Create the Roland TR-808 Kick Drum Sound in Reason or Live

September 25, 2013
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Last month, I covered some techniques for creating synth textures out of kick drums and other percussion instruments. This month, as a counterpoint to those tricks, we’ll dive deep into synthesizing the most influential bass drum sound in the history of electronic music: the Roland TR-808 kick. 

The 808 kick has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past year or so. Artists like Disclosure have incorporated its subsonic hum into several of their bigger tracks, while labels like Claude von Stroke’s Dirtybird Records have numerous releases that pivot on the bass bombast of this legendary kick.

While there are hundreds of 808 kick samples available on the Internet, the only way to have total control over its sound is to recreate it from scratch. Accordingly, we’ll look at two ways to do it: via analog subtractive synthesis and via Ableton Live’s FM synth, Operator.


Step 1

 

Propellerhead Reason’s Subtractor does a terrific job of nailing the 808 kick, thanks to its sine wave oscillator option. The sound itself is quite simple. Just initialize the patch, then switch oscillator 1 to a sine and sculpt the 808’s envelope: an immediate attack, long decay, no sustain, and longish release. Then play a low G on the keyboard, as that’s the original pitch of the 808 kick.


Step 2

 

At this point, the sound should already be close to the TR-808, minus the original’s trademark clicky attack. Adding the click is simple. Just apply a very fast pitch envelope (immediate attack, almost instant decay) via Subtractor’s modulation envelope. There’s the sound. Once you’ve got this dialed in, you can experiment with alternate waveforms and filtering. For example, swapping out the sine wave for a triangle will give you a dirtier, almost distorted character.


Step 3

 

Whipping up the kick on Ableton’s Operator is even easier, thanks to its graphic envelopes. All you have to do here is create an Operator MIDI track, using the default Operator patch (which is just a single carrier sine wave) and adjust the envelope using the same approach from Step 1.


Step 4

 

Next, switch to Operator’s pitch envelope and adjust its settings and amount to add the click. Once you’ve got the sound, Operator’s FM tools can further shape the sound with a lot of subtle control. On the default patch, adjusting the level of oscillator 2 will impart more upper harmonics to the tone in a very precise manner.

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