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Hands On: Roland TR808 Drum Machine

If any drum machine ever deserved classic status, it must surely be Roland's TR808. David Mellor explains how to programme that perfect beat on a machine that led the beat box revolution.

When my research assistant first caught sight of this machine his first comment was, "What's that heap of old rubbish". Actually, he used a word other than "rubbish". "Your job for the day," I told him, cracking the whip very gently, "is to figure out how to operate this machine and then tell me what you think of it." Grudgingly, he carried the fairly bulky unit to a far corner of the room. A little while later he asked me, "Is this TR808 the same as an 808?". Obviously the common abbreviation of the model number is better known than the whole thing. The rest of the afternoon was spent in a frenzy of button pushing with a happy clatter of booms, bangs and tinkles gently emerging from his headphones.

I first came across the Roland TR808 soon after its introduction more than a decade ago. I found it fascinating that you could get exactly the drum beat you wanted without recourse to cajoling, bribing or threatening a musician who was more interested in showing off his capabilities than being the nucleus of a solid rhythm section. Unfortunately, or so I thought at the time, the sounds were totally unrealistic. No-one could mistake any of these sounds for the real thing, and since the asking price for the TR808 was quite considerable, I didn't buy one. All good instruments have their day, however, and the Roland TR808 came into its own with the house/acid/rave boom, and the sounds that it produces are now extremely widely used, together with the sounds from the 808's successor the Roland TR909 — another classic instrument. Unfortunately for Roland, the TR808 boom didn't arrive until the machine had long been out of production, although the number of units around now shows that it must have sold reasonably well in the early days.

You may choose to argue over whether the TR808 is a classic instrument in its own right, or whether the 808 sounds are the classics. After all, a drum machine is easily sampled, and once installed in an S1000 or S750 the samples will sound pretty much like the real thing, with the advantages of MIDI programmability, lower cost, and a significant space saving. With any digital drum machine I would say this is mostly true. But with the TR808 and other analogue machines, however, there is a world of difference between using samples and having the real thing to hand. For one thing, many of the sounds can be modified in a way that can't accurately be imitated by a sampler's editing facilities. Also, a sampled 808 bass drum just isn't the real thing — it's like a Polaroid snap compared to real life.

Also, although many TR808s have had MIDI retrofits and can be controlled by modern sequencers, there is a special 'something' about composing a rhythm track with the programming facilities of the unit itself. You will get under the skin of the instrument and produce those characteristic 808 drum patterns very quickly.


Although we are now used to having thousands of sounds at our fingertips, the TR808 has just 16 basic instruments:

Bass drum
Snare drum
Low tom
Mid tom
Hi tom
Rim shot
Open hi-hat
Closed hi-hat
Low conga
Mid conga
Hi conga

The choice is further restricted by the fact that you have to choose between using the toms, the rimshot and clap, or the latin sounds. But no matter: sometimes limitations like this lead to enhanced creativity, and no-one can deny the inspirational properties of the TR808. Be warned that listening to an 808 through the main mixed output is not the way to do it. To get the best out of these sounds you have to use the 12 individual outputs connected to a mixing console with a good EQ section, preferably with a compressor available to put some additional oomph into the famous speaker-bursting 808 bass drum.

The editing facilities may seem limited, but within the 808's sonic universe they work well. The bass drum has rotary controls (not increment buttons!) for tone and decay; the snare drum has tone and something called 'snappy'; the toms and congas can be tuned (and tuning here is rather different in quality to tuning a sample); the cymbal has tone and decay, and the open hi-hat has just decay. All the sounds have their own level controls, but if you are going via the individual outputs into a mixing console these will not be important.


It may seem amazing that you can construct drum patterns without the aid of a computer monitor, or at the very least an LCD display. But in the heyday of the TR808, buttons, switches and LEDs were all the rage. Pattern programming is not intuitive on the 808 so you'll need some help. The instruction manual, if it has survived its journey through more than a decade of time, will help. If you don't have that, read on...

