You may not have heard of the Roland TR-808, but you will have heard it. The TR-808, 40 years old this month (August 2020), is a drum machine that has featured on many, many hit records from Kraftwerk to Marvin Gaye, from Phil Collins to Pharrell Williams to Britney Spears. Soul, Hip-Hop, Dance, Rock, Electronic. Almost every modern popular music genre has been affected by the robotic buzz of a TR-808.
The story of the TR-808 is nicely told in the 2015 documentary 808: The Heart of the Beat that Changed Music.
Designed in Japan in 1980, the TR-808 was taken up by an emerging hip-hop scene in the US, an electronic music scene in the UK, and a dance scene in Europe. The documentary provides a full socio-cultural-technical account of the TR-808, showing how an obscure technical object, needing specialist knowledge to programme and operate (in effect an early computer) provided the foundation for radically different musical cultures to emerge.
The man behind the drum machine, and the Roland corporation, is Ikutaro Kakehashi, who describes himself in the documentary as a mechanical engineer with a side hobby in music and electronics, though he has an obvious talent for entrepreneurship and manufacturing . He realised that it was only through using electronic technology that he could compete with the big manufacturers in the musical world such as Yamaha, Kawai, and Steinway. Initially he built a ‘rhythm section’ into home organs – the familiar bossa nova beat of the seventies. The Roland CompuRhythm CR78 soon followed which allowed users to directly programme the rhythm they wanted, rather than choose from a pre-defined selection. The next product evolution was the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, a microprocessor-controlled programmable drum machine.
The problem Kakehashi hit in designing his new drum machine was to try and reproduce the complex sounds of congas, tom-toms, and bass drums without using samples in memory, as the TR-808’s much more expensive rival, the Linn LM-1, did . Instead Kakehashi chose to generate the sounds directly, through analogue synthesis, by taking advantage of the noise characteristics of ‘defective’ solid-state transistors. At that time around 2-3% of manufactured transistors created a distinctive ’sizzling’ sound when amplified through circuitry. Though these transistors were disgarded as defective by the transistor manufacturers, including Toshiba and Panasonic, Kakehashi’s insight was to realise that he could use them as the sound source (the ‘noise generator’) for the various drum sounds of the TR-808 .
The particular defective but distinctive transistors used in the TR-808 had to be carefully selected and matched to ensure consistency across each TR-808 produced, but when solid-state transistor manufacturing quality improved, the number of defective transistors fell to almost zero. Without defective transistors the TR-808 couldn’t be made and in 1983 production ceased. In total only about 12,000 were produced and not all of them were sold. Commercially the TR-808 was not a success. It took some years for it to build the reputation and acclaim it now has.
An analogue drum machine represents an almost infinite range of drum sounds. Although the conga is labelled a conga its basic sound can be manipulated in many different ways and thus the creative possibilities of the TR-808 are almost endless. Stemming from the same noise source, however, they all had a distinctive underlying tone – the ‘sound’ of the TR-808. The TR-808 thus represents a set of creative possibilities, a space of sounds, from which to create music. Kakehashi had effectively produced a new musical instrument rather than a ‘machine’; a palette of sounds which could be appropriated into vastly different musical cultures. As with another Japanese invention – just-in-time manufacture  – the TR-808 could justifiably claim to be a machine that changed the world.
The story of the design of the TR-808 is multi-faceted and powerful. It is both a story of a creative and talented individual, purposefully building his expertise in electronics and overcoming many traumatic episodes. Both of Kakehashi’s parents died from tuberculosis, his home was destroyed in World War 2, and he himself contracted tuberculosis. In spite of this, his ambition was to make musical instruments accessible and usable to all. It is also a story of how to think laterally about things that others consider as waste – a reframing from transistors as circuit components to transistors as noise sources. And of course it is a story of a product finding its meaning not through the intentional work of the design process, but in the process of consumption and use.
The story of precisely how Kakehashi discovered, and made use of, the particular effect that the defective transistors exhibited is unknown. We can imagine how only a person steeped in experimenting with electronics could realise what was happening, and how only a person needing a particular analogue sound source would realise that this was exactly the thing he was looking for. Then there is the person who was able to design and manufacture the product, and the person who was able to sell it around the world. The fact that all these persons coexisted in one person shows the unique set of capabilities necessary for success. Though design is only one part of the story it shows how flexible and open-minded a good designer must be, and how valued an open, configurable product can become .
The only person missing, of course, is the person who realised how his design could change modern musical culture. Modesty is another part of the story.
References and Notes
 The documentary, 808: The Heart of the Beat that Changed the World, is available on Amazon Prime in the UK (accessed: August 2020)
 See Kakehashi’s Wikipedia entry for further details about his extraordinary life.
 I am grateful for the article The mysterious heart of the Roland TR-808 drum machine for a detailed technical explanation of the transistors.
 Womack, J., Jones, D., Roos, D. (2007) The Machine That Changed the World: How Lean Production Revolutionised the Global Car Wars, Simon and Schuster.
 Kakehashi also played a major role in the development of the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digitial Interface) protocol, launched in 1983, which allowed different brands of electronic music equipment to communicate with each other. This was a major step forward for recording studios and performers and is a standard that survives today.