In the early 1980s, Japanese synth manufacturer Roland started a little revolution whose impact has been felt in every decade since. Over just a few years, they introduced a series of curiously-numbered boxes that would define genres and reinvent categories. We still feel the ripples today, and while everyone, including Roland, keeps trying to recapture the essence of what made them iconic—but something about their influence is unlikely to be repeated.
We all know the numbers: the 808, 909, and 303, with occasional input from the 606, 101, and maybe even a 707. They have become affectionally known as the X0X series.
To pick up the history, let's step back slightly earlier to the machine that could be considered the flip from cheesy organ auto-accompaniment to programmable drum machine: the CR-78.
The CompuRhythm CR-78
When Ikutaro Kakehashi founded Roland in 1972, their first product was the TR77 rhythm box. It came from his experience working with Ace Electronic and Hammond, and was built as a rhythmic section for the electric organ. The TR77 was ultimately adopted by Hammond, and defined an era of softly analog Latin rhythms that you can blame on the Bossa Nova. In the years that followed, Roland made huge strides into synthesizer, guitar, and effects technology. When the CR-78 arrived in 1978, Roland had already given us the Space Echo, Promars, SH-09 Jupiter-4, System 100/700 modular, GR500 guitar synth, and MC-8 MicroComposer. So, a somewhat cheesy rhythm box amongst all this amazing technology seemed a touch passé.
[Above: the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78—images via Perfect Circuit's archives.]
However, what was new and exciting about the CR-78 was that it contained a microprocessor. It enabled the user to program, store, and replay their own rhythms—a fact that was largely lost amidst the colourful Samba, Salsa, and Waltz presets. The CR-78 was more or less ignored within professional circles until a certain Phil Collins released "In The Air Tonight" in 1981. While everyone remembers the thundering live drums that come in halfway through, it was the gentle bubbling of the CR-78 over the rest of the track that caught the attention of bands such as Ultravox (see "Vienna"), Blondie (see "Heart of Glass" and "Atomic"), and OMD (see "Enola Gay"). It turned out that if you could bend them away from the presets, then these little rhythm boxes could be very cool.
The TR-808 Rhythm Composer
[Above: the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer—images via Perfect Circuit's archives.]
So, we come to Roland's first X0X box, the now-legendary TR-808 Rhythm Composer. It was released in 1980 to the crushing sound of disinterest. It would be a full year before Mr. Collins demonstrated how analog drum sounds could be interesting, and so on release, its weird synthesized blips and noises couldn't compete with the realism of the newly-invented digital sampled-based LM-1 Drum Computer from Linn Electronics. The history here gets interesting because the LM-1 and the later LM-2 LinnDrum took over the mainstream music of the 1980s, being used by Human League, Gary Numan, Giorgio Moroder, Michael Jackson and Prince to name a few. And as such, it often feels like the 808 was side-lined until its "rediscovery" in the 1990s.
But mainstream synth pop was not the only music being made. The TR-808 found favour in the black urban music of the emerging hip-hop and electro scenes, which benefitted from the unsuccessful drum machine being sold very cheaply. Most notably, it was used by Afrika Bambaataa on the track "Planet Rock" released in 1982, and later by Run DMC. The 808 also crossed over into soul music with Marvin Gaye's 1982 "Sexual Healing," and became a staple of Soul and R&B into the late 80s from Loose Ends to Whitney Houston. The 808 was always there, but hadn’t had its turn in the spotlight yet.
The TR-606 Drumatix and TB-303 Bass Line
[Above: the Roland TR-606 Drumatix—images via Perfect Circuit's archives.]
The award for the least commercially successful of Roland's legendary X0X products goes to the 606 and 303. They were introduced as a pair in 1981 and designed to be a handy practice tool and accompaniment for guitarists. These were little boxes of genius, and yet still, they fell completely flat.
The TR-606 Drumatix had seven analog drum sounds and the ability to store up to 32 patterns and 8 songs. It was unique in that you could edit it while performing and switching patterns. It's probably the least interesting of the drum machines of the era, but it continues to turn up on records from the likes of Aphex Twin, Nine Inch Nails, OMD, and Moby.
[Above: the Roland TB-303 Bass Line—images via Perfect Circuit's archives.]
The TB-303 Bass Line, on the other hand, has its own story. It's remarkable to me that the words "Bass line" suggests something different now from what it meant then. It was supposed to be a replacement for an electric bass player, so that you could practice your guitar alongside it. So to replicate that sound, you don't need very much. You don't need to bring in Roland's massive experience in making synthesizers; you just need a square wave, a simple envelope, and maybe a filter to tune out those higher frequencies. You wouldn't need to play it either, as you'd be busy playing guitar—so it needed to have a simple sequencer for programming your bass lines. Roland released it at the same time as the massive Jupiter-8 polyphonic synthesizer, so you can imagine how the 303 might have been ignored among serious synth users.
Both the TR-606 and TB-303 were discontinued in 1984 and sold off pretty cheaply. I like to imagine that there's a whole bunch of solo guitarists out there who thought they were marvellous, but their cheap plastic construction and limited sounds saw them dismissed as toys or boring by everyone else. The 303 did appear on one hit record in 1983 called Rip it Up from Scottish band Orange Juice, but that was a bit of an anomaly.
The TR-909 Rhythm Composer
[Above: the Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer—images via Perfect Circuit's archives.]
Finally, we have the TR-909 Rhythm Composer. Released in 1983, it took some nods from the LM-1 in featuring sampled cymbals and the ability to add a little bit of shuffle. The analog sounds had been reworked, and felt beefier and more punchy than the 808, and it was also easier to program. It felt like an interesting hybrid drum machine that, along with MIDI support, brought the best of analog into the digital age.
But it had great difficulty in shifting producers from the sampled worlds of the LinnDrum, Fairlight, and Synclavier, and Roland ceased production after just a year. It's actually much harder to find mid-80s mainstream tracks containing the 909 than the 808. I was able to dig out the 1985 "Clouds Across the Moon" by the RAH Band and the highly processed "Sussudio" from unlikely drum machine pioneer Phil Collins. It seemed to follow the same route as the 808 and re-emerged all over Hip Hop and R&B music of the later '80s, from Soul II Soul and Public Enemy to Whitney Houston and DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince.
Cultural Impact of the X0X Series
None of the X0X boxes set the world alight as they were intended at the time, and they should have probably ended up as small footnotes in the evolution of electronic music technology. But if it wasn't for their commercial failure, these rhythm and bass boxes never would have made it into the hands of a generation of home-spun musicians. They were picked up in pawn shops and bargain bins, they were cheap enough to risk taking apart and modifying the circuitry, and the Roland sound quality and engineering meant they could cut through and stand out in a music industry obsessed with samples. And so, we come to the second half of the '80s, and the multiple personalities of House, Acid House, Techno, and a thousand dance music derivatives.
It isn't easy to define exactly where the influence began to grow. The 808 and 909 were embedded as the sound of HipHop and would throw themselves into the mainstream whenever cross-overs appeared in the charts. Their journey was more of a growth, an adoption that came about not because of the drum machines themselves but because of increasing interest in and appropriation of the HipHop sound.
In the background, there's an evolution of underground House music coming from "Planet Rock" to Jesse Saunders's 1984 "On and On", through the Chicago House movement until it found chart success with "Pump Up The Volume" from Marrs and "Theme from S-Express" from S-Express, in 1987 and 1988 respectively. In Europe, these sounds were driving the clubs of Ibiza, spreading to London, Leeds and Manchester, which, along with a bit of chemical enhancement, gave birth to Acid House and the rediscovery of the TB-303.
House music had a huge do-it-yourself vibe. It wasn't coming from studios or bands; it was coming from bedrooms and community spaces. It was full of beats and synth lines that crashed through the 3-minute pop song cliche and into the all-night raves filled with endless unrelenting dancing. The Ecstacy-fuelled rave culture was perfect for the repetitive patterns of the 808/909 and the squelch of an abused 303. You could find them for next to nothing, run them in perfect sync, and with a few variations, you could entertain people all night. By 1988/89, illegal warehouse raves, smiley faces, the Second Summer of Love and MDMA were all firmly rooted in that 808/303 combination. The 1987 track "Acid Tracks" from Phuture is a good place to kick things off before taking in "Voodoo Ray" (1988) from A Guy Called Gerald (also from 808 State) and The Garden of Eden from The Garden of Eden.
The sophistication of the 1990s is probably best introduced by KLF's "What Time is Love". From there, you can travel through Orbital, Daft Punk, Aphex Twin, Fatboy Slim, Moby and numerous other acts that cemented the X0X into the consciousness of electronic dance music and the mainstream—with or without chemical influence. They remain as popular and sought after as ever, with original 808, 909 and 303s fetching alarmingly high sums of money. The TR-606 tried hard, but never really caught the imagination in the same way, but that's not stopped Behringer from releasing clones of all four and selling them by the bucket load.
Why Do We Still Care About the X0X Boxes?
So, what is it about the X0X boxes that makes them so enduring?
The fact that they were analog is a huge factor. It's the very thing that got them initially ignored but turned out to be the secret sauce of longevity. Analog sounds are magically variable. You had a lot of tonal possibilities with each sound which were not reliably consistent from one day to the next or from one machine to the next. This brought in a lot of character and variation that sampled sounds distinctly lacked.
[Above: detail of the TR-808's controls. Image via Perfect Circuit's Archives.]
With the 808, Roland's choice of components further enhanced the characterful flavour. While the sounds were designed on the high-end System 700 modular, the circuits were built on a cheap source of rejected transistors. They contributed to the distinctive sizzle and fizz of the 808, and are a component you just can't get anymore. Another factor was the tweakable kick drum. You could extend the decay into a throbbingly warm thud while picking out a tone that fitted perfectly with the rest of the track. With a bit of processing, the delightfully snappy snare could penetrate through any sound system while the bass drum rattled the cabinets.
Individual level controls and outputs made it very versatile to work with. So too, did the three trigger outputs. These allowed you to hook into other devices and sound sources and use tracks on the 808 to trigger other things. One trigger-happy trick was using a trigger output to push patterns into the SH-101. The SH-101 monosynth doesn't really fit into the X0X story because it was fantastically successful. This was because it sounded great, everyone understood what it was, and you could strap it onto yourself and pose about on stage like a rock star. So, if you connected a trigger output of the 808 to the External Clock input on the SH-101, the sequencer would follow the pattern you programmed on that track. It gave you instant and fabulous hands-on control over your sequenced melody lines.
[Above: the Roland SH-101 synthesizer—images via Perfect Circuit's archives.]
The 909 was different; it felt immediately more intentional and crafted to find a space that the 808 initially had trouble penetrating. I think the sampled hi-hats and cymbals definitely helped the 909 to be taken more seriously, but the power of the kicks and toms still seemed out of step with the studio productions of the mid-1980s. However, once you started to tweak those analog sounds, the 909 would sit up perfectly in an electronic mix. One of the key features was the ability to tune the kick drum. It could become an instrument in its own right, following bass lines and complementing the mix. The sequencer was better, and the added shuffle and MIDI control gave it a fighting chance against the LinnDrum. Of course, it wasn't competing in the big studios; it was picked up from secondhand shops by bedroom musicians who had the time and inclination to wring every creative drop out of the machine.
It was the cheapness of the TB-303 that ended up being its salvation. If you've only paid a few dollars for it, then cracking open the plastic case was no bother and paid dividends to those who like to fiddle with electronics. Inside were some trimmers for the filter's behaviour, but you could also build in modifications to extend the sound and pull out additional CV controls.
[Above: a Devilfish modded TB-303. Image via Perfect Circuit's archives.]
The legendary Devil Fish mods include adding an external input to the filter, FM modulation, overdrive, better Decay range, improved resonance and self-oscillation. Many people just ran it through a Boss DS-1 Distortion pedal, which seemed to do the trick. The 303 was also notoriously difficult to program, and that, in my view, is why it sounds so unique. Most of the coolest basslines that come out are entirely accidental. They get created by fudging around with the buttons and frustratingly adding slides and ties while trying to navigate the thing. The results are nearly always excellent, and you know that it had very little to do with you. Then all you have to do is lean into that filter and drown in the treacle of squelchy harmonics.
The X0X boxes arrived at just the right time to be ignored by the mainstream and land in the laps of the emerging home-grown bedroom studio scene. The perfect accompaniment to turntablism and beat-boxing that gave ambitious musicians somewhere to go. Their legacy may be driven by nostalgia on the one hand, but also they drip with the simple love of hands-on analogue-style music making that will never go away.