“TR” standing for “Transistorised Rhythm” (similar to Roland’s TB line, or Transistorised Bass) the TR-808 is the 1st machine in the TR line (the TR-606 and 707 actually came after the 808, it ended with the 909). Despite being released a few months after the Linn LM-1 and its digital samples, the 808 is an analogue drum machine, producing sounds by artificial means. As a studio instrument, critics noted the severe disconnect between the 808’s sound and the LM-1’s (a review in Keyboard Magazine claimed it sounded a bit like “marching anteaters”) However, the 808 was substantially less expensive than the LM-1 and other machines of the time at only $1,200 US (about £750). This made it a good idea-box for bands with human drummers. Also, the LM-1 was particularly rare, with Linn Electronics only having built 50 of them, compared to the industrialised Roland Corporation churning out 1200 TR-808s over the course of the instrument’s 4-year lifecycle.
Compared to the sounds made by other programmable drum machines (even the Linn) the 808’s instruments were distinctive and entirely original. Though it still derived inspiration from the traditional drum kit, the types of sounds it made were instantly recognisable. The greatest draw was its extremely low-frequency bass drum sound, which became very popular with the hip-hop scene. Its ability to store 32 4-measure patterns was also helpful in keeping it competitive and was the main draw for composers in the new genres of dance, techno, house, and electro. The first band to use the 808 was the Japanese electronic group, Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Although the 808 has been out of production for 30 years, samples of its instrument voices are still fairly common in Roland products, rack-mounted synth modules, and even drum machines by other manufacturers. It continues to appear on albums and singles, and has been heard on more recordings than any other drum machine.
I wonder if any of the engineers from Roland Corporation in Japan go to Roland US and while they’re on their way there, a convertible playing loud hiphop drives up next to them at a stop light and they think “hey, I made that snaredrum” or “that’s my cymbal!”