The Roland TR-808 and the Tale of the Marching Anteaters
The TR-808 Rhythm Composer looms large in the world of drum machines (electronic musical instruments that mimic the sound of drums). You know its sounds, even if you are unaware of their origin.
The Roland Corporation (a Japanese electronic musical instrument manufacturer) released the TR-808 in 1980 to critical apathy and disappointing sales, but the distinctive sounds of its all-analog percussion voice circuits eventually catapulted it to popularity. Over the next decade, following early and notable uses in hits like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”  and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” , “the 808” became iconic in rap and hip hop musical communities. Alongside the TB-303 Bass Line and other seminal devices, it contributed to the soundscape and mode of production of the nascent “Acid House” sound that was taking shape in Chicago (Shapiro 2000). Today, it still attracts acolytes, and its sound (especially the bass drum) is ubiquitous across all forms of pop and dance music.
Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force - “Planet Rock”
Roland’s official blog boasts: “the TR-808 has been used on more hit records than any other drum machine” (Valle 2014). When you turn on the radio today, you still hear artists referencing and promoting the device. For example, consider the title of Kanye West’s 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak  or the lyrics to Ke$ha’s “Your Love is My Drug” and Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” . Lyrical references to the venerated drum machine are not a new phenomenon either; the Beastie Boys were early proponents of the 808, which was featured prominently on their Billboard-chart-topping and Rick-Rubin-produced 1986 debut album Licensed to Ill. By the time they rapped “nothing sounds quite like an 8-0-8” (Beastie Boys 1998) over ten years later, nobody disagreed. Today, the 808 is still in the news; director Alexander Dunn and producer Alex Noyer look to the past with a feature-length documentary film, 808, currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit (You Know Films 2015) and Roland themselves are looking to the future with a recently released digital reimagining of the device—the TR-8 from their new Aira line (Nagle 2014).
Popular commentary and academic discourse alike recognize the 808 and assure its stature in electronic music history. However, if you spend enough time reading expositions like the previous paragraphs, you will begin to notice a great deal of uncritical repetition. An analytic echo chamber has been formed by the journalistic fixation on some of the more twee anecdotes in the 808’s history. Academic writing seems more interested in teasing out musical, cultural, and social histories that include the drum machine on their periphery, but not the device itself. Over time, these forces have crystallized and distorted the story of the 808, sometimes even steering it towards the counterfactual. This situation developed in a context where commentators celebrate the experiences and triumphs of larger-than-life musicians and their pristine moments of accidental discovery (see Wolbe 2013). On the topic of his upcoming film 808, Alexander Dunn explains that it “explores the stories and experiences of the artists at the forefront of [musical] movements” (You Know Films 2015)—this perspective is key to understanding how the mainstream story of the 808 developed.
Mythologizing musical instruments is a classic narrative and rhetorical trope, but one that we might think, perhaps, has been relegated to the annals of history. In the first three sentences of his book, The History of Musical Instruments, preeminent organologist Curt Sachs writes:
Music histories written before the nineteenth century usually start with an account of the mythological invention of the earliest instruments. Cain’s descendant, Jubal, is said to be the ‘father of all such as handle the harp and the organ,’ Pan is credited with the invention of the pan-pipes, and Mercury is supposed to have devised the lyre when one day he found a dried-out tortoise on the banks of the Nile. Myth has since been replaced by history, and the invention of musical instruments is no longer attributed to gods and heroes. (1940)
It is a hopeful introduction that speaks to confidence in modern historical methods. But perhaps Sachs has made an overstatement; the story of the 808 (where myth plays a central role) casts some doubt on history’s interpretive lens of even very recent events.
In this article, I aim to put pressure on, and ultimately debunk, one of the most enduring and colorful stories in the mythology of the 808.
A halo of legend surrounds exegesises of popular musical instruments like the TR-808. One of these legends is the story of the TR-808’s ignoble comparison to “marching anteaters.” If you read about the 808 online for a few moments, you are sure to find a commentator telling some subtle variation on the following story: in 1982, a Keyboard Magazine review of the Linn Electronics LinnDrum compared the sound of the TR-808 to “marching anteaters.” This irresistible story perfectly encapsulates critical attitudes toward the 808 at a crucial point in its history, the moment that initial distaste for the instrument lay the groundwork for a steady rise to its current stature as the king of drum machines. Given its blithe and amusing imagery, it comes as no surprise that today, the story itself is oft-repeated to the point of ubiquity (Burns 2007, Marsden 2011, Felton 2012, Kirn 2013, Mr. Beatnick 2014, Hoffman 2014, Handmer 2015). The only problem is, it is not true.
