One of the most ubiquitous electronic instruments to ever hit the market, the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer (a.k.a. Drum Machine) has risen to legendary status both in name and in sound within the music industry. Featured on hit records in every genre of music under the sun, the 808 is still being used by rappers and rockers alike to this day.
First brought to market in early 1980 as a studio tool for creating song demos, the TR-808 fell in line with other Roland drum machines of the time by synthesizing its signature drum hits instead of sampling them. It did not sound very much like a real drum kit, and initially could not keep up with the sound and popularity of more expensive sample-based drum machines, such as the Linn LM-1 and the LinnDrum. Professionals considered the sound of the 808 to be inferior to the real sounds of inventor Roger Linn’s digital masterpieces. However, since the 808 only cost a fifth of what these sample based drum machines cost and was produced in a (relatively) much higher quantity, the TR-808 quickly established itself as an entry point into the world of drum machines, becoming a staple of hip-hop and rap music almost immediately after it’s release.
I believe that the TR-808 initially fits within the confines of John Onian’s Four Stages of Amazement quite well, but manages to break the rules at the end, just like a well-written piece of music.
John Onian’s Four Stages of Amazement are the following: “(1) a striking experience, usually visual, but sometimes aural; (2) a consequent physical paralysis; and (3) a mental reaction which results in something being learned which may be followed by (4) a new action.” (Gunning 41) Historically, this sequence leads to technology becoming boring and complacent, and I argue that the TR-808 has resisted such descriptions, instead becoming revered and sought after. The initial stages of amazement and striking experience are well documented;
“I first heard about the 808 a month or so before it was launched in 1981, and I was so blown away by the specification and price that I went straight down to Rod Argent’s music shop in Denmark Street and put down a deposit to secure one from the first shipment, without even hearing it!” (Sound On Sound, May 1997).
However, the legendary drum machine hasn’t become so commonplace that people aren’t in awe of it’s uniqueness anymore; rather, it has become so commonplace and sought after that Roland managed to re-release an identical, digital version of the same exact product almost thirty years after it’s initial release. It’s also one of the most sampled electronic instruments of all time, and regularly sells for over $4000 on eBay.