Roland TB-303 – an enchanted silver box

By | April 4, 2021


Together with TR-606 Drumatix, it was launched as a small orchestra for lone troubadours. However, it did not turn out at all as Roland thought. Fate had something else in the binoculars. Instead of playing in the background, TB-303 came to play the main role in modern dance music for several years. An entire genre, acid house, was based on its pattern sequences, growling sounds and hypnotic filters.

The machine has been cloned for 25 years. In other words, the earliest clones are more vintage than the TB-303 was when it was cloned. It has been rebuilt and midified. It has been dissed, but some time later the trend has reversed, then everyone should have one again. About 20,000 trenoll threes were produced. Probably some of them were thrown away as most buyers were disappointed with its synthetic sound. They expected something similar to electric bass. The result was that the TB-303 was sold cheaply both in stores and on the second-hand market.

When it was picked up in the mid 80’s by young DJs and musicians in Chicago, the price was probably a significant factor. Other factors were its portability and that it runs on batteries. It is also very easy to make music with. You hardly need to program it. Without batteries, there are random patterns in all 64 places. Just unscrew for instant acid. But above all, it is the sound and the sequencer that triggers gate, accent and slide and that controls the CV, which together create what I and many with me call magic or religion or why not the meaning of life.

After my first contact with a TB-303, my life changed. The design and the feeling made me dream new dreams. I was a prisoner in the silver box. It was a friend who had one. It was the only one in Karlstad. I took my portastudio to his rehearsal room and we paired the TB-303 with a TR-808 and pressed Rec, and I gently steered the Cut Off on the trenoll three and it bubbled in my brain as the resonant chirping increased. When the cut-off pot reached its maximum, all you had to do was turn up the Env Mod for even more ecstasy. On the bus on the way home, I felt total happiness and total emptiness at the same time. I had seen the light but at the same time the fear arose that I would never see it again. I became completely obsessed with TB-303, I jerked when I saw 303 on a license plate, a receipt or on a digital watch. In the end, I finally got hold of one, without a battery cover and quite worn, but what did it do. The sound, the light and the power were finally within reach.

The sound is completely analog. A volt-controlled oscillator where you can choose between sawtooth and square wave runs through a wonderful low-pass filter on to a vca. The filter almost self-turns, and that’s almost where I guess made it perfect for improvised steering. It is not possible to destroy the basic sound itself no matter how much you tap, it will just be a new hypnotic setting. When the accent is programmed, the filter also changes. Furthermore, you have a knob to control how much the envelope should modulate the filter. Only decay can be changed on the envelope and it also controls the envelope of the volt-controlled amplifier. Finally, the accent funnel controls how much the programmed accent should affect vca and vcf. However, I do not often care which knobs do what when I play. You often get into a situation where every change just for me further and further into what is everyday called trance. ■

Roland TB-303

Manufacturer: Roland
Type: Monophonic synthesizer / sequencer
Year of manufacture: 1982-1984
Polyphony: 1
Sequencer: Yes, with cv / gate out for control of external synthesizer
Memory: 32 pattern x 2
Filter: 18 dB low-pass filter
Keyboard: 13 buttons (one octave)
Steering: your sync 24 (only in)
Price range: SEK 15,000-20,000 (used)

The article was previously published in Studio 4-2013