Rhythm king: The return of the Roland 808 drum machine

The TR-808 drum machine was the sound of the Eighties. Now it's back – courtesy of Kanye West's new album, out today. Rhodri Marsden feels the beat

These days, few new electronic instruments have an identifiable "sound". We buy them on the understanding that they'll have thousands of preset configurations that will let us emulate sounds we've heard countless times on the radio. But 30 years ago, this wasn't the case; we bought a particular synth or a drum machine because we either liked the way it sounded or, more likely, because it was all we could afford – in which case we had to learn to love the idiosyncratic noise it made.

The sound produced by Roland's TR-808 drum machine bore only a passing resemblance to real drums (one review described its beats as sounding like "marching anteaters"); as a result it sold fewer than 12,000 units, and was in production for less than three years before being phased out in 1983.

But by virtue of its appearance on a few notable early hip-hop records, it has since became a desperately sought after piece of gear, with a devoted fanbase. Vintage models sell for over £1,000 on eBay – 50 per cent more than its original price – and its sounds are widely copied. Released today, Kanye West's album, 808s and Heartbreak, pays an affectionate tribute to its eccentricities.

And once you know what you're listening out for, you'll hear the 808 on innumerable tracks. Unfortunately, one of its most widely heard manifestations is the cowbell effect that hammers away like a distressed woodpecker during "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston. "That noise is the bane of my life," says Simon Thornton, the producer of Fatboy Slim and countless other British dance acts over the past two decades. "It makes you wonder which person at Roland actually decided that it sounded any good."

But one man's trash is another man's treasure, and Jyoti Mishra, the self-confessed producer of "camp synth pop" and former singles chart-topping artist under the name White Town, considers the same noise to be iconic. "And so are the claves, and so are the handclaps. Of course, they don't sound like handclaps – but strangely, they have somehow become the sound of handclaps. Every drum machine produced since then has had to feature that same kind of noise."

But one 808 sound is appreciated across the board, however begrudgingly, and that's its kick drum: a sub-bass blend of sinewave and click that, again, sounds precious little like the noise you'd hear off a drumkit. But for those musicians in the early 1980s whose resources couldn't stretch to either getting a drummer, or paying an engineer to get a decent sound from a flabby, badly played bass drum, the Roland kick was a godsend. "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa showcased the archetypal 808 sound, and whole genres such as electro and Miami bass spun off from it (thanks, it is said, to country musicians flogging their unwanted 808s to second-hand stores where they were enthusiastically bought up by wide-eyed dance acts.)

By the mid 1980s, the 808 had helped rap artists such as Run DMC and the Beastie Boys to worldwide success – but it was also dusted off in studios to provide backing for more laidback tunes, such as Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and "One More Night" by Phil Collins. "I got mine in 1983," says Mishra, "and immediately loved it. And those things it was criticised for – the limitations of its built-in sounds – are what ended up making it so popular."

So popular, indeed, that it's almost impossible to find a software synthesiser, keyboard or drum machine that doesn't have digitally recreated versions of 808 samples lurking within them. But for purists and 808-fanatics, these are merely pretenders, unable to recreate the majesty of that original Roland box of tricks. "It's like seeing a Paint By Numbers version of the Mona Lisa," says Mishra. "It's all there, but it's just not the real thing. Of course, it might be my own peculiar madness, but the 808 generates each sound from an analog circuit, so it's slightly different every time. Sampled versions just replay one sound over and over – and I can feel the difference."

Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, a band that fervently embraced this nascent technology in the 1980s, agrees. "I've been through more than half a dozen 808 sample sets, and none of them sound as good as the real thing. Unfortunately I lent my 808 to someone, somewhere – as unlikely as it sounds I'm pretty certain it was in a Welsh pub. I miss it awfully." Thornton pinpoints its other great asset: the ease with which it could be programmed. "Before the 808 you'd be tapping out the rhythm of each drum separately – but suddenly you could see the beats in front of you represented by flashing lights." Gartside concurs: "It was a great way for me – and many others – to learn about what drummers do and how rhythms work."

Some musicians are doubtful of the 808's value, and put its longevity down to nostalgia; Thornton is one of those. "Its popularity is more to do with the fact that it happened to end up on some very cool, highly influential records rather than the machine itself," he says. "I don't use it myself – mainly because its sound is so evocative of a particular time and genre of music – and, in that sense, I think it's aged quite badly."

Mishra, of course, won't hear a word against it. "I'm not a recording gear fetishist or anything; I don't love my 808 because it's an 808. I love it because it's ace. The timing and feel are second to none, and it's definitely my most cherished piece of gear. I'll be really sad when it finally gives up and dies on me – as far as I'm concerned, nothing will ever replace it."