Beat Box Chic
Digital drum machines may rule the waves in the R&D labs, but one obsolete analogue device is still the record producers' first choice. Tim Goodyer dissects the appeal of Roland's classic TR808.
With so many fine-sounding, immaculately presented digital drum machines on sale, Roland's analogue TR808 is still the most widely recorded beat-box of them all. We find out why it's still the black box to beat.
WITH THE ARRIVAL of "affordable" user-sampling machines like the Korg DDD1 and Casio RZ1, the curtain opens on another new era for the now ubiquitous drum machine.
Roger Linn's revolutionary LinnDrum now lies subdued in the corner of recording studios, relegated to the reserves bench; the old Boss Dr Rhythm is quieter still, buried under piles of forgotten text-books on shelves in student bedrooms; the Anvil seems destined to remain no more than a romantic dream.
Roland's curious TR808, however, continues its insistent rattle from transistor radios, and thumps its way across nightclub speaker systems the world over - three years after the last one rolled off the Hamamatsu production line.
The TR808 made its public debut in 1981, beginning a short but eventful production life that lasted until it was replaced by the TR909 in the winter of '83-'84. Unlike the LinnDrum, the TR808 didn't boast digital sound samples, an abundance of voices, or a frightening price-tag. What it did offer was a selection of the best drum sounds analogue circuitry could conjure up, a set of individual audio outputs, complete user programmability, and a character all its own. And, for a cash price of around £500 (though the original RRP was a little higher), it cost roughly a fifth of the price of a Linn.
Before the 808 came along, a programmable drum machine was something only the privileged few could afford. The rest of us had to risk the stigma attached to semi-programmable machines like Roland's CR78 ('Vienna', 'In the Air Tonight', et al), or more primitive drum boxes intended as add-ons for home organs.
The release of the TR808 meant that, for the first time, a serious programmable drum machine lay within the financial reach of semi-pro and amateur musicians.
But this "affordable" status didn't prevent the 808 from finding favour with established as well as aspiring acts. Witness Marvin Gaye's 1982 hit '(Sexual) Healing', which used the TR808 exclusively to supply its distinctive, trend-setting rhythm track. Or the Freez dancefloor hit 'IOU', which combined a thundering collection of heavily reverbed TR808 sounds with triggered vocal samples. Or Afrika Bambaataa's 'Planet Rock', which had Kraftwerk's 'Trans Europe Express' strings played over a backdrop of swirling orchestra hits and (inevitably) a cheap-sounding TR808 drum pattern to balance out the pomp. The Human League even used an 808 live alongside a LinnDrum during the Dare days, though not without a sprinkling of frantic mid-set program changes.
Producer Laurie Latham switched an innocuous-sounding 808 pattern into the backing track for Paul Young's 'Wherever I Lay My Hat', and found himself with an unlikely hit that launched the career of one of today's most popular male singers. And New Order, following up the huge international success of 'Blue Monday' in the summer of 1983, turned away from thundering electronic bass drums to record 'Confusion' with an 808 providing all the backing; producer Arthur Baker ensured that remixes on the 12-inch single (there was no seven-inch) offered a chance for each of the drum machine's voices to shine in turn.
More recently, the TR808 has undergone a resurgence of popularity, settling down as a more regular dancefloor personality than Madonna. Paul Hardcastle's hard-hitting '19' brought it back into the pop charts 18 months ago, while hip hop has embraced the misfit beat box like a long-lost sister, placing it alongside scratching and rap vocals. In 1986, cheap is chic, and the TR808 is the height of drum-machine chic.
So what is it about this unassuming black box that has elevated it to "classic" instrument status, alongside the MiniMoog, Prophet 5 and Mellotron? It's certainly nothing to do with a vast program memory - a mere 12 songs divided into 24 32-step (or 12 64-step) patterns and only eight fill-in patterns saw to that. Nor is it to do with quick and easy program storage and retrieval; there's no dump-to-tape facility, let alone disk storage. It seems a laughable omission now, but the only way to preserve your dilligent hours of TR808 rhythm programming beyond the powerdown memory stage is by writing it all out on a piece of paper. And before you ask, the answer is no - the 808 was not equipped with MIDI, either.
What it all comes down to, as so often with musical instruments of whatever age, is sound. The sounds resident within the 808 represent the standard rock drum kit - bass drum, snare, toms, hi-hat, rimshot, cowbell and one cymbal - along with a few token latin sounds - congas, claves, maracas - and an unmistakable handclap. Some of these sounds feature variable, though not programmable, tuning and there are other user-determinable parameters like decay and tone, not forgetting the neatly termed "snappy" control on the snare, that help tailor sounds to personal taste.
The standard of these voices varies from very high to quite excruciating, as it does on many drum machines, before and since. But whereas the sound quality of digitally sampled voices depends mainly on the bandwidth and maximum sample length of the machine in question, analogue synthesis of acoustic sounds presents subtler, more intricate problems, as anyone who's attempted an acoustic piano patch on a Juno 60 will tell you. Yet analogue synthesis provided Roland with the means to make the TR808 an "affordable" machine, and so ensure its initial success.
