Starting out as experiments into electronic music, these now classic synthesisers and drum machines helped create new music genres and the sounds we now take for granted.
This story has been updated since its original publication.
These days it’s a simple matter to replicate the exact sound you want with a computer, but in the '70s, '80s and '90s it was a different story. From simple synthetic sounds to complex machines capable of recording and mapping samples, synths and drum machines totally changed how music was created.
Always striving for a unique sound, modern music is built on techniques that have been developed, modified and twisted by countless recording artists, producers and studio engineers. While some were invented by accident and others were developed over generations of technology, these audio effects have shaped music as we know it.
Many now famous synthesisers were unremarkable when first sold, but gained later cult followings that launched new genres of music. Some were so popular that companies have even tried to create modern versions.
Here are a few of the most influential (and, really, this list is partly subjective could probably be 10x longer).
Released in 1980, the now iconic Roland TR-808 was one of the first programmable drum machines and went on to be used on more hit records than any other machine. A big factor in it’s success was the price — the 808 was relatively affordable compared to the competition as well as simple to use. In three years 12,000 of the machines had been sold.
The 808 doesn't really sound like actual real world drums — in fact in 1982 the Keyboard Magazine referred to the TR-808 effects as marching anteaters. Compared to the competition (such as the Linn LM-1) the 808 has poor sound quality and was not able to record samples.
The TR-808 was quickly superseded by more realistic machines and second hand prices became very low. Instead of becoming obsolete, the cheap price combined with a unique sound helped make the TR-808 popular with hip hop and electronic musicians and helped create new genres throughout the 80’s.In particular, the 808 could produce a very popular low frequency bass kick drum, as well as a tinny handclap, a ticky snare, a tishy hi-hat and a spacey cowbell.
The 808 was also popular with dance music as a powerful composition tool, as it could store up to 32 patterns with separately programmed drum and rhythm sounds.
An early user of the TR-808 here in Australia was Mark Moffatt, with his studio project, the Monitors. The Beastie Boys used the 808 in their breakout album, Licensed to Ill, which was the first rap LP to top the Billboard album chart and sold 9 million copies.
Much more recently, Roland used component-level modelling (instead of samples) to digitally reverse engineer the classic TR-808 drum machine sound that had such an impact on hip hop and electronic music. The result: 2014's Roland Aria TR-8 drum machine. You could call the 808 the most famous drum machine ever — which is probably why it has its own documentary. Anyway, the surprisingly close-sounding TR-8 costs just $599 — compared to the $2000-$3000+ now fetched by the early 1980s original.
Below: One of the most well known tracks using the TR-808 is Can You Feel It by Mr. Fingers (Larry Heard).
In 1984 the TR-808 was replaced by the improved TR-909, which was the first MIDI equipped drum machine. While the 808 was featured heavily in hip hop music, the TR-909 became a mainstay in techno.
The 909 was designed as an improved yet still affordable alternative to other more expensive drums machines. Unlike the synthetic 808, the 909 was partially sample based to give a more realistic sound. Ten thousand 909’s were produced but like the 808, second hand prices dropped when Roland released the TR-707.
The 909s still somewhat synthetic sound with strong bass kick became very popular with pioneers of techno and acid house and was and is still used extensively in the genres.
The TR 909 featured a 16-step sequencer that made it easy to create a four to the floor beat - a rhythm pattern common in disco and electronic dance music. For the time (and the price) the TR-90 was quite flexible, allowing rhythm patterns to be saved and some aspects such as pitch and decay to be adjusted.
Because the 909 also featured basic MIDI, it was possible to use it to control other instruments.
Like the 808, working versions of the 909 command surprisingly high prices these day. You can get a more modern drum machine that replicates the 909 or synthesizes the sound with software and a computer.
A great example of the TR-909 in action if Inner City, by Big Fun.
Originally designed to for guitarists looking for bass accompaniment when practicing, the 303 only sold 10,000 units from 1982 to 1984. Considered a flop at the time, it wasn’t until later in the 80s that DJs and electronic musicians started using the 303 in the burgeoning house music genre.
