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what is an 808

What Is An 808? Exploring The Beat That Defined A Genre

February 13, 2024 
Last Updated on February 13, 2024

If you've ever vibed to the deep bass of a hip-hop beat or felt the floor shake beneath your feet at a dance party, you've experienced the indelible power of the 808. This term, emblematic within the music industry, refers to the iconic Roland TR-808 drum machine. Embraced by producers and artists alike, its thunderous percussion and booming bass kicks have become the backbone of countless tracks. But, what is an 808, and how did it become such a defining element of modern music? As we decipher the meaning, definition, and essentials of 808 basics, you'll start understanding its colossal influence on music production. Let's dig in.

The Legacy Of The Roland TR-808

Roland TR-808 drum machine.

When the Roland TR-808 drum machine burst onto the music scene in the early 1980s, it signaled a seismic shift in music production. The Rhythm Composer was far from a mere piece of machinery—it was an instrument that represented an epochal moment, transforming the landscape of sound and rhythm. This was the dawn of a new era, one that would etch the history of 808 into the annals of music lore.

Introduction To A Drum Machine Phenomenon

The significance of the Roland TR-808 in music production cannot be overstated. This programmable drum machine, seeking to replicate the sound of organic percussion, fell short of its original goal yet serendipitously gave birth to an entirely new synthetic sound. Suddenly, musicians had at their disposal a tool capable of creating the repeatedly precise yet soul-stirring beats that would become a fixture in music studios around the world.

The Analog Roots Of The 808's Iconic Sound

At the heart of the 808's allure is the constellation of 16 analog drum sounds. Each was meticulously synthesized—not sampled—to forge a unique tonal identity. The iconic 808 bass drum, for instance, owed its resonant depth to a voltage-controlled oscillator that shaped a sine wave into the auditory emblem of the machine. Sounds like the tight snare drum and crisp handclaps also contributed to the 808's sonic signature—a testament to the intricacies of its analog foundation.

Commercial Disappointment To Cultural Cornerstone

Despite its groundbreaking capabilities, the TR-808 was initially met with commercial reluctance. As its historical significance crystallized over time, the 808 drum machine underwent a remarkable transformation—it blossomed from a widely available, financially accessible instrument into an integral element of creative music production. This was especially evident in the scenes of hip-hop and techno music.

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What Is An 808?

The Iconic Roland TR-808 Drum Machine

When you ask "What is an 808," you are tapping into the cornerstone of beat-making that has grown beyond a mere drum machine into an essential element of music production. An 808 refers to the specific, iconic bass sound produced by the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. This foundational sound offers a deep, sustained low-end that is instantly recognizable and has been instrumental in the development of various music genres. Let's break down the core aspects that make up the anatomy of the 808 sound:

  • Deep Bass Kicks: The heartbeat of the 808, these kicks are what made the Roland TR-808 famous, offering that punchy low-end that can be felt physically when played through a sound system with good subwoofers.
  • Crackling Snares: While the kick might be the most celebrated aspect, the snare sounds of the 808 are also distinctive, providing a crisp counterpoint to the bass.
  • Hi-Hats and Cymbals: The 808 features tinny hi-hats and cymbals, creating a metallic shuffle that's become synonymous with the rhythms of many hip-hop and electronic tracks.
  • Toms and Congas: Toms and congas from the 808 drum machine enrich the percussive landscape and can be tuned to add melodic rhythm lines.

The sonic characteristics of the 808 have undoubtedly defined entire musical movements and provided a bridge from analog origins to digital productions. This sound has been manipulated within numerous genres—from hip-hop to dance to pop—illustrating the 808's pervasive cultural impact and its evolutionary journey through music history.

The influence of the 808 reaches so far that virtually every music producer, from bedroom beat-makers to top-tier professionals, has encountered this sound. Mastering the complexities of the 808 and integrating it seamlessly into compositions requires a nuanced understanding of its capabilities and impact. Layering, EQing, and processing techniques are all part of the skill set needed to manipulate the 808 effectively, ensuring that it supports and enhances the song rather than overwhelming it.

The 808's Impact On Music

Crafting an 808 beat

The 808's unmistakable sound has become a foundational element in numerous genres, shaping the sound of entire musical movements and the artistic approach of countless producers and musicians. Below, we explore the significant ways in which the 808 has impacted music across various genres.

Hip-Hop And Rap

Perhaps no other genre showcases the 808's impact more than hip-hop. The 808's deep bass drum, snappy snares, and crisp hi-hats have provided the backbone for hip-hop beats since the genre's early days. It was Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" in 1982 that first showcased the 808's potential to create a new kind of sound for hip-hop, blending electronic music with rap. This track set the stage for the 808 to become synonymous with hip-hop, with artists like Kanye West, OutKast, and many others using it to craft some of the most memorable beats in the genre.

Dance And Electronic Music

In dance and electronic music, the 808's versatility has been equally pivotal. Its ability to produce a wide range of synthetic drum sounds made it a favorite among producers looking to push the boundaries of these genres. The 808's booming bass and robotic rhythms became staples in the development of house, techno, and electro, providing a foundation that was both unique and instantly recognizable. Tracks like "Clear" by Cybotron and "No UFO's" by Model 500 demonstrated the 808's ability to drive the futuristic sounds that would define much of electronic music.

Pop Music

The influence of the 808 has also permeated pop music, where its sounds have been used to add depth and edge to tracks. Artists like Marvin Gaye with "Sexual Healing" and Whitney Houston in "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" incorporated the 808, showcasing its versatility beyond just hip-hop and electronic music. Its presence in mainstream pop tracks helped cement the 808's status as an iconic instrument capable of crossing genre boundaries.

