Roland TB-303 was the tool used to create the ultimate new dance sound circa 1986-1988, called acid house - and this style's pioneers were among others Phuture Pfantasy Club, Phuture, Dj. Derelict, Adonis. Most of these artists released through Chicago -based Trax Records label. Phuture's Acid Trax is known as the first acid house track.

Originally planned to be used alongside Roland TR-606 drum machine, this little box created some nice basslines but with little creative knob tweaking (one controls it parameters by these knobs) one can easily create this familiar acid-sound. This little box had nice feature; sometimes when one turns it on, there's a random pattern of notes waiting to be played, which is probably how most of the acid tracks were created, since 303 has been known quite difficult to program.

The most important instrument in electronic dance music -- if a genre of music isn't (at least partially) defined by having a 303, then it's partially defined by not having it. Analogous to the piano in classical music, I suppose. This instrument's popularity is due to its distinct, unmistakable sound, which can go from crystal clear to violently harsh, or from deeply abstract to easily danceable. The distinctive sound comes from a few of its characteristics that just aren't shared by many other synths, except the ones made just to emulate a TB-303.

  1. The filter used in the TB-303 is 3 pole, instead of the regular 2 or 4, which means that its sound reduction rate is 18 Db per octave, instead of 12 or 24. It is also made with a modified diode ladder, using transistors wired to work like diodes. Most synthesizers use a pure capacitor and resistor setup for filtering. The filter can only be pushed into self-resonance in the upper octaves, and when it is it produces a lot of harmonics that give sort of a biting shriek to the machine's sound.

  2. The sequencer is a truly interesting beast. Programming a pattern is accomplished in three passes: adding the notes to be played, adding the length of the notes (which can be done in two equally unintuitive ways :-), and adding accent and slide to the notes. There are manuals available on the internet that explain how to do this, but rest assured it is not an easy task to turn a given piece of sheet music into a 303 pattern. Some artists don't even try to work out a pattern before they put it in, they just push buttons to get semi-random patterns, and keep the ones that sound good.

    The accent function of the sequencer increases the filter resonance amount and the volume of the note. With the resonance turned way up, this makes the note sound completely different. Also, when the volume -- controlled by a VCA -- is changed in this manner, the filter cutoff bounces up and down a little bit, adding even more strangeness to the accented note's sound.

    Another secret weapon of the sequencer is its slide function. Instead of sliding at a variable rate -- so you end up on closer notes faster, like on most synths -- it slides at a constant rate (about 60 ms) no matter how far away a note is. A common acid techno trick is to play most of the pattern in a low octave, but have one or two notes slide to notes a few octaves up, producing an attention-grabbing sort of vvweeeep sound. Also, where most portamento is done during the first little bit of the next note, the 303 sequencer recognizes a slide will be coming, and starts the slide at the end of the preceding note. If the 303 is playing lots of short notes at a high tempo, the slide will be unable to reach the next note in the allotted 60 ms, which sounds like a terrifically random chopping noise in the pattern.

  3. The oscillator is pretty unremarkable, except that it can be changed between a square and sawtooth wave with a switch on the back of the machine. The sawtooth wave is by far the more "acidic" sounding one, and is used extensively by the acid techno scene (Chris Liberator, Rowland the Bastard, DDR, etc.). Without much filtering, it sounds vaguely like a trumpet. The square wave is much cleaner and beepier sounding, but can get pretty distorted with the filter. It is used by ambient artists, as well as on Plastikman's more abstract material, and sounds something like a clarinet when not modified. Every once in a while, a techno track will let the 303 get quiet, then switch from one waveform to the other and bring the pattern back in, adding a nice dramatic change to the music.
The TB-303 (with 'TB' standing for 'Transistor Bass') was a bass sequencer released by Roland in 1981 as a companion to the concurrent TR-606 drum machine. As far as Roland was concerned, the two machines were aimed at the semi-pro market, as a way of providing accompaniment to amateur singers and lounge acts.

The 303 was a clever concept, but whilst the 606 flew off the shelves, the 303 was a terrible failure, on account of the fact that it was extremely difficult to program, it sounded nothing like a bass guitar and, crucially, it wasn't particularly good at producing bass noises, sounding generally weedy and floppy. For the £200 it cost, musicians could pick up an EDP Wasp or a decent bass guitar, and it's interesting to note how many contemporary electronic artists used the latter option (Gary Numan and John Foxx spring to mind).

Roland discontinued the 303 at the end of 1983, and it made its way into second-hand shops and the classified ads. In this environment, cash-strapped DJs and musical dabblers could pick the machine up for less than fifty pounds or so. It quickly became apparent that, coupled with a chorus and an overdrive pedal, the 303 could produce a striking range of zappy, burbly, squealing noises, and the built-in sequencer - whilst impenetrable - was good for short, portamento-ed trance-inducing pulses. The sound was down to the machine's odd filter, a curious cost-cutting arrangement which, instead of self-oscillating when the resonance went up, seemed to make a strange tearing noise. The machine had a single oscillator which could be switched to sawtooth or pulse waves, and a mockery of an 'ADSR' envelope which ditched the 'A', 'S' and 'R' parameters.

