Flashback: TB-303 Bassline Synth

The machine that put a smile on the faces of party people all over the world, without even realising: the incomparable TB-303 Bassline. 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!

Article by Oz Owen, taken from issue 2 of Roland’s PowerOn magazine for the iPad.

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 bassline 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-mounted rotaries. In 1987 Phuture released Acid Trax, a ten 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 Square and Saw wave before sculpting with the 24dB low-pass filter (often misquoted as 18dB 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 to hand then overdrive a channel on your desk to add some crunch.

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 used in conjunction, the TB-303 serves up those trademark slippery, creaking, acid-laden riffs that to this day stamp their authority on dancefloors the world over. For best results drop Josh Wink’s Higher State of Consciousness on any dancefloor and stand well back*.
* Controversy still rages about whether Wink used a TB-303, MC-202 or SH-101 for his seminal 1995 track, but the man himself claimed it was a TB-303 in a Future Music interview some years back.

In the intervening years artists by the thousand have flocked to embrace that sound. Notable masters are legion, including Josh Wink, Aphex Twin, Plastikman… But Hardfloor, the legendary Dusseldorf-based proto-acid trance duo are probably the most famous early exponents. They utilised 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 defence 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% of the time 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 £1,000+ for one of the 10,000 units that Roland originally made. Right now there’s even one signed by Acid Trax producer Marshall Jefferson on Ebay – a snip 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 kick-started 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.

“The first time I heard the sound I fell in love. I wanted it in my life… It has been in my life and I look forward to it being more in my life. It’s an extremely sexy sound and piece of equipment and I love it. It hasn’t changed or been augmented since its creation, and it has stood the test of time.” JOSH WINK / DJ & electronic music legend on the ‘303 sound

This article is taken from issue 2 of powerOn, Roland’s music magazine published for the iPad. Find out more about PowerOn.

Headline image from ‘Forward to the Past 2”  on PokerFlat Recordings