Roland TR-808: The drum machine that refused to die

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The Roland TR-808 flopped commercially. So how did this drum machine become a defining sound in dance music, pop and rock, asks Tom de Castella.

You may not recognise the name. But you'll have heard it. The Roland TR-808 drum machine was a commercial disaster when it launched in 1980. Only 12,000 units were shifted. Keyboard Magazine described its hi-hat sound as like "marching anteaters". It failed to match the sophistication of more expensive drum machines and was discontinued after three years. And yet it's become a cult bit of kit, recently updated and relaunched.

Media caption,
Today: 808 State's Graham Massey on the Roland TR-808

Musician and producer Graham Massey loved it so much that, even if he didn't quite buy the company, he named his band 808 State after it. "The sound palette of this machine made it a cut above the other drum machines around at the time," Massey told Radio 4's Today programme. "It has this devastating bass drum, which if you turn it up can absolutely shake a room."

Its influence is everywhere from the clanging cowbell beat on Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing to the tinny bounce of Whitney Houston's I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Early hip hop is what made the 808's name. Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa took the eerie synths of Kraftwerk and by adding the 808 beat, gave it muscle. Since then it's been used by everyone from rockers like Talking Heads, rappers Public Enemy and drum & bass DJs such as LTJ Bukem.

Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
Afrika Bambaataa's Planet Rock used the Roland 808

Drum machines are supposed to be clean and metronomic, says the FT's music critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney. "In the past, technology was sci-fi, that Kraftwerk idea of people turning into machines," he says. But there was a messy, human quality to the 808 sound. It's not to be confused with the Roland TB-303, a synthesizer (with a built in sequencer for playing samples) that became synonymous with acid house. A layman might think they're all the same, says Massey. But for him these "humble little black boxes", that look like the dashboard of a Cold War nuclear facility, take on personalities. Indeed no less an expert than Britney Spears once sang: "You got my heart beating like an 808."

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