Don't expect miracles from this piece of classic technology. The TR808 can only store 32 patterns, divided into two banks called, surprisingly enough, A and B. Once you have managed to grab an 808 for yourself for a couple of hours, switch on the machine and press Basic Rhythm number 1. Select Pattern Clear on the knob in the top left corner with the Basic Variation switch to the left, then press the small red button and you have some free space to work in. Set the knob in the top left corner, which really ought to be labelled 'Mode', to Pattern Write 1st Part.

The first part of the pattern writing procedure is to set the length of the bar. (When the machine was first produced, Roland overlooked the fact that all music has four beats to the bar, and that each beat is always divided into four sixteenth notes. And, come to think of it, uses a system of musical scales devised at a time when dinosaurs still walked the earth.) Despite this unnecessary stage in the proceedings, all you have to do, for most purposes, after clearing the pattern is to set something called the Pre-scale. Just in case you do need to use a rhythm pattern other that that used for 99.9% of chart music I have included a panel with some simple instructions for the other steps you will need to take.

The next part of the pattern writing procedure is the fun bit — banging the drums! You can program in either step or real time: the first is precise but mechanical; the second is more 'rhythmic', but you're probably going to have to make corrections. It doesn't matter; either way is easy enough. Drum beats can be programmed step by step by choosing the required sound with the Instrument Select switch, then selecting the step numbers you want that sound to play on, with a row of buttons, while the pattern is running. To record another instrument, change the setting of the Instrument Select switch and select the appropriate steps once again. As you do this, you can see from the LEDs inset into the step buttons where the beats are going to fall. An incorrect beat can be cancelled by pressing the button a second time.

A slight disadvantage to this programming technique is that you can only see and program one instrument at a time, but my advice would be to turn this into an advantage by looking on it as a different way of programming, one that will yield different results to a machine which has a whole array of drum pads.

Tap (real-time) programming is available without any further knob switching or button pushing. To write beats for the currently selected instrument into the pattern while it is running, simply hit the Tap button whenever the mood takes you. If you miss the beat, simply deselect the step you've just written, and have another go.

"With the TR808 and other analogue machines, there is a world of difference between using samples and having the real thing to hand."

This is pattern programming at its basic level, and it may be as far as you want to go, but the TR808 has other tricks up its sleeve. For a start each pattern can have one or two parts. If you only need 16 steps, then use only part 1 as described above. If you need more, then you'll also need to use part 2, which can be found on the Mode switch. If your rhythm needs 20 sixteenth notes (you adventurous devil!) then part 1 can contain 16, and part 2 just four. (If you have used part 2 of any pattern, then parts 1 and 2 always play alternately — there is no way to access the second part of any pattern by itself.)

Another of the 808's tricks is the way Roland have provided playback functions other than just Go and Stop. As I mentioned earlier, each pattern has an A and B version. If you wish you can switch between these manually, while the machine is playing, to get a variation when you feel like it. The rhythm always changes on the bar line, so you never lose the beat. The only exception to this is when you change exactly on the first beat, when the unit will change to the second pattern on beat two. You can, if your fingers are sufficiently nimble, change to any of the 32 patterns during playback, so there is obviously more inherent 'playability' in this machine than current drum machines and sequencers allow.

Another plus: real drummers add fills when they feel the rhythm needs a lift. You can do this on the TR808 because the last four patterns of each bank are given over to that function. It's up to you to program suitable fills, but once you have done this you can trigger a fill at any time while a pattern is running simply by hitting the Tap button. The fill pattern is composed in the normal way. In normal playback mode, you'll find that two LEDs are on, one from the set of 12 basic patterns, one from the Intro/Fill-in section. Once started, the fill will play the bar after you press the Tap button, one time only. Alternatively you can set the Auto Fill-in control so that the fill occurs every two, four, eight or 16 bars. Finally, note that if you hit Tap before you press Start, the fill-in pattern will be played as a 1-bar introduction. You should have fun experimenting with these little tricks.


A rhythm track is simply a sequence of patterns, taken from the 16 in Bank A or 16 in Bank B. Programming is done in real time (which you may if you like slow down using the Tempo control) and the Intro/Fill-in feature works exactly as in Pattern Play mode. Basically, what you hear is what you get, so perhaps the Rhythm Track function is best used for simple drum tracks only. Roland refined this feature in their later machinery.

