Before Roland’s new TR-8 Rhythm Performer, a contemporary drum machine, was unveiled this year, the company released a series of promotional videos in which the machine’s designers sought out the original schematics and behavior of its predecessor the TR-808, an iconic analog drum machine from the early 1980s. The TR-808 holds cultural cache–most recently due to its use by Outkast, Baauer, and Kanye West–that Roland is interested in exploiting for the Rhythm Performer. The video features engineers closely examining the TR-808’s sound with an oscilloscope, trying to glean every last detail of the original’s personality.
Things were not always this way. Upon its initial release, the TR-808 was widely dismissed. Because it did not sound like “normal” acoustic drums, many established musicians questioned its utility and many ultimately disregarded it. However, its “cheap” circuit-produced sounds became bargain-bin treasures for emerging artists. Since its sounds now play such a large part in the landscape of electronic music, this essay takes a historical perspective on the TR-808 Rhythm Composer’s use and circulation. By analyzing how Juan Atkins and Marvin Gaye used the TR-808 in the early 1980s, I show how the TR-808 created a sonic space for drum machines in popular music.
Drum machines, though commonplace today, were once seen as kitschy tools for broke amateur musicians. As audio engineer Mitchell Sigman explains, the 808’s low, subsonic kick drum and “tick” snare characterized a departure from the realistic, sampled drum sounds produced by high-end drum machines in the early 1980s. The 808 uses analog oscillators and white noise generators to make sounds resembling the components of a drum set (kick, snare, hi-hats, etc.) And, although these sounds are now commonplace, most contemporary artists use them precisely because they sound robotic, not because they sound like drums. Even though the 808 at first seemed a failed imitation of “real” drums, the comparatively low cost of the 808, which originally retailed around $1,195, attracted musicians who were unable to afford other similar machines such as the LinnDrum that retailed at more than twice that price. Roland advertised the machine as a “studio” for musicians on a budget and even as they began to disinvest from the 808–as testified by the company’s decision to invest in marketing and research for other products–the 808’s so-called noises began their movement into mainstream American popular culture. In Detroit, electronic musician Juan Atkins, now known as one of the innovators of Detroit Techno, began experimenting with the machine’s sonic capabilities as early as 1981, while other artists such as Afrika Bambaataa were also using it in the Bronx by 1982.
A landmark year for the 808, 1982 saw the release of Juan Atkins’ “Clear” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” tracks that illuminate the key features each musician realized in the 808. For Atkins, the machine was something he felt could embody his early career; Atkins’ use of the 808 represented a pivotal moment in the American musical landscape, in which the futurism of the sound of synthesizers echoed other segments of the nation’s sonic imagination. Gaye’s use of the 808 was a clear departure from his body of Motown work. Although the instrument enabled different sorts of experimentation for the two, the new sorts of sounds the machine produced allowed them both to explore new possibilities for musical meaning. Just as Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco argue in Analog Days that analog synthesizers required validation by musicians such as Geoff Downes and Keith Emerson a decade before, the 808 broke into the mainstream through artistic experimentation.
In the early ‘80s, Juan Atkins was learning all he could about electronic music. As an able musician and the son of a concert promoter, Atkins was poised to couple his musical knowledge with a new breed of electronic musical instruments such as the 808. Together with a tightly knit group from Detroit, Atkins succeeded in promoting techno from a subculture to part of a global dance music scene. According to Atkins, the popularity of Detroit Techno came from its adoption in European urban centers like London and Berlin, which lent the music additional meaning stateside. In an interview with Dollop UK, Atkins emphasizes that the 808 was central to this musical development, as he calls the 808 (among other machines) “the foundation[s] of electronic dance music.”
Under the moniker of Cybotron, Atkins released the song “Clear” in 1982. “Clear”’s proto-techno soundscape pushes the 808 to the front of his mix, and provides the track’s backbone. The solid, resonant kick, swishy open high hat, and the piercing snare are decidedly machinic, departing from most rhythmic trends in popular music to date, since, as music scholar John Mowitt points out, a sense of “human feeling” comes hand-in-hand with drumming.
