That headline sounds suspect, but it is the most succinct way to explain why the Roland TR-808 drum machine has a very distinct, and difficult to replicate noise circuit. The drum machine was borne of a hack. As the Secret Life of Synthesizers explains, it was a rejected part picked up and characterized by Roland which delivers this unique auditory thumbprint.
Pictured above is the 2SC828-R, and you can still get this part. But it won’t function the same as the parts found in the original 808. The little dab of paint on the top of the transistor indicates that it was a very special subset of those rejected parts (the 2SC828-RNZ). A big batch of rejects were sold to Roland back in the 1970’s — which they then thinned out in a mysterious testing process. What was left went into the noise circuit that gave the 808 its magical sizzle. When the parts ran out, production ended as newer processes didn’t produce the same superbly flawed parts.
This is an incredible story that was highlighted in 808, a documentary premiered at SXSW back in 2015. The film is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (and to rent everywhere else) and is certainly worth your time just to grasp how seminal this drum machine has been in hip hop and several other music genres.
For modern product developers, betting your production on a batch of reject parts is just batty. But it was a very different time with a lot fewer components on the market. What worked, worked. You do have to wonder how you stumble upon the correct trait in an obscure batch of reject parts? Looks like we’ll be adding Ikutar Kakehashi’s bookI Believe in Music: Life Experiences and Thoughts on the Future of Electronic Music by the Founder of the Roland Corporation to our reading list.
He’s packed the entire device (called the Drum8 Vintage) into a single ATtiny84 14-pin DIP package, including the samples and eight polyphonic voices, plus old-school analog CV triggers, a global tune and an analog global accent input. That won’t mean a lot to non-musicians, but suffice to say that these are the same inputs that the original TR-808 had that allowed you to do all sorts of interesting stuff to trigger and modify the drum sounds. Plus some extras.
If you spent the 1980s hanging out at your local record store, and you don’t have a hankering for spandex and bouffant rock-god hairstyles, the chances are you’ll have more than a few pieces of electronic music from the period in your collection. The proliferation of electronica during that era came through the arrival of relatively inexpensive mass-market digital polyphonic instruments, edging out the sounds of monophonic analog synthesisers for a subsequent generation to rediscover in a later decade. Individual instrument models became icons and entered the musical vernacular of the day, the Ensoniq Mirage sampling synthesiser, the Yamaha DX7 FM synthesiser, or the Roland TR-808 drum machine.
It is the Roland TR-808 that inspired today’s subject, the MR-808 robotic drum machine, from [Moritz Simon Geist]. A percussion sequencer featuring real instruments all built into a cabinet styled to resemble a huge Roland 808. Originally built as a performance instrument, but since reinvented as a piece of installation artwork that visitors can program for themselves.
Earlier this year we showed you a slick MIDI sequencer project that was constructed using an Arduino Mega, which also happened to drive an incredibly detailed touch screen display. [Christian] must have gotten bored with his awesome creation one day, because he pulled the drum level display out of his Arduino Sequencer 808, and turned the LED array into a mini Tetris game.
As you can see in the video below, the game runs pretty well, though from what we can see it lacks any sort of score keeping. We dig it because we never really tire of Tetris clones, and we think it’s great that he kept his 808 sequencer design modular enough that he can pluck different components out for reuse in other projects.
It’s not really conceived as a spy cam, but it could be. [Quinn Dunki] built this tiny time-lapse camera project with racing in mind. She’s involved in a group that endurance races clunkers, and part of the fun is sharing the experience of riding around in the old beaters. The module seen above takes a picture every four seconds and will last 24 hours before needing new batteries or an SD card change. We wonder if that’s longer than some of the ‘racecars’ make it?
She picked up an 808 camera, which looks like the key fob you use to unlock your car doors. They’re so cheap you can include them in projects and not really care if you don’t get them back. Inside it’s got a small lithium battery, the circuit board with a processor, microSD card slot, and of course the SSD used to capture the images. To control the device she used a tiny relay with an ATtiny13 used for the timing. We think the battery selection is a bit overboard, but maybe the next version will be a little more conservative.
There was one folly along the way. She wanted to attach this to the body of the car with a handful of magnets. But they don’t play nicely with the magnetic relays so that was out. The solution was to add that lanyard ring to the case which will allow the camera to be zip tied to the vehicle. So far there are no time-lapse movies available, but keep your eyes on our links posts and we’ll try to include one when it pops up.
Reading this week’s ATtiny-themed builds, [Thomas] was reminded one of his coolest builds. His midi808 project used an ATtiny2313 to sync a vintage Roland 808 drum machine to his Logic workstation.
Even though MIDI had been around for a few years when 808s were being made, the CPU in the 808 isn’t exactly up to the task of handling MIDI. Instead, the 808 used an interface known as DIN Sync that was designed to keep 808s, 707s, and 303s in time with each other. MIDI to DIN Sync boxes do did exist, but even the auxiliary equipment to use an 808 is getting hard to find.
The build takes a MIDI signal and passes it through an opto-isolator per the MIDI spec. The microcontroller reads the MIDI signal and passes it out through the DIN Sync port. The DIN Sync protocol is only 24 pulses per quarter note output with TTL voltages, and the project code is easy enough to follow. It’s a nice build for one of the greatest drum machines ever made. Listen to a track [Thomas] made with his new setup after the break.
Flickr user [firegroove] recently had to take apart his Roland TR-909 drum machine in order to fix it, and he photographed the entire teardown, offering detailed pictures of the TR-909’s internal parts. The TR-909 is legendary as one of the first fully programmable drum machines that could store entire songs, and its legend is only boosted by its scarcity: only 10,000 were ever made. If you can’t afford or simply refuse to tear yours apart, look after the break for a few more photos from inside.