What can you say about the Roland TB303 'Bass Line'?

Probably THE defining trademark sound of 'Aceeeed', the TB303 became a highly sought after icon in certain dance music genres. But it didn't start off like that!

It was originally intended as a perfectly synchronised bass accompaniment to the (identically styled) TR606 drum machine. Roland's idea was to provide the solo guitarist with a compact and portable rhythm and bass backing.

How wrong could they have been?

With all due respect to guitarists of the time, most of them weren't up to the programming complexities of a drum machine AND a quirky bass synth/sequencer. As a result, many that were bought quickly ended up in second hand stores. It was impoverished 'electro-wannabees' that elevated the TB303 to the status it now enjoys.

Strapped for cash, these aspiring musos were after anything that made a sound and they found it in the used TB303s that were going for silly money in second-hand stores... so they bought them - what originally sold new for $200 was now on the streets for $25 or less. They took these machines (no doubt blissfully unaware of the manufacturer's original intentions) and used (and abused) them to create a whole new musical style. Suddenly, the music of the late '80s and the '90s was alive with squealing TB303s underpinning the dance music of the time.

Surprisingly, the TB303 was not some short-lived gimmick as is so often the case. In fact, it grew and grew in popularity to the point where, once again, the TB303 was selling second-hand for silly prices - this time, however, upwards of $1,500!! For the same kind of money, you could have bought yourself a decent workstation at the time but instead, people were spending it on a simple 1-oscillator monosynth! Madness!

In an attempt to make the sound more affordable, there were several TB303 clones made that emulated the synth section exactly - there was also Propellerhead's excellent ReBirth software clone that provided not only two TB303s but also an emulated TR808 and TR909 which all worked in perfect sync and which could be synced up to software sequencers (ReBirth is still available at the Propellerheads website). But, despite these products, the actual TB303 still continued to command high prices.

So what was it about the TB303 that made it so popular?

First and foremost, fashion - it was such a prominent component of the emerging and evolving dance music genres of the time that anyone who wanted to get into that style of music just had to have one. The synth section of the TB303 itself was totally unremarkable - a single oscillator with square or sawtooth waves, a very simple 18dB/Octave, resonant filter and a single AR envelope which were set using the row of six small knobs across the top of the unit! But whilst the 303 was obviously limited in the sounds it could make, it was maybe the simplicity of the thing that appealled to novices in this emerging, electronic musical style plus, of course, those knobs made it easy to manipulate the sound in real-time.

But as well as the sound of the instrument and its real-time tweakability, what probably defined the TB303 more than anything was its sequencer.

It was possible to program patterns using the small on-board mini-keyboard and these patterns could be chained together exactly like a drum machine to create more sophisticated songs (although it must be said that the typical use of the 303 in dance music was to have one sequence pounding away relentlessly for the duration of the 'song'). However, despite the one octave limitation of the 'keyboard' itself, transpose keys allowed you to program sequences that spanned several octaves and, despite its name, the TB303 could do much more than just basslines. It was also possible to program in accents which opened the filter for some dramatic tonal punctuation. It was also possible to program slides and slurs into any sequence and it was these unique performance features that became so characteristic of a TB303 in full swing and you either loved it or hated it! Furthermore, the fact that, in these pre-MIDI days, the sequencer was driven by good old fashioned clock pulses also gave the TB303 a rock-solid, metronomic feel that was ideal for a musical style which was fusing the influences of Kraftwerk with other musical genres. With all these factors combined, the TB303 became a phenomenon and I imagine no-one was more surprised at the 303's second-coming than the team at Roland who, ten years earlier, simply envisaged guitarists strumming away to a polite bass accompaniment!

I bought a TB303 brand new when it was originally released. I was under no delusions about the quality of the on-board synth and had no intentions of ever using the 303 as a sound source. Instead, I hooked up its CV and Gate outputs to my ARP 2600 and used it as a surprisingly powerful sequencer. I also brought the Accent CV out on a socket which, when connected to the ARP's filter, allowed the 2600 to be controlled dynamically. The TB303 served me very well indeed. Using its on-board sequencing tools, it was possible to create quite complex sequences and using an FSK-DIN sync converter, I was able to synchronise the TB303 to tape and thus build up complex multi-track sequences. This setup was eventually replaced by an MC4B MicroComposer, however, the grand-daddy of digital sequencers.

So what happened to my TB303?

The honest answer - I can't remember! I very much doubt that I sold it because absolutely no-one wanted them at the time! Perhaps I did though.... or perhaps I just gave it to someone... perhaps I just threw it away!! If only I could have foreseen the renaissance the 303 was going to enjoy just a few years later!

Nostalgia has 30 varied bass sounds on offer here taken from a genuine TB303. The samples are mostly quite long to give the sound time to 'breathe'. Even if you don't want to emulate a TB303, these are solid bass sounds that work well in a variety of different applications.