The Fall and Rise of the TB-303
Author: Oz Owen
The machine that put a smile on the faces of party people all over the world, without even realizing—the incomparable TB-303 Bass Line.
It’s hard to make a definitive statement these days without kicking off an almighty flame war, but we’re going to make one anyway: the TB-303 is the greatest single-oscillator monosynth of all time, bar none. There, we said it. And you know what? We’re right. Argue all you want. Go on, see where it gets you!
What other monosynth, and single oscillator monosynth at that, has carved such a prominent niche for itself throughout the contemporary landscape of electronic music? What other synth could claim to have such a unique and distinctive feel, capable of creating sound like no other? No one could argue that the electronic music scene would be markedly different today without that little silver box.
The TB-303 (TB standing for “Transistorized Bass”) proudly left the Roland stable in 1981, originally designed to play bass accompaniment for solo guitarists. But notoriously difficult to program and producing a less-than-authentic acoustic sound, the 303 was swiftly relegated to a curiosity in second-hand music stores, where it languished for years—right up until Phuture, a trio of under-funded Chicago musicians, picked one up for a giveaway price and set about experimenting.
What the TB-303 lacked in user-friendliness and authentic bass tones it more than made up for with its quirky idiosyncrasies and insanely over-engineered tweaking potential via the half-dozen, front-panel rotaries. In 1987, Phuture released Acid Trax, a 10-minute squelch-fest that helped define the Acid sound, a sound that would quickly cross the Atlantic to become a pivotal component of 1988’s nascent rave culture that would come to be known as the UK’s very own “Summer of Love.”
There are many monosynths, so just what is it that makes the sound of the TB-303 so unique? In many ways, it’s a simple sound that emanates from that mono output; a single oscillator can be switched between a square and saw wave before sculpting with the 24 dB low-pass filter (often misquoted as 18 dB, 3-pole) that can’t even ascend into self-oscillation. For the truly authentic grind that the 303 is capable of, you’ll need one other element—overdrive or distortion. If you have nothing at hand, then overdrive a channel on your desk to add some crunch.
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Step ‘n’ Slide…
In Roland’s desire to create an instrument that was self-contained (a Roland ethos that continues to this day), the TB-303 was imbued with three vital functions that combined to create its unique, slippery “acid” sound: the basic-yet-almost-impenetrable step sequencer, the Accent that punched accented notes to greater heights, and that inimitable Slide function that didn’t remotely emulate the sound of a fretless bass. When these functions are used together, the TB-303 serves up those trademark slippery, creaking, acid-laden riffs that, to this day, stamp their authority on dance floors the world over. For best results, drop Josh Wink‘s “Higher State of Consciousness” on any dance floor and stand well back.
In the intervening years, artists by the thousands have flocked to embrace that sound. Notable masters are legion, including Josh Wink, Aphex Twin, and Plastikman (aka Richie Hawtin). But Hardfloor, the legendary Dusseldorf-based proto-acid trance duo, are probably the most famous early exponents. They utilized up to six 303s to weave complex and subtle acid workouts that still stand the test of time, 1992’s “Acperience 1” being essential listening for the uninitiated.
Programming the onboard step sequencer was a nightmare. But in the 303’s defense, one could jab randomly at those plastic keys to input a riff, then apply the timing, slides, and accented notes to complete the pattern. Bizarrely, 80 percent of the time the results actually sounded passable, if not entirely useable in a musical context. Such is the sonic allure of its cosmic tone.
Getting “That” Sound…
So just how do you get that classic acid sound these days? Purists seeking the original hardware will pay $1,500-plus for one of the 10,000 units that Roland originally made. Right now, there’s even one signed by Trax producer Marshall Jefferson on Ebay—a steal at $6,000.
For those who don’t have the funds for hardware, there are many hardware clones that approximate the sound, but arguably don’t come close. Many software versions, however, perfectly mimic the original. Propellerhead kickstarted the soft-synth revolution with ReBirth back in 1997, and now there are a flood of imitators. AudioRealism and D16 Group are regarded as the most authentic, with the latter’s Phoscyon adding a wealth of new features that take that 303 sound into incredible new territory, should you come over all experimental.