History of the Rolland 303

Rolland 303The TB-303 is THE sound of acid and techno house music! It’s a monophonic analog bass synthesizer married to a pattern-based step sequencer released in 1982. It features a single analog oscillator with two waveforms (ramp or square) and has a simple but excellent VCF (filter) with resonance, cut-off, and envelope controls. There are also knobs to adjust tuning, envelope decay, tempo and accent amount.

The TB-303 has become one of the most sought after vintage synths ever! It has helped develop and stylize many forms of electronic music including House, Acid, Trance and Ambient. If ever there was a need for a repetitive bassline/groove or an extremely resonant and bubbly sound, the 303 is KING. Truly a unique machine with a very identifiable sound! It has spun off several imitators as well: Novation Bass Station, ReBirth, Doepfer MS-404, MAM MB-33, Syntecno TeeBee, and more (see Related & Alternative Gear sidebar).

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.

Around 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. 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, Ladyada’s x0xb0x, 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.

If you need a reason why you can’t have a decent conversation with any DJ who has been inside a twenty mile radius of a recording studio, then you need to speak to Roland. Not Roland with the glasses on from Grange Hill, but a Japanese electronic musical instrument manufacturer who, opening business in 1972, couldn’t have foreseen the influence it’s percussive gadgets would have on a whole genre of music. Roland’s first products were square-bear synthesisers and pianos. Sales of their cheap and cheerful Dr Rhythm Drum Machine in 1979 convinced them, however, that there was a demand for unrealistic bongs, clicks and clonks. Before the DR55, drum machines had looked like dressing tables with flashing lights and sounded like the entire contents of a knife drawer being thrown down the stairs. And you couldn’t programme them, either. Roland technology had invented the future. Oh, dear. Next stop, Depeche Mode.

The Roland TR 303, smallest and most influential box of them all, began life as a impenetrable automated bass player. Only people with heads like Bryan Eno could figure out how to work the 303. A commercial flop for Roland until Marshall Jefferson once told me that nobody in Chicago could get anything out of this silver machine so someone came up with the solution of taking the batteries out, putting them back in, switching 303 on and seeing what happened. That could explain a lot of the nonsensical, impossible genius of early acid. The batteries story is probably bollocks but, then again, pre-1987 you’d have died of shock had you heard someone strolling down the street whistling ‘Acid Tracks’. As a result of records like this the 303 became known as the acid machine. Acid, put simply, is the sound made by a constantly repeating pattern modulated with the little knobs on the top of the machine so it becomes more bassy, then extreme or squelchy and distorted. Most of the great acid records consist of a drum pattern and someone twisting these knobs round for an hour or two. Boring now, I know, but it sounded like all hell was being let loose back then. The fact that the 303 died a creative death several years back did not however stop Josh Win from making a career out of shaking his fake dreads around, hunched over a 303 treating us to the house equivalent of a sad metal guitar solo. Add to this the fact that lads with no shirts on, in the time-honoured fashion of air guitarists at rawk shows across middle America, now twist their thumbs and fingers around in mid-air during the acid sections of progressive house records, and it’s clear much damage has been done.

 

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