Roland TB-303

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Roland TB-303 Bass Line
Roland TB-303 Panel.jpg
TB-303 front panel
Manufacturer Roland
Dates 1981-1984
Price £238 UK, $395 US
Technical specifications
Polyphony monophonic
Timbrality monotimbral
Oscillator Sawtooth and square wave
LFO none
Synthesis type Analog Subtractive
Filter 24dB low pass resonant filter, non self oscillating
Aftertouch expression No
Velocity expression No
Storage memory 64 patterns, 7 songs, 1 track
Effects No internal effects.
Keyboard No

The Roland TB-303 Bass Line is a bass synthesizer with built-in sequencer manufactured by the Roland Corporation. The TB-303 is a monophonic synthesizer, which means that it can only play one note at a time; it is monotimbral; it uses a sawtooth and square wave oscillator; and it has a 24dB low pass resonant filter. The TB-303 is used by DJs and record producers to perform and program basslines, as well as other rhythmic/melodic synthesizer motifs. Released from 1981[1] to 1984, it had a defining role in the development of contemporary electronic dance music, the TB-303 played a major role in the development of house music, influencing Chicago house. The "squelchy" sound of the TB-303 was a key part of acid house's sound, the TB-303 is also commonly used in related dance genres such as acid techno and acid trance. In the 2010s, some DJs and record producers continue to use TB-303 units for their authentic tone and sound; as well, TB-303 basslines from vintage tracks have been sampled for use in 2010s-era songs. As with any synthesizer, the TB-303 can be processed with effects units to produce different sounds.


The TB-303 (short for "Transistor Bass") was originally marketed to guitarists who wished to have bassline accompaniment to act as a guide to a song or chord progression while practicing alone. Production lasted approximately 18 months, resulting in only 10,000 units.


The TB-303 has a single audio oscillator, which may be configured to produce either a sawtooth wave or a square wave, the square wave is derived from the sawtooth waveform using a simple, single-transistor waveshaping circuit.[2] This produces a sound that is subtly different from the square waveform created by the dedicated hardware found in most analog synthesizers, it also includes a simple envelope generator, with a decay control only. A lowpass filter is also included, with -24dB per octave attenuation, and controls for cutoff frequency, resonance, and envelope modulation parameters. It is a common misconception that the filter is a 3 pole 18 dB per octave design when in fact it is 4-pole 24 dB per octave.[3]

The TB-303 sequencer has some unique features that contribute to its characteristic sound, during the programming of a sequence, the user can determine whether a note should be accented, and whether it should employ portamento, a smooth transition to the following note. The portamento circuitry employs a fixed slide time, meaning that whatever the interval between notes, the time taken to reach the correct pitch is always the same, the accent circuitry, as well as increasing the amplitude of a note, also emphasizes the EG filter's cutoff and resonance, resulting in a distinctive, hollow "wow" sound at higher resonance settings.

The instrument also features a 'simple' step-time method for entering note data into the 16-step programmable sequencer, this was notoriously difficult to use, and would often result in entering a different sequence than the one that had been intended. Some users also take advantage of a low voltage failure mode, wherein patterns that are programmed in memory get completely scrambled if the batteries are removed for a time.



"Rip It Up" by Scottish post-punk band Orange Juice, which reached #8 in the UK singles chart in February 1983, was the first UK Top 10 hit to feature the synthesiser, though it was predated by the 1982 Heaven 17 single "Let Me Go" and the 1982 Imagination single In The Heat of the Night.[4] Another early use of a TB-303, especially in conjunction with a Roland drum machine, is now attributed to pioneering Indian musician Charanjit Singh's Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, an album of original electronic disco compositions recorded using the TB-303 and TR-808 in 1982, pre-dating the sound of acid house by at least half a decade, but forgotten in obscurity until his rediscovery in the early 21st century.[5]

It was in 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. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as new acid styles emerged, the TB-303 was often overdriven, producing a harsher liquid acid-like sound. Examples of this technique include Phuture's 1987 "Acid Trax" (which started acid house), Hardfloor's 1992 EP "Acperience" and Interlect 3000's 1993 EP "Volcano". Jesse Saunders also utilized the TB-303 with a Roland TR-808 drum machine and Korg Poly-61 synthesizer for the seminal Chicago house record "On and On" (1984).[6][7]

In other instances the TB-303 was extremely distorted and processed, such as Josh Wink's 1995 hit "Higher State of Consciousness".[8][9]

The "acid" sound is typically produced by playing a repeating note pattern on the TB-303, while altering the filter's cutoff frequency, resonance and envelope modulation. The TB-303's accent control modifies a note's volume, filter resonance and envelope modulation, allowing further variations in timbre. A distortion effect, either by using a guitar effects pedal or overdriving the input of an audio mixer, is commonly used to give the TB-303 a denser, noisier timbre—as the resulting sound is much richer in harmonics. Popular pedals include pedals by Boss and DOD Electronics pedals like the Grunge or Death Metal.

