Teaching an 808 some new tricks

TR-808 and Korg KMS

I’ve been really happy with my Roland TR-808 ever since I got it a year or so ago. I bought it because I thought it would magically solve my inability to make good drum patterns. Percussion has been a weak point for me, and I thought that maybe I needed a better tool.

I first tried using a TR-707. It’s much cheaper than an 808 and yet it’s got a really useful-looking matrix that shows the drum pattern for all the different drum sounds at once. I thought that a visual aide was just what I needed. But it turns out that the 707 doesn’t let you change the pattern while it’s in the middle of playing. This was a major blow, since I wanted to be able to experiment with the pattern while it was playing.

So I eventually shelled out and just got an 808. It’s very simple and intuitive to program, which is exactly what a rhythm dullard like me needs. However, I confess that despite my satisfaction with the 808, I have found myself staring longfully at some of the other drum machines from the 80s. Sequential Circuits’ Drumtraks, the TOM, the Oberheim DSX or DX, E-mu’s Drumulator. The list goes on (though that is mostly it for me). However, these are all just drum machines with digital samples. I didn’t like the idea of amassing a bunch of drum machines (no matter how nice they look…and they do look very nice) just to access the samples. Yeah, I know that some of them have analog filters. Well, I also have samplers with analog filters. Problem solved. Almost.

I still liked the 808’s method of programming patterns. The best world would be to use the 808 but have some additional sounds. The 808 has three trigger outputs, and these could potentially be used to trigger other devices. But I usually want more than 3 sounds in a pattern. Instead of using the trigger outputs, I decided to run the individual audio outputs from the 808 through a box that would convert them to MIDI notes.

808 outputs

I first tried using an Alesis D4 to convert the audio into a MIDI signal. I always thought of the D4 as just a way to get some cheap drum sounds, but it’s also got a ton of trigger inputs. Alesis intended for folks to hook up drum pads to these trigger inputs, but it supposedly also accepted regular audio as triggers.

The D4 didn’t work so well at converting audio into MIDI. It worked ok on certain sounds, but less reliably on other sounds. I could never get it to convert the hi-hat sound, for example. I didn’t have much patience for the D4, and an Akai ME35T popped up on eBay for cheap. I actually meant to bid on the auction and then got busy and accidentally forgot about it. But luckily no one else bid on it and the seller relisted it. Hurray! Plus, I just think Akai gear looks nicer than Alesis stuff.

Alesis D4

The Akai worked like a charm, and it was also much easier to configure all the various triggers than the D4. Eventually my master plan is to sample various drum machines and build up a library for either my ASR-10 sampler or the Emulator III. In the meantime, I hooked the MIDI output on the Akai ME35T into the D4 and just used the stock sounds on the D4. It’s got a variety of classy-sounding 80s drum kits that are fun to switch through. Anyway, I made a little demo of the process:


[pro-player TYPE=”MP3″  image=”http://thecompleatsynthesizer.com/media/images/808.jpg”]http://thecompleatsynthesizer.com/media/audio/tr808triggerdemo.mp3[/pro-player]