Making the Most of Your 808 Plugin

Following the death of Roland’s founder Ikutaro Kakehashi on April 1, Reverb has decided to pay tribute to some of the ways his most famous invention, the TR–808 drum machine, has evolved. Be sure to read our tribute to Kakehashi and watch our video about Easter eggs on the Roland TR–8.

When Ikutaro Kakehashi and his team developed the TR–808 as the first ever fully programmable drum machine in 1978, the Roland founder likely had no idea that he was about to release the Stratocaster of drum machines.

Close to 40 years after its release by the Roland corporation, the sounds of the TR–808 have become the most ubiquitous electronic drums in existence. The term “808” is more or less synonymous with synthesized percussion.

There are a lot of great plugins emulating the 808, including the Core 808 in Ableton Live (which we’ll talk about the most here), the D16 Neptheton, and the Audiorealism ADM. But the first time you fire up an 808 plugin, you might wonder what the fuss is all about. The 808 in its most basic form sounds dull, flat, and thin by today’s standards.

The fact of the matter is that the 808 hasn’t endured because of a distinct, signature sound. Marshall full stacks have a characteristic high gain sound, Selmer tenor saxophones have a raw harmonic richness, and Hammond B3s have a warm punch when a chord is played just so. The 808 has no such characteristics.

Some would argue it has an iconic bass drum tone (and we’ll talk more about that in a bit), but that’s not even something you can really get out of the original machine. Instead, the 808 is like a plain white tee or a pair of blue jeans. As a basic, it's only bland in the wrong hands. When layered and fit just right, an 808 can be the perfect touch on a track.

To get the most out of your 808 plugin:

  • Use effects
  • Tune the drums
  • Adjust attack and decay on your amplitude envelope
  • Dial in 808 bass

When you learn how to tweak your 808 plugin’s parameters and apply basic effects, you’ll get a groove monster that fits beautifully into whatever music you want to make.

If you want to try out some of the tips mentioned in this article without leaving your browser, check out this faithful, web–only replica of the original TR–808.

Effects

Rule number one of 808 plugins: use compression. Compression is how pop, techno, and hip hop producers have been getting thunking 808 sounds for decades.

On a waveform level, 808 sounds are incredibly simple. Compression beefs up those simple signals, and makes plain timbres into bold ones. It’s a godsend for your kick drum and cymbals, which will get a longer sustain.

Run your 808 through a compressor to fatten up the sound.

Set slow attack and and medium release times on your compressor for snappy drums with bite, or dial them both back to simply add some juice and consistency to the sound.

With your snare, clap, and cymbals, you’ll likely want to add a low pass filter or EQ out grating high frequencies that compression will forefront.

In Ableton Live, you can add effects to just one drum sound at a time, dropping the effect directly on its placement in the rack. This is key for creating a robust, flexible kit and using effects like distortion.

Distortion will add harmonic complexity (and some heat) to your kick drum or toms. If you put the distortion effect after the kit, the whole thing will sound rougher, but adding distortion to just what you need it on ensures that you’re dialing in your sound, not blowing it out.

Try placing effects on individual drums instead of the whole track.

Filtering works the same way. If you want a really distinct snare drum sound, try applying a bandpass filter and selecting the exact range that you want to sound in your mix. Adding a hi–pass filter to your cymbals will draw out a distinct sizzle or, if you need, thin them out a bit so they don’t compete with synth leads or distorted guitar.

But as far as effects go, just pepper in whatever you think could add some useful color and play around with the settings until everything sounds perfect. Phaser and flange do wild things to a cymbal. Reverb on a snare will up your ‘80s quotient, especially if you follow it with a gate.

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Tune Those Drums

In the studio, drummers will tune their drums to blend with their band. Tuning your 808 will help your drum track sit better in your mix, too, but getting creative with the tunings gives you a great opportunity to get a distinct drum vibe you can call your own.

The original TR–808 didn’t have a lot of controls, but it did include tuning knobs for the toms. Software emulations of the 808 give you complete control over the tuning of each individual sound. In real life you can’t adjust the pitch of a cymbal. Use these settings to your advantage.