In Detroit, diverse talents such as Juan Atkins and Derrick May realised that, with a second-hand TR-808, some decks, and a cheap sampler, they could produce electronic dance music without needing huge reserves of cash and / or degrees in electronics.

(Which is quite ironic, in a way. The 303 was, at least initially, a cheap substitute for other equipment - if Atkins and May had been able to afford a room full of Jupiter 8s and a Fairlight they wouldn't have bothered with a 303. Established, wealthy electronic stars such as Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Kraftwerk didn't touch it until long after it became trendy to do so.)

Acid house was the sound of TB 303 solos, acts such as Phuture, Bam Bam and 808 State used it either as a lead instrument, or as an 'added ingredient', and second-hand prices skyrocketed throughout the rest of the 80s and 90s, eventually reaching into four figures. Ironically, this had the effect of preventing the early-90s wave of 'bedroom techno' acts from using the machine, as they could no longer afford it - instead, Bomb the Bass, Altern-8 and The Prodigy produced their magnum opii with cheap samplers (and indeed samples of 303s).

Although Roland refused to re-release the machine, by the mid-to-late 90s many companies offered 303 clones, such as the Novation Basstation and the Will Systems MAB-303. This had the effect of spurring on a retro-analogue trend which still exists today. Meanwhile, software-based 303 imitations appeared in the form of Rubber Duck and Rebirth. The latter simulated a brace of 303s and an 808 and could, with a few minutes' tweaking, generate the entire recorded output of Phuture.

In the UK, prices now range from £600 to the £1,000 mark, although most of that is for rarity value and the prestige of owning one. The TR-606, on the other hand, sells for around £75.

Company: Roland
Released: 1982
Price: £215

With a second hand value that's roughly three times its original price, the Roland TB-303 is perhaps the single most overrated synthesizer of all time. Sure, it's good, but it's not that good. It can produce a fantastic sound, but people's perception of it seems slightly inconsistent with what it can actually do.

Don't get me wrong, it can create a smooth, pleasant bassline, a crazy, screaming acidline and anything in between... but that's it. It's one of the least versatile synthesizers there is.

First, let's look at How you play it. As the TB-303 predates MIDI, there is no way to get another instrument to tell it which notes to play. The only way to get a sound out of the 303 is to use its built-in step sequencer. As is the case with Roland's similarly overrated TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines, this involves punching up to sixteen notes or rests into each of its patterns. The "slide" button offers portamento for any given note, while "accent" (also featured on the 808 and 909) allows notes to be emphasized, but while these are welcome additions, the sequencer still offers little variety.

Any music based around a 303 will have to conform to this simplistic step sequencing, most likely with very few chord progressions. This is due to the awkward nature of transposing or changing the pattern being played, which has to be done in real time. The inevitable nature of music composed via step sequencing is probably at least partly responsible for electronic music's reputation of being repetitive, something that needn't be the case.

This problem has been overcome by several of the synth's imitators. Freeing the musician from having to use a studio that can support the now ancient Sync24 standard which is required to synchronise the TB-303 to modern hardware (superseded by MIDI in the mid eighties), and from having to think in terms of patterns, more complex basslines and acidlines can now be programmed into these similar sounding devices. This arguably makes some of the TB-303's so-called clones superior to the original machine.

The other limitation, although not as severe as the sequencer, is the 303's sound. It is monophonic and monotimbral, and it has only two periodic waveforms to choose from (a sawtooth wave, and something Roland claim to be a square wave but is actually something else entirely). The selected waveform is then passed through a resonant lowpass filter with a decaying cutoff point. It is this filter which gives the 303 its distinctive sound. While the sound itself is great, this is no longer the advantage it once was, as it has been used in so many songs that it has become a cliché.

While it is now possible to emulate the TB-303 using software or relatively modern hardware, you should still think about whether you actually want to. If standing out from the crowd is something you want to achieve with your music, it might be worth exploring a less trodden path. If, on the other hand, you just want to write something that is easy to dance to, go ahead and put the 303 or one of its clones at the front of your mixes.

Personally, I find the machine's sounds to work best at the back of a mix, adding an extra element to a song but not drawing too much attention to itself. A good example of this is Fatboy Slim's chart hit Praise You, which features a TB-303 acidline buried behind a piano sample, vocal sample, some drums and a bassline near the end of the song (pretty good self-restraint for someone who titled one of his tracks "Everybody Needs a 303"). Even then, it's probably best to avoid putting it in the majority of your songs.

For a good example of songs centered around the 303, you should check out Luke Vibert's album Lover's Acid. If you still think you can make something original with this machine, go ahead. It would certainly be an achievement to be proud of.

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