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808 Cowbell Synthesis Essay

Hip hop production is the creation of hip hop music in a recording studio. While the term encompasses all aspects of hip hop music creation, including recording the rapping of an MC, a turntablist or DJ providing a beat, playing samples and "scratching" using record players, and the creation of a rhythmic backing track, using a drum machine, sequencer and callmetunes, it is most commonly used to refer to recording the instrumental, non-lyrical and non-vocal aspects of hip hop.

Hip hop producers are the instrumentalists and creative directors involved in guiding a recording session, which can range from a single song to a major album. Although 1970s-era hip hop focused on turntables and a DJ mixer, in the 2010s, hip hop production uses a range of digital samplers, sequencers, drum machines, and synthesizers. Sometimes hip hop producers use traditional instruments, such as a drum kit or electric bass.

A hip hop instrumental is colloquially referred to as a beat, and its composer is referred to as a producer or beatmaker. In the studio, however, a hip hop producer also functions as a traditional record producer, being the person who is ultimately responsible for the final sound of a recording, for guiding the artists and performers and giving advice to the audio engineer on the selection of microphones and effects processors and on how to mix the levels of the rapping and beats.


Hip-hop, the dominant turn-of-the-century pop form, gives the most electrifying demonstration of technology's empowering effect [...] [T]he genre rose up from desperately impoverished high-riseghettos, where families couldn't afford to buy instruments for their kids and even the most rudimentary music-making seemed out of reach. But music was made all the same: the phonograph itself became an instrument. In the South Bronx in the 1970s, DJs like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash used turntables to create a hurtling collage of effects—loops, breaks, beats, scratches. Later, studio-bound DJs and producers used digital sampling to assemble some of the most densely packed sonic assemblages in musical history: Eric B. and Rakim's Paid in Full, Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, Dr. Dre's The Chronic.
— Alex Ross, Listen to This (2010)[1]


Kurtis Blow was the first hip hop artist to use a digital sampler, when he used the Fairlight CMI. The Roland TR-808 drum machine was introduced in 1980. The 808 was heavily used by Afrika Bambaataa, who released "Planet Rock" in 1982, in addition to the electro hip hip groundbreaking classic "Nunk" by Warp 9, produced by Lotti Golden and Richard Scher, giving rise to the fledgling Electro genre. An especially notable artist is the genre's own pioneer Juan Atkins who released what is generally accepted as the first American techno record, "Clear" in 1984 (later sampled by Missy Elliott). These early electro records laid down the foundations that later Detroit techno artists such as Derrick May built upon. In 1983, Run-DMC recorded "It's Like That" and "Sucker MC's," two songs which relied completely on synthetic sounds, in this case via an Oberheim DMX drum machine, ignoring samples entirely. This approach was much like early songs by Bambaataa and the Furious Five.

The E-mu SP-12 came out in 1985, capable of 2.5 seconds of recording time. The E-mu SP-1200 promptly followed with an expanded recording time of 10 seconds, divided on 4 banks. One of the earliest songs to contain a drum loop or break was "Rhymin and Stealin" by the Beastie Boys, produced by Rick Rubin. Marley Marl also popularized a minimal style of using one or two sampled loops in the late 1980s. The Akai MPC60 came out in 1988, capable of 12 seconds of sampling time. The Beastie Boys released Paul's Boutique in 1989, an entire album created completely from an eclectic mix of samples, produced by the Dust Brothers using an Emax sampler. De La Soul also released 3 Feet High and Rising that year.


Public Enemy's Bomb Squad revolutionized the sound of hip-hop with dense production styles, combining tens of samples per song, often combining percussion breaks with a drum machine. Their beats were much more structured than the early more minimal and repetitive beats. The MPC3000 was released in 1994, the AKAI MPC2000 in 1997, followed by the MPC2000XL in 1999 [2] and the MPC2500 in 2006. These machines combined a sampling drum machine with an onboard MIDIsequencer and became the centerpiece of many hip hop producers' studios. The Wu Tang Clan's producer RZA is often credited for getting hip hop attention away from Dr. Dre's more polished sound in 1993. RZA's more gritty sound with low rumbling bass, sharp snare drum sounds and unique sampling style based on Ensoniq sampler. With the 1994 release of The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Sean Combs and his assistant producers ushered in a new style where entire sections of records were sampled, instead of short snippets.

