Twisted Bass Line: The Misuse of the Roland TB-303

by | Mar 3, 2021 | Studio Gear, Tech | 0 comments

The squelch of the Roland TB-303 Bass Line is easily one of the most ubiquitous and recognizable sounds in modern electronic music. Arising in the mid-1980s in Chicago from DJ Pierre of Phuture and later exploding in popularity throughout the U.K. and Europe, the acid house sound it inspired was influential in bringing house music in general from Chicago to the global stage.

Acid house was a key component of a late ’80s youth culture revolution in the U.K. that extended beyond nightlife to affect politics, commerce, and countless other aspects of day-to-day life. Since then, the signature sound of the 303 has perpetuated long past the heyday of the genre to become a staple of dance music across an array of tempos and musical styles.

Like so many genre-defining instruments and sounds, however, the Roland TB-303 Bass Line synthesizer did not begin its life with the goal of becoming such an icon of dance music production.

Original Advertisement Roland TB-303 Bassline.

The “Transistorized Bass” device, released by Roland in 1982, was originally intended as a programmable solution for musicians in need of an accompanying electric bass guitar sound. Following the advent of MIDI technology the year before, the TB-303 sought to capitalize on the concept of an all-in-one band by providing a single instrumentalist with all the sounds necessary for a complete production or live performance, with a focus on ease of use.

Indeed, the design philosophy of Roland, as described in his book I Believe in Music by its the company’s founder, Ikutaro Kakehashi, posited that “It is important that the manufacturing side concentrate on providing ‘useful’ devices to meet creative wishes. It is not the proper role of a manufacturer to demand that the artist perform totally new playing methods. That would merely be an attempt to exploit novelty devices that had been dreamed up by arrogant designers.”

Ironically, the TB-303 was almost immediately seen as a commercial failure due to its infamously convoluted and unintuitive programming workflow. The sheer time and effort required of the user to squeeze out even a passable replication of a classic electric bass guitar sound demanded too much of artists who would, in theory, purchase the device to save time.

Roland TB-303 Bassline closeup knobs

Such hurdles led creatives to dismiss the device as a computerized alternative to a live bassist. The absence of internal amplification and necessity of a dedicated bass amplifier did the hardware no favors, nor did the lack of English-language manuals in the early release units. The 303 was discontinued in 1984, the remaining units sold off at clearance prices, and Roland moved on.

After the initial sales flop and relatively brief production run, the unit was adopted by thrifty electronic musicians who discovered the true magic of the device by completely disregarding its intended workflow. Rather than trying to emulate the specific and humanized sound of an electric bass instrument, acts like Newcleus, Phuture, 808 State and others began to utilize the aggressive filter resonance and envelope parameters far outside their intended ranges to derive a weird and relatively alien sonic result.

The Slide control, out of place in the hardware’s original goal of imitating a bass guitar player, facilitated similarly strange and squelchy gliding between the sequenced notes. Perhaps the only remaining element of the 303’s instrumental roots was the even more satisfying sound obtained by adding classic distortion and overdrive guitar pedals to the signal chain, which further defined the acid house sound.

Today, finding an original TB-303 for less than $2500 is near impossible. The exploding popularity of the sound it defined has spawned dozens of cloned units and software emulations by a variety of manufacturers in the years since.

Roland themselves released the sample-based MC-303 in 1996, which was often dismissed as a poor imitation of the original analogue design despite positive sales numbers. Recent updates like the analogue-circuit-modeled digital TB-03 and TB-3 capitalized on improvements in virtual hardware emulation for a more accurate sound. Other manufacturers like Behringer, Korg, and Propellerhead Software have maintained faithful clones and emulations between Roland’s releases, while aftermarket mods of original units by companies like Devil Fish have greatly expanded the flexibility of the existing circuitry.

The Roland TB-303 synthesizer, more than almost any other electronic music hardware or instrument, has gone on to shape the sound of dance culture in a way far exceeding its original intent. Dance music is rife with entire genres arising from the misuse of its tools, but there is arguably no more prevalent example of such innovation than Roland’s “novelty [device]” having gone on to define dance music as a whole.

The current TB-3 and TB-03 are available from Roland. Watch Nate Harrison‘s 2005 documentary TB-303 Documentary – Bassline Baseline below.

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