Kurt Werner: “Boom Like an 808” – Secrets of the TR-808 Bass Drum’s Circuit

When: Wednesday 27th March 2019 @ 5:10 PM

Where: Room 4.31/4.33, Informatics Forum, 10 Crichton St, University of Edinburgh

Title: “Boom Like an 808″ – Secrets of the TR-808 Bass Drum’s Circuit

Speaker: Dr Kurt Werner (Queen’s University Belfast, UK)


The Roland TR-808 kick drum is among the most iconic sounds in all of popular music. Analogue drum machines like the TR-808 produce simulacra of percussive sounds using electrical “voice circuits,” whose schematics I treat as a primary text to be read alongside their reception history. I argue that these voice circuits and their schematics are the key to recovering a holistic history of analog drum synthesis. In this seminar, I’ll present a close reading of the TR-808 kick drum’s voice circuit and a study of its conceptual antecedents, highlighting the contributions of hobbyists and hackers, circuit theorists, and commercial instrument designers. This analysis reveals that while some aspects of the TR-808’s voice circuits are unremarkable, other aspects related to time-varying pitch shifts are unique and betray a deep understanding of traditional instrument acoustics. This investigation offers one answer to the question: Why does the 808 sound so good?!”.

Speaker Bio

Dr. Kurt James Werner is a Lecturer in Audio at the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) of Queen’s University Belfast, where he joined the faculty of Arts, English, and Languages in early 2017. As a researcher, he studies theoretical aspects of Wave Digital Filters and other virtual analog topics, computer modeling of circuit-bent instruments, and the history of music technology. As part of his Ph.D. in Computer-Based Music Theory and Acoustics from Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), he wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled “Virtual Analog Modeling of Audio Circuitry Using Wave Digital Filters.” This proposed a number of new techniques for modeling audio circuitry, greatly expanding the class of circuits that can be modeled using the Wave Digital Filter approach to include circuits with complicated topologies and multiple nonlinear electrical elements. As a composer of electro-acoustic/acousmatic music, his music references elements of chiptunes, musique concrète, circuit bending, algorithmic/generative composition, and breakbeat.