How the 808 got its cymbal sound and inspiration - a brief NAMM tale.
January 31, 2013 4:31 AM   Subscribe

Rhythm King - "Don had been hired by the Hammond organ company to demo its products on the show floor. He was using an Ace Tone rhythm box (which was distributed by Hammond at the time) as his percussion section. "I had modified my Ace Tone to death, changed all the rhythms because none of them fit my style of playing. I also wired it through the expression pedal of the Hammond, so I could get [percussion] accents, which no one was doing then. After the show this man from Japan came up and the first thing out of his mouth was ‘that looks like my rhythm unit but it doesn’t sound like my rhythm unit! How did you do that?’" It was Ikutaro Takehashi, the president of Ace."
posted by marienbad (22 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Some spilled tea was the secret, then, eh? But, come on, now, don't leave us hanging... what KIND of tea?

Those interested in some more background on the early rhythm boxes and drum machines might want to check out this FPP of mine from 2006.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:48 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I loved the pic of the C64 driving an iPad via MIDI. Before the days of tablets, I remember using a pattern sequencer on a Springboard Visor Edge, using a stylus to quickly feed strands of MIDI out of its expansion port and into a Nord Lead. Happy 30th, MIDI!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:58 AM on January 31, 2013

Happy 30th, MIDI!

MIDI can be handy as hell, and I too would like to wish it a happy 30th. I'm just afraid, though, that, you know, now we can't trust it anymore.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:01 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Man, that ... thing ... he's playing is ridiculous. And awesome. And certainly one of those things that probably no one else on the planet could play. Which is neat.

Also, I would bet money (note: I would not actually bet money) that the drums in that Vocaloid demo come from Addictive Drums. I love the software, but I have come to hate that particular snare so, so much.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:17 AM on January 31, 2013

The timing of this post is not exactly eerie, as I have been keeping up with NAMM news like the re-issue of the MS-20. Still, I spent a chunk of last night looking for a dedicated analog hihat module or standalone, to go along with analog kicks and snares I am already working with. If anyone here has a suggestion for this (buying an 808 is not feasible), I'm all ears.
It's too bad Roland is apparently uninterested in following Korg's lead releasing updated, cheaper to manufacture versions of these classics. The X0Xs would sell like crazy.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 6:13 AM on January 31, 2013

It's funny how so many people know the sound of the 808, but actually don't know what it is. Then when they see and hear it they realize it is a thing. Much like devices used to make sound effects in cartoons.
posted by chillmost at 6:31 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

non_that_epiphanius: here you go. It's in Eurorack modular format, not standalone. Tiptop makes a range of 909 and 808 modules, among other things.
posted by Spacelegoman at 6:42 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

MIDI is fun - I remember building an interface for my Spectrum and getting involved with the first generation of Roland synths. I copped a loan of (what I think was) one of the very first Jupiter 8s with MIDI in the country from Roland, and that dangerously delayed the development of the sequencer/recording software I was supposedly writing to go along with the hardware. That was a seriously, seriously engaging synth. Play me, it commanded, and I obeyed.

Still playing. Currently, my SDR ham radio transceiver is hooked up to a Hercules DJ controller - via MIDI/USB and some hacked software - with all the knobs and switches mapped to different radio functions. Looks a little ludicrous, but in terms of usability and functionality, it's an $800 set-up that in most respects outperforms stuff I've used that costs 5-10 times as much.

Now, if anyone will sell me a J8 for $800, I shall be truly happy.
posted by Devonian at 6:52 AM on January 31, 2013

Oh dang, I *actually* didn't fully understand what MIDI was until just now! I should be ashamed of myself, being married to and exclusively having dated people in the electroacoustic scene...
posted by Mooseli at 6:56 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

the re-issue of the MS-20

I have virtually no need for this, but I want it so badly.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:02 AM on January 31, 2013

Few other studio components get shout-outs like the 808.

"But I know ya'll wanted that 808 can you feel that B-A-S-S, bass."
"Do I make your heart beat like an 808 drum?"
posted by grabbingsand at 7:11 AM on January 31, 2013

I have virtually no need for this, but I want it so badly.

If you've got an iPad, Korg also makes a software version of the MS-20 that runs about $30, which is a bit more in the "I have no need for this but want it" price range for me.
posted by Gev at 7:20 AM on January 31, 2013

Korg also makes a software version of the MS-20

Sure, I've got plenty of software synths, but I really hate using them. Click click click, tap tap tap ... I appreciate the depth, but it's such a pain. Real knobs are something else entirely.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:41 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of the things that I think about when I see the flood of new and amazing instrumentation curling out of the thirteenth dimension these days is how I sort of wish I'd had the good fortune to start making music now, instead of in the early eighties, when I was desperate to make amazing music, but stuck with just a reel-to-reel, a splicing block, and a shortwave radio with a kickass beat frequency oscillator. Then, I was stuck with an Ensoniq and a four-track. Then, I had a better job and a credit card, so I suddenly had stacks of keyboards and racks of samplers and synths and processors and I hardly made any music at all because I was so busy figuring out which cable was glitching in the patchbay and what was going wrong in my stupid MIDI patcher setup and trying to figure out how to pack seven hundred pounds of synthesizers into a two-cylinder Citroen to drive to NJ for a gig and in the end, it took a long time to get around to the fact that my music was better when I had just a few quirky pieces of gear that allowed for joyous accidents, rather than song-killing ones.