Trap Music And Beyond

The 808's most recent and notable influence can be observed in the rise of trap music, a subgenre of hip-hop that originated in the early 2000s in the Southern United States. Trap music is characterized by its lyrical content and sound, which heavily features the 808's rapid hi-hats, snappy snares, and, most prominently, its deep, resonant bass. This use of the 808 has defined the sound of trap, with producers like Metro Boomin, Lex Luger, and Zaytoven pushing the instrument to new limits and ensuring its relevance in contemporary music.

Cultural Significance

A guy dancing with a brick wall behind him with graffiti on it that says Hip Hop.

The Roland TR-808's influence stretches far beyond music production, embedding itself into the cultural fabric of the last few decades. Its distinctive sound has not only shaped genres but also contributed to the identity of subcultures, influenced fashion, and even language. The 808 has become more than a musical instrument; it's a cultural icon that symbolizes innovation, rebellion, and the relentless pursuit of creativity.

Subcultures And Identity

The 808 has played a pivotal role in the development of various music subcultures, especially within hip-hop and electronic music scenes. It provided a foundation that allowed these communities to distinguish themselves from mainstream music and culture. The instrument became a badge of authenticity and underground appeal, especially in the early days of hip-hop, where it symbolized the DIY ethos of the genre. This connection between the 808 and musical subcultures has fostered a sense of identity among fans and artists alike, uniting them through a shared sonic palette.

Fashion And Aesthetic

The visual representation of the 808, with its iconic interface and layout, has influenced fashion and design in various ways. Clothing brands have incorporated the 808's imagery into their designs, using its aesthetic to evoke a sense of nostalgia and coolness associated with the early days of hip-hop and electronic music. The 808's influence extends to graphic design and other visual arts, inspiring artwork, and even sneaker designs, solidifying its status as a symbol of cultural cool.

Language And Lexicon

The term "808" itself has transcended beyond its origins as a model number. References to the 808 in song lyrics often signify more than just the drum machine; they evoke feelings of nostalgia, power, and a deep bass sound that's become synonymous with certain genres of music. The 808 has become a metaphor for innovation and excellence in music production, embedded in the language of musicians and fans worldwide.

Symbolism Of Innovation And Self-expression

The 808's cultural significance is also tied to its role as a symbol of innovation and self-expression. Its introduction represented a technological leap that enabled new forms of music to emerge. For many artists, the 808 is a tool that embodies the spirit of experimentation and the possibility of creating something entirely new. This ethos resonates with broader cultural values around innovation, creativity, and the democratization of music production, making the 808 a symbol of artistic freedom and boundary-pushing.

Crafting Your Own 808 Beats

Making an 808 beat is a journey into the heart of hip-hop and electronic music, combining technology and creativity. When you embark on creating your very own 808 masterpiece, several key 808 beat techniques come into play. These techniques not only ensure that your beat sounds authentic but also distinctively yours. Let's delve into the craft of shaping those iconic 808 subs to pulse with the energy of your music.

  • Sample Selection: Begin by selecting high-quality 808 samples that offer the depth and character you seek. Ensure they mix well with other elements in your track for a cohesive sound.
  • Tuning Your Samples: Fine-tuning the pitch of your 808s can significantly alter their impact in a mix. Adjusting the tuning ensures that your 808 subs harmonize with the key of your song.
  • Frequency Sculpting: Utilize EQ to sculpt frequencies, allowing your 808s to boom without causing muddiness. Carve a space where your 808 can dominate the low-end.
  • ADSR Envelope: Modify the attack, decay, sustain, and release (ADSR) parameters to shape the envelope of your 808 sample. This control can make your 808 punchy or let it rumble over time.
  • Understanding Playback Systems: Test your 808s across different systems to ensure they translate well from sub-heavy club systems to smaller speakers, guaranteeing your beats hit hard universally.
  • Versatility in Application: Whether you're underpinning kick drums or designing melodic basslines, the 808 sub-bass is versatile. Experiment with it to transform your track's dynamic.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What genres commonly use the 808 beat?

The 808 beat is prevalent across several genres, most notably in hip-hop, trap, R&B, pop, and various forms of electronic dance music. It has been instrumental in shaping the beats and grooves of contemporary music

Why did the 808 become so popular?

The 808 gained popularity for several reasons: its unique sound palette, user-friendly interface, and the ability to create patterns and loops that were pivotal for dance music and hip-hop production. Its distinctive low-frequency bass drum sound, in particular, became a signature element in many genres. After its discontinuation, the 808's cult status grew, partly due to its scarcity and the rise of music genres that heavily featured its sounds.

What iconic songs feature the 808?

Many iconic songs feature the 808, including Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force's "Planet Rock," and Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody." These tracks showcase the versatility of the 808 across different music genres.

How can I recognize the sound of an 808 in a song?

The 808 is most recognizable by its deep bass drum sound, which can range from a sharp, punchy kick to a long, booming bass that can be felt physically through speakers. Other distinctive sounds include its snappy snare, metallic hi-hats, and the cowbell, all of which have a synthetic, electronic quality.

Can you still buy a Roland TR-808 drum machine?

Original Roland TR-808 drum machines are quite rare and can be quite expensive. However, there are modern reissues, software emulations, and sample packs that recreate the 808's sounds for contemporary production needs.

Final Thoughts

As we reflect on the journey of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, it's evident that the beat born from this iconic instrument has transcended time, shaping the backbone of numerous music genres. The indelible 808 beat legacy endures, a testament to its versatility and the creative spirit of artists who have harnessed its power. Your own music could be the next to harbor the deep vibrations of the 808, embedding a piece of history into the fabric of contemporary rhythms.

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