I got my hands on a TB-03 today when my friend Jenö hit me up saying that Danja had just scored one and offered to stop by and let me check it out. Delighted, I set the kettle on, but I never made any tea because when he got here (along with Danja and Angel too) we got right to work.
I recently compared and contrasted TR-909 sounds and determined that nothing really sounds “better” than a TR-909, but there are many ways to accomplish the 909 sound, and I believe the same is true for the silver acid box: The Roland TB-303 Computer Controlled Baseline.
I laid out four devices:
• The Roland TB-03
• The Cyclone TT-303
• The Roland TB-303
I programmed the same simple, non acid style bass line into all four of these devices – a basic D,C repeating sequence of 5 notes over 16 steps, with 2 accents and 2 slides. The exact same pattern was programmed into each of the devices. Further, I set the waveform to square, the frequency, resonance, envelope, and decay to naught, and hosted a basic comparison. The results above are raw audio, without eq, compression, or treatment. It begs the question of Why wouldn’t you put an “acid” bassline into these boxes? doesn’t it? I’ll explain – “acid” is repetition, and it is also atonal, accidental, and wonderful. It’s like an arpeggiate, or a repeating surge of frequency which over time can open your higher chakras and your heart. I love acid. But what I wanted to look at here is the instruments themselves. How do they sound? How do they work? What is the breadth of frequency, resonance and decay? I felt that a more mundane, or utility approach to the input would help more deeply illustrate the potential of the output.
I believe it was Gat Decor that first planted the sound of the 303 inside my dreams. While I would later discover that the 303 was also a part of my earlier 80’s experiences (Heaven 17, Shannon, Nucleus etc) it wasn’t even clear to me that “acid house” was all about the TB-303 in the late 80’s. There I was with love beads on cheering “Haaaceeeed!” to Future, and DJ Pierre all sweaty and freaking out, but I didn’t understand yet what I was so excited about. It was Gat Decor’s track Passion (pitched down to -5) that I couldn’t get out of my head. I already had the M1 workstation and could easily make the strings and the piano, but it was that hypnotic and delicious bass that infected my dreams, and then my conscious mind. I finally asked “What the hell makes that sound?” I asked all the synthesizer people I knew and the answer was vague… “Well, a lot of things” they said, and I was pointed toward the Sequential Circuits Pro One, the Mini Moog, and what would become my favorite synthesizer the Roland SH-101. I sought them all out and was delighted with them all for different reasons, but none of them had that same kind of squelch that I was obsessed with.
To be honest with you, I really don’t even know if Gat Decor used the TB-303 in their track, as my ear has become more sophisticated I have begun to feel like the people who pointed me off in other directions, but it was Ron Charles who advised me that it was the Roland TB-303 Bassline. Ron was a partner at San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery Cooperative and claimed to have more than 8 TB-303’s in his possession. When he finally invited me over to see his collection (and maybe to let me buy one) I don’t think I’ve ever stopped what I was doing and run anywhere as fast as I got over to Ron’s place. There they were, a beautiful pile of silver boxes on his kitchen table (along with a very confusing sync box) and he showed me how they worked, and offered to sell me one for $200. That was a lot of money in those days, and to me it was more than my rent, but I didn’t care. I spent the rent money on the most beat up one he had, kissed him on the cheek and ran home.
I loved that box until it dropped out of an overhead bin on an airplane and shattered. I paid to have it restored and used it until it was stolen from out of the back of a van in Vancouver BC in 1997. If you ever find a TB-303 with a white, silver and blue Dubtribe sticker inside the back cover you’ve found mine (and I’d like it back please.)
Over the years the TB-303 has remained an inimitable enigma. The history is that of an ugly, unwanted child who grew up to be the most beautiful thing in the world and got revenge by enchanting, hypnotizing, and entrancing the people who had brutalized it, and made them sorry with love, darkness, trip freakouts, and true beauty. I remember Eric Sakiaguchi standing in Guitar Center when it was down on South VanNess and Mission in the City and he was throwing them against the wall and laughing. They were free with purchase. No one wanted them. They were terrible guitarist companions, didn’t sound anything like a bass, and they were impossible to program. Garbage. But it was the beautiful minds of Detroit who rescued them from pawn shops, dumpsters, and dusty, forgotten shelves of second hand stores who discovered that these little machines had soul, and space, and rhythm all their own.
Clones arrived as early as 1990. Rack mounted imitations, midi versions, modified, improved, and amplified editions of the basic idea of a saw and square oscillator in a rudimentary sequencer box began to appear everywhere. None of them held candle to the TB-303 and the price of the little box soared beyond $5,000 for one in mint condition with it’s original box and silver plastic carry case. A piece of software called ReBirth appeared in 1999 and delivered not one, but two TB-303 software emulations as well as a TR-808 and a TR-909 into the desktop of anyone with a computer. But just when the 303 seemed to have faded completely out of view something wonderful happened: The X0XB0X appeared. Pronounced ZOX BOX, the X0XB0X was a kit, a circuit board you could source parts for, and build your own 303. These began to appear all across the landscape, and grow and shrink in size and color until more sophisticated imitations and finally a straight up clone project began. The 00’s were a very exciting time for the re imagination of the 303, and for a re imagined use of the boxes. Electronic music was mainstream now all over the world, and the sound of the little squelchy acid box was a texture on our sonic landscape and back in the spotlight again.