There are amazing things coming around now, and the reborn MS-20 is a great thing in its way, especially if the price holds, but at the same time, I get a little frustrated with the continual cultural imperative to just go over old ground, again and again. The 808 was wonderful because it did what its designers intended so very badly. The 303, another now-prized thing, was meant to imitate a bass guitar, and it did so very badly, which is where the good stuff ended up coming from. Eno's crappy, unreliable EMS Synthi started to break down, and when he'd have it fixed, he'd attach notes telling the repair shop not to fix the broken parts that made interesting or beautiful sounds.

Maybe I'm just my own kind of throwback, but it seems like we ought to be aiming at something else besides a vitrified, perfected 1978 sound, and lately, the iPad has really become the main outlet for things in that direction. Of course, there's the endless repetition of the post-Minimoog formula, invariably dolled up in twee skeuomorphism, but there's also Wavegenerator and Jasuto and Animoog and Grain Science and Samplr and more. Sadly the backlash is in the direction of seeking "authenticity" in old school analogue and the same old 24dB lowpass filter sweep stamping on our faces forever. It's funny—when I got started making music, the imperative wasn't "hey, let's be as faithful to our nostalgic sounds as possible"—it was "how can I make some amazing new sound with the instrument I have?"

My spilled tea moments often came when I was trying to extend the reach of my lowly Ensoniq EPS. Even with my insanely huge 2 MB of sample memory, courtesy of an expander that hung off the back of the thing like a plastic tick, my attempts at hugely orchestrated pieces would run short, so I'd just resample at lower and lower rates, and would get all these wild aliasing, zippy cacophonous sidebands...that sounded pretty cool, so I'd just let that be a part of it. Wanting to get the kind of animation that Thomas Dolby had in the PPG 340/380 bassline to "Windpower," I laboriously constructed my own wavetables in an audio editor on my creaky old compact Mac, spending hours with graph paper, a calculator, and a searing math headache. The sample start and movable loop parameters on the EPS really weren't up to the kind of sweeps that the PPG could do, but I made some glorious, richly-textured sounds in spite of missing my target.

A year or so back, I killed the last vestiges of my old studio. Packed up all the keyboards, the rack cases, the miles of cables and crates of little accessory pieces, drove 'em all over to the storage space and stacked 'em up. I'd been frustrated by the staleness in the electronic music world and the paralysis in my own, where I could easily sidestep a frustrating glitch by just moving to another instrument. In the words of the great James Murphy, the best way to complain is to make things, so I pared it all down to a basic Charles Cohen box, albeit without that magical secret sauce that everything thinks a Buchla will give you. I've got an iPad, an iPod Touch, couple of MIDI controllers, some small effects, a Nord Micromodular, mixer, reverb, and that's about it. When I hit those old walls, the "man, if I only had a little more" places, I have to think sideways, and that's a good thing in any kind of music.

It's a whole new learning process, because I can't do the things I used to do so easily, but that also means I can't be as repetitive, uninspired, or rote. Of course, I'm making music that most people find headscratchingly dull, but I'm happy with it. It's a sloshing box of tea and circuits, with nowhere to go but up.
posted by sonascope at 7:46 AM on January 31, 2013 [14 favorites]

Sure, I've got plenty of software synths, but I really hate using them. Click click click, tap tap tap ... I appreciate the depth, but it's such a pain. Real knobs are something else entirely.

At least in the iPad arena, an iRig MIDI interface and either a cheapish or fancy MIDI knob controller pretty much knocks that reservation right out.

The trouble with the knob-for-each-function user interface is that you either have to dumb down your instrument to keep the price low or build it at a price point only affordable by people with a lot of disposable income.
posted by sonascope at 7:56 AM on January 31, 2013

You know, I actually have a MIDI keyboard controller with loads of knobs that I never use ... because it's sort of a pain in the tuchus to map them. Maybe I'll spend an afternoon working that out and see what it does for me.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:07 AM on January 31, 2013

Few other studio components get shout-outs like the 808.

The aging among us may even remember a band whose entire existence was a shoutout to the 808.

(We may not necessarily remember them fondly, but that's a whole other thing...)
posted by dersins at 8:43 AM on January 31, 2013

It's funny how so many people know the sound of the 808, but actually don't know what it is. Then when they see and hear it they realize it is a thing. Much like devices used to make sound effects in cartoons.
Like the machine that makes dial tone.
posted by migurski at 9:25 AM on January 31, 2013

Interesting fact: the pitch of the kick drum on an 808 is not sequence-able. The tuned melodic 808 bass lines ubiquitous in hip hop and pop in the 2000s are only attainable by sampling the 808 kick and changing its pitch in software or a hardware sampler.
posted by scose at 11:18 AM on January 31, 2013


Nice music! Not so great recording, though. Do you have a bandcamp/soundcloud/etc etc? PM me?

For those who want to get some analogue gear without hunting for overpriced vintage stuff, or new-school reproductions, check the Mutable Instruments Shruthi-1 kit synth. Hybrid digital Arduino-based synth with an analogue filter. You have to solder it together yourself, but it's a pretty cheap way into "real analogue" sound.

And if you survive the soldering, they have a six-voice monster version of that synth.

And if you do have a bunch of money the Elektron Analog Four is so, so juicy.
posted by sixohsix at 12:37 PM on January 31, 2013

sonascope: "At least in the iPad arena, an iRig MIDI interface ..."

Dammit sonascope, I might just have to get one of these. In my big purge of my old analog and other music gear a couple of years ago, I somehow managed to retain my Peavey PC-1600. That, the iPad, and the x0xb0x I built (serial # 057) would be a neat little setup.
posted by exogenous at 12:51 PM on February 1, 2013

I still revere my PC-1600 as well. One of the greatest meat and potatoes controllers ever devised, and it's heavy enough to serve as a defensive weapon in a pinch.
posted by sonascope at 3:14 PM on February 1, 2013

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