The kick and the 808 are intimately related for a couple of reasons, but mostly due to the popularity of hip-hop music and the way it’s produced in modern popular music. The term 808 – which originates from Roland’s TR-808 machine – produced a kick along with a low-end frequency, however, it has become a cliché in the sense that its original meaning is lost.
808s, at one point, was actually a kick drum but now the term doesn’t necessarily refer to the same thing. This has only added to the confusion.
The difference between an 808 and a kick drum is that an 808 refers to just the low-end bass sounds that emanate from the kick, but not the attack of the kick drum. In other words, an 808 is the bass – the sound and frequency – whereas the kick refers to the actual kick drum or VST.
Explained another way, the 808 is a term that describes a bass or a low-end sound but not necessarily a kick drum. The kick refers to the kick drum, more specifically, the attack of it when the pad first hits the drum, but not necessarily the bass frequencies that follow. As it was just noted, this all comes from the Roland TR-808 drum machine, which has been a staple since the 1980s although they have been off the market for ages (grab one from eBay here).
The 808 and the Kick Drum – Differences, Similarities, and More
According to the Wikipedia page, when the Roland TR-808 first came out in the 1980s, it didn’t sell very well because music producers didn’t like the way it sounded. Producers wanted a simple way of adding drum sounds to their songs but they wanted them to sound like a real drummer, rather than a synthetic or “artificial” sound.
Roland released the first TR-808 in 1980 and it went for $1195USD, which is about $3700 now. The Roland TR-808 obviously sounded very synthetic and producers wanted something more realistic, kind of like what the Linn LM-1 was producing at the time. Fast-forward to today, and the TR-808, or more specifically the 808 sound, is used everywhere in popular music to the point where it’s a cliché and a misnomer.
For instance, people use the term, “808,” to describe the bass in general, even though the sound may not be anything even remotely close to the TR-808 sound from 1980 (until it finally ceased production in 1983). Nowadays, people use the term, “808,” to describe the bass sound that goes along with the kick, even though the TR-808’s original kick-drum sound WAS, in fact, a kick drum.
To put it simply, the word “808” has evolved to become a term that describes the bass that works in conjunction with the kick drum, even though the 808 at one point was just a kick drum. Take a look at any music production YouTuber and they all use the term “808” to refer to any bass sounds that go along with the kick.
The term is now commonly used in not only hip-hop production but in popular music in general, with even plugin manufacturers using it in the title of their plugins, like Initial Audio’s 808 Studio II plug-in (grab it here from Plugin Boutique), which I think is easily one of the best 808 plug-ins on the market, especially for the price. It’s worth mentioning that it also works for Garageband.
The 808 Studio II plug-in is a great example of the refinement of the term 808 because you can actually introduce bass sounds with the plug-in but you can choose not to include a kick. You can set it up so that there is bass in your track, but it doesn’t have to come along with a kick, and you can switch out kicks for other kicks in case you don’t like how it sounds.
This should explain why the word, 808, can also refer to things like the 808 kick, the 808 snare, and the 808 hi-hats. It’s because these are all the instruments that come from the Roland TR-808. However, in popular vernacular today, nobody refers to the hi-hats and other instruments as 808 snares even if the sound is similar to what the TR-808 used to produce.
The word is used to describe the bass sound that’s associated with the kick only, although on occasion, some people might actually use “808 snares” if they’re actually referring to the one that comes with the TR-808. If you want to check out what the Roland TR-808 sounds like, there are videos on YouTube including the one here:
The moment you hear the TR-808 playing, most people will think to themselves right away: “oh yeah, I know what that is,” simply because it’s that popular and it’s such a big part of hip-hop, electronic, and rap culture at this point. At the 1:42 mark, he starts talking about the kick drum sound which is exactly what I’m talking about. This is literally the 808 kick sound:
You could maybe make the same argument about the 808 hi-hats too which is now a staple in hip-hop production, although, there is no specific term for the hi-hats that originates from the 808. The hi-hats that you hear in nearly all of rap music production today are a direct off-shoot from the hi-hat from the TR-808 machine. If you looked at the YouTube video above, he explored the hi-hat in more detail.
As a sidenote, Garageband’s latest update introduced a lot of these much older instruments in their batch of instruments. For instance, they’ve included an instrument simply called “808 Flex” within their Electronic Drum Kit section which includes a lot more instruments than it used to including the actual 808 machines that much of modern drum machines and plug-ins are based on.
For instance, they’ve added things like the traditional TR-808, the TR-909, the TR-606, and a few other 808 machines that weren’t there before. I find it interesting that they actually chose to label it as TR-808 rather than as some other plug-in, considering TR-808 is the actual name of the drum change. There must not be any legal ramifications of doing so.
Additionally, within the Synthesizer section, Garageband has introduced the “808 Bass” which is kind of what I wished I would’ve had when I first started using it a few years ago. I have a whole tutorial on how to make 808 bass in Garageband, as well as a “tips and tricks” article on how to get it to sound good. In both of these, I use or at least mention the Deep Sub Bass synthesizer which sounds great but I’m happy to see there is something better now.
When I first began hip-hop production, I had to use just the Boutique 808 as well as the Deep Sub Bass synthesizer as the primary instruments, because I didn’t understand how to download plug-ins (my tutorial here) or how to buy them and download them yet.
If anything, the fact “808 Bass” is now included as an instrument in Garageband, shows just how the term 808 has come to mean something entirely different than what it used to be. In the case of the new Garageband instrument, the “808 Bass” refers to exactly what I’ve been talking about in this article: the 808 bass sound refers to just the low-end and not the attack of the kick drum.
Check out the video below to hear what this 808 sound is like.
YouTube Video Tutorial
Gear I Mentioned
1) Initial Audio’s 808 Studio II (Plugin Boutique)
This is the plug-in that answered a lot of my questions. I use to wonder how to slide/glide 808s in Garageband, opting for instead a lame alternative that I wasn’t happy with, but this is the plug-in that allows you to do this via the Portamento timing, as I explained in my other tutorial.
2) Roland TR-808 (Buy One Used from eBay)
If you wanted to grab an actual TR-808, you could grab one of them off of eBay here usually for upwards of $4000-$5000, which is even more expensive than what they used to cost back in the day.