NOVEMBER 17, 2023

What is an 808? 9 Tips for Producing Hard Hitting 808s

What is an 808 1862x1040

If you’ve ever been in a club and felt a bass drop hit so hard it made your chest vibrate, you likely have the iconic 808 to thank for that. Originally produced by an analog drum machine from the 80s, the 808 remains a signature sound in hip-hop, electronic and dance music. If you want to learn how to make beats, mastering 808s is essential. In this guide, we’ll cover what an 808 is and explore techniques on how to make them and incorporate into your track.

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What is an 808?


In contemporary music production, an '808' refers to a percussion sound known for its booming, low-frequency bass, famously popularized by the TR-808's bass drum, often called the '808 kick.' This iconic sound has become a cornerstone in various music genres, notably in hip-hop, trap, and electronic dance music (EDM). Producers and musicians frequently rely on 808 kick samples or emulations to craft impactful and sub-heavy basslines in their tracks.

Is an 808 a kick or bass?

At first listen, the 808 blurs the distinction between a kick and a bass. So, which is it? In practice, the 808 is used in music as both a kick and a bass. By extending the decay, sustain, and release times of an 808 and aligning its pitch with your track's key, the 808 serves as both the kick drum and the bass line of a beat, enhancing both rhythmic energy and providing a robust low-end foundation in your music. In some instances, a kick drum and a bass sound are layered together to create the sound of an 808.

Why is the 808 so popular?

The "808 sound" gained its popularity primarily due to the accessibility and affordability it offered through the Roland TR-808 drum machine. When it debuted in 1980, the TR-808 became a game-changer, providing an affordable and convenient alternative to hiring live drummers for recording drums. Its distinctive qualities, including the deep bass drum, snappy snares, and resonant hi-hats, made it an essential drum programming tool for beat makers and music producers. This sonic versatility allowed musicians to not only create beats but also craft melodic basslines, transcending genres. As a result, the "808 sound" became a cultural phenomenon, profoundly influencing music production across hip-hop, electronic, and pop genres, leaving a lasting mark on the industry.

How to make hard hitting 808s

SynthCell Making a Kick Drum

Producing ground-shaking beats requires mastering the art of 808s. But how can you achieve that booming 808 sound? In this section we’ll go over tips and techniques you can use to create hard hitting 808s for your track. To follow along, you'll need a synthesizer, sampler, or a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). If you require any of these tools, consider downloading Pro Tools Intro for Free, a powerful DAW that includes Xpand!2—a versatile virtual instrument capable of crafting sounds for any musical genre. Let's dive in! Here are the fundamental steps for crafting hard-hitting 808s:

1. Find the right 808 sound

The sound selection process is about choosing sounds that compliment your track. It's not just about selecting the right 808 sound but also ensuring that other instruments in your composition create space for it. Overcrowding your track with too many instruments or selecting the wrong 808 can lead to a lack of clarity, hindering the impact and punch we want to achieve.

When searching for the perfect 808 sound, consider the specific qualities you’re looking for—referencing a track that aligns with your vision can help in making informed decisions. Ask yourself whether you want a short and crunchy 808 or a smooth and rounded one with a lingering tail.

Creating an 808 with a Synthesizer

If you’re using a synthesizer to create an 808 from scratch, launch a synth plugin and select a sine or triangle wave oscillator as your sound source. These waveforms produce a pure and clean tone—ideal for establishing the foundation of your 808.

808 Samples

Seshnolan Ultra 808 Sonic Drop

Alternatively, if you prefer to work with pre-made 808 samples, open the SoundBase Workspace in Pro Tools to browse through your sound library and audition 808 samples within the context of your track. This workflow provides a quick and efficient way of selecting sounds that go well with your production. Once you’ve chosen your preferred 808 sample, drag it into your DAW timeline or sampler of choice. If you’re a Pro Tools user, make sure you’ve downloaded the Ultra 808s Sonic Drop for free via your Avid Link account.

2. Shape the amplitude envelope

SynthCell Amplitude and Filter Envelopes 

The amplitude envelope in your synthesizer or sampler is a vital tool for shaping how your 808's volume changes over time. This is crucial for attaining the specific character you desire for your bass, whether your goal is punchy and hard-hitting 808s or smooth and sustained ones.