Records like "Warning" (Isaac Hayes's "Walk On By"), and "One More Chance (Remix)" (Debarge's "Stay With Me") epitomized this aesthetic. In the early 2000s, Roc-a-Fella in-house producer Kanye West made the "chipmunk" technique popular. This had been first used by 1980s electro hip-hop group Newcleus with such songs as "Jam on It". This technique involves speeding up a vocal sample, and its corresponding instrumental loop, to the point where the vocal sounds high-pitched. The result is a vocal sample that sounds similar to the singing of the popular cartoon singing animals "Alvin and the Chipmunks". West adopted this style from J Dilla and the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, who in turn was influenced by Prince Paul, the pioneer of the style of speeding up and looping vocal samples to achieve the "chipmunk" sound. Kanye West has used the "chipmunk" effect in many of his songs, and has been used in many other artists' music in the 2010s.


Drum beat[edit]

Main article: Beats (music)

The drum beat is a core element of hip hop production. While some beats are sampled, others are created by drum machines. The most widely used drum machine is the analog RolandTR-808, which has remained a mainstay for decades.[3] Digital samplers, such as the E-mu SP-12 and SP-1200, and the AkaiMPC series, have also been used to sample drum beats. Others yet are a hybrid of the two techniques, sampled parts of drum machine beats that are arranged in original patterns altogether. The Akai MPC series[4] and Ensoniq ASR-10 are mainstays for sampling beats, particularly by The Neptunes. Some producers create their own electronic drum kit sounds, such as Dr. Dre, Timbaland, DJ Paul & Juicy J, Swizz Beatz, Kanye West and The Neptunes. Some drum machine sounds, such as the 1980s-era TR-808 cowbell, remain as historical elements of hip hop lore that continue to be used in 2010s-era hip hop.


Main article: Sampling (music)

Hip hop does not simply draw inspiration from a range of samples, but it layers these fragments into an artistic object. If sampling is the first level of hip hop aesthetics, how the pieces or elements fit together constitute the second level. Hip hop emphasizes and calls attention to its layered nature. The aesthetic code of hip hop does not seek to render invisible the layers of samples, sounds, references, images, and metaphors. Rather, it aims to create a collage in which the sampled texts augment and deepen the song/book/art's meaning to those who can decode the layers of meaning.
— Richard Schur, Hip Hop Aesthetics and Contemporary African American Literature (2008)[5]

Sampling is using a segment of another's musical recording as part of one's own recording.[6] It has been integral to hip hop production since its inception. In hip-hop, the term describes a technique of splicing out or copying sections of other songs and rearranging or reworking these sections into cohesive musical patterns, or "loops." This technique was first fully explored in 1982 by Afrika Bambaata, on the Soulsonic Force tape Planet Rock, which sampled parts of dance act Kraftwerk and experienced vast public acclaim.[7] This was followed up on in 1986: then-Def Jam producer Rick Rubin used Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin loops in creating the Beastie Boys' debut Licensed to Ill,[8] and the following year rap duo Eric B. & Rakim popularized James Brown samples with their album Paid in Full.[9]

The technique took a bi-coastal turn when discovered by a young Dr. Dre, whose first gig was the DJ of Afrika Bambaata-esque electrofunk group, the World Class Wreckin' Cru. In 1988, Dre began his use of sampling in hip-hop when he produced the N.W.A album Straight Outta Compton, a landmark in the genre of gangsta rap.[10] In 1989, Jazz-sampling pioneers Gang Starr followed in 1991 by Pete Rock & CL Smooth and A Tribe Called Quest both appeared on the scene, popularizing their brand,[11][12] and sampling took on a full role in hip-hop, spreading to prominence in high-profile projects like the Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers,[13] Dr. Dre's The Chronic,[14]Nas' Illmatic[15] and Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die.[16]

