King of the Beats: TR-808 + TR-909

2 drum machines that changed the world...

@electrophunk

The Roland TR-808, TR-909 in Club, Hip Hop, House, and Techno Music

Electronic drum machines are responsible for developing countless classic tracks across the club, hip hop, house, and techno genres. In fact, their influence is so great that it’s hard to imagine any of these styles evolving into their present state without them. 

The modern movement arguably kicked off with the iconic Roland 808 – a machine so revered that it’s even made its way into music jargon. When artists say “turn up the 808,” they’re talking about the unique base notes this device was capable of hitting. 

The Roland TR-808. 1980.

The 808 is responsible for many bass and backing sounds people associate with modern club, hip hop, house, and techno tracks. Later, the 909 added acid to the mix, increasing electronic drum machines’ repertoire, and offering new artistic opportunities. Those were heady days. 

The Roland TR-909. 1983.

The 808 was a commercial failure, but it came to characterize many of the sounds of the early 1980s. For instance, producers used it in Whitney Houston’s hit single “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and the SOS Bands’ epic club & pop hit “Just Be Good to Me

It was outside the mainstream, though, where the 808 saw the most extraordinary success. Arguably, it was responsible for the formation of acid house, Detroit techno, and Miami bass pretty much single-handedly. Musicians on a budget no longer had to go to the expense of sampling live drummers and then looping their recordings via costly studio mixing platforms. Instead, they could use the robotic sounds blasted out by the 808 and just tweak them slightly, according to their needs. All of a sudden, Roland had democratized music production, and low-income artists took advantage. Anyone could use one of these devices to create incredible new sounds that rocked the underground and club scenes. 

One of the first known hip-hop artists to put increasing electronic drum machines on the map was Afrika Bambaataa with the hit Planet Rock in 1982. Soon afterward, Marvin Gaye released the incredible Sexual Healing, which also made heavy use of the 808. 

Here’s the instrumental, just checkout that bass drum! 😉 of the iconic TR-808 mega-hit – Planet Rock. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force. 1982.

Interestingly, the use of electronic drum machine sounds wasn’t a passing phase. In 2020, forty years after introducing the first programmable devices, artists are still relying on them. Most use them because they genuinely love the retro sound and want to use the original 808 hi-hat, cowbell, and snare sounds in their records. Acts as diverse as LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and Run-DMC have all used the 808. Kanye West based the entire 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak, around it.

Many top producers view the original 808 as the defining sound of the hip-hop genre. For instance, Lii Jon regularly used the hand clap sound (too much if you ask the opinion of some). Trap producers also love the noise that the electronic drum machine devices make and used it to develop the famous Atlanta sound. 

Many producers view the 808 as the secret ingredient for creating better sounds in their records. Even today, with all the advances in technology, those at the top of the industry view it as a secret sauce to make tracks sound better. 

The worlds first drum machine, the Rhythmicon (1930s)

The Invention Of The Electronic Drum Machine

Musicians have always been a little nervous about the electronic drum machine. These strange-looking boards look more like something from a NASA console than a tool for making music to get you dancing. Yet, they allow creative musicians to absolutely kill it. Anyone with musical talent can pick them up and start playing around without developing the fine motor control associated with playing regular instruments. 

The first recognizable electronic drum machine emerged in the 1930s. Musical theorist Henry Cowell and electro-sound legend Léon Theremin got together to create something they dubbed the Rhythmicon. This strange machine was pre-silicon, so it worked using super-ancient valves that told the electronic circuitry when and how to operate. The idea was to use radio-waves to generate rhythms when the user held down various keys. 

Unfortunately, the concept was way ahead of its time. It didn’t catch on as a commercial device, and only two were ever made, both of which are now museum pieces. 

The Rhythmicon, hear it in action… JUST WOW!

Over the following years, people tried to improve on the idea. First, they use mechanical solutions to create rhythm using spinning discs with holes cut in them. Later, with the development of modern transistors, the first programmable devices made their appearance. For instance, EKO released the ComputeRhythm in 1972 that made it easy for users to set up templates. 

The market, however, only really got going when instrument brand Roland stepped into the fray. Its CompuRhythm CR-78 was the first to incorporate a genuine microprocessor, meaning that users could increase the number of presents they programmed into the solution. 

Unfortunately, the technology on the device was still somewhat lacking. For instance, users couldn’t store sequences into full songs, and it relied on old-fashioned subtractive synthesis. 

That all changed, though, in 1980 with the introduction of the Roland TR-808. This device had poor sound quality but allowed musicians to sequence full songs in a way that previous iterations didn’t. 

Despite the move towards digitization in the 1980s, the TR-808 was a commercial failure. Roland tried to turn things around with the slightly more capable TR-909 in 1983, but that again failed to make money in the quantities the brand hoped for, despite its two MIDI ports and analog sound generator. 

Eventually, the 808 and 909 wound up on the second-hand market, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Underground musicians on the club, hip hop, house, and techno scenes snapped them up and used their now-iconic sounds to provide the backing for their tracks. 

Later systems improved on 808 and 909 technology in meaningful ways. The collaboration of LinnDrum designer Roger Linn and Akai led to the development of the MPC60 – a device with sixteen touch-sensitive keypads and the ability to sample loops. It was more capable than the original Roland offerings, but also more expensive, and it too was a commercial failure – at least, initially. 