Atkins embraced these machine sounds and considered the 808 his “secret weapon.” Its ability to be programmed, manipulated, and warped on the fly lent it a very particular kind of performance and music making that Atkins exploited. Rather than rely on the breaks that DJs could find on records, the 808 allowed Atkins to create beats to his own liking, placing kick, snare, and hi-hat hits where he found them to be most effective. Because of this flexibility, the kitsch of the 808’s sounds empowered the difference between his music and other artists’ creations. The breaks Atkins produced on the 808, for example, were obviously impossible to find on vinyl.
As Bleep43, an online EDM collective, notes, Atkins’ vision for electronic music would eventually pick up in London, where he relocated in the late eighties. Although Detroit Techno had achieved regional success in the US, record sales and performance dates in London signaled techno had found a larger audience abroad. Although Atkins considers himself an eclectically “Detroit” artist, he recognizes the impact of his work globally, and thinks of the modern Berlin flavor of minimal techno as a notably clever offshoot.
Marvin Gaye’s struggle with depression, drug use and relationship issues were the context for the subtle and understated 808 rhythmic backing he used in “Sexual Healing.” Gaye’s use of the 808 in “Sexual Healing” differs vastly from Watkins’ in “Clear,” operating as a tool of texture and punctuation from the noticeable timbric changes to the clever placement of handclaps and clave in the composition. While Gaye recovered from his personal crises in Belgium, Colombia Records sent him an 808 because it was more portable than a studio drummer. It also offered sonic capabilities new and exciting to Gaye’s seasoned ears.
The drum machine’s prevalence in “Sexual Healing” shows how culturally marginal sounds move into mainstream musical culture. Gaye and his producers, already squarely in the center of popular American music, experimented with the sound of the 808 not in an attempt to break through, but rather to exercise musical flexibility. Since he was already an extremely successful pop artist, Gaye’s use of the 808 marks him as a sonic risk-taker and innovator, weaving the machine sounds of the 808 seamlessly but noticeably into R and B.
The machine’s normally powerful snare is invoked only at the quietest of velocities, often being replaced by the now iconic handclap. Unlike many contexts in which the 808 is heard such as “Clear” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” “Sexual Healing“ manages to keep everything low key. Matching the lyrics that espouse peace, harmony, and sense of internal struggle (Whenever blue tear drops are falling/And my emotional stability is leaving me/Honey I know you’ll be there to relieve me/The love you give to me will free me), Gaye uses the 808 to evoke a surprisingly contemplative and serene atmosphere. It is this use that best shows the machine’s strange versatility, as both a harbinger of radically innovative musical genres and its ability to produce tranquil rhythmic textures for popular music.
Although Atkins and Gaye’s work exemplify the TR-808’s early adoption, a long road toward mainstream popularity remained because of Roger Linn’s more “realistic” sampled drums sounds included in his high-end machines. The LM-1 and its successors (famous for hit singles like Billy Idol’s “White Wedding”, Hall and Oate’s “Maneater,” and Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry”) made sampled drums the gold standard of computerized rhythmic backing. In fact, Roland’s next drum machine, the TR-909, implemented samples alongside synthesis. As a result, 808s couldn’t be given away until musical innovators gave its sounds gravitas (Sigman, 2011, 46).
The 808’s shift from sonically trashy and undesirable to ostensibly hip signifies a culturally important moment within the history of music technology. As shown in the examples above, subtle moments of economic, emotional, and geographic necessity seeded the popular music industry for the eventual 808 boom today. When techno eventually broke through to global popularity, the 808 was so fundamental to the canon of the genre that it has managed to retain a place of fundamental sonic importance for musicians and producers.
11:40, 6/11/14: This essay was re-edited for clarity, grammar, and flow by Jennifer Stoever.
