Second-hand value: £1,500 – £3,000
Produced: 1980 – 1983 (TR-808); 1983 – 1985 (TR-909)
There’s very little left to say about the 808 and 909, so we’ll spare you the usual flowery language about booming kicks, crunching snares and silky hi-hats (there’s enough of that in the rest of this feature). Instead, let’s focus on something that’s discussed far too infrequently when examining the importance of these two iconic 80s units: their practical use as instruments.
The earlier 808 is the more limited of the two in many respects: it’s an all-anlogue design but the kick drum can’t be tuned, there’s no MIDI as standard and there’s no swing option. The 909 is much more modern, with sample-based hi-hats and toms, more options for shaping the sound, adjustable swing and reasonably good MIDI implementation.
Regardless of these differences, both the 808 and 909 are still excellent in the studio or a live setting. Their step sequencers are among the best you’ll find and the hands-on control allied with iconic sound engines makes for a much more engrossing experience than triggering a set of 808 or 909 samples (although whether that justifies the price premium is a different matter).
Both units benefit greatly from careful processing. Compression and EQ make the sounds come to life and allow them to be shaped into the tones we all know from the last 25 years of house and techno records. The 909 in particular also takes on an entirely new character when its sounds are distorted. Run that kick into an analogue mixer, crank the gain and hear it get angrier and more abrasive until it’s a harsh, fuzzy mess. These are serious instruments which reward thoughtful production.
It’s impossible to say which model is ‘better’: that’s a value judgement too far for two units which helped define the sound of electronic music as we know it today. Both are excellent instruments which justify the plaudits. You probably don’t need us to tell you that you want one. The bad news is that it’s now virtually impossible to find a bargain. We’ve all heard the stories of people discovering 808s in bins and 909s being given away by unwitting owners. Those days are long gone. Both units command a premium on the second-hand market and prices continue to rise seemingly every month. Will they continue to rise? Only time will tell. But put it this way: we thought they’d peaked about five years ago. They hadn’t.