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TB-303 front panel
|Price||£238 UK, $395 US|
|Oscillator||Sawtooth and square wave|
|Synthesis type||Analog Subtractive|
|Filter||18dB low pass resonant filter, non self oscillating|
|Memory||64 patterns, ? songs, 7 tracks|
|Effects||No internal effects.|
The Roland TB-303 Bass Line is a bass synthesizer with built-in sequencer manufactured by the Roland Corporation from 1982 to 1984 that had a defining role in the development of contemporary electronic dance music.
The TB-303 (short for "Transistor Bass") was originally marketed to guitarists for bass accompaniment while practicing alone. Production lasted approximately 18 months, resulting in only 10,000 units. It was not until the mid- to late-1980s that DJs and electronic musicians in Chicago found a use for the machine in the context of the newly developing house music genre.
Two simple patterns on the TB-303. The second pattern has had the filter EG attack level altered.
Two simple overdriven patterns on the TB-303. The second pattern has varying resonance to give a harsh screeching sound. Both patterns have gradual cutoff frequency.
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The TB-303 has a single audio oscillator, which may be configured to produce either a sawtooth wave or a square wave. The square wave is derived from the sawtooth waveform using a simple, single-transistor waveshaping circuit. This produces a sound that is subtly different from the square waveform created by the dedicated hardware found in most analog synthesizers. It also includes a simple envelope generator, with a decay control only. A lowpass filter is also included, with -24dB per octave attenuation, and controls for cutoff frequency, resonance, and envelope modulation parameters. It is a common misconception that the filter is a 3 pole 18dB per octave design when in fact it is 4-pole 24dB per octave.
The TB-303 sequencer has some unique features that contribute to its characteristic sound. During the programming of a sequence, the user can determine whether a note should be accented, and whether it should employ portamento, a smooth transition to the following note. The portamento circuitry employs a fixed slide time, meaning that whatever the interval between notes, the time taken to reach the correct pitch is always the same. The accent circuitry, as well as increasing the amplitude of a note, also emphasizes the EG filter's cutoff and resonance, resulting in a distinctive, hollow "wow" sound at higher resonance settings. Roland referred to this as "gimmick" circuitry.
The instrument also features a 'simple' step-time method for entering note data into the 16-step programmable sequencer. This was notoriously difficult to use, and would often result in entering a different sequence than the one that had been intended. Some users also take advantage of a low voltage failure mode, wherein patterns that are programmed in memory get completely scrambled if the batteries are removed for a time.
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Orange Juice's Rip It Up, which reached #8 in the UK singles chart in February 1983, was the first UK hit to feature the synthesiser. This was pre-dated by Charanjit Singh's Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, an album of original electronic disco compositions recorded using the TB-303 and TR-808 in 1982.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as new Acid styles emerged, the TB-303 was often overdriven, producing a harsher liquid acid-like sound. Examples of this technique include Phuture's 1987 "Acid Tracks" (sometimes known as "Acid Trax" which started Acid House), Hardfloor's 1992 EP "Acperience" and Interlect 3000's 1993 EP "Volcano". Jesse Saunders also utilized the TB-303 with a Roland TR-808 drum machine and Korg Poly-61 synthesizer for the seminal Chicago house record "On and On" (1984).
The well-known "acid" sound is typically produced by playing a repeating note pattern on the TB-303, while altering the filter's cutoff frequency, resonance, and envelope modulation. The TB-303's accent control modifies a note's volume, filter resonance, and envelope modulation, allowing further variations in timbre. A distortion effect, either by using a guitar effects pedal or overdriving the input of an audio mixer, is commonly used to give the TB-303 a denser, noisier timbre—as the resulting sound is much richer in harmonics. Popular pedals include pedals by Boss and DOD Electronics pedals like the Grunge or Death Metal.
The head designer of the TB-303, Tadao Kikumoto, was also responsible for leading design of the TR-909 drum machine. In 2011, The Guardian listed the 1981 release of the TB-303 as one of the 50 key events in the history of dance music.