The head designer of the TB-303, Tadao Kikumoto, was also responsible for leading design of the TR-909 drum machine; in 2011, The Guardian listed the 1981 release of the TB-303 as one of the 50 key events in the history of dance music.[1]

Software emulation[edit]

Rubberduck[10] by d-lusion[11] (now a free download[10]) is a bass synthesizer, roughly based on the TB-303, released for Windows 95 in 1996.

In 1998, Propellerhead Software's ReBirth software synthesizer emulated the TB-303, 808, and later 909 sounds. Roland contacted Propellerhead to give the company an unofficial "thumbs up" which Propellerhead considered as the Roland "Seal of Approval",[12] as of September 2005, support for ReBirth has been discontinued by Propellerhead software, and the software was available online[13] as a free download until 2016.[14] In April 2010, a new paid version of ReBirth was re-released[15][16] as a paid app[17] for the iPhone[18] and iPod Touch. In November 2010 a visually revamped and modernized version was made available on the iPad.[19][20] Propellerhead disabled ReBirth For iOS On June 1, 2013.[21][22][23][24]

Other notable softsynth versions include the TS-404 synthesizer found bundled in certain versions of FL Studio, however it was removed in 2015 with the release of FL Studio 12.[25] and The "Bass Line" plugin from AudioRealism. It supports both the VST and AU standards. Native Instrument's flagship softsynth Massive, as well as many other softsynths, contain filters modelled after that of the TB-303, allowing users to create their own realistic-sounding acid patches. On 19 October 2016, Image Line released a new software emulation of the TB-303, named Transistor Bass,[26] this release was accompanied with a controversial video of the original TB-303 being destroyed with a circular saw, however this turned out to be a hoax, with the TB-303 actually turning out to be a Cyclone Analogical TT-303 BassBot, a commercial hardware clone of the original.[27]

Open source emulations include Freebirth,[28][29][30][31] VST Open303[32] and the LB302[33] module for LMMS, a DAW.[34][35]

Hardware clones[edit]

The original TB-303 became a staple for world traveling DJs, its compact size and tone suited both air travel and the DJ booth. The wear and tear of 200 gigs a year and travel caused some to commission custom CNC cases cut from aluminum.[36] Electronic modifications included expanded memory, the use of lithium batteries to reduce weight and increase reliability, tonal modifications to increase envelope length, add distortion, and increase the lower bass range of filters. Heavy use in dusty and liquid hazard environments led to replacement of worn thirty-year-old switches with new sealed switches for higher reliability, the electronic music equivalent of a skilled luthier supplied these expensive modifications to a willing clientele in units called the "Devilfish","The Borg" and "Acidlab". These customized TB-303s changed hands in some cases at over $3,000, the price of increasingly worn out TB-303 rose steadily with demand. High prices were paid for ones with cracked cases, or circuit boards damaged by the acid corrosion eating traces and wires, caused by old batteries left in stored units.

By 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. Many were rack designs, aimed at studios, not travelling DJs, 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.[37][38] 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, 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.

The Roland MC-202 MicroComposer is a monophonic analog synthesizer/sequencer released by Roland in 1983. Whilst not strictly a clone of the TB-303, it is closely associated, it is also similar to the SH-101 synthesizer, featuring one voltage-controlled oscillator with simultaneous saw and square/pulse-width waveforms and a resonant -24db filter.

Open source clones[edit]

Influenced by pioneer TB-303 modifier Robin Whittle, Limor Fried, an MIT engineering graduate and a group of friends with a high level of skill in electronics and software began to study the TB-303. Taking Fatboy Slim's "Everybody Needs A 303" to heart by 2004 the group at began to produce a DIY kit that was very very close to the original sound and drew upon modern parts and a handful of hard to find parts. It is a deliberately open source do-it-yourself hardware solution called the x0xb0x,[39] using most of the original components in the synthesizer section for a very authentic sound. The sequencer section differs from the original TB-303, adding support for MIDI and USB interfaces as well as an alternate event entry interface with different operating systems, such as SOKKos, also open sourced and community written.

Modifications of the original x0xb0x design inspired a number of designers who went on to careers making software and instruments and helped raise the profile of electrical engineering and home-based circuit design and pcb production generally among young talented individuals who were attracted to the idea of performing with instruments they had personally built. Community forums provided a nurturing environment online for those who wanted to make their own TB-303, for under $500 an individual now had access to a superior machine at the quarter of the price of a used TB-303 and the knowledge they gained in building it.

Emerging from the DIY kit movement was a modification by a California engineer named Brian Castro which led him to design secondary and replacement pcb kits, his x0xi0 kit adds a second tuneable oscillator, a noise source, a second ADSR, an AR for accent, FM and cross-modulation,momentary switches, extended range audio and extreme envelope ranges,sophisticated routing, distortion and overdrive. It locked together three types of synthesizers communication signals: modular cv & gate voltages, DIN sync timing clocks for TR-909 and TR-808 drum machines, and MIDI.[40]

In October 2015 Paul Barker of Din Sync announced[41] the RE-303 project as an attempt to make an authentic DIY replica and showed a working reversed engineered prototype.