What its designers could never have known at the time was that the analogue voice structure would turn out to be the TR808's greatest asset. Not because it made the sounds convincing, but because it gave the machine its character...
Let's look at those sounds in detail. Though it may seem an odd place to start, it's worth making early mention of the handclap. It's certainly one of the most convincing sounds on the machine, and proved so popular that Roland reused it on the TR909, and may well have used a digital sample of it (well, it sounds that way) on the now current TR707. The clap is a bright, punchy, tightly packed ensemble sound, with just a hint of an echo; if it were a sample, you'd swear some of the recorded acoustic had got tagged onto the end of it.
The snare, by contrast, is toppy and lightweight - though arguably, this is more closely reminiscent of a lot of acoustic drum kits, where a good snare tuning can be as elusive as Lord Lucan.
The bass drum is also sloppy and lacks attack, especially when set up against the tightly gated, punchy kick-drum samples that are as fashionable now as they were when the 808 was first released.
Most human of all the sounds are the tom-toms. There are three of these, each of which may be switched between a tom and a conga - little more than a shift in pitch between the two, I'd say. They were never likely to be realistic, and they never had the bite for Phil Collins impressions. But lying somewhere between the thrilling crack of a rock tom-tom and the gentle charm of a conga, is a genuine-sounding, rather charming trio of voices that can only be heard by switching on a TR808.
As for the most distinctive 808 voice, that has to be the cowbell. Clumsy, clonky and hopelessly underpitched, it sounded more like a sick monosynth than a cowbell, and initially found little favour with users. But then somebody, somewhere put one on a record, and more than any other TR808 sound, the cowbell has refused to lie down since. Even where more realistic-sounding drum machines have been used for a record's rhythm track, the 808 cowbell has put in an appearance; Stock, Aitken and Waterman's production of the current Mel & Kim hit 'Showing Out' credits the drum track to "A Linn", but the cowbell is pure vintage Roland.
Writing your own patterns on the TR808 isn't too difficult. By today's standards it's a bit of a trial, but in 1981 it was a revelation - of sorts. In a variation on real-time input, events are entered into a rhythm pattern or fill-in by running that pattern in Write mode. The pattern touch-switch LEDs along the bottom of the panel now represent the steps in that pattern in two groups of up to 16. Each LED lights momentarily, indicating your present position within the rhythm pattern. The voices are selected in turn and entered in one of two ways: either by pressing the touch-switch of the relevant pattern step, or by hitting a "Tap" button at the instant the voice is required to sound. Easy.
Easier still is song construction. A song consists of a series of rhythm patterns and fill-in patterns entered in real-time. Simply select the starting pattern, press Start, and from then on, select each subsequent pattern just prior to the finish of the current one (or the current one will repeat).
Simple - unless you make a mistake. Wrongly entered patterns may be overwritten by the correct one, but make a song too short and it's back to square one.
And there's precious little programmers can do to make their 808 patterns appear more lifelike. No swing function, no humanising options, and only a single accent facility that affects all voices programmed on each beat it's applied to.
Little wonder, then, that most TR808 patterns appear more mechanical than those programmed on more recent, more "human" beat-boxes.
Yet the TR808 only began to approach its heyday when musicians and producers realised it was no use trying to turn the machine into something it wasn't - namely a facsimile of a human drummer hitting a traditional drum kit.
'(Sexual) Healing' was one of the first records that used the 808's low-tech electronics as a deliberate feature, rather than as an excuse for a conventional kit. '19' did much the same three years on.
Both those productions used the Roland's voices in the most obviously appealing way, taking advantage of the 808's separate outputs to treat each sound individually, and making the rhythm track appear a lot larger than it really was.
Since then, though, other artists and producers have taken things a step further by throwing the TR808's faults into light relief. Witness Run DMC's 'Peter Piper', which relies on the long decay of the Roland's bass drum - a feature earlier users had regarded as a curse - to carry off its rhythm track.
When Roland dropped the TR808, they replaced it with a machine - the TR909 - that added MIDI, a more logical programming system, and digitally sampled hi-hats and cymbals to replace the 808's tinny endeavours. But gone was the ridiculous cowbell, gone were the congas, and with them went much of the 808's character, too.
But now even the 909 is becoming something of a collector's piece, since its relatively short production run was ended by the arrival of the all-digital TR707. Now, the 707 is many people's idea of a "good" drum machine, and indeed it satisfies the need for a collection of clean, well recorded drum voices.
Yet somehow, a gutless snare, flappy tom toms, sandpaper maracas, and a detuned cowbell interact to produce a more complete-sounding instrument than a disparate collection of samples. More recent machines may boast better paper specifications, greater convenience, and superior programming versatility. But few contain a set of sounds so well matched to each other, and few are likely to stand the test of time as well as the TR808 has.
So pick up one of Roland's gems while they're still freely (and cheaply) available. It may be the closest you'll ever get to owning a Synclavier, but in some future museum of musical and technological progress, the two will probably be sitting next to each other in adjacent cases.
Retrospective (Gear) by Tim Goodyer