|Roland TB-303 Bass Line|
TB-303 front panel
|Price||£238 UK, $395 US|
|Oscillator||Sawtooth and square wave|
|Synthesis type||Analog Subtractive|
|Filter||18dB low pass resonant filter, non self oscillating|
|Storage memory||64 patterns, 7 songs, 1 track|
|Effects||No internal effects.|
The Roland TB-303 Bass Line is a bass synthesizer with built-in sequencer manufactured by the Roland Corporation. The TB-303 is a monophonic synthesizer, which means that it can only play one note at a time; it is monotimbral; it uses a sawtooth and square wave oscillator; and it has a 24dB low pass resonant filter. The TB-303 is used by DJs and record producers to perform and program basslines, as well as other rhythmic/melodic synthesizer motifs. Released from 1981 to 1984, it had a defining role in the development of contemporary electronic dance music. The TB-303 played a major role in the development of house music, influencing Chicago house. The "squelchy" sound of the TB-303 was a key part of acid house's sound. The TB-303 is also commonly used in related dance genres such as acid techno and acid trance. In the 2010s, some DJs and record producers continue to use TB-303 units for their authentic tone and sound; as well, TB-303 basslines from vintage tracks have been sampled for use in 2010s-era songs. As with any synthesizer, the TB-303 can be processed with effects units to produce different sounds.
The TB-303 (short for "Transistor Bass") was originally marketed to guitarists who wished to have bassline accompaniment to act as a guide to a song or chord progression while practicing alone. Production lasted approximately 18 months, resulting in only 10,000 units.
Two simple patterns on the TB-303. The second pattern has had the filter EG attack level altered.
Two simple overdriven patterns on the TB-303. The second pattern has varying resonance to give a harsh screeching sound. Both patterns have gradual cutoff frequency.
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The TB-303 has a single audio oscillator, which may be configured to produce either a sawtooth wave or a square wave. The square wave is derived from the sawtooth waveform using a simple, single-transistor waveshaping circuit. This produces a sound that is subtly different from the square waveform created by the dedicated hardware found in most analog synthesizers. It also includes a simple envelope generator, with a decay control only. A lowpass filter is also included, with -24dB per octave attenuation, and controls for cutoff frequency, resonance, and envelope modulation parameters. It is a common misconception that the filter is a 3 pole 18 dB per octave design when in fact it is 4-pole 24 dB per octave.
The TB-303 sequencer has some unique features that contribute to its characteristic sound. During the programming of a sequence, the user can determine whether a note should be accented, and whether it should employ portamento, a smooth transition to the following note. The portamento circuitry employs a fixed slide time, meaning that whatever the interval between notes, the time taken to reach the correct pitch is always the same. The accent circuitry, as well as increasing the amplitude of a note, also emphasizes the EG filter's cutoff and resonance, resulting in a distinctive, hollow "wow" sound at higher resonance settings.
The instrument also features a 'simple' step-time method for entering note data into the 16-step programmable sequencer. This was notoriously difficult to use, and would often result in entering a different sequence than the one that had been intended. Some users also take advantage of a low voltage failure mode, wherein patterns that are programmed in memory get completely scrambled if the batteries are removed for a time.
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"Rip It Up" by Scottish post-punk band Orange Juice, which reached #8 in the UK singles chart in February 1983, was the first UK hit to feature the synthesiser, though it was predated by the 1982 Heaven 17 single "Let Me Go". Another early use of a TB-303, especially in conjunction with a Roland drum machine, is now attributed to pioneering Indian musician Charanjit Singh's Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, an album of original electronic disco compositions recorded using the TB-303 and TR-808 in 1982, pre-dating the sound of acid house by at least half a decade, but forgotten in obscurity until his rediscovery in the early 21st century.
It was in the mid- to late-1980s that DJs and electronic musicians in Chicago found a use for the machine in the context of the newly developing house music genre. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as new acid styles emerged, the TB-303 was often overdriven, producing a harsher liquid acid-like sound. Examples of this technique include Phuture's 1987 "Acid Tracks" (sometimes known as "Acid Trax" which started acid house), Hardfloor's 1992 EP "Acperience" and Interlect 3000's 1993 EP "Volcano". Jesse Saunders also utilized the TB-303 with a Roland TR-808 drum machine and Korg Poly-61 synthesizer for the seminal Chicago house record "On and On" (1984).