  • Attack: Adjust the attack time to control how quickly the 808 sound reaches its peak volume after a note is triggered. For a classic 808 with a punchy attack, set a relatively short attack time (e.g., 10-20 ms). This creates a sharp and immediate initial impact.
  • Decay: The decay time determines how long the 808's volume holds at its peak before beginning to fade. Longer decay times can result in a sustained, booming 808, while shorter decay times create a tighter, more defined sound. Experiment with different decay lengths to match your track's style.
  • Sustain: Use the sustain level to set the volume at which the 808 holds after the initial decay phase. Lower sustain levels produce a quicker drop in volume, ideal for creating a percussive, hard-hitting 808. Higher sustain levels can extend the sound's duration for a more sustained, sub-bass feel.
  • Release: Adjust the release time to control how long it takes for the sound to fade out after you release the note. A shorter release time keeps the sound tight and controlled, while longer release times can add a sense of space and depth to the 808. Fine-tune the release to suit the context of your track.

How to make 808s not overlap

To prevent 808 overlap and ensure each note stands out distinctly, create space between your notes by adjusting the release times on synthesizers or applying fade-outs to 808 samples. This technique allows the current note to fade cleanly before the next one hits. Moreover, ensure your notes trigger in mono mode, ensuring that each note cuts off before the next one starts, resulting in a more defined and uncluttered bassline in your mix.

How to make your 808s longer

To elongate the duration of your 808s, focus on the release phase of the amplitude envelope. Increase the release time to allow the 808 sound to linger after the note is released.

How to make 808s hit hard

To make your 808s hit hard and punch through the mix, emphasize the attack and decay phases of the amplitude envelope. Shorten the attack time for a sharp initial impact, giving your 808s a punchy quality. Adjust the decay time to find the right balance between sustain and a tight, defined sound. Combining a short attack with a controlled decay can help your 808s cut through the mix with power and clarity. Additionally, ensure that the 808's fundamental frequency (usually around 40-60 Hz) is well-balanced and not overly masked by other elements in the mix.

3. Use pitch envelope modulation

Next, if you’re creating an 808 sound from scratch, you’ll want to create the signature 808 "attack" that is characterized by a sharp, instantaneous increase in pitch at the beginning of the sound. You can do this by assigning a modulation envelope to the pitch. Then set a fast attack time which will cause the pitch to rise rapidly as soon as the note is triggered. This initial pitch bend creates a strong and punchy attack that grabs the listener's attention.

4. Add harmonic distortion to cut through the mix

Saturation on 808s

Harmonic distortion is a key technique to make your 808s more audible on smaller speakers and headphones while adding character. Here's how to use it effectively:

  • Choose the Right Plugin: Consider using plugins like White Boost, AIR Enhancer, or AIR Distortion in Pro Tools to introduce harmonics.
  • White Boost Pedal: Applying the White Boost pedal to your 808 can increase volume and add harmonic enhancement, helping it cut through the mix and infusing warmth and character.
  • AIR Distortion: AIR Distortion offers various distortion algorithms. Experiment with different types, such as tube or saturation-style distortion, to complement your 808 sound. Adjust the "Drive" or "Saturation" control incrementally until you achieve the desired harmonics without overdoing it.

The goal is to enhance your 808 without drastically altering its character. Careful harmonic adjustment with tools like AIR Distortion breathes life into your 808, making it more impactful and versatile in your mix.

5. Layer your 808 for texture

Layering is a powerful technique in music production where you combine multiple sound sources to create a richer, more complex, and unique audio texture. When applied to 808s, layering can add depth, character, and impact to your low-end frequencies. Here's how to effectively use layering with 808s in Pro Tools:

  • Select complimentary sounds: Start by choosing sound sources that will layer well with your primary 808. Make sure these layers don’t clash in the frequency spectrum to help maintain clarity and avoid muddiness in your mix. Save the sub frequencies for the 808 and add texture in the mids and highs.
  • Texture: Different layers can provide various textural elements to your 808. For example, one layer may add a gritty or distorted texture, while another can introduce warmth or a live, organic feel. Experiment with different textures to achieve the sonic character you want.
  • Stereo placement: Consider the stereo placement of your layered 808s. Some layers can be panned slightly left or right to widen the stereo image. This can create a sense of space and dimension, enhancing the overall impact.
  • Balance the Levels: Adjust the volume levels of each layer to achieve the desired balance. The primary 808 should remain the dominant element, while the additional layers contribute to the overall texture. Use your ears and visual meters in Pro Tools to strike the right balance.