In the 2000s, sampling began to reach an all-time high; Jay-Z's album The Blueprint helped put producers Kanye West and Just Blaze on the map for their sampling of soul records.[17] Kanye West himself scored early hits with "Through the Wire" and "Jesus Walks." His 2004 album, The College Dropout, included two sampled hits featuring Twista which led to the Chicago rapper's Kamikaze selling platinum. On September 7, 2004, however, a U.S. Court of Appeals in Nashville changed the nature of musical copyright infringement by ruling that a license is needed in every case of sampling, where previously a small portion of the song could be copied without repercussion.[18] The law immediately began rarefying samples in hip-hop; in a 2005 interview with Scratch magazine, Dr. Dre announced he was moving more toward instrumentation,[19] and in 2006 The Notorious B.I.G.'s 1994 debut album Ready to Die was temporarily pulled from shelves for a retroactive sample clearance issue.[20] As a result, more major producers and artists have moved further away from sampling and toward live instrumentation, such as Wu-Tang's RZA[21] and Mos Def.[22]

Studio parts[edit]

A producer's studio is the environment where they produce music. It can be as varied as a four-track sequencer and a collection of tapes or a multimillion-dollar studio loaded with advanced sound processing hardware.


Because hip hop production revolves around sampling, a sampler/sequencer combination device such as Akai's MPC line of grooveboxes usually forms the centerpiece of a hip hop production studio. Although mostly replaced by Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) by today, classics like the E-mu Systems SP-1200, Akai MPC60, Akai MPC3000 or Ensoniq ASR-10 still see use today due to their workflow and sound characteristics.


Main article: Synthesizer

Synthesizers are used often in hip hop production. They are used for melodies, basslines, as percussive "stabs", for chords and for sound synthesis, to create new sound textures. The use of synthesizers was popularized by Dr. Dre during the G-funk era. In the 2000s, Jim Jonsin, Cool and Dre, Lil Jon, Scott Storch, and Neptunes continue to use synths. Often in low-budget studio environments or recording rooms constrained by space limitations, producers use virtual instruments instead of hardware synthesizers. In the 2010s, virtual instruments are becoming more common in high-budget studio environments.


In hip hop, a multi-track recorder is standard for recording. The Portastudiocassette recorder was the law in the in-house recording studios in the 1980s. Digital ADAT tape recorders became standard during the 1990s, but have been largely replaced by Digital Audio Workstations or DAWs such as Apple's Logic, Avid's Pro Tools and Steinberg's Nuendo and Cubase. DAW's allow for more intricate editing and unlimited track counts, as well as built-in effects. This allows producers to create music without the expense of a large commercial studio.

Vocal recording[edit]

Generally, professional producers opt for a condenser microphone for studio recording,[23][24] mostly due to their wide-range response and high quality. A primary alternative to the expensive condenser microphone is the dynamic microphone, used more often in live performances due to its durability. The major disadvantages of condenser microphones are their expense and fragility. Also, most condenser microphones require phantom power, unlike dynamic microphones. Conversely, the disadvantages of dynamic microphones are they do not generally possess the wide spectrum of condenser microphones and their frequency response is not as uniform. Many hip-hop producers typically used the Neumann U-87 for recording vocals which imparts a glassy "sheen" especially on female vocals. But today, many producers in this musical genre use the Sony C-800 tube microphone, vintage microphones, and high-end ribbon microphones tuned for flattering, "big" vocal expression. It should also be noted that many classic hip-hop songs were recorded with the most basic of equipment. In many cases this contributes to its raw sound quality, and charm.

