The Null Device

Don Lewis and the Roland TR-808

An interesting article on the genesis of the Roland TR-808, and how Roland's famous line of drum machines owes its existence to an American musician and circuit-bending pioneer named Don Lewis:
Raised with a rich gospel tradition in Dayton, he brought his myriad musical talents to San Francisco in the ‘60s, where he was a staple in nightclubs. His one-man-band became known for its wild array of electronic instrumentation, which was still a novelty in those days — a small truckload of synthesizers and early rhythm boxes accompanied Don’s richly-vocoded tenor to make a sound no one had heard but everyone liked.
Don had been hired by the Hammond organ company to demo its products on the show floor. He was using an Ace Tone rhythm box (which was distributed by Hammond at the time) as his percussion section. "I had modified my Ace Tone to death, changed all the rhythms because none of them fit my style of playing. I also wired it through the expression pedal of the Hammond, so I could get [percussion] accents, which no one was doing then. After the show this man from Japan came up and the first thing out of his mouth was ‘that looks like my rhythm unit but it doesn’t sound like my rhythm unit! How did you do that?’" It was Ikutaro Kakehashi, the president of Ace Tone.
Kakehashi went on to found Roland Corporation, capitalising on Lewis' suggestion for a rhythm box with modifiable rhythms (or, what later became known as a drum machine), and hiring Lewis as an engineer, to work on projects including the CR-68 and, eventually, the TR-808.
On a visit to Roland’s Tokyo offices in the late ‘70s, Don was working with chief engineer Tadao Kikumoto. "That day he had a bread board of an 808 and was showing me what was going on inside — he sort of bumped up against the breadboard and spilled some tea in there and all of a sudden he turned it on and got this pssh sound — it took them months to figure out how to reproduce it, but that ended up being the crash cymbal in the 808. There was nothing else like it. Nobody could touch it."
The article also describes Lewis' homemade Live Electronic Orchestra, the complex of ancient synthesizers and other circuits which Lewis played live back in the 1960s, and which has been restored for a special performance at the NAMM music trade fair:
It’s a one-off work of art, a kind of who’s who of vintage synthesizers networked to one another through connection standards the industry has long forgotten but Don is still fluent in. A series of hand-built buffer boards and timing modules allow an Arp Pro Soloist to talk to a Promars Computronic and a Roland Jupiter-4. The Hammond expression pedal can control a variety of parameters for any of the sounds coming through the Boss KM-6A mixer, whose channels Don built a remote control panel for right into the body of the three-stage organ. It’s basically a 1977 copy of Ableton Live that weighs two tons, doesn’t have a EULA, and does a heart-melting rendition of "Amazing Grace."

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