Synth Icons – The Roland TB-303 Bass Line Synth

Synth Icons – The Roland TB-303 Bass Line Synth

Like many synth icons, the Roland TB-303 transformed the music by being used in ways it was never intended… aciiieeed!

There are bits of musical equipment that are so well designed for a given purpose that they quickly become a standard, used by nearly everyone. More often than not, however, the gear that truly changes music is used in ways for which it was never intended. Think of overdriven guitar amps, for example- this was a sign that an amp was driven beyond its limits. Now, this sound is a key element in most contemporary music that features guitars.

The Roland TB-303 Bass Line Synth was one such product. Poorly received at launch, it went on to be crucial to the development of modern music as we know it. How? Well, it’s an interesting story…

Sack the bassist…

Roland TB-303 Advert

Like many musical greats, the Roland TB-303 had an astonishingly short lifespan. Launched in 1982, production stopped for this compact mono-synth with built-in sequencer in 1984. To understand why this is, we need to take a look at the synth itself.

The TB-303 was released alongside the TR 606 drum machine; a pairing that was designed as an accompaniment section for keyboard players and guitarists, with the 606 as ‘drummer’, and 303 as ‘bassist’. This is clearly a great idea, in principle. Oscar Peterson got behind it, too. The idea of Peterson jamming with a 303 and 606 is mind-blowing- if anyone has any recordings, feel free to post links… 😉

Synth Icons – The Roland TB-303 Bass Line Synth

The problem was that both drum machine and bass synth sounded nothing like their real counterparts. For a guitarist or keys player, the fact that the sounds were distinctly synthetic, and the rhythmic feel very machine-like (TR 606) or just kind of, well, different (TB-303) meant that they could never see them as a viable ‘bassist’ or ‘drummer’ replacement. Plus, on the part of the TB-303, getting something that approximated a real bass pattern was tricky via the unit’s sequencer.

Critics judged the Roland TB-303 Bass Line according to its intended purpose, and were less than kind as a result. So after just two years, the 303 was laid to rest…

A few years later in Chicago, whilst TB-303s were languishing in second-hand shops for sale at ludicrously low prices, something was happening on the underground club scene that would change everything…

Acid House

Roland TB-303 Bassline

A new form of electronic dance music had arisen in clubs that played Italo Disco, Kraftwerk, and electronic post-Disco tracks of the kind that Giorgio Moroder had pioneered, which became known as House music. This combined the soulful elements of Disco, with synthetic elements, and driving four-to-the-floor rhythms. As this began to take off, another variant exploded, based around (you guessed it) the Roland TB-303.

Under the guise of ‘Phuture’, a legendary producer named Marshall Jefferson (who I was lucky enough to meet a few years ago at our Manchester store) released ‘Acid Trax’. The burbling, squelching bass-line defined a genre that was to become known as Acid House. This, in turn led to the whole Rave scene, and in turn, the hugely diverse genres of dance music produced today. The Roland TB-303 was key to this new sound, and nothing else could replace it.

So, why the Roland TB-303?

Roland TB-303 Bassline

There were several reasons for the TB-303’s central role in Acid House. Firstly, like many bits of musical gear that become key to new musical forms, it was available very cheaply in second hand stores. It was an affordable way of adding an electronic flavour to music.

Above all else, it was the TB-303’s simplicity, and idiosyncratic sequencer that led to it being a key element of the Acid sound. The synth itself was very simple. It was a single oscillator design, which could be switched between a sawtooth or square-wave. Filter cut-off frequency, filter resonance (24db 4-pole), envelope modulation, and decay could be tweaked via rotary controls. The sequencer allowed 16-steps of input via the keyboard buttons, but it was other sequencer features that were key to its sound.

Firstly, the accent control allowed individual notes to be boosted in level. This had the effect of exaggerating envelope mod settings, creating a unique ‘wow’ sound. Secondly, a slide portamento mode provided smooth transition with a fixed time, meaning that at fast tempos, the sound became gliding, wobbling sound that was difficult to recreate. The sequencer never quite played things back in a way that you expected, sort of 303-ifying any notes that were entered.

By programming parts to the sequencer and tweaking filters and other parameters via the controls, the Acid house sound was created. So unique is the sound of the 303, that it’s possible to enter notes at random, and still end up with a great Acid riff with a bit of tweaking…

Highly desirable (expensive…) classic

Synth Icons – The Roland TB 303 Bass Line Synth

If this has stoked your desire for a Roland TB-303, you had better have a well-furnished wallet. If you can find one (they were only built for two years, after all) you can expect to pay in excess of £1K. Why? Well, despite some really excellent software recreations, there really is nothing quite like it. Plus, like the TR-808 and 909, it is a fundamental component in music’s evolution.

If Roland were to produce the 303 again, I suspect that demand would be massive, even if the only updates were a MIDI in and out.

But if they really threw some development at it… boy. Maybe add a second oscillator that could be switched on, VST editor/ front-end maybe, more pattern memories, the ability to be used as a standalone ‘synth’ via MIDI input, built-in distortion…?

The possibilities are endless. I’d love to hear how you think this icon could be added to. Post your suggestions below.

There are many other great Roland synths in our online store here.