What is An 808 – How to Use One in Music Production

Combining percussive as well as bass elements, an 808 is a staple of hip hop, electronic dance music, and many other genres. Let’s define what is an 808 and how you can use it in your own mixing.

What is An 808

what is an 808

Nowadays, an 808 is more associated with a very specific type of tone or instrumental sound, but the name itself comes from the Roland TR-808 drum machine:

roland tr 808

Released in 1980 and retailing for roughly $1200 or almost $5000 in 2024 (adjusting for inflation), this drum machine introduced an entire line of unique synthetic drum, percussive, and bass sounds.

The sounds of the TR-808 are unmistakable and can be heard on a number of popular top 40 hits dating back to the instrument’s release in 1980.

The hi-hat and clap samples which you can still hear on countless songs today make up the drum beat for Marvin Gaye’s 1982 hit “Sexual Healing”:

I alluded to this earlier, but when we think 808, we’re typically thinking specifically of the combination low end bass and kick samples which the TR-808 produced.

This percussive but bass heavy 808 is practically regarded as its own instrument nowadays and again is as synonymous with hip hop and EDM music as any instrument there is.

You can hear the bass in the kick on another early hit track to take advantage of the TR-808, “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force:

The “808 kick” is a booming combination of bass, the thickness of the body of the kick, and the percussiveness of the top end.

Producers like Kanye West (who named one of his records after the 808) have kept the 808 sound bank and in particular the 808 kick alive in the decades since the TR-808’s release.

While there’s certainly a charm to the somewhat cheesy yet novel analog sound of this kick but more the greater sound bank, it’s hard to know if 808’s would be as relevant and accepted today if they hadn’t been kept alive all this time.

How to Use 808s in Your Mix

The beauty of 808’s is that they’re essentially tunable kick drums.

While you can key your normal kick drum to match that of your song by way of my sine wave kick drum trick, there’s a much more inherently musicality associated with 808s.

If your kick drum is too thin or top heavy, rather than using the aforementioned sine wave trick, simply layer an 808 in the key of your song underneath your existing kick.

This brings a lot more energy and power to the low end of your mix (check out my low end mixing tutorial, by the way).

Even when lightly blended, an 808 can seriously supplement an otherwise lacking kick.

While you can spend some money to get Roland’s official TR-808 Software Rhythm Composer plugin which they’re created to mimic their original hardware, there are plenty of free 808 virtual instruments or simply samples out there which do a comparable job.

My DAW of Ableton Live has a number of built in kits or simply 808 kicks which emulate the 808 quite faithfully.

ableton 808

The sound is relatively sculpted and clean already, as well, so little to no subsequent processing is necessary on an 808, meaning there’s no need to use kick EQ or kick compression like you would on a recorded or even other sampled kick.

Aside from supplementing a kick or using an 808 as your kick (or even kick AND bass for that matter), an 808 can be used as a little “ear candy”.

In other words, this can be something you drop in select sections of your mix, either for an entire verse or simply a few notes here or there.

An 808 kick can be used as the majority or entire instrumentation for a minimalistic verse before bringing in everything for a chorus, creating a nice contrast between sparse and dense.

Because it’s so ingrained in the music culture since its release, there will always be a place for an 808 in your mixing, particularly if it’s used in moderation and not as a crutch.

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