Dubspot NYC tech and Brooklyn Bass founder Dan Snider offers some advice on achieving classic Roland TB-303 sounds with some newer and less expensive hardware alternatives.
Legend has it one night in the mid 80s, DJ Pierre and his friends Herb and Spank gave iconic house music DJ Ron Hardy a track of theirs to play at the Music Box in Chicago. The first time Hardy played the track, it cleared the floor. He played it three more times that night and by the fourth, the crowd went crazy for it. The song was “Acid Tracks” by Phuture, highly regarded as the first piece of acid house. The track was defined by the squelchy and downright odd sounding main instrument, the Roland TB-303 Bassline synthesizer.
The Roland TB-303, or simply the 303 as it became known, was originally marketed to guitarists to simulate bass accompaniment. The main problem with this use was the 303 didn’t really sound like a bass guitar at all. Production lasted for 18 months and only 10,000 were made.
The 303 is pretty straightforward in terms of synthesis power: it’s monophonic (only one note can be played at once) and features one analog oscillator that can switch between square and sawtooth waveforms. The 303 is played through its on-board step sequencer. An aspect of the sequencer that helped define the 303 sound is the portamento (glide) function in which one note can be bent into another yielding interesting results.
The scarcity, uniqueness, and cult classic status of the 303 have made the used market value prices soar to over $2500, a far cry from the 303′s humble practice instrument origins. Don’t despair! The simplicity and popularity of the unit have lead to a host of hardware recreations by various manufacturers. Many of these clones are more affordable than the original and most add modern practical features to the formula of the classic Roland TB-303.
x0xb0x (available as a kit for around $289 or pre-assembled for around $445)
The x0xb0x (pronounced “zocks box”) results from the desire of one graduate student, Ladyada, to make the perfect 303 clone. Ladyada reverse engineered the 303 part-by-part to create the x0xb0x. If assembled correctly, it sounds nearly identical to the original 303, because much of the internal circuitry is the same. The project was originally sold only as a DIY kit, but the x0xb0x is now available pre-assembled online with varying levels of quality and consistency. Its functionality is essentially the same as an original 303, but it features MIDI to sync the unit to your DAW or to trigger notes from external sources. You can also use MIDI to control any external synthesizer from the x0xb0x’s built-in sequencer.
A big benefit of the x0xb0x is the wealth of modifications available. If you know your way around a soldering iron, the x0xb0x is a great choice. Sound modifications such as bass boost, resonance boost, and slide timing adjust are available, and the box can be customized aesthetically with different color LEDs and wood paneling. The online mod community for the x0xb0x is strong as well, so it can be just as much a hobby as a musical instrument.
Editor’s note: if you are looking for a pre-built xoxbox, there are many places that offer these and not all builders are alike. Xox builder WillZYX comes recommended from many users as one of the best in the game. Check his site for kits, parts, and rates.
Cyclone Analogic Bass Bot TT-303 ($699)
With the TT-303, Cyclone Analogic took the term “clone” literally. You’d be hard pressed to differentiate between the TT-303 and the TB-303 from a distance. All the controls of the original TB-303 are in the same place, as are the connections on the back. The only difference you’re likely to notice right away is the logo. The unit adds MIDI and a unique feature called InstaDJ OS. The InstaDJ function randomly creates patterns using what Cyclone Analogic calls Personality Algorithms. These algorithms (labeled fluid, glitched, chaotic, and triplet) could spark some ideas if you’re feeling uninspired, and the good bits can be copied and pasted into your own user-generated patterns. The TT-303 also boasts onboard flash memory, allowing you to store many more patterns than the original 303.
Novation Bass Station II ($499)
Novation Electronic Music Systems was the first company to create a hardware alternative to the 303 in 1994 with their original Bass Station synthesizer. The Bass Station featured a physical keyboard, an additional oscillator, and could recreate sounds similar to the 303 faithfully. The synth could also recreate analog bass sounds from the Micromoog and the Sequential Circuits Pro One, two synthesizers found all over classic techno records.
The Bass Station II features two oscillators plus a sub oscillator, built-in effects, and a step sequencer, making it a great inexpensive 303 alternative that can do a lot more. In terms of features and sound vs. price point, the Bass Station II is one of the best synthesizers out. Recently, Dubspot’s own Chris Petti got together with Nick Hook in his Brooklyn studio to check out the Bass Station II and they only had positive things to say about the unit.
Korg Volca Bass ($150)
When looking at the Volca Bass, it’s clear that Korg took some design cues from the 303. From the oversized cutoff knob to the color and layout, it’s definitely an homage to the cult classic. The Volca Bass is also a testament to how far music technology has come since the 80s. Compared to the 303, the Volca has a more robust feature set in a smaller box, at a fraction of the cost. It has three analog oscillators which can be used in unison and detuned to make fat bass sounds, or pitched differently to create three-note chords. The Volca Bass also features a 16-step sequencer, complete with a 303-style slide function, a robust LFO, and an envelope. It also plays well with the other devices in the Volca series as they’re easily linked and tempo synced. It’s not a one-to-one copy of the 303, but at only $150 it’s worth checking out if for nothing more than to get those creative juices flowing.
Arturia MicroBrute ($300)
Featured in the latest Music Tech News Roundup, The MicroBrute is the brand-new (just released October 25th) offering from newcomers to the hardware synth game, Arturia. The MiniBrute, released last year to rave reviews, was Arturia’s first venture into analog synthesis (they were previously only a software and MIDI controller company). The MicroBrute is smaller, cheaper, and improves on the MiniBrute in many ways.
While it’s possible to get classic acid sounds from this unit (single analog oscillator + sequencer + filter tweaking = acid), it can do a whole lot more. It’s a one-oscillator mono synth with a second “overtone” oscillator that can be used to generate additional harmonics, from subs to perfect fifths. It has a built-in sequencer that can be synced to MIDI, MIDI-over-USB connection, and an interesting semi-modular patch panel. On the patch panel, you can route the LFO and envelope outputs to the Ultrasaw modulator, PWM (pulse width modulation), Metalizer, Overtone/Sub modulator, filter cutoff, and pitch–pretty mind blowing sonic capabilities from a budget synth!