Unlike most synthesisers at the time, the 303 could be switched between a sawtooth and a square wave, resulting in a unique sound. The unit also had an interesting low voltage failure mode that scrambled any note patterns stored in the memory if the batteries were taken out, creating a totally new sequence.
As the musicians experimented with the house music, TB-303 was often overdriven, which produced a harsher distorted “acid” sound and new styles.
The TB-303 was very popular with touring DJ’s, leading to some companies producing aftermarket modified versions of the machines to add new features and handle the heavy use. A number of companies also produced clones of the TB-303, cashing in on it’s scarcity and popularity. Eventually even Roland released a clone of it’s own product, the MC-303 Groovebox.
One of the first uses of the TB-303 was by Charanjit Singh’s Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat - an electronic disco album that also featured the TR-808. Another early use was by the Scottish post-punk band Orange Juice, with the track Rip It Up. A great example of the overdriven TB-303 sound is in Acids Tracks, by Phuture.
A family of synthesizers designed by Dr. Robert Moog (rhymes with vogue), the machines came to represent an easy to use but versatile and powerful way to create electronic music.
Originally producing and selling Theremin kits, Robert Moog started experimenting with electronic music systems in the mid 1960s. At the time musicians were highly reliant on tapes and the existing electronic music options were limited. Using the transistor instead of vacuum tubes, Moog was able to build synthesizers that were cheaper, smaller and more reliable than anything before.
The Moog synthesizers didn’t become widely known until the commercial success of composer, musician and engineer, Wendy Carlos. Collaborating with Rachel Elkind, Carlos recorded a selection of Bach compositions entirely on the Moog synthesiser.
The Moog’s popularity skyrocketed further with the release of the Minimoog, a small but highly flexible synthesizer designed for live performances.
Moog synthesisers have been used by Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, the Beach boy’s and more. There isn’t a synthesizer available today that does not owe some aspect of it’s design and creation Dr. Robert Moog.
If you want to recreate the classic sounds of a Moog synthesiser, the app Animoog lets you experiment on your smartphone.
While the TR-808 owed much of it’s popularity to its affordability, the HR-16 had it totally beat. Released in 1987, this drum machine cost about half that of it’s closest budget Roland competitor and one fifth of the price of more expensive models.
The HR-16 had 49, 16-bit sampled drum and percussions sound and could store 100 programmable patterns and songs. It was also simple to use, had MIDI support and produced a fairly clear sound. Despite some of the samples being described as a little ‘cheesy’ and the unit itself having fairly low build quality, the HR-16 was widely adopted.
A HR-16B model was later released, with an updated sample set with sounds that were popular with techno and electronic music. The HR-16 was used by bands such as Orbital, The Grid, Sub Dub and the Stereo MC’s.
While low cost synthesisers and drum machines let countless musicians experiment with electronic music, higher end models were just as important.
One of the most well known is the Fairlight CMI, a synthesiser designed for studios and star musicians. Released in 1979, the CMI cost a massive $27,500 — which is equivalent to over $100,000 dollars today.
The CMI was actually developed in Australia by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie as a development of their previous synthesiser, the Quasar M8. The CMI was the first sampling synthesiser, which meant it could take any recorded sounds and let you play them back with a keyboard. It also had a wide range of pre-recorded sounds.
The first person to buy a CMI was Peter Gabriel (ex front man from Genesis), while the second went to Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. One of the most recognisable uses of the CMI was the creation of the Miami Vice theme by Jan Hammer.
The most popular synthesizer of all time, the M1s sound can be found throughout 80’s and 90’s music. While other synthesisers were selling tens in the ten of thousands, the KORG M1 shifted over a 250,000 machines.
The M1 cost $2166 when launched in 1988 and was not a budget option. The advantage of the KORG synthesiser was that it was a do everything machine, including recording and playing your own samples. At the same time it managed to be simple and easy to use and quickly became a favourite.