itself.
The TR808 was released in 1980 by Roland. It was the first of a new way of thinking in drum machines. Before this drum machines were mainly produced for organ players, they had some simple beats stored and the player could have some basic rhythmic accompaniment while they played. The 808 was the start of a range of drum machines that let you program the beats yourself and not just be stuck with the basic ‘Rumba’, ‘Waltz’ and ‘Disco’ beats.
While samplers as we know them now were beginning to take shape in the 80’s, the 808 differed because the 808 didn’t really sound like a real drum kit. This is probably because getting the sound of real drums on 1980s technology was quite hard, if not impossible. But the 808 didn’t even seem to try and sound real and for that reason it was something of an outcast. They were produced for only 3 years and an estimate of about 12000 units were produced in that time. Although there’s believed to only be around half as many working units left ‘in the wild’.
It was quickly replaced by the TR909, which was very similar but tried a lot harder to sound like a more authentic drum kit. The 909 lead a similar life to the 808. For that reason in this blog the two will be mentioned side by side as they’re extremely similar machines with subtle differences. The 909 maybe more what we think as 80’s looking than its brother?
Towards the end of the 80’s there were many of these units collecting dust on the shelves of used electrical stores and sitting unloved in basements. They were cheap and had relatively limited use. They could very easily have been forgotten about and become a tiny part of Roland’s history.
As Akai were starting to produce their MPC series of samplers and Roger Linn was also making waves with his samplers there seemed to be no real need for analogue drum machines like the 808.
The 808 wasn’t a sampler, so it didn’t play a pre-recorded sound. It used synthesis to create the sound so you could change its characteristics and timbre. But you were ultimately stuck with those few sounds.
The bass drum sound of the 808 is basically just a low sine wave. Probably responsible for blowing more speakers than any other drum machine too. Either by accident or by genius the bass drum doesn’t sound anything special at home but play it through a nightclub rig and you’ll understand. This is of course an idea that we’re all completely used to these days. Processed and synthesized drum sounds are very common in music today but naturally that wasn’t always so.
Hip-Hop was probably the first genre to adopt the 808. Hip-Hop was in its infancy and the sound of the genre was still quite malleable and not set in stone. Afrika Bambaattaa and the Beastie Boys had embraced the 808 whole heartedly and it helped to solidify the sound of a newly forming genre.
Hip-Hop had quickly claimed the 808 as its own. They were cheap so budding hip hop artists could afford them, they were easy and simple to use and they were fairly easy to get hold of. Certainly not easy to get hold of anymore, an 808 in good condition will set you back upwards of £3000!
Your young bedroom producer can’t afford to get a drum kit, all the microphones and recording equipment. But they could afford an 808 or a 909 and have it making drum beats straight out of the box.
L.A. based producer ,Greg Broussard, calling himself ‘The Egyptian Lover’, first got his hands on an 808 in a music store: "It blew me away.” Broussard recalls; “Everything sounded a bit toy-like, but at the same time it made you want to dance. I bought it right there on the spot." He aired it the next day with Uncle Jamm's Army DJ crew. "I didn't have any other instruments – the beat was moving the whole crowd. Thousands of people were dancing to this one little drum machine."
The plucky little 808 had made its mark and become a staple of Hip Hop. But it was yet to forge its own genre. To create sound that may never have existed without it.
Enter the 90’s.
Rave culture was exploding into Europe and America, no one saw it coming but its sound defined the early 90s. What’s the sound of rave music? Our trusty 808 and 909. The 909 seemed to take the centre stage here. Its sounds were more aggressive and harsh than the 808’s and artists like Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin helped seal the 909’s legacy as Techno poured out of Detroit, Berlin and London and the 909 had created its first genre. There’s no real way to tell if Techno would have happened without the 909. Maybe it would but in a different form or maybe you wish it had never happened with its repetitive tones and thumpy beat, Each to their own yeah?
These two machines still have a strange lure to them all these years later. They’re incredibly limited in what they can do, yes there’s many machines that can do more and have flashier lights and pads but if you sit at an 808 there’s still so much music to get out of it. Their sounds are now filled with history and legacy and yet there seems to be no end to the possibilities.
Each of their sounds has been recorded and sampled and re-sampled and distorted and changed and altered so many thousands of times that it’s easy to forget where they came from. Anyone who’s tried to record a good hand-clap in the studio will know how hard it is to get it to sound right, yet the 909 clap just sounds right; yet it’s almost all white noise with some clever envelopes and filtering.
It’s their simplicity and their limitations that have allowed these machines to open the creativity of thousands of musicians across the globe since the 80s. They have inspired hundreds of new drum machines that have taken various ideas from the 808 and 909 but the two beasts still stand triumphant and we think they will continue to do so for many years to come.
Which is why we chose to write number 2 in our classics blog about the Roland TR808 and TR909.