Synth Nodes – Roland TB 303 – Suddi RavalJanuary 30, 2019
There have been several moments throughout history where a product has found success due to misuse of the device or a positive accident.
The humble record player is a good example of such an event as not only did Thomas Edison not intend to invent a recording device when he stumbled upon the ability to record audio with his phonograph but he was actively against it being used for replaying music. The original intention was for it be used for office transcriptions. It is widely suspected that it was the financial rewards that swayed his views on the matter once he saw the success of his invention reach heights he could never have imagined.
Review – Suddi Raval
Roland, the synthesizer company responsible for so many classic synthesizers, many of us now take for granted, have a similar story with their bass synthesizer, the TB-303. It’s mythical status has often resulted in some synthesists ridiculing its limitations, as after all, it is only a monosynth – a synthesizer capable of producing only one note at a time – whereas most modern synthesizers today can produce not just multiple layers of sounds with effects but the ability to play many notes at any one time. Yet somehow the TB-303 has managed to compete with many of the greats without any of the polyphonic capabilities of its rivals, a choice of just 2 waveforms and no effects. In spite of this, it has reigned supreme amongst the collectible vintage synths for the last 2 decades.
How many other musical instruments – never mind synthesizers – can you name that have resulted in entirely new styles of music built around it?
Not just that, but many of the best records which use a TB-303 consist of nothing more than just a 303 and a rhythm track. Often no vocal, hardly ever anything that resembles a chord progression let alone chords. Traditional song arrangements are a thing of the past with most Acid House records and you’ll seldom find a musical recording that has so few elements, making Acid House one of the most minimal forms of music that has ever graced the grooves of vinyl.
In this piece, we’ll go back at its origins whilst taking a close look at the surface of the machine and discuss how it came to be.
2018 saw the advent of the 30th anniversary of Acid House’s arrival to the UK which resulted in the birth of rave culture, we are swamped with features on the subject which will almost always include a mention of how the TB-303 was never intended to make Acid House but somehow found its way into the hands of House music producers and eventually became one of the most sought-after synthesizers in the world. Now changing hands, well into four-figure sums, even after the release of countless clones and imitations, its popularity is nowhere near waning. The interest in Acid House music has become so commonplace once again that it is filtering its way into popular culture over 30 years after it was first popularized on dance floors the world over.
Most articles about the 303 remind us, it was originally aimed at the guitar market, intended to provide a bass accompaniment for guitarists to be able to create instant music without the need for a bass player but it is the extent of Roland’s vision that is often forgotten and misunderstood. Roland didn’t just design a synthesizer with a sequencer. They imagined a future where virtual musicians were playing in harmony alongside real musicians. Despite their intended market being the guitarist, they failed to convey that message in any of their marketing and promotional material. Instead, they adopted a futuristic approach in their advertising and even had one bizarre advert which featured Oscar Peterson playing a TB-303 with a TR-606 on top of an organ further confusing their potential market. The decision behind this strange choice may have stemmed from the fact that Roland’s founder Ikutaro Kakehashi was personal friends with the legendary jazz pianist. It is Ikutaro’s unique ability to see beyond what was already available on the synth market that helped set the stage for Roland.
The TB-303 was released in 1981 with the TR-606 in a little-known range called ProForm. The name was short for “Programmable Performance” trying to make it as clear as possible which market Roland was aiming for with the TB-303. If things had gone well for the 303, the aim was to continue the range, perhaps with modules with a similar striking appearance. With their futurist silver casings, both the 303 and the 606 were both aiming to establish what was to come from the ProForm range. Roland stated in one of their early advertisements for the 303 and 606 “The ProForm series is bound to appeal to any creative person for writing music, practicing or simply communicating ideas to other musicians.” Despite the promise of more in the ProForm range the 303 and the 606 were the first and last in a range that hoped for great things.
Unfortunately, a catalogue of errors was to limit the appeal of the device as, when Roland shipped the initial batch of units to the US, they made the catastrophic mistake of only providing a Japanese manual. The unit was already notoriously difficult to program so the addition of further complications was sealing the fate for the doomed machine.
The unit was designed by Roland’s (at the time) chief product designer Tadao Kikumoto. He was also responsible for designing the TR-909 so he is behind some of Roland’s most iconic machines. Before becoming the managing director of Roland’s musical instruments division, he was the Head of Research and development. There have been many attempts by various people to contact Tadao Kikumoto since the popularity of the 303 reached fever pitch in the ’90s but he has chosen to remain elusive and something of an enigma, staying silent on his huge contributions to dance music.
This may be partly due to the fact that the 303 was designed for something completely different and he may not feel he deserves the credit for how it found such a die-hard fan-base. Regardless, as the designer of the device, he deserves immense credit for designing the bass unit and making it sound and feel the way it does. Although the device was never intended to create Acid there are reports of Rolands designers choosing to leave, what they called “the bizarre sounds” of the 303 in the finished device. Tadao Kikumoto has now retired from working for Roland but Jim Norman, the product specialist at Roland’s U.S. offices states “Tadao Kikumoto is well aware of the products cult status but chooses to remain quiet about the situation”.
