Prepare for a few controversial decisions as we run down our list of the best drum machines of all time.

1 – Roland TR-808

Launched: 1980
Original RRP: $1,195 (£765 in the UK)
Current price: £900-£1,500

The top spot of any drum machine list surely goes to the inimitable source of the mighty sub-shaking boom that has not only defined hip hop, but has also filled out the low end of generations of dance records.

Launched to an underwhelmed public just a few months after Linn’s considerably more expensive LM-1, the 808 was originally considered as something of a poor man’s relation, featuring 16 unrealistic analogue sounds that Keyboard magazine notably likened to ‘marching anteaters’.

But its lower price point and eventually its widespread second-hand availability may have sealed its fortune. In the 808, 80s producers saw a cheap – and relatively intuitive – means of generating beats, and more specifically, a bass drum that could easily fill out the lower end of a mix – as well as tight hats, crispy claps, snappy snares and an unmistakably honky cowbell. The rest is history.

In the dance music world, the appeal of the 808 – other than that kick drum, which is still layered with other drum samples to craft bass drums that tickle exactly the right low-end frequencies – was its ability to program 12 different 32-step patterns, making it a serious compositional tool. Never mind the fact that it offered no MIDI control, no swing and very few adjustable sound parameters; the 808 played a key role in the development of electro, early techno and house, then went on to appear in virtually every style of dance music since.

So ubiquitous is its use among dance music’s elite that again it’s almost easier to list those who haven’t used the 808 than those who have. It’s no exaggeration to say that the history of hip hop and dance music would have been very different – and considerably more lightweight – without Roland’s colourful ‘rhythm composer’.

As the Beastie Boys memorably noted: “Nothing sounds quite like the 808!”

You’ve read our favourites. Now test your knowledge with our quiz.

Author David Felton
1st August, 2012

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