Trash to treasure. Imperfections leading to great art. Innovation versus perfection. And the iconic sound of it all.
Regardless of when you started listening to hip hop or pop music, you’ve heard the TR-808 drum machine. A product of the Roland Corporation in Tokyo in 1980, the TR-808 provided the beat for icons like Afrika Bambaataa, Marvin Gaye, the Beastie Boys, and Whitney Houston.
I recently watched the movie 808 (Amazon Prime Video). It was a cool trip down memory lane and showed the sweeping influence the 808 had on music. As technology goes (and musical instruments, as the 808 sits at the intersection of both), very few tools have had such an as awed and intense fan club.
What made the 808 great was that for a drum machine, it didn’t sound quite like a drum machine. There were better out there. But it was distinctive, accessible, and it caught it’s moment and crowd. That’s what took is from functional to legendary.
But there’s a twist.
Head’s up! This is a bit of a spoiler to a well-traveled story. But if you don’t know anything about the 808 and want to be surprised, stop reading now and come back later after you’ve watched the doc.
The final moments of the documentary feature the engineer behind the Roland TR-808. He tells a story – almost sheepishly – about how he intended the 808 to be higher fidelity, but it didn’t turn out that way. The transistors that the 808 were made with were faulty – throwaways from another Roland product. The 808 team repurposed the “flawed” transistors and the 808’s unique sound was born.
Over time, Roland got better at making the circuits. As they grew more reliable, the 808 team couldn’t source the parts the needed. Ultimately, the 808 went out of production and became a collector’s item and an icon because improved technology obsoleted it.
Lessons abound in that story.
BTW, TR-808s are going on eBay for $5,500-$7,500 right now, which maybe isn’t so bad. They went for $1,200 in 1980. How much fun could you have with an 808?
BTW, BTW, the documentary also has great stories about how the Beastie Boys got the sound for Paul Revere and what happened to the 808 that Marvin Gaye used on Sexual Healing.