In my studies of the 808, I eventually grew suspicious of the “marching anteaters” anecdote. Not a single mention included actual text from the 1982 Keyboard Magazine review or key bibliographic details like the author’s name, issue month, or page number. I went digging in the Stanford University Music Library, which retains archives of music periodicals like Keyboard, for answers.
In November 1982, Dominic Milano did indeed review the Linn Electronics LinnDrum on pages 72 and 73 of Keyboard magazine for their monthly “Keyboard Report” series. The famous quote lies in the conclusion of the article, nestled between comments on the LinnDrum’s mechanical construction and praise for the LinnDrum’s sampled sounds:
The unit is a big improvement over electronic-sounding drum machines that only do 4/4 time and sound like marching anteaters (unless of course you prefer marching anteaters and being locked into 4/4 time).
In the entire review, direct references to the TR-808 or even Roland are curiously and completely absent.
Further red flags were triggered. I knew from early advertisements and from studying its operation manual (Roland 1980) that the 808 most certainly was not “locked in 4/4 time”—in fact, its ability to step outside of the 3/4 and 4/4 dance meters was a huge selling point. Advertisements specifically state “any rhythm pattern can be easily written into the TR-808 digital memory, even odd time signatures like 5/4 and 7/8” (Roland 1981); the operating manual makes it clear that there is great flexibility in time signature selection (Roland 1980:13–18) and even includes two example drum patterns in 5/4 time. The 808 was not known for its sounds in the early 80s, but rather for being—along with its cousin the Roland CR-78 CompuRhythm, the PAiA Programmable Drum Set, and a few others—one of the first programmable drum machines. A 1981 advertisement predicts:
The Roland TR-808 will undoubtedly become the standard for rhythm machines of the future because it does what no rhythm machine of the past has ever done. Not only does the TR-808 allow programming of individual rhythm patterns, it can also program the entire percussion track of a song from beginning to end, complete with breaks, rolls, literally anything you can think of. (Roland 1981)
Adopting the sensibilities of 1982, if Milano had actually been praising the sound of the LinnDrum by comparing it favorably to the 808 (whose sounds were not well-loved in 1982), we might interpret that as damnation by faint praise!
Egyptian Lover builds a beat live on the 808
After reading Milano’s entire review, not only the infamous sentence, I was led to an alternate interpretation. His review opens, “electronic drum machines have come a long way since the days of the rhythm box associated with pop organ playing” (Darter 1985:72–73). With an awareness of this opening, Milano’s comments about “drum machines that only do 4/4 time” seem clearly directed at devices much older and more ubiquitous (especially to keyboard players, the main audience of Keyboard) than the 808: earlier drum machines whose form factor paired them with electric/electronic organ playing, such as the early Wurlitzer Sideman and the Roland TR-33/55/77 line. After I first presented my suspicions as part of a talk (Werner 2014), a session chair encouraged me to contact Milano. When I did, he was surprised to hear how his review had become enmeshed in the cultural narrative of the 808, and confirmed my suspicions that his comments were, to his recollection, directed at organ accompaniment rhythm boxes, not the TR-808 (personal communication 2015)!
The story of the “marching anteaters,” enduring and colorful, is usually invoked to illustrate a true point: the 808 was not received warmly, at least initially. Surely, there is something interesting to study about the way this story rose to such a central position in the mythology of the TR-808. But we have ample evidence to see that, despite its charm, the story is not true.
. Marvin Gaye. Midnight Love. Columbia Records, October 1, 1982, LP.
. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force. “Planet Rock (song).” Tommy Boy / Warner Bros, April 17, 1982, 12” single.
. Kanye West. 808s & Heartbreak. Roc-A-Fella / Def Jam, November 24, 2008, LP.
. “Do I make your heart beat like an 808 drum? Is my love your drug?” Ke$ha, Animal. RCA Records, January 1, 2010, LP.
. “Y’all can’t stop me. Go hard like I got an 808 in my heart beat.” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. The Heist. Macklemore LLC, November 24, 2008, LP.
Beastie Boys. Licensed to Ill. Columbia and Def Jam, November 15, 1986, LP.
———. Hello Nasty. Capitol Records, July 14, 1998, LP.