The Influence Of Electronic Drum Machines On Popular Music

The Roland 808 was a device that sought to recreate drum sounds by running electrical currents through transistors. It sounded a little bit like the real thing, but, crucially, it didn’t depend on sampling, allowing music producers to fit their music together like a jigsaw puzzle. You could take a hi-hat here and a snare and mix them into a musical recipe to get something that sounded beautiful out the other end. 

It wasn’t long before the sound the technology began leading the development of new genres. The machine produced noises that seemed plucked right out of the future. They weren’t organic, like the sound of wooden sticks on tensioned Mylar (as with a regular drum kit). Instead, they had a distinct techno quality. 

Some artists tried to cover up this fact with intelligent sampling, but others embraced it wholeheartedly. The age of the microprocessor had begun, and they were keen to make a success of it. 

Acclaimed record producer Juan Atkins picked up his first 808 in high-school and started playing around with it in his spare time. He liked that it produced a high-tech funk sound and saw it as the perfect tool for making the music of the future. Roland’s new device was a massive step up over his DR-55 drum machine. With it, he could build whatever musical patterns he wanted, instead of playing along to some poorly-constructed bossa nova preset. 

L to R: Graham Massey, Gerald Simpson and Martin Price named their band after the TR-808 with 808 State.

Atkins and band member Richard Davis went on to create the Cybotron, releasing the iconic techno track, Clear in 1983. The sound was radically different from anything that had come before, mixing rap with surreal futuristic noises. According to The Wire, it was the first example of pure machine music and fundamentally groundbreaking. Later, hip-hop artists such as Poison Clan and Missy Elliot sampled the track, giving it a unique spin while paying homage to the original sound. 

Cybotron “Clear”. 1983.

The 909s influence in house music took off in 1987 when Rhythm is Rhythm released Strings Of Life, a hit that clubs still play today. The track begins as a funky piano melody. After a few bars, the 808 kicks in with its iconic drum-like sound, playing over the top, adding a thump to the already-special piano riff. Derrick May had created a whole new breed of house music. 

The 909 was a little different from its predecessor. During the development of the 808, Roland successfully recreated the sound of drums and snares using purely digital means. It struggled, however, to do the same with cymbals. No matter how much they tweaked the silicon, it just didn’t sound right. 

The Belleville Three: Juan AtkinsDerrick May and Kevin Saunderson. The 909 helped launch their careers.

Eventually, the company opted to release it anyway, but they wanted to improve the next generation. For the 909, Roland chose to use real cymbal samples instead of electronic ones, simply compressing them to 6-bit to allow producers to slot them into tracks. The sound wasn’t particularly accurate (although it was better than before), but it was a heck of a lot better than the original. 

Whether these changes made a difference to the consumer appeal of these electronic drum machines is still a matter of debate. Artists wanted something that sounded idiosyncratic, not realistic, this victory was somewhat pyrrhic. 

Jeff mills playing a 909
Jeff mills playing the 909 live

The 909 finally came into its own when in the hands of techno DJ Jeff Mills. The artist first got his hands on Roland’s kit in 1986 and became so good at it, he earned the nickname “the magician.” What he loved about the Roland was the fact that you “could actually play the machine, not just program it.” If you got really good, you use it almost as if you were a live drummer with a drum kit. According to Mills, there are no boundaries to techno music. It’s still indefinable as to what it should actually be, but that’s what makes it interesting. Where technology leads the way, he says, artists will follow. 

The late music producer Frankie Knuckles first encountered the 909 thanks to his relationship with Derrick May. He described it as the foundation of what he did, especially when it comes to the kick and bassline in many of the tracks he blasted out on set. 

The logos and artwork from the drum machines are often found in fashion & product design

Knuckles was very much of the opinion that house and techno should be felt and not heard – a somewhat strange remark for a DJ. But he believed that people on the dance floor should feel the bass of house tracks shuddering through their loins, instead of sounding tinny in their ears. Music had to feel epic to get people moving, and that’s precisely what the deep base notes of Roland machines allowed him to do. For Knuckles, the sensation you got from the device was akin to a big hug. The 808 and 909 were able to envelop you in a way that no regular music performance could. 

Jamaican-born Syrian musician Graham Curtis came to a similar epiphany when he began experimenting with electronic drum machines from Roland. The musician worked for a low wage in a record store when a chance meeting with a Sleeping Bag record producer called Will Sokolov led to him creating his first track in a professional recording studio. Sokolov took one listen to a track Curtis made using the 808 and decided that the record had legs. Curtis changed his name to Kurtis Mantronix, and the sound we all know and love today was born. 

Drum machines, therefore, helped to create the brand new sound of house and techno, following their release in the early 1980s. Today, modern computers can accurately reproduce the full repertoire of drum kits (and other instruments for that matter) with ease. But even with the considerable advance of technology over the last forty years, the 808 and 909 remain weapons of choice for most artists and producers. Incredibly, some purists will only use these machines, discarding more recent iterations entirely. As you might expect, the legendary status of these electronic drum machines from Roland means that prices are high. Some eBay sellers are flogging their originals (complete with packaging) for as much as $14,000 mint – more than ten times the original price. 

King of the Beats