Discovering inspiration for your own unique musical creativity can happen in countless ways.
If you love the beats in 808 songs, learning how they were created is a great way to kickstart your own creative process.
Today, we’re breaking down exactly what classic 808 beats are and how to recreate them.
Let’s dive in.
What is an 808?
While 808 drum sounds originated from the TR-808, they can now be replicated through samples, and other drum machines. Replicating classic 808 beats and making new ones is a lot easier than it used to be.
If the TR-808 were a musician, it would be one of the most successful in modern music. It’s considered to be one of the most influential instruments of all time and has been featured on more hit records than any other drum machine.
Though 808 beats are heard almost everywhere in popular music, the TR-808 was actually a commercial failure when it was released in 1980. But throughout the 80s, it quickly became a defining instrument in hip hop and other musical genres.
Instead of samples, the original TR-808 used analog synthesis to generate drum sounds. It was the first instrument to allow users to create percussion tracks from beginning to end. Musicians especially love the 808 for its boomy bass drum sound.
The TR-808 was discontinued in 1983. But luckily, Roland’s TR-8S, other modern drum machines, and samples continue to replicate its iconic drum sounds today.
808 drums and bass
Musical innovators eventually discovered that the 808 wasn’t just good for drum noises but could also create bass sounds. This can be done by tuning and extending the kick drum’s decay to create booming bass tones.
Though 808 beats are heard almost everywhere in popular music, the TR-808 was actually a commercial failure when it was released in 1980.
Today’s DAWs and plugins offer easy ways to replicate this iconic sound, but it was originally created through the 808. It can also be generated through Roland’s TR-8S and other modern drum machines.
How to Program 8 Classic 808 Beats
You’ll find that some beats are sparse and straightforward, while others are complex. Each of the following classic 808 sequences has a unique story to tell.
Feel free to download the free MIDI pack that includes each of the beats on this list—you can easily load this into you DAW and start using them in your productions!
1. Marvin Gaye – “Sexual Healing” (1982)
This was the first hit single featuring an 808 beat. It ushered the TR-808 into mainstream music in the sexiest way possible.
Of course, the beat takes a back seat to Gaye’s infectious vocals, but they certainly compliment the overall feel and energy of the song.
2. Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force – “Planet Rock” (1982)
This song is credited for helping to shape early hip hop and inspiring the development of Detroit techno and Miami bass.
You could argue this song’s futuristic beat is one of the most influential of all time. It’s certainly responsible for laying the foundation of TR-808 use in hip-hop music
808 State –“Pacific State”(1989)
Here’s a very 808 heavy house track from Manchester producers 808 State.
I went with this example because it embodies how influential the drum machine was with dance music circles and the early pioneers of house music in Chicago and beyond.
Because the TR-08 was a (then) inexpensive drum machine, many inner-city producers were able to get their hands on them.
That’s why the 808 was so instrumental in spawning house music by using it as a central MIDI clock to control drums, TB-303 basslines and more.
Run DMC – “It’s Tricky” (1987)
Featuring samples of “My Sharona” by The Knack and “Mickey” by Toni Basil, “It’s Tricky” is built on a driving 808 beat.
The straightforward percussion seems to draw inspiration from the rock music sampled in this track.
Listen closely and you’ll hear how the 808 drums were layered with samples of gated snares to re-contextualize that classic 80s rock drum sound within the decidedly hip-hop track.
Whitney Houston – “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me” (1987)
The futuristic beat in this track further solidified the 808’s dominance in popular music.
The winding hi-hat beat can be heard as an early precursor to trap while the pinging 808 cowbell beats add some extra interest to pique the listener’s ear.
Drexciya –“Digital Tsunami” (2001)
When Chicago house eventually gave way to Detroit techno, Detroit-based producers definitely did not shy away from continuing to use the 808 in their tracks.
Instead, artists like Drexciya would use 808 sounds to build gritty, minimalist electronic tracks.
Outkast – “The Way You Move” (2003)
Blending southern hip hop and soul, the 808 is a prominent feature in this song and is even called out in the lyrics.
Future – “March Madness” (2015)
It’s no secret that trap producers love using 808s in their tracks. Even if these “808” sounds have been heavily altered, boosted, pitched up and down and absolutely mangled.
Trap music makes use of some pretty complicated rhythms that you really can’t write using a TR-08 machine.
Nonetheless, with the original 808 drum machine, it’s hard to say whether trap music would sound like it does today.
This track from Future is built on a slinking, metallic trap beat with fast hi-hats that pitch up and down and huge 808 basses and kicks.
It and many other beats like it show that the 808’s grip on modern music is as tight as ever.
Now that you know how to program these incredible classic beats, try creating your own. You can use drum machines or software instruments or samples that mimic the iconic 808 sound.
Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.
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