The "acid" sound is typically produced by playing a repeating note pattern on the TB-303, while altering the filter's cutoff frequency, resonance, and envelope modulation. The TB-303's accent control modifies a note's volume, filter resonance, and envelope modulation, allowing further variations in timbre. A distortion effect, either by using a guitar effects pedal or overdriving the input of an audio mixer, is commonly used to give the TB-303 a denser, noisier timbre--as the resulting sound is much richer in harmonics. Popular pedals include pedals by Boss and DOD Electronics pedals like the Grunge or Death Metal.
The head designer of the TB-303, Tadao Kikumoto, was also responsible for leading design of the TR-909 drum machine. In 2011, The Guardian listed the 1981 release of the TB-303 as one of the 50 key events in the history of dance music.
In 1998, Propellerhead Software's ReBirth software synthesizer emulated the TB-303, 808, and later 909 sounds. Roland contacted Propellerhead to give the company an unofficial "thumbs up" which Propellerhead considered as the Roland "Seal of Approval". As of September 2005, support for ReBirth has been discontinued by Propellerhead software, and the software was available online as a free download until 2016. In April 2010, a new paid version of ReBirth was re-released as a paid app for the iPhone and iPod Touch. In November 2010 a visually revamped and modernized version was made available on the iPad. Propellerhead disabled ReBirth For iOS On June 1, 2013.
Other notable softsynth versions include the TS-404 synthesizer found bundled in certain versions of FL Studio, however it was removed in 2015 with the release of FL Studio 12. and The "Bass Line" plugin from AudioRealism. It supports both the VST and AU standards. Native Instrument's flagship softsynth Massive, as well as many other softsynths, contain filters modelled after that of the TB-303, allowing users to create their own realistic-sounding acid patches. On 19 October 2016, Image Line released a new software emulation of the TB-303, named Transistor Bass. This release was accompanied with a controversial video of the original TB-303 being destroyed with a circular saw, however this turned out to be a hoax, with the TB-303 actually turning out to be a Cyclone Analogical TT-303 BassBot, a commercial hardware clone of the original.
The original TB-303 became a staple for world traveling DJs. Its compact size and tone suited both air travel and the DJ booth. The wear and tear of 200 gigs a year and travel caused some to commission custom CNC cases cut from aluminum. Electronic modifications included expanded memory, the use of lithium batteries to reduce weight and increase reliability, tonal modifications to increase envelope length, add distortion, and increase the lower bass range of filters. Heavy use in dusty and liquid hazard environments led to replacement of worn thirty-year-old switches with new sealed switches for higher reliability. The electronic music equivalent of a skilled luthier supplied these expensive modifications to a willing clientele in units called the "Devilfish","The Borg" and "Acidlab". These customized TB-303s changed hands in some cases at over $3,000. The price of increasingly worn out TB-303 rose steadily with demand. High prices were paid for ones with cracked cases, or circuit boards damaged by the acid corrosion eating traces and wires, caused by old batteries left in stored units.
By the middle of the 1990s, demand for the TB-303 surged within the electronic dance music scene. As there were never many TB-303s to begin with, many small synthesizer companies cropped up and started to develop their own TB-303 hardware clones. Many were rack designs, aimed at studios, not travelling DJs. This new wave of TB-303 clones began with a company called Novation Electronic Music Systems, who released their portable Bass Station keyboard in 1994. Many other TB-303 "clones" followed, including Future Retro's 777, Syntecno's TeeBee, Doepfer's MS-404, MAM MB33, Freebass FB-383, Future Retro's Revolution, Acidlab Bassline, Acidcode ML-303, Oakley TM3030, Analogue Solutions Trans-Bass-Xpress and Will Systems MAB-303.
