What are 808s? Meaning, history and production tips

808s have a long history in music, especially in hip-hop. In this article you'll learn all about the legendary Roland TR-808 and the development of this drum machine over the years.
Roland TR-808
Table of contents

Anyone who has listened to a lot of German rap lately probably knows the phrase: "Young Mesh does the 808", right?

In the music world, as in all other fields, there are certain events, people, and objects, such as the phonograph, the headphones, or the Fender Stratocaster, that mark a before and after in music history and change the course of history.

One of these objects was the Roland TR-808, a groove box/drum computer that allowed a single musician to turn into a whole band, layering and combining different layers of sound to create complex songs without much equipment and without relying on the help of others.

Roland TR-808

The 808 was an integral part of the hip-hop culture and revolution in the 1980s, but was also used by musicians from all genres, including R&B, rock and pop, who used the iconic device to bring some of their biggest hits to life.

A good example of 808 bass in modern hip-hop/trap is "Gucci Gang" by Lil Pump.

Marvin Gaye gave the 808 its first hit with Sexual Healing, and from then on more and more musicians began to experiment with it, such as Kanye West, who produced an entire album (808s and Heartbreak) with the 808.

The device is the work of Japanese engineer Ikutaro Kekehashi. For the Roland company, the console used an analog system that gave hip-hop and dance music some of its most famous sounds, such as the explosive bass and the famous cowbell, and served as a precursor to the 909 and many other consoles that are still used today by musicians and producers with a clear preference for retro sounds.

The legendary Roland TR-808
The legendary Roland TR-808, now worth a fortune

Today, the 808 can be heard on some of the most iconic songs in history, from Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" to Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" to Jamie XX's "Gosh", and although it's not talked about much anymore, it remains one of the favorite instruments of some of the most important musicians on the scene today. In modern Hip-Hop, you hear the 808 everywhere too.

808 Clone from Behringer

Nowadays, a few clones of the 808 are produced - one of the most famous of them is the Behringer RD-8.

Behringer RD-8 MKII
Behringer RD-8 MKII

This drum machine is built exactly like the original 808 from Roland, but has some new, modern features built in, like the dual-mode filter and the Wave Designer.

You can connect the RD-8 to your DAW via USB and integrate it quite easily, which is very handy. Of course, this is not possible with the original Roland 808.

I tried these and the original Roland. Even though the Roland sound is still slightly better than Behringer's, old drum machines have their disadvantages, such as increased noise and need for maintenance.

That's why I would recommend anyone who is not ultra-rich to go for the Behringer model first. The sound is still damn good and it only costs 349€.

Link: Behringer RD-8 MKII

808 Clone from Roland

Roland actually produces the TR-08, a compact, modern replica of the original model. I never tried it myself - but heard and read only good things about it. The sound character should be closer to the original than the Behringer model.

Roland TR-08
Roland TR-08

The small size is also very practical - space is usually tight in the studio for producers. On the other hand, the buttons are somewhat smaller and more difficult to operate.

Link: Roland TR-08

808 Basses: Examples

In modern hip-hop music production, the following sounds are known as 808:

These are two loops from my Moog 808 Sample Pack, which I recorded from my Moog Subsequent 37 synthesizer.

This is the typical bass sound used in modern trap music. It has the fast attack of the Tr-808, but then was modified to have a long sustain and release that is more reminiscent of a bass than a drum machine. Nowadays, 808 basses like this are created with synthesizers.

The 808: Meaning in Hip-Hop

One of the first popular songs to use the 808 was "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa, a seminal track in hip-hop culture that brought rap to dance floors in the 1980s.

According to a statement by Arthur Baker (producer of "Planet Rock") in a documentary about the instrument, "rappers hated it at first."

"They didn't know what to do with the beat. They had to go home and rewrite it, they couldn't rap over it because it really wasn't contemporary anymore, so they ended up rapping to the beat of the machine. Today everybody does that, but back then it was different," says the producer, citing Run-DMC's song "I Like It" as an example in which this theme can be heard in detail.

The 808 was a major influence for Rick Rubin, the famous producer of artists like Adele, Red Hot Chili Peppers and others, in his early work in the industry with T La Rock, Jazzy J and the Beastie Boys.

808 Beat Production
808 Beat Production

In the middle of the last decade, Kanye West dedicated an entire album to the device with 808s & Heartbreak, on which the songs were composed exclusively with the drum machine.

Meanwhile, 808 basses are used everywhere in modern hip hop, by producers like Young Mesh, Murdabeatz or Beatdemons.

808: Significance in electronic music

Planet Rock itself influenced people like Juan Atkins, the acknowledged pioneer of techno, who started playing techno in the hangars of Detroit, expanding the genre.

Thanks in part to the 808, New Order found a source of inspiration for one of the most iconic dance songs of the eighties: "Blue Monday". It also inspired its creator Kakehashi to invent the TR-909, the machine that would bring Chicago house beats to life.