Ian Dunham is a musician and music scholar originally from northeast Ohio. He earned a B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University in the Recording Industry within the College of Mass Communications, and then worked as a recording engineer in Nashville and Germany. Afterward, he earned an M.M. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin, where he also operated a home recording studio. He will start a PhD in Media Studies at Rutgers in the fall, where he will pursue research related to music and copyright.
Featured image: “1980 Roland TR-808” by Flickr user Joseph Holmes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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This post continues our summer Sound and Pleasure series, as the second **bonus Monday** podcast in a three part series by Leonard J. Paul. What is the connection between sound and enjoyment, and how are pleasing sounds designed? Pleasure is, after all, what brings y’all back to Sounding Out! weekly, is it not?
Who doesn’t like retrogames? As a kid I kept to a straight diet of NES pixels and sounds. This installment reveals the technical and creative proficiencies involved with the composition of retro sound, and it. is. amazing! Our final installment on game audio design will run Thursday, 6/26/2014, and feature some notes on the process of designing sound for the game Vessel. Also, be sure to be sure to check out last week’s edition where Leonard breaks down his process in designing sound for Sim Cell. But first, Retro City Rampage! -AT, Multimedia Editor
P.S. The first 25 folks to follow @soundingoutblog, @VideoGameAudio or @RetroCR on Twitter following the publication of this podcast will win a free download code for Retro City Rampage sent to them via direct message courtesy of Leonard Paul!
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Game Audio Notes II: Hand Made Music in Retro City Rampage
Retro City Rampage (RCR) is a retro vibe two-dimensional open world game with plenty of parodies from the 80s and 90s. It’s basically what Grand Theft Auto would be if it was on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Because the world of computer game design has recently embraced retro-aesthetics, the game was released for almost every platform. Its Nintendo 3DS version, was even a critical success, scoring a high 83% on Metacritic. My goal with the sound design of RCR was to produce a sound that was both an homage to the original sounds of the NES, but with a heart-felt intensity such that it preserved the feeling of my own nostalgia as well. The sound design of RCR follows in the tradition of independent games that are working hard to recover an aesthetic from the halcyon days of gaming.
I wanted the sound design of RCR to be as nostalgic as possible. To do this, I started by researching the work of others with this sepia-drenched 8-bit aesthetic in their own work. The open source scores that Jake Kaufman (aka “virt”) used for his albums FX1 and FX2, were particularly valuable here. Later on I came across a chiptune tutorial that Matt Creamer (aka “Norrin Radd”) had made and was able to bring him onboard to complete our team of composers for the game. I was able to borrow the same setup that he used for his music and adapt it to my process for creating sound effects. I used the open source music software OpenMPT for creating the sound effects as well as use the C++ sound code for playing back the music in the game as well. Getting the code from OpenMPT meant that new code didn’t need to be created and it ensured that the songs and sound effects would play back perfectly without any issues in the game.
OpenMPT is a music tracker (or mod tracker) program for Windows. Mod trackers began on the Commodore Amiga in 1987 with the release of the Ultimate Soundtracker. The Amiga supported 4 channels of 8-bit sampled sound and usually had very low sampling rates to conserve memory as the original Amiga 1000 usually had only 256 KB of RAM. In other words, the samples were short and rough, but creative engineers found ways to work within these limitations. For RCR we used the Impulse Tracker format that was first released in 1995 for DOS.
Early sound designers needed to code the sounds in an arcane language called assembly code that was quite difficult to understand unless you were a computer programmer. Trackers were a first step toward making audio for games easier to make. They allowed sound designers to work with musical notes and effects abstractly, using a notation language far easier than hard-core assembly code. Later consoles, such as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), allowed sound designers to simply input sampled sounds to be played back during the game. We wanted the sound design of RCR to be from the “classic era” of video games (before sampled sounds became the norm) and to feed off of the nostalgia surrounding this era for the player.
