What Makes a Great Sound: The Roland TR-808 Kick

Roland 808

In music, the 808 kick has become synonymous with bass and has been referenced in songs such as “I Like the Way You Move Me,” by Outkast, and “Your Love,” by Kesha. Kanye West even named his album 808s and Heartbreaks after the iconic 808. Without question, the Roland TR-808 is the most famous drum machine in history. While other machines have made an impact on modern music, no other can claim its iconic genre defining status.

Known for its massive booming kick drum sound, the unit was released in 1981 and produced until 1984. It sold a meager 12,000 units and was considered a commercial failure.

The 808 was originally marketed to professional musicians who needed to create demos, but musicians of the time didn’t like the 808’s sounds. The kick sound didn’t at all resemble a real kick drum and the snare was sharp and abrasive, with an electronic sizzling sound. Many also felt the programmed rhythms were robotic and lacked the human feel of a real drummer. 

The inauthentic sounds were primarily a result of Roland’s analog synthesis. Roland chose to use analog technology to synthesize drum sounds because the computer memory required for digital sampling in 1981 was incredibly expensive. While sampling was possible in those days, as the Linn LM-1 drum machine famously attests, the LM-1 retailed at $4,995 in 1980, that’s about $16,000 in today’s money. 

Using analog synthesis allowed Roland to make a drum machine that was much more affordable ($1,195 in 1981) and within reach of everyday musicians. But while players of the day didn’t like the sounds, a new generation of young artists fell in love with the futuristic tones and programmability of the TR-808. Now available at rock bottom prices on the used market, young musical pioneers found the 808 to have a sound that was raw, intense, urban, and fit the style of the street. 

The deep subsonic bass tone of the 808 kick allowed artists in rap, hip hop, techno, and various forms of electronic music to create their own sonic identity. Early examples in which the 808 kick is prominent include “Paul Revere,” by the Beastie Boys and “Sexual Healing,” by Marvin Gaye. 

The 808 kick has been a staple of rap, hip hop, and techno since its inception and remains so to this day. Original Roland TR-808 units are highly collectable and there are countless modern synths, software synths, drum machines, and sample libraries which feature authentic or mimicked 808 sounds. 

Today it is difficult to tell if an 808 kick sound comes from an authentic unit, a sample, or from one of the many copycat products on the market today. Either way, any time you hear that low, booming, subsonic sound, you’ll know its origin lies in the original Roland TR-808 kick drum.