Seldom does a piece of equipment influence music to the degree that Roland‘s TR-808 Rhythm Composer has. Coinciding with this year’s 808 Day – August 8th, 2020 – is the 40th anniversary of the epoch-making drum machine. The manufacturer has celebrated with as much fanfare as one might expect.
The Roland website’s dedicated TR-808 page now features an animated infographic on the history of the device split into four parts: “The Origin,” “Production,” “Crossover” and “Made On 808.” They have also tapped artists like Carl Craig, Arthur Baker, A Guy Called Gerald, Cozmo D, Jimmy Jam, Jermaine Dupri, Terry Lewis, and the Avila Brothers to speak for a YouTube video titled “Building the Beat: Inside Legendary Roland TR-808 Tracks.”
Roland has also published an exclusive interview with Tadao Kikumoto, who oversaw the team of engineers who developed the TR-808.
The TR-808’s predecessor was a piece of equipment called the CompuRhythm CR-78. As its name suggests, it was released in 1978 and was the first drum machine to allow users to program their own rhythms.
Under Kikumoto was Hiro Nakamura, whom was tasked with designing the analogue “voice circuits” of the product. Originally intended for use in musicians’ demos, the synthesizer’s 2SC828-R transistors gave the sounds produced by it a patina of white noise that became its calling card. Its programming keyboard also provided a template for music sequencers in the years that followed.
Following its 1980 release, the TR-808 was not an instant success. For producers on a budget, however, it put a then-cutting-edge style within reach. Afrika Bambaataa‘s “Planet Rock” arguably popularized the sound, and such superstars as Whitney Houston, Public Enemy and Usher have been instrumental in its ongoing ubiquity. Electronic music singles like “Clear” by Cybotron, “Xtal” by Aphex Twin, and “Spastik” by Richie Hawtin as Plastikman would not have been possible without the drum machine.
Roland has invited music fans to post stories about the TR-808 Rhythm Composer with the hashtag #808day, promising to share the best ones on their website.