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Roland TR-808: Commercial Failure that made Good

In 1980, Roland introduced the TR-808 to the world. Initially a commercial failure, it would eventually be used on more records than any other drum machine in history.

One of the most iconic instruments in history, the Roland TR-808 seemed destined for disaster when it was released in 1980. Compared to the Linn LM-1 drum machine which used sampled drum sounds, the 808 used analog synthesis to produce sounds. Ikutaro Kakehashi used inexpensive “faulty” transistors which gave it its signature “sizzle” sound. Initially, it was not received very well as electronic music had not become mainstream and many musicians and producers of the time were more interested in authentic-sounding drums instead of the “toy-like” sounds of the 808. Only 12,000 units were produced between 1980 and 1983. Roland discontinued the TR-808 when the “Faulty” transistors could not be restocked.

Down but not out

The fact that the 808 was such a commercial failure is ultimately what started it’s rise from the ashes. As with many instruments that become influential, the 808 had hit rock bottom by 1983. Roland replaced it with the TR-909, which used drum samples instead of analog synthesis. The 808 which originally retailed for $1,195 was sold for $100 or less on the second-hand market. It soon developed a cult following among underground musicians and producers. It was easy to use and inexpensive. Soon the TR-808 began showing up on records. First on Yellow Magic Orchestra’s album BGM. Marvin Gaye used it on Sexual Healing.

But it was Hip hop that changed everything for the 808. It has been compared to the influence that the Fender Stratocaster has had on rock music. The 808 was embraced by artists including Run-DMC, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and many others. The bass drum sound of the 808 in particular could be tuned to create bass lines, a signature Hip hop sound. Its popularity in Hip hop spilled over into other genres such as Electro, Detroit techno, Miami bass, and more. Between 1983 and 1986 the 808 exploded onto the music scene. Pop artists like Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, New Order, Britney Spears, Madonna, and so many more, all used the 808 on many of their hit records. The 808 changed the world of music as we know it.

Here to stay

The 808 has been so influential that its sounds are now commonplace. They are included in nearly all electronic instruments, drum machines, digital audio workstations, sample packs, loop packs, etc. Not only has it been sampled, but it has been reissued and reproduced by Roland and other manufacturers. As part of their Boutique series, Roland produced the TR-08 in 2017, a miniature version of the TR-808 that included an LED display and modern features such as MIDI and USB connectivity. In 2019, Behringer released the RD-8, a recreation of the TR-808 that uses analog synthesis instead of samples and virtual synthesis, as the TR-08 does. These new instruments are not exactly like the original but, they are a good indication of the demand for a tangible connection to a bygone era. It is this connection that is driving a wave of new artists and equipment manufacturers to reimagine the possibilities of analog. We are experiencing a renascence of synthesizer technology that is very exciting. The stage is set for another commercial failure to turn the tides and set the world (of music) on fire again.

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