As the popularity of these new TB-303 clones grew, Roland, the original TB-303 manufacturer, finally took notice and released their own TB-303 "clone" in 1996, the MC-303 Groovebox. Despite Roland's efforts, their new "303 clone" was an entirely new product that had almost nothing to do with the original TB-303, with the exception of a few bass samples and the familiar interface design. The most obvious difference was the inclusion of an inexpensive digital synthesizer, rather than the analog circuitry of the TB-303.
The Roland MC-202 MicroComposer is a monophonic analog synthesizer/sequencer released by Roland in 1983. Whilst not strictly a clone of the TB-303, it is closely associated. It is also similar to the SH-101 synthesizer, featuring one voltage-controlled oscillator with simultaneous saw and square/pulse-width waveforms and a resonant -24db filter.
Influenced by pioneer TB-303 modifier Robin Whittle, Limor Fried, an MIT engineering graduate and a group of friends with a high level of skill in electronics and software began to study the TB-303. Taking Fatboy Slim's "Everybody Needs A 303" to heart by 2004 the group at ladyada.net began to produce a DIY kit that was very very close to the original sound and drew upon modern parts and a handful of hard to find parts. It is a deliberately open source do-it-yourself hardware solution called the x0xb0x, using most of the original components in the synthesizer section for a very authentic sound. The sequencer section differs from the original TB-303, adding support for MIDI and USB interfaces as well as an alternate event entry interface with different operating systems, such as SOKKos, also open sourced and community written.
Modifications of the original x0xb0x design inspired a number of designers who went on to careers making software and instruments and helped raise the profile of electrical engineering and home-based circuit design and pcb production generally among young talented individuals who were attracted to the idea of performing with instruments they had personally built. Community forums provided a nurturing environment online for those who wanted to make their own TB-303. For under $500 an individual now had access to a superior machine at the quarter of the price of a used TB-303 and the knowledge they gained in building it.
Emerging from the DIY kit movement was a modification by a California engineer named Brian Castro which led him to design secondary and replacement pcb kits. His x0xi0 kit adds a second tuneable oscillator, a noise source, a second ADSR, an AR for accent, FM and cross-modulation,momentary switches, extended range audio and extreme envelope ranges,sophisticated routing, distortion and overdrive. It locked together three types of synthesizers communication signals: modular cv & gate voltages, DIN sync timing clocks for TR-909 and TR-808 drum machines, and MIDI.
In the fall of 2012, a Hong Kong-based TB-303 clone appeared which, unlike previous clones, looks and feels remarkably similar to an original TB-303. Cyclone Analogic's TT-303 Bass Bot replicates the original TB-303 circuit with modern surface-mount components while adding MIDI connectivity and replacing the original battery-backed RAM with flash memory. Unlike RAM, flash memory does not require a battery to retain information while powered off; in the original TB-303, the backup battery tends to leak over time, causing corrosion. It does not support DIN sync; however, MIDI can be used instead. The TT-303 also includes the custom "InstaDJ" firmware, which allows users to generate random patterns with seven different "personalities". Robin Whittle (designer of the Devilfish modification for the TB-303) is currently exploring modifications for the TT-303.
In 2013, Korg released the Volca Bass, which takes some style cues from the 303 but does not copy the original's form factor or sound generation circuitry. The Korg Volca Bass uses a different filter, and it lacks an accent control. It also features three oscillators, as compared to the 303's single oscillator.
In 2014, Roland released the TB-3 Touch Bassline synthesizer, a digital "re-imagination" (rather than a replication) of the 303. It features a redesigned interface and additional sounds alongside digital recreations of the original 303 sound set.
In 2015, Abstrakt Instruments released the Avalon Bassline synthesizer, an expanded version of the original TB-303 using the original parts and layout. In addition to the usual controls,the Avalon includes a sub oscillator, an additional modulation envelope, and numerous other enhancements. It also includes a filter cartridge plugin system to swap in additional filters.
In 2016, Roland introduced the TB-03, a module with a similar look and feel to the original 303, but powered by the digital sound engine of the TB-3. The module is part of Roland's Boutique lineup. This model was more faithful to the design and sound of the original than the MC303, and attempts to mimic the analog circuitry by implementing coded responses based on the original transistors in the TB-303.