Roland TB-303

One of the most important musical instruments in recent music hitory, The Roland TB-303 was a failure at its intended purpose.

The 303 was designed to be an “automatic Bass machine”. It was introduced in the early 80’s along with the TR-606 Drumatix drum machine. The two were relatively inexpensive, and were intended to provide a rhythm section backup. Meant to be a backup machine for practicing or for demos, the TB could be programmed with 16-step patterns that could then be arranged into songs. Unfortunately, it was difficult to program and more trouble than it was worth for most musicians. Roland stopped producing them after only 18 months!

In the late 80’s, they could be bought for almost nothing in pawn shops. Around ’87, DJ’s in detroit began tweaking the knobs of a TB-303 while the bassline played a sequence. Paired with a TR-909 drum machine, it created a unique danceable sound. The rest is history. The TB-303 became a part of most of the electronica styles since then, including acid, house and trance.

Several features of the 303 give it its unique sound. First is the accent. The accent can be triggered on any step, and it adds a little voltage to the VCA and the VCF. This makes the accented notes seem louder and brighter than unaccented notes.

Several other aspects contribute to its unique sound. The slide is constant, no matter what notes you jump between. The filter is an 18 db/octave resonant low-pass filter. Most other analog synths used Moog-like 24 db/octave filters, or 12 db/octave filters. The filter effect is modified by five knobs, which adds a great deal of flexibility.

In performance, the TB is rarely used as it is intended. Instead, musicians program a simple 16-step pattern which loops continuously, while the performer tweaks the various knobs. The musicianship lies in knowing which knobs produce various effects, and doing this in a fashion that brings the music to crescendos and climaxes.

Because of its seminal place in the last 15 years of electronica, the TB has become one of the most imitated and revered synths of all time. Prices for 303’s run up to $1,000, or even more if it is in pristine condition, or has desired modifications. This has inspired dozens of imitators, most notably the Novation BassStation and the Future-Retro 777. The 777 is the only new synth to capture not only the unique sound of the TB, but also the unique sequencer.

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