Digital audio workstations[edit]

Main article: Digital audio workstation

DAWs and software sequencers are used in modern hip hop production as software production products are cheaper, easier to expand, and require less room to run than their hardware counterparts. The success of these DAWs generated a flood of new semi-professional hip-hop-producers, who license their beats or instrumentals [25] preferably on digital marketplaces[26] to rap artists from all around the world and caused the creation of a new niche market. Some producers oppose complete reliance on DAWs and software, citing lower overall quality, lack of effort, and lack of identity in computer-generated beats. Sequencing software often comes under criticism from purist listeners and traditional producers as producing sounds that are flat, overly clean, and overly compressed.

Popular DAWs include:

Live instrumentation[edit]

Live instrumentation is not as widespread in hip hop, but is used by a number of acts and is prominent in hip hop-based fusion genres such as rapcore. Before samplers and synthesizers became prominent parts of hip hop production, early hip hop hits such as "Rapper's Delight" (The Sugarhill Gang) and "The Breaks" (Kurtis Blow) were recorded with live studio bands. During the 1980s, Stetsasonic was a pioneering example of a live hip hop band. Hip hop with live instrumentation regained prominence during the late-1990s and early 2000s with the work of The Goats, The Coup, The Roots, Mello-D and the Rados, Common, DJ Quik, UGK and OutKast, among others. In recent years, The Robert Glasper Experiment has explored live instrumentation with an emphasis on the instrumental and improvisational aspect of hip hop with rappers such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Q-Tip, and Common as well as neo-soul singer Bilal Oliver.

Instrumental hip hop[edit]

See also: Breakbeat

Instrumental hip hop is hip hop music without vocals. Hip hop as a general rule consists of two elements: an instrumental track (the "beat") and a vocal track (the "rap"). The artist who crafts the beat is the producer (or beatmaker), and the one who crafts the rap is the MC (emcee). In this format, the rap is almost always the primary focus of the song, providing most of the complexity and variation over a fairly repetitive beat. Instrumental hip hop is hip hop music without an emcee rapping. This format gives the producer the flexibility to create more complex, richly detailed and varied instrumentals. Songs of this genre may wander off in different musical directions and explore various subgenres, because the instruments do not have to supply a steady beat for an MC. Although producers have made and released hip hop beats without MCs since hip hop's inception, those records rarely became well-known. Jazzkeyboardist/composer Herbie Hancock and bassist/producerBill Laswell's electro-inspired collaborations are notable exceptions. 1983's Future Shock album and hit single "Rockit" featured turntablistGrand Mixer D.ST, the first use of turntables in jazz fusion, and gave the turntablism and record "scratching" widespread exposure. The Mix-Up is the seventh studio album by the Beastie Boys, released in 2007. The album consists entirely of instrumental performances and won a Grammy Award in 2008 for Best Pop Instrumental Album.

