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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent