Every generation has an instrument which defines its sound, and for those whose formative musical years lie in the 1980s, a very strong contender to the crown is the Roland TR-808 percussion synthesizer. Its sounds can be recognized across a slew of hits from that era and every decade since, and though the original instrument wasn’t a commercial success it remains accessible through sample packs, emulations, and clones. The 808 was an all-analogue device that didn’t use samples, thus [Mark Longstaff-Tyrrell] has been able to reproduce its distinctive cowbell sound with reference to some of the original circuitry.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to find that the circuit is refreshingly simple. The trigger pulse is converted into an envelope which controls a pair of oscillators. The mixed output passes through a bandpass filter to create the distinctive sound on the output which you can hear in the video below the break. The circuit is recreated on a breadboard with the only concession to modernity being a microcontroller taking the place of the Schmitt trigger oscillators in the original.
Altogether it provides a fascinating insight into the synthesis behind a classic sound, and gives us an increased appreciation for the design skills of those Roland engineers who created it. We’ve looked at the 808 before a few times, including an explanation of the famous faulty transistors which contributed to its sound.
Header image: Brandon Daniel derivative work: Clusternote, CC BY-SA 2.0.
9 thoughts on “How The Roland 808 Cowbell Worked”
I don’t care how it works I only know I need more cowbell!
Bangin’ like an 808!
Nothin’ sounds quite like an 8 0 8
Money makin’, money money makin’
That doesn’t sound anything like a cowbell.
True. But it does sound like an 808 cowbell.
But we are again one step closer to finding out why it was called cowbell. This is progress in the making!
Great article though, explaining more of how that analogue stuff worked! I loved it. :)
This link skips four minutes of barely intelligible video nonsense and lets you listen to the final synthesized “cowbell” effect:
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