Since so much music currently featuring the TR808 is predominantly loop-based, perhaps it isn't likely that users will want to program changing rhythm tracks. But styles change — maybe 'loop and variations' will be next year's big thing. Anyway since programming a simple rhythm track is perfectly straightforward, I would say it ought to be in any TR808 user's repertoire of tricks.

To compose a Rhythm Track, first create all the patterns you will need, and ideally a blank pattern as well. Change the mode to Track Compose, turn the Rhythm Track knob to 1, and press the red Clear button. This will create a free space for up to 768 bars. If you want to have more than one Rhythm Track, you can program 12 in all, but bear in mind that if you do so each track will only hold 64 bars, which for many purposes would not be enough. When you are ready to start, select your first pattern and hit Start. Now your fingers will have to fly over the buttons, because what you hear while you record you will hear when you play back — including and intros and fills, and any mistakes you make. Pressing the Start/Stop button tells the 808 that you've come to the end of the track.

Editing is rudimentary — you have to wait while all the bars that were correct play through, then overwrite your mistakes and continue to the end of the track. Playing back the track is totally straight forward. The only point to watch out for is that the track will repeat once it reaches the end — hence the desirability of a blank bar, to give you plenty of time to stop the machine.

One drawback to this procedure is that you can't record the position of the A/B switch, so if you want to use more than 16 patterns you'll have to operate it in real time while you play the Rhythm Track. Never mind, it'll give you that true 'hands on' feeling!


Many examples of the TR808 are now fitted with MIDI interfaces. The machine I borrowed for this article came complete with In and Thru sockets — note that different MIDI retrofits may offer slightly different facilities, so I won't go into details of this particular one. All I will say is that having the classic Roland TR808 interfaced with my Mac running Cubase is a real clash of cultures, and bringing two very different technologies together in this way creates ideal conditions for making original sounds in much the same way as does a MIDI'd MiniMoog. You can play the sounds via a MIDI keyboard, with some degree of velocity sensitivity, or set a pattern or rhythm track running in sync with your sequence. Well worth a bit of experimentation I'd say.

Although the Roland TR808 is one of the oldest classic pieces of equipment featured so far in this series, music that you hear every day shows that it is still relevant. Don't forget that just because an instrument is old and you don't see it in the shops doesn't mean that you can't have access to it. Go to a studio with one, find a friend with one, hire one if you have to. Mixing old and new technologies is one way of coming up with something totally innovative.

Thanks to Andrew Brown, and to Audiohire (Contact Details) for the loan of the TR808.


OK, so only most music comes in 4-beat, 16 sixteenth note (semiquaver) bars. Other common rhythms are three quarter notes (crotchets), six eighth notes (quavers), two quarter notes or 12 eighth notes to the bar. In Roland terms these last four correspond to, respectively, pre-scale settings 3, 2, 4 and 1. The standard four beat bar is pre-scale 3 also. Besides the pre-scale, you have to tell the TR808 which is the last sixteenth note of the bar, so that even more complex rhythms are possible, examples of which classroom trained musicians might call 5/4, 7/8, 11/16 and so on. Also, by using the 2nd Part function, a pattern can be extended to 32 steps, effectively allowing rhythms such as 31/32 etc. Real musicians usually don't play this stuff, but then the playing of a good musician has a rhythmic subtlety that most machine derived music lacks.

To set the pre-scale, position the switch according to whether you want a large number of eighth notes or a small number of quarter notes in the bar, hit Start, then hold the Clear button while pressing the Step No. switch that represents the last note of the bar. For example, for a 12/8 rhythm, select pre-scale 1 and set the last note to 12. For a 3/4 rhythm, select pre-scale 3 and set the last note to 12 once again.

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Feb 1993


Drum Programming

Vintage Instruments

Gear in this article:

Drum Machine > Roland > TR-808

Gear Tags:

Analog Drums

Feature by David Mellor

Previous article in this issue:

> Yamaha RM50

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> Win A Digitech VHM5 Vocalist...

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