Since I had an authentic TB-303 to compare here, I needed to organize myself a little. The idea is that there are clones, and there are approximations, there is the idea that a frequency and the ability to manipulate it in a sound system is one thing, but then a produced sound is another animal entirely. I’ve been in huge warehouses with my 303 and taken the Turbosound sub woofers to task all by myself. The ability to produce low end, and control it is a powerful musical tool. Samples can’t touch it. Digital barely gets near it. Analog is the truth here, the only way to even park near that kind of movement and walk the rest of the way is with analog circuity. This is why everyone is skeptical about 303 clones, and modern synthesizers. It’s just not the same. So what am I doing here?
Well, roland have released the Boutique TB-03 and I’ve spent the last year touring the continent playing live using a Cyclone TT-303. So why not set them up and compare and contrast and see what’s what?
The Roland TB-03 is cute. It’s tiny and fun. I love the effects and the tone is thick and wide and could really be awesome in a live situation. I do not get to keep this one around, as Jenö just stopped by to play and then he and Danja took it off with them, but I’d really like to get my hands on one for use in a live scenario. I’d also really like to spend more than 10 minutes with it learning to program it. The TB-03 does offer classic 303 programming mode, but it’s not exactly the same, and the slides aren’t quite the same either. I didn’t have time to dig into the sub menus or feel that I’d seen anything other than the basics of the box, but the sound is good. It’s not great if you’re comparing it to the TB-303 – because the TB-303 is an analog device which produces sound that moves speakers and doesn’t even try to sound like a produced, compressed, effected, and finished version of itself. The TB-303 is raw, the TB-03 is slick. It sounds huge, and the effects are fun, and I can’t wait to get my hands on one for myself and take it into a Funktion One sound system and see what she’s really got for us.
This brings me to the Cyclone TT-303, my beloved Bass Bot from this year’s live ground tour. I have to admit that I loved this box. It doesn’t sound exactly like a 303, but it’s really really close. Close in that raw, move the speakers, and freak out the crowd way. It’s a beautiful thing, despite its many detractors, I love the thing and the form factor is identical to the original TB-303. It’s an old friend in a new, far less expensive, and more modern condition.
The X0XB0X is not just another imitation of the 303, rather it can be an actual reproduction (depending on which parts your source or kit you choose) and even more than that. The example here is a superb demonstration of how the thoughtful and loving attention to detail, when matched with the builder’s skill and know how, can virtually exceed the beautiful analog purity of the original form. While the black box is very cool, it does not impress me more than the actual form factor of the TB-303, but it sounds wonderful, and does the job with style. If you have interest in soldering, I couldn’t recommend a way to connect with the machine itself more lovingly than going this route.
The Roland TB-303 Computer Controlled Bassline is hands down the winner for me. It’s the source, the truth, the light in my heart. Nothing makes this sound exactly this way but the wonderful box.
My conclusions about the TB-03 – I love it. It’s great. It’s not a 303. It’s a different approach in a classic form factor. There are many good things about it (after 10 minutes with it) and almost no minuses. I’ll have to get one out into the crowd before I know for sure, but even if my final conclusion is “It’s only ok” I know that I’ll have a blast along the way. It seems to come down to a choice between produced sounds and un produced sounds. As a producer I would naturally prefer to produce my own sounds, trim off the low end for this song, and let it piss off the sound person in the next song, I want choices, and breadth. I also really appreciate the flawed and at times almost accidental nature of the original TB-303 more than a precise, refined, and accurate modern version, but it’s great. It’s a new version of the 303 and it’s only $399! We could get one, and in the middle of the gig, take it out into the street in front of the club, wait for a truck to run over it, and then cheer, and go over to Perfect Circuit, or Switched On Austin, or Control Voltage, or Robotspeak and just buy another one. It is here and now, and we can all have one if that’s what we want. The aching, the yearning, the paying through the nose for an aging analog device which is something to cherish, rather than tour with, abuse and sweat into is over. The unwanted to the mysterious, to the coveted, to the out of reach has come home and is now absolutely possible.
Get one. Join me. Make music and play live!
Roland Boutique – https://www.roland.com/us/promos/roland_boutique/
Roland Aira – http://www.roland.com/global/aira/
X0XB0X – http://www.ladyada.net/make/x0xb0x/
Cyclone TT-303 – http://cyclone-analogic.com
The Roland TB-303 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roland_TB-303