The release of DJ Shadow's debut album Endtroducing..... in 1996 saw the beginnings of a movement in instrumental hip hop. Relying mainly on a combination of sampled funk, hip hop and film score, DJ Shadow's innovative sample arrangements influenced many producers and musicians. In the 2000s and 2010s, artists such as RJD2, J Dilla, Pete Rock, Large Professor, MF Doom, Yung Sarge, Danny!, Nujabes, Madlib, Wax Tailor, DJ Babu, DJ Krush, Hermitude, and Blockhead have garnered critical attention with instrumental hip hop albums. Instrumental hip hop has yet to be fully recognized as a genre unto itself, and is often classified as trip hop, breakbeat hardcore, drum and bass, oldschool jungle, grime, trap, or industrial music. This may be a result of its varied and experimental nature; a single track can incorporate samples from many different genres of music. Due to the current state of copyright law, most instrumental hip-hop releases are released on small, independent labels. Producers often have difficulty obtaining clearance for the many samples found throughout their work, and labels such as Stones Throw are fraught with legal problems.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^Ross (2010), p. 60.
  2. ^Vintage Synth Explorer. "Akai MPC2000 / MPC2000 XL – Vintage Synth Explorer". Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  3. ^Norris, Chris (13 August 2015). "The 808 Heard Round the World". The New Yorker. Retrieved 16 January 2017. 
  4. ^
  5. ^New Essays on the African American Novel (2008), p. 207.
  6. ^"Sample – Definition and More". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2012-04-04. 
  7. ^Marisa Brown. "Planet Rock: The Album", R 27616.
  8. ^Stephen Thomas Erlewine. "Licensed to Ill", AllMusic.
  9. ^Steve Huey. "Paid in Full", AllMusic.
  10. ^Steve Huey. "Straight Outta Compton [Clean]", AllMusic.
  11. ^Stanton Swihart. "All Souled Out", AllMusic.
  12. ^John Bush. "The Low End Theory", AllMusic.
  13. ^Steven Leckart, 10.23.07. "Wu-Tang Clan's RZA Breaks Down His Kung Fu Samples by Film and Song", WIRED MAGAZINE: ISSUE 15.11.
  14. ^[Ethan Brown, (2005). Straight Outta Hollis, Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler. Anchor. ISBN 1-4000-9523-9. "[Unlike] popular hip-hop producers like the Bomb Squad, Dre instead utilized a single sample to drive a song."]
  15. ^Dan Love, Feb 11, 2008. "Deconstructing Illmatic"Archived 2009-03-25 at the Wayback Machine., Oh Word Collection.
  16. ^XXL staff, Thursday Mar 9 10:28 AM CST. "The Making of Ready to Die:Family Business", XXL MAGAZINE.
  17. ^Gale: Black History Month.
  18. ^9/10/2004 8:57:27 PM, foxxylady. "CAN HIP HOP LIVE WITHOUT SAMPLING?",
  19. ^Dec 5 2005, 05:04 PM. "DR. DRE INTERVIEW FROM SCRATCH MAGAZINE", Music Industry Online.
  20. ^Dave, 3/19/2006 9:10:26 AM. "Hip-Hop News: Late Rapper Has Album Pulled Over Copyright Infringement", Rap News Network.
  21. ^Morgan Steiker, July 29, 2008. "RZA: Interview",
  22. ^Hillary Crosley N.Y., May 30, 2008. "Mos Def Hits The Studio With Mr. DJ ", Billboard.
  23. ^"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-02-24. Retrieved 2014-02-24. 
  24. ^"Mastering Rap Instrumentals". ShadezOfBlue™ - Blew You Away. Archived from the original on 10 July 2015. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  25. ^"". Retrieved 8 August 2016. 
  26. ^" relaunch". Retrieved 9 July 2015. 


Hawk Memphis [1]

Hip hop producer and rapper RZA in a music studio with two collaborators. Pictured in the foreground is a synthesizer keyboard and a number of vinyl records; both of these items are key tools that producers and DJs use to create hip hop "beats".

I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell… 😉

The 808 cowbell is highly distinctive and surprisingly easy to recreate. Synthesizing it’s basic form provides a launchpad into the realm of Agogôs, Glockenspiels and other idiophones.

Just to remind ourselves: 808 cowbell

It’s spectrum at peak:

Our basic 808 cowbell recipe is taken directly from the manual for the Waldorf Attack VST – itself a great drum synth (and synthesis reference).

The TR-808 Cowbell is made of two square oscillators, one oscillating at 540Hz, the other oscillating at 800Hz. The attack phase of the envelope is emphasized heavily to create the strong click. Afterwards, the summed signal is sent through a band pass filter and an envelope that stops abruptly

Tempest easily has these specifications, so we’re in gravy. This is where a spectrum analyzer saves the day, because it helps us to visually tune the oscillators to the required frequencies.

More practically, we can proceed as follows:

  • Start with an square in Osc1 (pulse@50%). Leave wave reset off.
  • Key Follow should also be OFF for this example. Although the end result might be played chromatically, we may prefer to have more control over pitch tracking.
  • Tune it’s fundamental down to 540HZ or thereabouts (D#6). By just listening, you’ll know when your’re in the general vicinity.
  • Now set Osc mix to 0/100, letting only Osc2 to be heard. Similarly, tune it’s square wave to the 800HZ region (G#6, keytracking OFF). Detune them a little.
  • Mixing Osc1 back-in reveals the basic tone you need. We’re almost there already:

Listen: Tempest Cowbell basis

Changing the balance between Osc 1 and Osc 2 gives different flavours, as does pitching both Oscs up and down, alone and together. Notice that the 808 spectrum shows the 800Hz peak as most pronounced.

