Although the 80s are long gone, their legacy lives on in the kicks and snares of the following four drum machines: Roland TR-808, Roland TR-909, E-mu SP-1200, and Roland TB-303 (303 is not really a drum machine, but it deserves to be mentioned here). Numerous musicians have used these drum machines to create music in the past and they are still heavily featured on the airwaves today. Countless classic electronic and hip hop tracks would not have been made if it weren’t for them.
Roland TR-808 (Featured on Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing, Beastie Boys – Brass Monkey)
Every bit of 808’s sound has been dissected and utilized in all kinds of songs imaginable. Play it straight out? You get an 80s song. More cowbells and hand claps? You get a funkier 80s song. Fiddle around with EQ and compressor? You get an epic trance kick! Just crank up the gain? You get yourself Lil’ Wayne. Notably, 808’s kick is one of the most frequently used kick sounds in the music industry. The 808 is incredibly versatile-used in pop, rock, techno, house, and hip hop.
Roland TR-909 (Featured on Daft Punk – Revolution 909)
TR-909 offers more realistic sounds than 808, while retaining the unique analog feel. 909’s kick in comparison to 808 is more punchy and tight, which is appropriate for house and techno music. TR-808 had fallen out of favour for some dance music producers because 808 had been so abundantly used in pop music. TR-909 came to the rescue as an ideal alternative to 808 which was different yet familiar. This move turned out to be a futile effort as an increasing number of producers began using 909 and innumerable pop music tracks feature 909 today.
E-mu SP-1200 (Featured on Notorious B.I.G – Juicy)
SP-1200 is a drum machine with a sampler that represents the golden age of hip hop music. SP-1200 was used to create some of the finest hip hop music in the 90s. SP-1200 can sample up to mere 10 seconds with a poor sampling frequency of 26.04 kHz. However, this poor sampling ability of SP-1200 was actually welcomed by hip hop producers because the sampler had a unique ability to add a warm gritty vinyl texture to its samples. 1200 held a place on every hip hop producer’s workspace in the 90s. Although many hip hop producers migrated to Akai MPCs and digital music workspace, drum samples from SP-1200 are still prevalently used today in hop hop.
Roland TB-303 (Featured on Josh Wink – Higher State of Consciousnes, Hardfloor – Acperience 1)
The original rave music genre, acid house, was born with TB-303. TB-303 is not a drum machine. Its original intent was to simulate bass sounds, but it doesn’t sound much like a bass at all. Instead, it sounds industrial, edgy, hard-hitting on treble rather than bass, and stereotypically “techno.” In the early days of rave, some DJs performed gigs with nothing more than 303 accompanied by 808 or 909 to fully exploit the explosive sound of 303. 303 can unleash magic with just frequency cutoff, tuning, resonance, and decay parameters alone, but it sounds more expressive when it is played with some effects. 303 appears frequently in techno music.
Keep in mind that the four machines are in way no pushing the technological boundary of audio electronics. In fact, these machines are technologically inferior to their contemporary counterparts and lack a handful of useful features found in more modern drum machines. Some of these machines are so old that they don’t even have midi interface. Additionally, all these machines purport to simulate the sound of real drums, despite sounding nothing like them. However, this imperfect simulation of drums is what made these drum machines so special and their sound so enduring. These four drum machines opened up an entirely new outlet of creativity for a generation of electronic and hip hop producers in the 80s and 90s. It seems likely that these four machines will continue to have resounding influence on musicians and music fans alike.