By 1997, software synthesizers were beginning to take hold among electronic musicians. One notable package was made by Propellerhead Software's emulator package entitled ReBirth. The software became very popular, providing a cheap and easy way for musicians to reproduce the classic TB-303, 808, and later 909 sounds, without the need for any synthesis hardware. Roland contacted Propellerhead to give the company an unofficial "thumbs up" which Propellerhead considered as the Roland "Seal of Approval". As of September 2005, support for ReBirth has been discontinued by Propellerhead software, and the software is now available online as a free download. In 2010 a new paid version was released for the Apple iPhone and iPad, making use of those devices' multi-touch capabilities. Other notable softsynth versions include the TS-404 synthesizer found bundled with FL Studio. and The "Bass Line" plugin from AudioRealism. It supports both the VST and AU standards. Native Instrument's flagship softsynth Massive also contains a filter modelled after that of the TB-303, allowing users to create their own realistic-sounding acid patches.
The original TB-303 became a staple for travelling DJs, some very well paid. Its compact size and tone suited both air travel and the DJ booth. The wear and tear of 200 gigs a year and travel caused some to commission custom CNC cases cut from aluminium. Electronic modifications included expanded memory, the use of lithium batteries to reduce weight and increase reliability, tonal modifications to increase envelope length, add distortion, and increase the lower bass range of filters. Heavy use in dusty and liquid hazard environments led to replacment of worn thirty year old switches with new sealed switches for higher reliability. The electronic music equivalent of a skilled luthier supplied these expensive modifications to a willing clientle in units called the "Devilfish","The Borg" and "Acidlab". These customized TB-303s changed hands in some cases at over $3,000. The price of increasingly worn out TB-303 rose steadily with demand. High prices were paid for ones with cracked cases, or circuit boards damaged by the acid corrosion eating traces and wires, caused by old batteries left in stored units.
By the middle of the 1990s, demand for the TB-303 surged within the electronic dance music scene. As there were never many TB-303s to begin with, many small synthesizer companies cropped up and started to develop their own TB-303 hardware clones. Many were rack designs, aimed at studios, not travelling DJs. This new wave of TB-303 clones began with a company called Novation Electronic Music Systems, who released their portable Bass Station keyboard in 1994. Many other TB-303 "clones" followed, including Future Retro's 777, Syntecno's TeeBee, Doepfer's MS-404, MAM MB33, Freebass FB-383, Future Retro's Revolution, Acidlab Bassline, Acidcode ML-303, Oakley TM3030, Analogue Solutions Trans-Bass-Xpress and Will Systems MAB-303.
As the popularity of these new TB-303 clones grew, Roland, the original TB-303 manufacturer, finally took notice and released their own TB-303 "clone" in 1996, the MC-303 Groovebox. Despite Roland's efforts, their new "303 clone" was an entirely new product that had almost nothing to do with the original TB-303, with the exception of a few bass samples and the familiar interface design. The most obvious difference was the inclusion of an inexpensive digital synthesizer, rather than the analog circuitry of the TB-303.
The Roland MC-202 MicroComposer is a monophonic analog synthesizer/sequencer released by Roland in 1983. Whilst not strictly a clone of the TB-303, it is closely associated. It is also similar to the SH-101 synthesizer, featuring one voltage-controlled oscillator with simultaneous saw and square/pulse-width waveforms and a resonant -24db filter.
Influenced by pioneer TB-303 modifier Robin Whittle, Limor Fried, an MIT engineering graduate and a group of friends with a high level of skill in electronics and software began to study the TB-303. Taking Fatboy Slim's "everyone should have a 303" to heart by 2004 the group at ladyada.net began to produce a DIY kit that was very very close to the original sound and drew upon modern parts and a handful of hard to find parts. It is a deliberately open source do-it-yourself hardware solution called the x0xb0x, using most of the original components in the synthesizer section for a very authentic sound. The sequencer section differs from the original TB-303, adding support for MIDI and USB interfaces as well as an alternate event entry interface with different operating systems, such as SOKKos, also open sourced and community written.
