-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.