It wasn’t so long ago that electronic music production was the work of pioneers. Giorgio Moroder and Don Lewis synthesized monstrous Moog mainframes in the disco era; Roger Linn kick-started hip-hop in 1988 with the Akai MPC60. But making music on a computer was a dream just beginning to come true in the ‘90s — boxes were getting faster and cheaper, but music software remained torturously buggy. Roland, a Japanese company with a long history of democratizing production by mass-producing and lowering the cost of new tech, saw an opportunity. The electronic music world lacked a product that efficiently combined sampling, performance, effects, and recording into one box — and so, in 1998, that world received the SP-808 Sampling Groovebox.
Resurrecting the fabled 808 nomenclature 17 years after the iconic TR-808 drum machine was a sign that Roland was deeply serious about this box on a cultural level. Korg’s Triton workstation was a studio standard at the time, but its 61-key form factor and $3,500 price tag kept it out of reach for a new generation of producers more obsessed with collage than composition. Over time producers began to use the SP-808 as a “character box” — that meant that even when did things it wasn’t advertised to, like subtly compressing samples, people liked how it sounded. Soon the biggest names in the business were name-checking it in interviews: Daft Punk and The Prodigy were relying on it onstage and in the studio, and Throbbing Gristle’s Chris Carter was impressed enough to write a review of it back in ‘98.
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