You may have heard of the term "808's" from the software you use to produce your music or maybe you've heard the term from the artists you've listened to in the past. In this day and age, most of the top records from some of the largest artists use 808's in their songs and if you have an interest in music production, it's important to have a full understanding of what exactly an 808 is. Get ready to deep-dive into the story of how 808's came to be and how they're used in music production today.
What is an 808?
I feel that it is essential to start by asking (and answering) this question. What in the world is an 808? To answer this we have to go back a few decades to the late 1970s. Music up to this point in time was mostly recorded in studios with physical instruments with multiple artists. In 1978, the company Roland Corporation decided to make its mark in the music industry by releasing a drum machine which at the time was relatively unheard of. They called this first drum machine CR-78 originally created for accompaniment as it gave users the ability to create and store their drum patterns. The legendary music songwriter and producer, Phil Collins, was one of the early users of this device using CR-78 in the song "In The Air Tonight". As the device gained popularity in the music industry, Roland continued to build and improve their drum machines. This brings us to 1980. This was a very important year because this is the year that Roland released a drum machine called The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, a completely new and innovative way for producers to record their drum sounds.
The board consists of a circuit board at the bottom where there are 16 buttons where the user can store their prerecorded beats and play them over each other by switching multiple buttons down. Above the switches, you have your controls for panoramics and gain as well as a couple of tuning knobs. On the left side of the board you have the name of your preset, the pattern you want, and the kit you want to use which are all stored on the device. Below that section, there is volume control, an instrument selection knob, and your start/stop button.
Though the Roland TR-808 had an enormous impact on planting the seed for electronic drum machines, the device was discontinued only three years (1983) after its first production. There were a couple of reasons for this discontinuation:
- A key component of the board that gives the iconic 808 sizzle sound lost it's supply
- Competition from other companies
Supplies for a very particular component of the 808, known as a 2SC828-R, had a limited supply and you're probably thinking, "Well why don't they just make more?". The reason being that in the late 1970s, Roland bought a large batch of rejected transistors which the company then thinned out to create the classic 808 sizzle sound. Since this was only one batch of faulty transistors, supply was limited and by the third year of production, the board was discontinued. Competition also played a large role in diminishing the sales and supply of the TR-808. The Linn LM-1 was one of their main competitors which saw more sales success... at first.
Patience and Greatness
Sure the TR-808 was only in production for a few years and sure the sales may not have been what was expected, but as the music culture started to shift towards the use of more technology in production, producers began using the device more frequently in hits such as:
- "Paul Revere" - Beastie Boys (1986)
- "I Want to Dance with Somebody" - Whitney Houston (1987)
- "The Way You Move" - Outkast (2003)
- "Love Lockdown" - Kanye West (2008)
The video below goes into more detail about the use of 808's in these songs.
Previously mentioned was a song by Kanye West, "Love Lockdown". Most people know of Kanye's impact as an artist and producer in the music industry and have more than likely heard a song by him. In 2008, Kanye released his fourth studio album, 808's and Heartbreaks which since its release, has been one of the most influential projects ever released. The album dropped following the artists' mother's passing the previous year which allowed an emotional twist on the album that combined the use of emotional strings, icy keys, and many 808's.
This is a great example of the use of 808's in more modern music but 2008 was over a decade ago. Let's look at some examples of 808's in the 2010s. Welcome to the era of trap music ft. Metro Boomin. Technology had advanced exponentially going into the 2010s which meant that music production was becoming more and more technical with the techniques used as well as the rise of production software availability. Previous to this era, most people would have to go to a studio or send recorded music to a mixer or engineer to put their songs together. However, laptops and even smartphones started to release applications that anyone could purchase, for a price, which had pre-downloaded sound packs and an interface to create your own music. MIDI keyboards and microphones were becoming commonplace at producer's houses and in-house studios began to rise. Trap music gained popularity through this new availability of sounds and applications mainly in Atlanta where some of the biggest artists are out of. Trap refers to "selling drugs out of a house illegally" and the feeling that word brings was relayed in Trap Music. Gucci Mane is considered a pioneer in the trap music industry as apparent from his early releases such as "Lemonade" (2009) where we hear some of the first big Atlanta trap sounds. Moving into the next few years we see artists like Migos, Travis Scott, Drake, and most other big rap artists begin to use deep bass 808's in their music.
It doesn't seem that 808's will be going away anytime soon. If you take a look at the top genres of music today, hip-hop and rap are near the top of the list at number two. The use of 808's has only increased over time with the rise in producers like Metro Boomin, Wheezy, and Pierre Bourne. The biggest artists on the planet work with these producers and continue to crank out hit after hit using the classic 808 sound as well as adding hi-hat beats, snare hits, bass drum knocks, and open-hat sizzles among other sounds. On June 11, 2021, Pierre Bourne, a well-known producer released The Life of Pierre 5, one of his many projects to date. Pierre is known for his symbolic producer tag and his use of unique 808's in his music. This album showcases his use of 808's as well as his ability to rap over his own music.
How can you use 808's?
There are plenty of ways now where you can use an 808 or create your own. Online, many suppliers have sound packs for 808's that you can download and use on your software of choice. In your software, you will be able to manipulate the sound to make it however punchy or limited you want it to be and you have the ability to create patterns and loops. There are many software's you can use for example Apple's Logic Pro X. If you wanted to create an 808 sound, you can go into the preset channel ES2 Synthesizer, open up the board, select Analog Saw Init from the preset options, change the audio to mono, change the waveform to a sine wave (because that's what an 808 essentially is) and from there you can change other features to get it to the sound you want. Once you have your 808 preset loaded in and you've created a pattern you're comfortable with, you just have to add your other sounds and instruments to it and you could release the next Magnolia.
In The Loop Community
We hope you've learned a bit more about what 808's are, their history, and how they are used in today's music. The entire purpose of In The Loop is to connect growing artists and producers and allow them to showcase their work in a space for constructive feedback while also participating in competitions tailored to the community. Currently, we are creating our community on Discord as we finalize our application, In The Loop. We are always looking for new beta testers to help improve the application so that we can be sure to match our app to user wants and needs.
Interested in learning more about 808's and their impact on the music industry? Check out these other articles and videos to learn more!