In the nineties, Aphex Twin, one of the representatives of experimental electronica, also used it for several pieces, while in recent years it has been reinvented by producers like Jaime XX.

808 Beats: How to produce them?
Hip-Hop Production: Akai's MPC

Also interesting: What is MIDI? A comprehensive overview of one of the most important inventions in music history

How to produce fat and massive 808 basses

808 Sub-Bass and the Sidechain Compression

Let's start by adding a sub-bass to get that part of the 808 that resonates in your chest and makes it sound like you're sitting in front of a fan instead of speakers. Feel free to use either a sample or a simple synth with 1 oscillator for this.

Add sidechain compression to work with the punch of the kick drum so that these two elements are not fighting for the same space in the spectrum.

The compressor should compress exactly when the kick hits. For this you need a fast attack. Release can then be adjusted as desired. This part is crucial for the sounds to fit together well, so take as much time as you need for this.

Attack time of the kick

Secondly, you need to use a kick drum that is crisp and has a short release time. No sub-bass frequencies so that it complements the 808 (the sub-bass) and together they create the "kick + punch in the chest" effect. It is important that the frequencies of the bass drum and the 808 sub-bass do not collide. Even if we have a sidechain in the sub, we get more cleanliness and power if they are not fighting for the same space.

The final touches

To give it a creative touch, you can add a synthesiser, remove all the frequencies that overlap with the two previous elements and add an effect (distortion, saturation, etc.). It is important that you also add the same sidechain that we put in the subbass, so that it seems to be the same sound.

This will give your 808 bass a more interesting and unique sound. A little distortion/saturation also helps to make the bass audible even on smaller speakers/phones.

More helpful tips

Tune the 808 to the key of your song

Since the 808 is only a sine wave, it has a fundamental frequency and can therefore be tuned. After you have selected your sample, you tune it to the key of your song.

808 beats
Very important: always voice your 808 basses to the root (tonic) of your song

Ideally, you should tune it to the root of the key, but this is not always possible. Alternatively, try tuning the 808 sample to a fifth (seven semitones) above the key signature.

In any case, make sure that it harmonises with the other instruments in the track.

Optimise the timing

After you have set the right tuning, you need to make sure that the timing of your 808 is just as good. The length of an 808 sample has a big impact on the production. If a sample fades out too early or not fast enough, it can make the song seem unbalanced. Almost like it's stumbling.

Adjust your clips to make sure the 808 stops on the right beat. Some 808s should be short, others longer. Some should end on a downbeat, others on the backbeat. It all depends on the song.

Make the 808 loud!

One of the best ways to make your 808s pop is also one of the easiest: Just make them loud in the context of the mix.

Especially in hip-hop, kick+bass like the 808 are often the loudest instruments in a mix. Instead of processing an 808 with half a dozen signal processors, just try to make it louder than the other instruments.

The 808 beats
The 808 bass must not be too loud, otherwise it will mask all other instruments.

Start with all the controls at the bottom. Bring the 808 up to an appropriate level in your DAW (probably somewhere around -18 dBFS). Then bring in all the other instruments around it.

This way, you don't have to try to squeeze the 808 into an existing mix, but can make it the focal point from the beginning.

Overlay 808 samples

808 samples are all about big, sustained bass. For a punchier, firmer sound, you can combine your 808 with additional kick drum samples for more attack.

A bass drum sample has harmonics that a bass doesn't have, and they come through better in the mix. Try to find a good sample with a lot of attack that goes well with your 808. Avoid kicks with a big, boomy bass. You may even need to apply a high-pass EQ to the kick sample to avoid muddying the mix.

Just make sure you don't cause any phase problems with the new kick sample. Listen to the 808 and the kick both separately and together and make sure you don't lose any low notes when switching between the two.

Process the 808 low-mids with the EQ

Now that you have loaded your samples, it's time to process the signal.

Start by boosting the bass with a transparent, bass-emphasising EQ. Raise the bass around the fundamental frequency of the song, usually around 40 Hz or so.

Then take your favourite parametric EQ and slightly cut the low mids around 250 Hz to remove any dirt. You may also need to make a small, narrow cut in the low frequencies to make room for other instruments like kick and bass.

With a pure 808 sample, there is not much information to work with in the high frequency range. But if you use a modified sample, you might be able to get some colour and character out of it with a high shelf (around 8 kHz).

Process the transients with a compressor

The tight, punchy sound of an 808 comes from the first transients. Use a compressor with a slow attack and fast release time to increase the snap of the sample if necessary. You don't need a lot of compression, just enough to support the initial transient.

Simply route the kick channel to an aux send. Assign the new aux send as the key input for the compressor. Then simply adjust the compressor controls so that the level of the 808 drops quickly each time the kick or bass kicks in. This way you make room for the 808 in the mix and separate the instruments from each other.

Multiband compression can also be a very useful tool to keep instruments in your mix. Put the 808 and the kick drum on a bus and add a multiband compressor. Adjust the controls to keep the bass better and the treble more prominent.

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