Modifications of the original x0xb0x design inspired a number of designers who went on to careers making software and instruments and helped raise the profile of electrical engineering and home-based circuit design and pcb production generally among young talented individuals who were attracted to the idea of performing with instruments they had personally built. Community forums provided a nurturing environment online for those who wanted to make their own TB-303. For under $500 an individual now had access to a superior machine at the quarter of the price of a used TB-303 and the knowledge they gained in building it.
Emerging from the DIY kit movement was a masterpiece that far surpassed any previous TB-303 clone. The extensive input and output and internal distortion modifications by a California engineer named Brian Castro led him to design secondary and replacement pcb kits. His work which drew an unheard off award to an individual from an English electronic music magazine, certainly drew upon his time as a member in good standing in the xobox forums. His decisive timbral choices, smooth integration and engineering skill resulted in a spectacular instrument. The x0xi0 adds a second tuneable oscillator, a noise source, a second ADSR, an AR for accent, FM and cross-modulation,momentary switches, extended range audio and extreme envelope ranges,sophisticated routing, distortion and overdrive. It locked together three types of synthesizers communication signals: modular cv & gate voltages, DIN sync timing clocks for TR-909 and TR-808 drum machines, and MIDI.
In the fall of 2012 a Hong Kong based TB-303 clone appeared. Cyclone Analogic TT-303 Bass Bot uses surface mount technology to match the original circuitry's sound, with flash memory and MIDI. Flash memory requires no battery, the cause of much corrosion to older TB-303s. It would be difficult to tell this machine from an original in a blindfold test. Unlike previous clones it looks and feels remarkably like an original TB-303. "Devilfish" designer Robin Whittle is exploring modifications for it. However the Bass Bot TT-303 uses a non-standard midi port that requires a proprietary Y cord and uses just one jack for midi in and out. It has extensive CC for recording tweaks. It does not support DIN sync. The TT-303 includes the "InstaDJ" firmware which allows for the creation of random pattern generated using seven different "personalities".
In 2013, Korg released the "Volca" series of synthesizers, including the Volca Bass, which takes some style cues from the 303, and is touted as having a 303 sound.
Popular media 
- The TB-303 is the subject of Fatboy Slim's first single, "Everybody Needs a 303".
- The TB-303 is the subject of one of Showtek's songs, titled "My 303".
- The TB-303 and TR-909 were used in Public Energy's track "Three O' Three" on Holland's Stealth Records label in 1992 (#STR 3492).
- The TB-303 is referenced by Dub FX and Sirius in their song, "Slope of the famous TB-303" off the album 'A Crossworlds'.
- The TB-303 is the subject of Nicky Romero's song, "Generation 303".
- Stuart Aitken (10 May 2011). "Charanjit Singh on how he invented acid house ... by mistake". The Guardian.
- Church, Terry (Feb. 9, 2010). "Black History Month: Jesse Saunders and house music". beat portal. Retrieved 16 October 2011.
- "Jesse Saunders – On And On". Discogs. Retrieved 23 May 2012.
- Vine, Richard (15 June 2011). "Tadao Kikumoto invents the Roland TB-303". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 July 2011.
- Propellerheads (2005). "The Debut". The Rebirth Museum. Retrieved 2007-04-15.
- Propellerheads Software (2010). "Rebirth for iPad and iPhone". Propellerheads Software. Retrieved 2011-07-25.
- "TS404 Instrument Channel". Image-Line. Retrieved 2012-07-22.
- "Cyclone". Syntaur.com. Retrieved 2013-01-17.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Roland TB-303|
-  TB 303 Resource Index
-  TB303.info MIDI and Pattern File Resource
-  Swiss TB 303 site
-  TB 303 Alucase site
-  Devilfish site
-  Ladyada's x0xb0x site
-  Brian Castro's site
-  Nate Harrison's free TB-303 Documentary.
-  Instruments That Changed The Game: The Roland TB-303 Turns 30!
-  TB303 Clones -> Audio comparison test. Hardware / Software