I typed in thousands of notes and effect commands in by hand, when creating the score for RCR. This level of detail and control has a direct aesthetic effect on the audio. Game sound programmers working in the 1980s lacked the sophisticated tools of automation that are standard in the industry today. This attention to detail and nuance was essential for the nostalgic sound associated with classic video games that I wanted to produce in my work. Just as using paper can be contrasted with modern music composition software, the mode in which one creates has a direct effect on the results of the composition.
While creating the sound effects for RCR, I learned how to do tracking and decided I wanted to add some music to RCR as well. The catch was that the synthesis capabilities of the NES were extremely limited including only two pulse waves (often used for lead instruments), a triangle wave (usually used for a bass instrument), a noise channel (frequently used for drums), and a crude sampled sound channel (commonly used for muffled sound effects).
Even though we decided early on that we wanted the game to have a nostalgic feel, we made a set of careful decisions in order to avoid being locked into the tricky technical details that sound artists who worked on games for the original NES had originally faced. One key difference was that we didn’t limit the overall polyphony of sounds playing at the same time to the original NES specification. We limited each individual sound effect and song within the NES specification (for example, a single sound effect couldn’t use three pulse waves), but we decided not to drop a channel out when a sound effect would have preempted the score from one of the music channel. Typically in original NES games the music moved aside in order to accommodate the sound effects and so notes that used the pulse wave track were frequently dropped. Because this sort of interruption is unpleasant, we made choices that allowed us to work around it – inspiring our creative choices rather than limiting them. Although we took a few other technical liberties, nearly all of the sounds and songs of RCR could play on an actual NES with minimal modification.
Using an open source mod tracker format allowed us a lot of flexibility when creating the audio for RCR. Although using a mod tracker to type in sound effects by hand was a laborious process it added an authenticity to the result that would have been difficult to achieve otherwise. Working with these strict limitations forced me to make different choices in my creative process that helped me invest a sense of ownership in the results. The hand crafted NES synth sounds I described above are ultimately just symbols pointing towards their real-world counterparts, and tellingly they rely on the imagination of the listener to bridge the gap between the real and the symbolic. Nostalgia allows us to fill these gaps and allow listeners the space to hear their own memories within the game.
- “Retro City Rampage Chiptune Frenzy! Panel” presentation from PAX Dev 2012 from videogameaudio.com
- Download the RCR Theme in Impulse Tracker (.IT) format from our website
- See audio section of the Making of ROM City Rampage
- The OpenMPT Online Help Manual is great for learning tracking
- Download tons of free MOD files from MODarchive.org
- Read my chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Interactive Audio: For the Love of Chiptune
Leonard J. Paul attained his Honours degree in Computer Science at Simon Fraser University in BC, Canada with an Extended Minor in Music concentrating in Electroacoustics. He began his work in video games on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System and has a twenty year history in composing, sound design and coding for games. He has worked on over twenty major game titles totalling over 6.4 million units sold since 1994, including award-winning AAA titles such as EA’s NBA Jam 2010, NHL11, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, NBA Live ’95 as well as the indie award-winning title Retro City Rampage.
He is the co-founder of the School of Video Game Audio and has taught game audio students from over thirty different countries online since 2012. His new media works has been exhibited in cities including Surrey, Banff, Victoria, São Paulo, Zürich and San Jose. As a documentary film composer, he had the good fortune of scoring the original music for multi-awarding winning documentary The Corporation which remains the highest-grossing Canadian documentary in history to date. He has performed live electronic music in cities such as Osaka, Berlin, San Francisco, Brooklyn and Amsterdam under the name Freaky DNA.
He is an internationally renowned speaker on the topic of video game audio and has been invited to speak in Vancouver, Lyon, Berlin, Bogotá, London, Banff, San Francisco, San Jose, Porto, Angoulême and other locations around the world.
His writings and presentations are available at http://VideoGameAudio.com
Featured image: Courtesy of Vblank Entertainment (c)2014 – Artwork by Maxime Trépanier.
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A Series of Mistakes: Nullsleep and the Art of 8-bit Composition– Aaron Trammell
Digital Analogies: Techniques of Sonic Play– Roger Moseley