Let’s take a look at the front panel and the connections on the back of the unit to get a close look at how it works. I’ll quickly run through the connections on the back first as it is by far the dullest aspect of the machine so we can get onto the more exciting matters of operating the device and creating new sequences.
Looking from the front of the machine, on the left-hand side the first hole on the back is simply an audio “mix in” – this allows you to put the audio from the TR-606 into the TB-303 so you’ll only need one audio input or headphone to hear both units. Any audio source could be used for the mix-in input as it is an ordinary quarter-inch jack input so allowing for play with any type of device, even a non-electronic instrument which has amplification. Next on the back of the unit is a slightly more exciting option, a switch that allows you to choose between 2 waveforms: squarewave and sawtooth, both have a uniquely distinct tone.
The TB-303 community is divided as to which is the most desirable option to use as they both sound great. We then have a 5 pin din socket which has the words “sync in” next to the connection – this is the old “Sync 24” method of synchronising synths before MIDI hit the market. It is actually a very stable and efficient method of hooking the unit up to a modern MIDI set up using a Dyn-to-MIDI sync converter which can be easily available. To the right side are 2 CV and gate jacks allowing you to sync using another one of MIDI predecessors? Again, a very reliable option for connecting older synths. The last 3 holes on the back are headphones, the main audio output and a 9-volt socket which has the letters “DC 9V” next to the hole intended for powering the device.
Along the top of the front panel are 6 small knobs all of which are used to change the tone or tuning of the units sound. The first is simply a rotary tuning knob that is more to tune the unit to other devices than for tuning mid-performance. The next 2 modifiers are possibly 2 of the most powerful ways to change the sound and where much of the real magic occurs. These are the cut off and resonance knobs. There work in a similar way to most other synthesizers which have the same function but it was on this machine that DJ Pierre discovered “Acid music” can be made by turning the knobs. As Marshall Jefferson, the producer of Acid Trax stated in his interview for Channel 4’s brilliant House Music documentary, Pump Up The Volume
“there have been five thousand acid house records since Acid Trax but nobody did it like DJ Pierre’’.
Pierre did it in a musical way that followed the mood of the song.” The last of the small knobs are envelope modulation, decay, and accent. When turned, all of these adjusters have a significant effect on the sound of the sequence being played.
Underneath this section, we have a row of 4 large knobs. The one on the farthest left is the tempo knob. The next knob is used to select between a track and a pattern. A track can contain an entire song, whereas the pattern mode gives a simple one bar looped option, which is the most popular choice for most Acid producers and lastly the final dial of the large knob quartet is the volume knob which also doubles up as a power switch.
Whilst the top section is where the sound is tweaked to give the unique acid sound in performance, the bottom section of the TB-303 is where the magic is created. Where the sequence is inputted. In this section, we have 22 small rectangle buttons scattered around the lower half of the machine. 13 of which double up as a tiny 1-octave keyboard which is not used for performance, the 303 doesn’t work like that. These are purely for note input. These keys are also used as memory slots.
The remaining keys in this section allow you to adjust the notes such as transpose up and down but it is the slide and accent buttons which gives the 303 it’s almost organic feel. With the slide function giving you a smooth transition from one note to the next that goes from the start of the note playing as opposed to the end as you might expect that has helped give the 303 sound it’s individuality. Finally, there are 2 large rectangle buttons laid out in symmetry, one to the bottom left of the device and one to the right. The left button starts and stops a sequence and the right button is used to select the next note in a sequence when programming the unit.
Most great innovations throughout history, no matter how groundbreaking, have been inspired in some way or another by something before it and whilst I have no concrete proof for my theories you can make your own mind up once I have presented the evidence. One possible synth that may have inspired Rolands design is the Firstman Multivox SQ-01 released a year before the TB-303 ever saw the light of day. Nobody talks about it as if it is a sin to admit that the great and almighty Roland of all people might have taken influence from a lesser known and in comparison, an insignificant company such as Firstman but lets take a look at the evidence:
The Firstman – has a very similar sound, and few people would disagree that it contains the sound of, what we would now call, “acid bass” but it isn’t just the sound that is the real giveaway as to Rolands possible inspiration. Firstly, there is the colour of the device. A matt silver finish. Very few machines at the time were this colour back then and far more important is some of the functionality of the 2 units. Along the top of the SQ-01 are 9 black knobs, 2 of which are under a label “filter” and above this we have 2 knobs that say “cut-off freq.” and “resonance” – arguably 2 of the 303’s most important controls. Roland never had anything like this type of control on any of their synths prior to the SQ-01’s release.
There are many notable artists who have helped progress the genre of Acid House. Although there are far too many to list in this piece I will try to reference some of the most important and seminal moments. In 1982, in Mumbai India, Charanjit Singh accidentally made what sounded exactly like an Acid House record. I say, “sounded like” because despite having the correct sequence of notes and even a slightly “squelchy” sound, a typical characteristic of Acid House music, Charanjit Singh was 8,000 thousand miles away from Chicago and had never heard Acid House as – not so much, due to the distance but more because of the fact that it would be another 2 years before Phuture invent the genre whilst experimenting with their ground-breaking Acid epic Acid Trax, 3 years later in 1985.
