What the hell is a TR-808 (and TR-909)?

Hi! I promised I’d talk about the TR808 and TR909 drum machines…oh – yes what the hell is a tr-808 (and tr-909)? They are drum machines. They are old school drums machines by Roland.

Above is the TR-808 and here is a TR-909:


I love to quote Wikipedia, so here’s paragraph 1 on the TR-808:

The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer (a.k.a. the “808”) was one of the first programmable drum machines (“TR” standing for Transistor Rhythm). Introduced by the Roland Corporation in the early 1980s, it was originally manufactured for use as a tool for studio musicians to create demos. Like earlier Roland drum machines, it does not sound very much like a real drum kit. However, the TR-808 cost US$1,195 upon its release, which was considerably more affordable than digital sampling machines such as the US$5,000 Linn LM-1.

These actual machines are sort of rare these days, but samples and software that make that exact sound are not – you’ve heard the 808 everywhere. When you listen to dance music that has the big booming kick drum every beat, that’s usually some derivation of the 808. Especially when you get the booooooooooommmmm kick that has a long decay – that’s usually an 808 sample. The snare on the 808 is equally distinctive – it’s a tiny little crappy snare sound that gets used a lot in hip-hop even to this day. It’s not used to sound big but more…I dunno – clean and cute?

Here’s the most basic, classic 808 sound in action:

Recognize those sounds, don’t ya? 🙂

The TR-909 came around in 1984 and was an upgrade from the 808. It was the first drum machine to implement MIDI and the sound was supposedly an upgrade, but to me, it’s just different. In the 909, some of the sounds are actually samples as opposed to synthesized sounds (the hi-hats mostly).

This site has a whole bunch of songs that used the TR-909 (or its samples). This Daft Punk song is a pretty straight forward use:

The basic kick drum sound in the 909 is much tighter with a brighter attack, so I always tend to go for that sample more than the 808. The snare is much much thicker as well.

Today pretty much any synth or software with drum sounds will have sounds that emulate the TR-808 at least, and usually both. Usually they’re not billed as samples from the machines, but it’s a pretty distinctive sound. In general MIDI, patch 137 (Synth Set 1) is pretty much the TR-808 and patch 138 (Synth Set 2) is pretty much the TR-909. In some synths, there’s a drum kit called “Analog” which is basically the TR-808.

I notice the 808 snare is used quite a lot in recent hip-hop. In fact I’m amazed how much. Here’s a beat from the aptly named “808 Mafia”:

All 808 baby.

And here’s one that’s surprising that it’s surprising, because of how much we’ve all heard it:

Yep – Marvin Gay! 🙂 Thanks to FlavorWire for reminding me of that one!

So – you see – when I mention the TR-808 or TR-909, I’m basically talking about quintessential electronic drums, which we’ve all heard a LOT of. At this point, we’ve all heard the TR-808 and 909s as much as real drum kits.

Ok! I hope you enjoyed THAT. And yes, Third Option has used these sounds plenty 🙂 Especially the kick drums…

— Aaron

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