The 303 Story.

Matthew Hutson, English 111, Brown University (1998)

In 1981, Roland released a small silver box (1 kg) called the Roland TB-303 Bassline. Priced at around $395, it was meant to act as a stand-in bass guitar player for accompanying lead guitar players as they practiced. It did not sound very much like a bass guitar, so very few people bought the device, and Roland discontinued the product after 18 months. Only 20,000 were made. Several years later some clever electronic musicians realized that this analogue device could make some strange noises that sounded really good in trance/techno music. Since then, the Roland 303 has become the archetypal analogue synthesizer for use in such music, its voice distinctive and yet ubiquitous.

Many other companies have tried creating products that sound like the 303, but none have matched its popularity. Digital synthesizers could not even come close, as the 303 has a kind of organic sound that eludes the cold precision of silicon wafers. There are other analog synthesizers that can produce similar organic grinding/chirping/squirting noises, but because of the unique character of each analog synthesizer, none have been able to accurately match the 303's particular design. Now an essential instrument for the production of many kinds of electronic music (especially acid-trance, acid-house, goa-trance and triphop), the silver box that Roland made very few of can only be bought second hand (that is if you can find a seller) at around $1500. Some say that without the 303, many of these varieties would not even exist. The 303 has attained cult status.

Not long after it's initial release Roland ceased production of the 303 because of poor demand due to the fact that it sounded nothing like a real bass. The price plumetted and it seemed like the 303 was no more. Until..... In 1986 a young DJ who went by the name of DJ Pierre made a record that changed dance music forever. "Acid Tracks", a track perfectly titled for the youth culture it was about to influence, went on for a trance inducing 12 minutes repeating the same 1 bar acidline over and over again with no chords or key changes, just frequency modulation and resonance changes, this was a very bold piece of music considering this was the first record to have ever done this. The track was an instant underground hit making it's way into clubs around the world influencing not only the music around it but also the people and the whole of club culture.[source]

Woody Mc Bride, a dj from Mineapolis, waxes enthusiastic about the silver box:

Since my early tracks, I've truly grown to appreciate the 303. It really has become the voice of God for me, but as time goes by I'm always finding new instruments that are quite intriguing as well. There is something about the 303 though that is able to tell people about life and the state of affairs in the world today. I cant explain it, but it seems to speak a language across the world. Either you understand this language or you don't.

I feel obligated to mention that many artists, including Jeff Mills (from Detroit and Berlin) tell the other side of the story: "I sold mine and I'm proud of my action! I think it keeps you away of creativity, because it's too easy to get something nice sounding. It has been over-used these last few years."

For those with a fetish for the 303 sound but without the money to front for their own 303, Propellerhead Software has produced a godsend: an inexpensive piece of computer software that closely emulates the sound of the 303. A group of German engineers took apart a 303, studied its circuitry, and wrote mathematical functions approximating each individual element's (capacitors, transistors, etc) effects on current and voltage. They then implemented these equations into a piece of digital software that operates relatively analogously to the circuitry of the device. Combining two 303-synthesis modules and and 808-synthesis module (one of Roland's analogue drum machines) into a single panel on the computer screen, they have marketed the product (at a price of about $150) for nearly a year with the nameReBirth RB-338.

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