Burns, Todd L. 2007. “Christian Prommer/Muallem - Compost Black Label #24: Housework Pt. 1.” Resident Advisor. http://www.residentadvisor.net/review-view.aspx?id=4797, October 3, 2007, (Accessed November 1, 2015).
Darter, Tom. 1985. The Whole Synthesizer Catalogue, Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation: New York.
Felton, David. 2012. “Top Ten Classic Drum Machines.” Attack Magazine. http://www.attackmagazine.com/features/top-ten-classic-drum-machines/, August 1, 2012, (Accessed November 1, 2015).
Handmer, Lindsay. 2015. “The Most Influential Synths and Drum Machines: 808, 909, 303, Moog and more.” Gizmodo. http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2015/04/the-most-influential-synths-and-drum-machines-808-909-303-moog-and-more/, April 7, 2015,(Accessed November 1, 2015).
Hoffman, Atticus. 2014. “The Beat Goes On: The Roland TR-808, From Failure to Iconic Status.” Audio Kultur 5:22–25.
Hornbostel, Erich M. von and Curt Sachs. 1914. “Systematik der Muikinstrumente. Ein Versuch,” Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 46(4/5):553–590.
———. 1961. “Classification of Musical Instruments.” Translated by Anthony Baines and Klaus P. Wachsmann. In The Galpin Society Journal 14:3–29.
Kirn, Peter. 2013. “TR-808 DIY: 379€ Lets You Built [sic] Your Own Part-By-Part Analog Clone, Plus Sequencer.” Create Digital Music. http://createdigitalmusic.com/2013/11/tr-808-diy-379e-lets-built-part-part-analog-clone-plus-sequencer/, November 18, 2013, (Accessed November 1, 2015).
Marsden, Rhodri. 2011. “Rhythm King: The Return of the Roland 808 Drum Machine.” Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/rhythm-king-the-return-of-the-roland-808-drum-machine-1066808.html, October 22, 2011, (Accessed November 1, 2015).
Milano, Dominic. 2015. Personal communication. January 11, 2015.
Mr. Beatnick. 2014. “Unboxing the 808: Should We Be Excited About Its Return?” Fact Magazine, http://www.factmag.com/2014/01/19/unboxing-the-808-should-we-be-excited-about-its-return/, January 19, 2014, (Accessed November 1, 2015).
Nagle, Paul. 2014. “Roland TR-8 Rhythm Performer.” In Sound on Sound. http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr14/articles/roland-tr8-rhythm-performer.htm, April, 2014, (Accessed November 1, 2015).
Roland. 1980. “TR-808 Operation Manual.” Roland Publishing: Hamastsu, Japan.
———. 1981. “TR-808 Advertisement.” In Keyboard Magazine 7(5):2 (inside cover).
Sachs, Curt. 1940. The History of Musical Instruments. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.
Shapiro, Peter. 2000. Modulations: A History of Electronic Music: Throbbing Words on Sound. Caipirinha Productions: New York.
Valle, Orvelin. 2014 “TR-808 Drum Machine Flashback.” http://www.rolandus.com/blog/2014/02/13/tr-808/, February 13, 2014, (Accessed November 1, 2015).
Werner, Kurt James. 2014. “The TR-808 Drum Machine and Its Emulations.” Presented at Bone Flute to Autotune Conference, University of California, Berkeley, CA, April 24–26, 2014.
Wolbe, Trent. 2013. “How the 808 Drum Machine Got Its Cymbal, and Other Tales From Music’s Geeky Underbelly.” The Verge. http://www.theverge.com/2013/1/30/3932574/how-the-808-found-its-cymbal-musical-tales-namm-geeky-underbelly, January 30, 2013, (Accessed November 1, 2015).
You Know Films. 2015. “808: The Heart of the Beat That Changed Music.” 808themovie.com
———. 2015. “808 Press Notes.” 808themovie.com.
Cover Photo Credit: “Roland TR-808 Drum Machine” by Eriq at Dutch Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
Kurt James Werner is a Ph.D. researcher at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). His dissertation “Like an 808: Circuit Models and Analog Musicology of the TR-808, including Advances in Wave Digital Filter Theory” is aimed at recovering a holistic history of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. By drawing out conceptual antecedents to its voice circuitry, situating it as an important element of hardware hacking and circuit bending traditions, and advancing the technical state of the art of circuit modeling techniques, this work both comments on and contributes technical tools to a long chain of percussive mimicry.