Current commercial clones[edit]

In the fall of 2012, a Hong Kong-based TB-303 clone appeared which, unlike previous clones, looks and feels remarkably similar to an original TB-303. Cyclone Analogic's TT-303 Bass Bot replicates the original TB-303 circuit with modern surface-mount components while adding MIDI connectivity and replacing the original battery-backed RAM with flash memory. Unlike RAM, flash memory does not require a battery to retain information while powered off; in the original TB-303, the backup battery tends to leak over time, causing corrosion. It does not support DIN sync; however, MIDI can be used instead.[42] The TT-303 also includes the custom "InstaDJ" firmware, which allows users to generate random patterns with seven different "personalities".[43] Robin Whittle (designer of the Devilfish modification for the TB-303) is currently exploring modifications for the TT-303.

In 2013, Korg released the Volca Bass, which takes some style cues from the 303 but does not copy the original's form factor or sound generation circuitry,[44] the Korg Volca Bass uses a different filter, and it lacks an accent control. It also features three oscillators, as compared to the 303's single oscillator.

In 2014, Roland released the TB-3 Touch Bassline synthesizer, a digital "re-imagination" (rather than a replication) of the 303, it features a redesigned interface and additional sounds alongside digital recreations of the original 303 sound set.

In 2015, Abstrakt Instruments released the Avalon Bassline synthesizer, an expanded version of the original TB-303 using the original parts and layout; in addition to the usual controls,the Avalon includes a sub oscillator, an additional modulation envelope, and numerous other enhancements. It also includes a filter cartridge plugin system to swap in additional filters.

In 2016, Roland introduced the TB-03, a module with a similar look and feel to the original 303, but powered by the digital sound engine of the TB-3, the module is part of Roland's Boutique lineup. This model was more faithful to the design and sound of the original than the MC303, and attempts to mimic the analog circuitry by implementing coded responses based on the original transistors in the TB-303, the new unit was cosmetically similar to the TB-303, and featured new on-board effects including a digital delay and distortion. It also introduced some easier methods for programming sequences in, while maintaining the original step sequencer interface.

Popular media[edit]

  • The TB-303 is the subject of Fatboy Slim's first single, "Everybody Needs a 303".
  • The TB-303 is the subject of one of Showtek's songs, titled "My 303".
  • The TB-303 and TR-909 were used in Public Energy's track "Three O' Three" on Holland's Stealth Records label in 1992 (#STR 3492).
  • The TB-303 is referenced by Dub FX and Sirius in their song, "Slope of the famous TB-303" off the album A Crossworlds.
  • The TB-303, along with other x0x models such as the TR-909, were referenced in the anime series Eureka Seven/Psalms of Planets as the names of the main characters' Mecha. They were used in the making of the Eureka Seven/Psalms of Planets ODST in 2005-06.
  • The TB-303 is referenced in Dada Life's song One last night on earth. "...let the 303 be free."
  • The TB-303 is referenced in Swim Deep's song "Fueiho Boogie" - "Hear the 303 and break free!"


  1. ^ a b Vine, Richard (15 June 2011). "Tadao Kikumoto invents the Roland TB-303". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 July 2011. 
  2. ^ "Main Board : TB-303" (GIF). Retrieved 2015-09-07. 
  3. ^ "Diode Ladder Filters (including the pretension to 18dB)". Tim Stinchcombe. Retrieved 2015-09-07. 
  4. ^ "Buzzcocks: Boredom / Orange Juice: Rip It Up - Seconds". Stylus Magazine. Retrieved 2015-09-07. 
  5. ^ Stuart Aitken (10 May 2011). "Charanjit Singh on how he invented acid house ... by mistake". The Guardian. 
  6. ^ Church, Terry (Feb 9, 2010). "Black History Month: Jesse Saunders and house music". beat portal. Retrieved 16 October 2011. 
  7. ^ "Jesse Saunders – On And On". Discogs. Retrieved 23 May 2012. 
  8. ^ "The Fall and Rise of the TB-303". Roland US. 
  9. ^ "30 Years of Acid". Attack Magazine. 
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  25. ^ "TS404 Instrument Channel". Image-Line. Retrieved 2012-07-22. 
  26. ^ Image-Line (2016-10-19), FL Studio Guru | Transistor Bass (Getting Started), retrieved 2016-10-28 
  27. ^ Image-Line (2016-10-19), TB-303 SAWED | What's inside a $2500 Classic Synth?, retrieved 2016-10-28 
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  35. ^ ReBorn Song Files (.rbs)
  36. ^ "Home of the aluminium cases for the Roland TB-300". 
  37. ^ "Novation BassStation". 
  38. ^ "Ten Of The Best: Analogue Mono Synths". Attack Magazine. 
  39. ^ "x0xb0x®: Transistorize the World". 2011-10-17. Retrieved 2015-09-07. 
  40. ^ "Welcome to the x0xi0 Website". Retrieved 2015-09-07. 
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  42. ^ "Cyclone". Retrieved 2013-01-17. 
  43. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-04-24. Retrieved 2013-04-18. 
  44. ^ "The KORG volca bass is Not a TB-303 Replacement - Great Video Compares, Adds Tips". Create Digital Music. 2013-10-14. Retrieved 2015-09-07. 

External links[edit]