Sure, you can tune your toms to specific notes to create three–note melodies with them. But try tuning your open hi hat to a different pitch than your closed hi hat to create some tension when they play in succession.

Playing with the tuning of your rim, snare, and claps can help them either blend in or pop out of your mix, depending on what your track needs.

Tuning your 808 drums will help you learn the beauty of software, as you getting playful manipulating clap sounds digitally in a way you never could in the realm of flesh and blood.

Attack and Decay are Secret Weapons

The original TR–808 was pretty limited when it came to envelope control. There were decay knobs on the bass drum, crash cymbal, and open hi-hat. That was it.

Modern emulations of the drum machine give decay control for every parameter, and Ableton’s gives you attack control as well. Playing with attack and decay is an easy way to get some vibe on your tracks.

808 Plugin Envelope

Let’s take the snare. A snare with a long decay turned up high in the mix will add grit to a chill mix or staple down an intense one. A snare with a short decay buried in the mix can simply bolster up or down beats, or add some rigidity to a complex groove. In Ableton, you can set a long attack time to make it sound like it’s playing in reverse.

Play with the decay on your cymbals too. Set decay on the crash or open hi hat to match the tempo. A quick decay on a crash cymbal will contribute will make a high–BPM track feel a little more breakneck, and a long decay on a mid–tempo slow jam will infuse it with simmering sensuality and mystery.

Sometimes you’ll want to set envelopes before making a track to set the tone, and sometimes it just helps to program a quick drum sequence and play with envelopes after.

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Dialing in 808 Bass

One of the most distinctive 808 sounds, and one of the most common ones today, is the bass sound you can get from tweaking its kick drum.

This gives you what is generally referred to as “sub bass,” or smooth bass tone that sits almost exclusively in the low end of the audio spectrum. Sub bass tones are often simple sine waves, generating in software.

People use the terms “808 bass” and “sub bass” somewhat interchangeably, which means a so–called 808 bass tone might not be coming from an actual 808. Dialing in 808 bass is a fairly complex technique, but easy to understand when broken into parts. Here’s how you do it with your software emulator.

First, put some compression on your kick. The compressor will do triple duty in this situation: beefing up the tone, softening the attack thud, and adding some sustain by increasing the loudness of the sound’s decay.

Set your compressor with medium–to–fast attack and medium release. You might want a slightly faster attack and a slightly faster or slower release so play around until you get that perfect combo. Set your ratio high and adjust the threshold and makeup to taste.

Next, adjust the amplitude envelopes. If you’re using Ableton Live, double click on the kick drum in the drum rack to open its settings. There, you’ll see dials to adjust the attack and decay on its amplitude envelope. Turn the dial on the attack up just until you’ve eliminated the thud. Adjust the decay time according to how short or long you want your bass notes to last.

If you still want the attack of the original kick attack as well, you’ll need to layer in a kick sound with a slower attack to preserve that attack transient. Just copy and paste the kick drum pattern into a new drum track in your DAW, and set the compressor with slow attack and medium release. Adjust the levels to strike that perfect balance of the smoothed out sub on one track and the biting kick on the other.

Last, tune the your kick drum to whatever pitch you need your bass to be. Simply adjust the pitch dial.

Believe it or not, you can actually play and program this modified kick drum sound like an instrument. There are two methods to do this in Ableton Live.

For the first method, go to session view. Double click the kick drum in your drum rack. When the waveform pops up, control–click or right–click that wave and select “Show in Browser.” Drag the kick sample displayed in your browser into a new track containing the Simpler instrument.

Once you are working in that new Simpler track, you can adjust the amplitude envelopes in Simpler to dial in a sub bass tone with soft attack and whatever length of decay you want. From there, either program your notes in a clip or play Simpler with a MIDI keyboard.

The second method only allows you to program pitch controls. You’ll need to program a bass drum rhythm in advance and then copy and paste that clip into session view.

Once in session view, double click the kick drum in your drum rack and then control–click or right–click the “pitch” knob. When that menu pops up, select “Show Automation in New Lane.” This will show the pitch automation right under the drum track in session view, and you can click and drag the automation to whatever pitches you want for each kick drum hit.

Drag your automation points to whatever pitch you want the drum to play at.

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