Although the tempo in Charajit Singhs “10 Raga to a Disco beat” was far too fast to be played alongside most other Acid House music which was produced a few years later, lest we forget, the original version of Acid Tracks was 125bpm and it was producer Marshall Jefferson who suggested Phuture should slow the track down if they wanted a chance of the record being played in New York clubs. Who knows what would have happened to the history of Acid House if Marshall Jefferson had somehow had a chance meeting with Charanjit Singh and heard 10 Ragas for A Disco Beat and offered to produce it, before he has heard Acid Trax! Dance music history may have taken a slightly different path.
Another extremely important record that DJ Pierre of Phuture personally lists as one of his favourite Acid House tracks is No Way Back by Adonis. Adonis is an unsung hero in Acid House. This could be partly due to the fact that he chooses not to DJ or perform live. But the fact of the matter is, he is a giant amongst Acid legends. Although his seminal masterpiece No Way Back does not have the habitual acid squelch found in most Acid House tracks, it’s bassline was made on a 303 and is still one of the most powerful and influential basslines in House music history. Adonis also produced Lack of Love a rare example of incredible sung vocals over a catchy acid bassline. This was a huge anthem at the early acid house events. The Poke and We’re Rocking Down The House are also 2 of his standout moments.
House Music legend, Larry Heard is a virtual god amongst House Music producers. Releasing much of his musical output as Mr. Fingers after starting out in the early House outfit Fingers Inc. Heard was making records that qualify as Acid House before Acid Trax was even conceived and without using a TB-303. Washing Machine and Ecstasy are essential listening for any Acid hunter but it is his track Can You Feel It that is his magnum opus.
Armando, who sadly passed away suffering from leukemia in 1996 was one of the most important figures in the development of Acid House. With a string of Acid gems from 151 to the infectious Downfall, it is Armando’s masterstroke Land of Confusion that still sends clubs into a frenzy and stands out as one of the greatest Acid House records ever made. Sleazy D, a name which Marshall Jefferson denies is a pseudonym he worked under to produce the acid milestone I’ve Lost Control. Although it was written well after Phuture’s Acid Trax it was the first Acid record to make it to vinyl. Germany’s Hardfloor, described by DJ Pierre himself as a duo who were “born to make Acid music” have helped progress the genre into new levels of energy and atmosphere.
Still recording after 25 years of making the finest quality Acid music known to man, it is perhaps their genre-defining international club hit Acperience that cemented their place in dance history. They took layers of very musical 303 lines and added a touch of overdrive to the sounds which were produced so beautifully every line complimented each other in ways that nobody had ever done before. Considering they appeared a whole 5 years after the scene leap-frogged onto dance floors and 8 years after Acid Trax was written they deserve to be put on a sulfuric pedestal for their Acid achievements.
Josh Wink, A Guy called Gerald and the Manchester act 808 State have all made significant contributions to Acid although the former is a little controversial in some acid circles, as some consider what Wink produced with his international acid breakbeat hit Higher States of Consciousness was strictly not acid house as he pushed the sound into new areas previously not possible without the Devilfish add-on.
Before finishing with a short list of names which I feel cannot be forgotten when writing a piece about the box that made Acid House, I want to say a few short words about Plastikman. Richie Hawtin produces under at least 15 other monikers but it is with his Plastikman handle that he has created some of his most important works. From his debut in 1990 as State of Mind, he has continued to push the boundaries of what Acid House and DJing is. He is as much respected for his recordings as he is for his live work.
After 30 years of Acid tracks being enjoyed in clubs, raves and warehouses around the world there are now literally hundreds of quality Acid House records by dozens of different producers now in the musical stratosphere. It would be almost impossible to list them all here so to limit it to just 20 more essential producers here are a last few artists that are well worth checking out, all of which can easily be found on the internet using a quick search: Bam Bam, Stakker, Tyree Cooper, K. Alexi, Maurice Joshua, Lidell Tounsell, Mike Dunn, Fast Eddie Smith, Mr. Lee, Andreas Gehm, Aphex Twin, Jack Frost, Tin-man, Luke Vibert, Jesse Saunders, Post Human, Laurent X, Ceephax Acid Crew, ConSequence & The Auditor.
Now that it has been an incredible 37 years since the release of the TB-303 I think we can safely say, there are very few synths with such a legendary reputation and it is unlikely many will surpass its appeal and popularity. No other synth has spawned so many records celebrating its sound, has so many events devoted to its unique palette of sounds or has so many internet groups posting frequently on subjects relating to its history and sound which regularly lead to lengthy debates about its past and future. The machine is unique for all it has achieved and continues to be praised for the inimitable achievements it can boast of.
For more information about the history of the TB-303 and Acid House please read my upcoming book, A Brief History of Acid House, which is now available on Amazon.
Suddi Raval is an artist, producer, freelance journalist, & author