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We caught up with the documentary makers of Origin Workshop to find out more about the Roland TR-808: the world’s first programmable drum machine.

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The 80s was a particularly forward-thinking decade, with Bladerunner, Back to the Future and tech like the Walkman and gaming devices becoming mainstream and accessible. It’s also the decade that played an enormous part in music history with the creation of the TR-808: generator of the booming kick drum in hip hop, the Miami bass sound and electronic music of the 80s. In fact, according to Matthew Jarman and Alexander Dunn of Origin Workshop, almost every song we hear today has been inspired by the 808 sound. However, despite all the impact this device had, it was never promoted and never had its own advert. We caught up with the music-obsessed duo to find out more about how they celebrated 808day this year by making Roland’s very own piece of advertising.

Q: Tell us about your backgrounds.

Alexander: Recently, I directed the feature documentary ‘808’ that's going to be released on Apple Music later this year through You Know Films and Atlantic Records. I met Matthew Jarman on the film - he was Co-Producer - and we spent a lot of time working closely across a lot of aspects of the film.

At the same time Matthew and I regularly discussed new ideas, formats and projects. We decided we wanted to set up somewhere to house these ideas that would allow us to develop them with a creative freedom. So, Origin Workshop was born.

Q: What do you do at Origin Workshop and where did the name come from?

Matthew: We both love the name Origin Workshop. The Origin part comes from our passion in finding out someone or something’s story and how that plays into the subject’s larger narrative, whilst the Workshop is derived from our desire to craft content surrounding that story. This may not be in a traditional format so Origin Films or Origin Productions just wouldn’t cover what Alexander and I are looking to achieve with the company. Technology is moving so fast that we wanted to convey that our priority is how a story is crafted over the medium it is told.

Q: Tell us about what you did for 8th August and how the Internet responded.

Matthew: Over the last few years, August the 8th has come to be known as ‘808 Day’ to Roland fans around the world. This came to our attention whilst making the film and we even decided to host the UK Premiere of the film at London’s BFI Southbank on that day last year.

Alexander: Back when we were working on the film, I had the idea to create an advert for the TR-808. In the early 80s, it wasn’t the type of product that really needed one and doubtful they’d have the marketing budget available to produce an advert. Looking back retrospectively at the rich musical history the 808 has been part of, we felt that it deserved one. It ticked the boxes of the type of project we wanted Origin Workshop to be part of and it was the perfect opportunity for us to create it.

Matthew: After putting our heads together and refining the concept, we focused our attention on #808day. When considering how to seed the video, inspired by a friend (thanks Jonny), he had the great idea of framing it as though it had been found by a retired Ad Exec and uploaded to celebrate #808day.

Q: Did you use any 80s tech to make the advert?

Alexander: Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to get our hands on any. I did, however, do a lot of research into the type of tech that would have been used during the 80s to create this type of advert, specifically thinking about how the graphics would be created using analogue systems and physically filmed. Initially, in the early 80s, it would have been created and shot on 35mm film before cheaper tape format cameras became available later.

It was really important to get the look and feel of this right. It would have been easy to just throw a VHS filter on and have done with it but we wanted to be as sincere to the original process as we could be, without actually having access any of the original kit. So it was about breaking down the analogue process and attempting to recreate that as faithfully as we could digitally. We wanted to create a level of authenticity in the project that we could be proud of, across both the visuals and the sound.

Q: Were you surprised by how people responded and the comments on YT?

Alexander: A big part of the whole idea was to create a conversation. We were really hoping that people would take the opportunity to engage with the ad, to question it and start conversations about it. We wanted to create something that fans of the 808 would be excited to share that day, something that felt authentic whether it was viewed as an original 80s advert or a pastiche.

To be honest, the audience we expected it to attract would spend time questioning its authenticity. That was all part of the reason we wanted to make it and release it in the way we did, to enthuse people to engage with it and share it that day.

We thought it’d get some traction but obviously didn’t know for sure how much, so to get half a million views within 48 hours across social channels and over 700,000 views in four days was amazing. It was the most shared piece of content under the hashtag #808day this year, so we’re immensely proud and happy with that.

Q: What’s so great about the 808? Why do people choose this machine?

Alexander: The 808 is just synonymous with so much musical history. It’s the machine behind the booming kick drum you hear in hip hop, the driving force behind the Miami bass sound, the sound of many of the baselines in jungle and drum & bass records, it played a huge part of the development of house music and so, so much more. It really shaped electronic music during the 1980s and continues to play a massive role in it today. Nowadays, people use samples but it’s all part of the evolution of music. Either way, the 808’s sounds live on. The machines themselves are pretty rare as Roland only ever made around 12,000 of them so you don’t see too many around.

Q: What does the 808 mean to you?

Matthew: I just love how you hear it everywhere. I doubt you can go for a day without hearing a song with an 808 in it. What I love most though is that the music you will hear it in will be so vastly different. Yes, it inspired a number of genres but it reached so much further than that.

Q: Did you come across any 80s gold whilst doing your research?

Alexander: Plenty. There are a lot of old 80s adverts on YouTube. A particular favourite is the amazing, ultra futuristic advert for the Timex Quartz watch... and for nostalgia you can’t beat the original Sinclair Spectrum adverts. It just sends me back to those heady days of loading Dizzy Egg on a cassette deck for 30 odd minutes before it crashed and you’d have to start again. 

Q: What defines the 80s for you?

Alexander: I think in my mind it’s always been about the films I love from that era. Tron, Back to The Future, Bladerunner - that distinct 80s vision of the future always sticks in my mind, especially in terms of the visual tone… and of course all the early John Hughes films, I love The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller and Weird Science. 

Q: In the 80s, technology that didn’t require engagement, like Sony Walkman or gaming keyboards like the Sinclair Spectrum, grew more popular than tech like the 808. Why do you think that is?

Alexander: I just think it’s that the 808 wasn't a consumer product. When it was released it wasn’t considered an instrument, it was made as a studio tool for programming drum sounds to play along to. It wasn’t until it fell into the hands of certain music producers who tapped into it’s potential like Planet Rock record producer Arthur Baker, that it started being seen as an instrument in its own right. But even then, it was a relatively underground piece of kit, as I said before, only 12,000 of them were ever made by Roland whereas the Walkman or Spectrum were huge mass market products. That being said, the Walkman would certainly have played back a lot of 808 beats over the years so in that sense I guess they were fairly synergetic. 

Q: What’s next for Origin Workshop?

Matthew: We have a number of projects in development at the moment. We’re really excited about one we’re developing which is a documentary based on the legendary RAK studios in London. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Mickie Most setting the studio up and it’s a place with an amazing musical history. So far we have interviewed Mark Ronson, Plan B, Robert Plant, Suzie Quatro and John Leckie (Producer, Radiohead ‘The Bends’) and their responses have all been amazing.

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