6. Make your 808s slide between notes  

SynthCell Portamento Glide 

One common effect in trap music is 808 glides. 808 glides involve changing the pitch of a bass note in a smooth and seamless manner, creating a sliding or bending effect. This effect can be applied upward (upward glide) or downward (downward glide) and is often used to transition between notes.

You can make your 808s slide between notes by using your synthesizer’s built in portamento parameter, the pitch bend wheel, or your DAWs automation lanes to modulate pitch over time.

  • Portamento: To create 808 slides in a synthesizer enable portamento, adjust the glide time, and trigger MIDI notes for real-time, expressive pitch bends. It's great for straightforward glides.
  • Pitch bend wheel: If you have a MIDI controller, consider recording pitch bends using the pitch bend wheel for a more hands-on approach.
  • Automation lanes: Another way to create 808 pitch slides is to use DAW automation lanes. This method offers precise control over glide curves and durations, allowing for intricate and dynamic patterns. If you have a MIDI controller, pitch bends can also be recorded with the pitch bend wheel, offering a hands-on approach.

7. Choose the right pitch and frequency range for your 808s

Once you have your 808 sound ready, you’re ready to compose a bass linen with it. However, keep in mind that the appropriate key and frequency range for your 808s is crucial for ensuring they hit hard and translate well across various playback systems. The main consideration here is finding the sweet spot where your 808s deliver both audible presence and impact.

The ideal frequency range for 808s typically resides in the sub-bass region, which encompasses frequencies below 80 Hz. Ensure your 808s' fundamental frequency extends into the sub-bass (around 30-60 Hz). This adds weight to your tracks, but be cautious not to go too low, as it can result in losing higher frequencies necessary for clarity in smaller speakers like laptops and phones. Conversely, going too high will sacrifice the signature boom. Strive for a balance between sub-bass and fundamental frequencies to cut through the mix while maintaining a solid low-end foundation. Experiment with different keys if needed, using a keyboard or MIDI editor to find the optimal pitch.

By selecting the right frequency range for your 808s, you'll ensure that they not only sound great but also deliver the desired impact, making your tracks stand out on various listening devices.

8. Arrange 808s for optimal clarity

Once you've programmed your 808 pattern, you may need to make tweaks or different variations so that the pattern complements other elements in your composition. Without proper arrangement, you may have other instruments masking your 808, or you may have an 808 that overpowers other elements in the mix. Here are some tips to arrange your 808s effectively:

  • Foundation and Groove: Start by establishing the foundation and groove of your track. Place the 808 in a way that complements the rhythm of your drums and other instruments. Consider the genre and style of music you're creating, as this will influence the placement of your 808 hits.
  • Intro and Buildup: In the intro and buildup sections, use the 808 sparingly to create anticipation and set the mood. You can introduce subtle 808 hits or a simple pattern to build excitement as the track progresses.
  • Verse and Chorus: The verse is a great place to introduce the main 808 pattern. Keep it relatively simple to leave room for vocals or other lead instruments. In the chorus, you can enhance the energy by adding variations, such as double hits or pitch glides, to make it more dynamic.
  • Transitions: Use 808 hits strategically to mark transitions between sections of your song. For example, a pitch bend or a quick 808 fill can signal the shift from a verse to a chorus or a chorus to a bridge.
  • Bridge and Breakdown: Experiment with the 808 in the bridge or breakdown sections. You can change the pattern, apply effects, or create a unique bassline to add depth and interest. These sections are an opportunity to introduce creative variations.
  • Instrumentation: Consider the interplay between the 808 and other instruments. Make sure they don't clash in the same frequency range. The 808's bass drum, produces frequencies ranging from approximately 30 Hz to 80 Hz. These frequencies encompass the sub-bass and low-frequency range. Make sure you’re using EQ and sidechain compression to help create space for each element.
  • Subtlety: While 808s can provide power and energy, avoid overusing them. Too much low-end can muddy the mix and make it less enjoyable to listen to. Use automation to control the 808's volume or filter cutoff when necessary.

9. Save your preset

If you've crafted a unique 808 sound in Pro Tools, save it as a preset within your synth or sampler or as a track preset in Pro Tools. This way, you can easily access and reuse your customized 808 sound in future projects.

Download Ultra 808s for Free

How to Redeem Sonic Drop

Understanding the fundamentals of 808 drums can help you craft better beats, and experimenting in the studio is one of the best ways to learn to incorporate these iconic sounds into your music production workflows. If you have Pro Tools subscription, you can get started with 808 samples by downloading the Ultra 808s Sonic Drop for free via your Avid Link account.

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