The Null Device

Everyone needs an 808

The Independent's Rhodri Marsden has an article about the Roland TR-808, the classic electronic drum machine which became a staple of everything from hip-hop to electronica, from post-punk rock to adult-oriented soft-soul, and now having lent its name to a Kanye West album (somewhat ironically, perhaps, as there is little evidence of any 808s having been used in the making of the album; those who bought it expecting to hear some sweet sidestick-and-cowbell action will probably have reason to be disappointed).
And once you know what you're listening out for, you'll hear the 808 on innumerable tracks. Unfortunately, one of its most widely heard manifestations is the cowbell effect that hammers away like a distressed woodpecker during "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston. "That noise is the bane of my life," says Simon Thornton, the producer of Fatboy Slim and countless other British dance acts over the past two decades. "It makes you wonder which person at Roland actually decided that it sounded any good."
But one man's trash is another man's treasure, and Jyoti Mishra, the self-confessed producer of "camp synth pop" and former singles chart-topping artist under the name White Town, considers the same noise to be iconic. "And so are the claves, and so are the handclaps. Of course, they don't sound like handclaps – but strangely, they have somehow become the sound of handclaps. Every drum machine produced since then has had to feature that same kind of noise."
By the mid 1980s, the 808 had helped rap artists such as Run DMC and the Beastie Boys to worldwide success – but it was also dusted off in studios to provide backing for more laidback tunes, such as Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and "One More Night" by Phil Collins. "I got mine in 1983," says Mishra, "and immediately loved it. And those things it was criticised for – the limitations of its built-in sounds – are what ended up making it so popular."
The 808 pillow in the photo, incidentally, has nothing to do with the article per se, but comes from this article.

There are 2 comments on "Everyone needs an 808":

Posted by: Greg Tue Dec 16 04:17:43 2008

The article spends only a few words on the great user-interface. I think it was as much of the appeal of the 808 as its sound. So many (pre-computer) digital instruments had horrible little screens and overloaded buttons. If only my VCR was as easy to program! I like how they singled out the kick sound for praise - but hey that snare was killer too. And re music influenced by the 808, did they mention techno? - an entire genre based on this machine and it's companion the 303 bass synthesizer. I wish more indie-pop bands would use them - the Cannanes feature their 808 on a few tracks.

Posted by: acb Tue Dec 16 10:13:18 2008

Isn't the indie-pop equivalent of the x0x gear Casiotone keyboards? Though I did see Vince & Glen of Underground Lovers (not quite indie-pop, though in the same universe) using an 808 when playing support for The Paradise Motel in the mid-1990s.