One ingredient we lack is the perceptible movement in the sound itself. There is some extra chaos that we haven’t quite nailed yet. But then we’re using pulse waves, so we can generate some interest with Pulse Width Modulation (PWM). So…

  • Set LFO1 destination to OSc1/2 Pulsewidth, set rate to about 30 and bring-up the amount. A value of about 30 sounds right to me, but play with it.
  • Change the pulse widths manually in relation to one another. Instead of modulating both pulses, try just one at higher LFO rates/amount.

By now we know we have the 95% of the basic tone, but not the shape.

The Amp envelope is the key setting here. Looking at the 808 waveform is instructive. The sound clearly has a short but significant attack phase before descending into a logarithmic long release.

As we know from the manual, Tempest’s envelope segments can be re-shaped through modulation.

  • First try setting the Amp envelope decay to 100 so we have a nice long tail to play with. Now in ModPaths we map the Amp Envelope to it’s own decay and apply some positive modulation. This bends our envelope inwards like the picture above. The difference can be subtle, so tweak around and see what’s happening.
  • Increasing Amp attack just a little. It may seem unintuitive, but you can re-shape the transient which can be quite effective sometimes.  Try increasing the Attack slowly upwards and listen for the changes and possibilities. When using several envelopes, varying their attack time just slightly can give really interesting results.

OK then, all very well so far? We haven’t touched the filter yet, and we need it to reduce the brightness

  • Keeping resonance at zero, close down the filter cutoff until the sound is quite muffled, then increase the cutoff envelope amount. Increase the attack slightly to align with the Amp attack, increase the decay and bend it’s envelope segment as we did for the Amp envelope. Also, bring-up the high-pass filter to cut-out the lowest frequencies.

Getting the envelopes right on your bandpass can take some time, but there’s a fair amount of tweaking possibilities from here. You could try:

  • A little Filter FM and/or Amp Feedback provides more beef. The feedback in particular can really fatten the attack, making it sound almost block-like. Modulate these with envelopes.
  • Modulate the highpass filter to make it cut the sound off abruptly (as suggested by waldorf’s description).
  • Drastically altering the pitches in relation to one another and layering-in digital samples.
  • Remember that in initialized patches, the Amp envelope is slightly open already, and the Amp velocity control is on full (127). We probably don’t need such dynamic range here – a cowbell is hardly the most nuanced of instruments. So turn the Amp velocity amount down to about 10 and set the Amp envelope amount up to 100. This makes the sound consistently louder.

Idiophones can and are usually played chromatically, but if we go to 16 Tunings mode, each pad will sound the same. Remember we turned keytracking off? When it’s on it makes sure that each keypress will be one semitone higher or lower than it’s nearest neighbours.  But we can apply our own desired level of keytracking in the ModPaths menu, and not just to pitch. The ModPath source to use is ‘Note Number’. You can now assign your own intervals between keys – a setting of + 127 mapped to pitch corresponds to Keytracking turned on (and thus one semitone intervals). At +64 there is one-half semitone intervals and it’s starting to get weird already.

If you do decide to leave oscillator keytracking on by default, you will need to tune the oscillators differently. For interesting results, try activating Oscillator sync and tracking only one of the oscillators at a time. When in sync, Osc2 defines the pitch of the note.

Whether this is useful to you is moot – the option is there, and should be closely inspected for the sound design possibilities. Personally I feel I’ve only scratched the surface, so from here you’re on your own for cowbell sounds. But I think you’ll be OK. 😛

Finally – do I need to say it? A touch of reverb will really make these sounds shine.

Like this:



This entry was posted on February 21, 2012 at 18:20 and is filed under Tempest.

Tags: Tempest