Synth guru Ross Kelly investigates the history of Roland’s legendary TB-303 Bass Line Synth in this spotlight series exploring the vintage gear that has had historical influences on music.
Roland TB-303 Bass Line
It could be argued that Roland’s TB-303 is one of the most important electronic instruments of the 20th century. Over the last 30 years this small plastic box has given birth to countless hits, influenced numerous producers, and inspired an entire genre of music. However, the TB-303 wasn’t always a big player in the game. There was a time when nobody knew what to do with this instrument, and it took years for the true potential to be discovered.
Released in 1982 for the retail price of $395, the Roland TB-303 was originally intended to be a bass accompaniment instrument for musicians. It was designed by Roland engineer Tadao Kikumoto (who was also responsible for the design of the TR-909 analog drum machine) to be used as a bass guitar replacement for rehearsals and live gigs. For this intended purpose, the 303 was a failure. The instrument’s esoteric sequencer programmer combined with its very synthetic sound did not strike the target market. As a result, less than 20,000 units were sold in its 18-month release.
As a result of the device missing its target market with musicians, the TB-303 became a relatively inexpensive device in the 1980s, easily found in pawn shops and used instrument stores. The low asking price of the 303 on the used market made it a favorite amongst aspiring artists in the burgeoning Chicago house music scene of the mid-80s. Chicago-based acid-house group Phuture is often sighted as the ones to coin the term “acid house” after the release of their 1987 EP “Acid Trax.” Acid Trax featured a new direction of sound possibilities using the TB-303. Instead of programming a simple bassline, Phuture animated the 303 by manipulating the synthesizers controls in real time while recording. This innovation created the classic squelchy sound that the 303 is famously known for. The popularity of “Acid Trax,” particularly in Europe where house music was gaining popularity, would take the 303 from a bargain synthesizer to one of the most sought after instruments in electronic music by the early 90s. Since then, demand has pushed the prices upwards, and today a used TB-303 can go for $3000+ on the used market.
Officially released 1987 on Chicago’s Trax Records, Phuture’s “Acid Trax” spawned a new genre
On the surface, the TB-303 looks like a limited synthesizer. It’s a plastic box with six knobs, a single oscillator offering square or sawtooth waveforms, and a 24db low-pass filter. However, the 303 is capable of a wide variety of sounds due to its aggressive filter and unique sequencer which offers accent and glide control. The sequencer in the 303, along with the filter, are responsible for creating those classic squeals and squelches that make it so identifiable. Many synthesizers can make similar sounds, but without the unique slide and accent functions of the 303s built-in sequencer, they can not completely nail the sound of an authentic Roland TB-303. The slide and accent are what give the 303 its percussive hits and rubbery slides. These features in unison with creative tweaking of the synthesizer controls in real time are what make for stereotypical 303 acid line.
Newcleus’ hit “Jam On It” is one of the first records to feature the TB-303
Over the years there have been many many emulations of the TB-303, both in hardware and more recently in software form. In 1996 Roland released the MC-303 groovebox, which is physically inspired by the 303 and features a TR/TB style sequencer. However, the sounds in the MC-303 are based on samples and was not well received. By 2005 the demand for the 303 sound had grown, and the Adafruit x0xb0x was born. Initially offered as an open source DIY project, the x0xb0x is one of the most popular hardware emulations. It was the first successful recreation that features an authentic 303 sounds and is notable for being the first with an authentic sequencer as well. The commercial availability of pre-constructed x0xb0x units from sources such as Willzyx have also helped the x0xb0x’s popularity. Another popular hardware emulation is the Cyclone Analogic “Bass Bot tt-303″ which also offers an authentic 303 sound and physically looks very similar to the original unit.
There are also some notable software emulations of the TB-303. The first of these was ReBirth, released by Propellerheads in 1997. ReBirth features not just an emulation of the 303, but also the TR-808 and TR-909 analog drum machines with authentic sequencers. Propellerheads have recently brought ReBirth back as an iOS app as well. One of the most popular pieces of 303 emulation software is AudioRealism’s “Bass Line” plugin. Bass Line offers a very deep and tweakable interface that gives users detailed control of their acid line. Another 303 emulation option is the Sonic Faction’s “Evilfish 303” Instrument for Ableton Live users. This device emulates the popular “Devilfish” modifications, which is a popular set of modifications found on the original 303 that widely expanded its sound palette by adding distortion and other sound sculpting features.
More recently, Roland released the battery-powered TB-03 as part of their Boutique line series of limited-edition modules that faithfully recreates some of Roland’s most legendary instruments. The TB-03 is a direct descendant of the famous TB-303 Bass Line Synth that sports the same layout and controls as the original. It also sounds like it too, thanks to Roland’s advanced ACB technology that recreates the hypnotic liquid grooves of the magic silver box. The new TB-03 goes even further by introducing several enhancements not found on the original model. The four-digit LED display makes programming easier and more accurate, while overdrive and delay effects let you unleash a twisted, tribal wall of sound to send the crowd into a frenzy. The TB-03 can also send control information via MIDI or its USB port, which also allows the TB-03 to function as an audio interface.
For more info on the current TB-303 clones, check out this article on emulating the TB-303 sound.
TB-303′s Influence on Electronic Music
As one of the most iconic sounds in electronic dance music, the TB-303 can be heard on thousands of records. In the late 1980s and early 90s, artists like DJ Pierre, Phuture, Underground Resistance, Hardfloor, Jesse Saunders, and Richie Hawtin launched their careers with the sound of the TB-303. Other artists such as the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, The Prodigy, Madonna, Newcleus, Orbital, 808 State, Aphex Twin, Uberzone, The Pet Shop Boys, and Luke Vibert are also notable artists who successfully created music with the TB-303.
About Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a Chicago-based DJ, producer, and synth guru who is a one-half of Night Moves, a cosmic disco party at Danny’s in Chicago. He is also a partner at Kokorokoko Vintage, an 80s and 90s themed vintage clothing shop in Chicago.
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