How did the Roland TB-303 change dance music and influence current music technology?
In this essay I will be looking at the influence of Roland’s TB-303 Bass Line Synthesizer or modern electronic dance music. Charting its creation, technical specification and usage and including current emulations and possible future of the iconic machine. Conceived and designed by Tadao Kikumoto and released in 1982 by The Roland Corporation (Vine, 2011a), the TB-303 Bass Line was designed as an accompaniment machine for keyboardists and guitarists, promoting it alongside the TR-606 drum machine. It was advertised by Roland as offering ‘true bass technique capabilities’ (Keyboard Magazine, 1992), however due to its difficult method of programming and because the sound was too dissimilar to a real bass guitar, it failed to sell to its target market. Its was withdrawn from the market in 1984, however this would be just the start of an incredible rise to iconic status within ‘house music’.
The TB-303 found its niche in house music, a genre now widely known in modern culture, being heard in pubs and clubs, as well as radio and even television. House musics roots can be traced back to the early 80’s in the clubs of Chicago, specifically a venue called ‘The Warehouse’ run by Frankie Knuckles. Knuckles mixed soul and disco music with a drum machine playing a 4/4 rhythm, the crowd loved it and house music (named after the club itself) was born (Pump up the Volume, 2001). From these humble roots, house music spread to the east-coast of America and then over the Atlantic to the shores of Britain, achieving mainstream chart success in January 1987 when Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley reached the number one spot with his track ‘Jack Your Body’ (Vine, 2011b). Some house purists disliked the way the underground sound of house music had hit the mainstream and looked for something to bring the genre back to the underground; This soon came with the sound of Acid House. The inspiration for the sound of Acid House came from the (now) iconic Roland TB-303.
The Roland Corporation was founded by Ikutaro Kakehashi in 1972 (Roland Corporation, 2013), with its humble beginnings in a rented shed with just 7 employees and about $100,000 in capital the company made just $300,000 profit in its first year. However by the end of the 1970’s Roland had expanded into one of the largest manufactures of musical instruments, with over 120 products. (Reid, 2004)
The TB-303 was originally intended for bands acting without a bass player and also as a composition aid, however it was widely dismissed due to its sound (which was too dis-similar to a real bass guitar) and it’s difficult method of programming. It was however still utilized by artists such as Imagination, Paul Haig and Newcleus in the early to mid 80s. “I bought my first 303 as soon as they came out. I remember it being 1981but according to what I’m seeing online they weren’t manufactured until ’82, so I may be wrong there. At any rate, I bought mine the first time I saw it in Sam Ash, it cost about $150.00 from what I remember. I bought it to use for bass, and loved that it synced with my 808. There was no MIDI yet back then, so the idea of such intricate and versatile programming fascinated me. The programming was a bit of a bitch to wrap my head around at first, but I soon got the hang of it. The sound was cool, though I wished that it had more bottom end. From that point on I used it for almost all of my bass lines, until I figured out that I could use it as an intricate guitar/synth like sequencer as well. Then I would use the much simpler step sequencer on my Ensoniq Pro One for bass, and use the 303 for intricate sequenced synth lines. Exactly like Acid years later except I didn’t tweak the knobs. This was the technique that I used on “Jam On It”. By the time that we were ready to do the 2nd Newcleus album MIDI had arrived and I had dived into it. Since I could now do much more intricate programming much faster and easier with a MIDI sequencer, and I could use a MIDI synth with much more bottom and sound versatility for bass, I stopped using the 303. Only “Why”, which was the very first track that I ever did in MIDI, used it as it was originally written with the 303 as the bass line and I wanted to keep that uniqueness of sound. By this time I had two 303s but they ended up just gathering dust. Sometime in the mid 80s I lent 1 of them to somebody and never saw it again. Then the 2nd [one] got pilfered by someone who will go unnamed right out of my studio and was sold for drug money. In 1990 I was doing House music and my partner Greg Fore had 1 that he brought down to my studio. We used it on a few tracks, including the Dream 2 Science EP, using it as a synth line sequencer. Again, no knob tweaking, but people call those tracks Acid now. Go figure. I think that Greg still has his.” (Cenac, 2013)
Newcleus ‘Jam on it’ record cover
(DJ Swift, 2013)
It wasn’t really until after its withdrawal from the marketplace in 1984, that the TB-303 found a second life in the newly discovered sound of Acid House. It started when a few young producers in Chicago’s housescene picked up cheap second-hand TB-303’s and started experimenting with them,. Using simple repeating note patterns and changing the controls for the filter, resonance and cut-off they produced the first One of the early pioneers in the use of this synthesizer for Acid House as we know it was DJ Peirre who started using the TB-303 in 1985. Adding drum machine rhythms on top of the 303’s bass lines, Pierre sent his creations to Ron Hardy, a DJ at Chicago’s ‘Music Box’ club. Hardy renamed this music ‘Acid Trax’ and played it incessantly at the club, where patrons lapped up the new sound. “Myself, Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin, Stacy Pullen and many others in Detroit didn’t even know there was such a machine until the likes of Chicago guys showed it to us. We were always into keyboards and pianos sound development and experimentation of Algorithms” (May, 2013)
Suddenly ‘Acid House Parties’ arrived, scaring parents and inciting the press due to its links with the newly arrived drug on the dance scene ‘Ecstasy’. Huge raves (mostly unlicensed and therefore illegal) popped up all over the country, often lasting days. The dance music scene was alive again following the demise of disco and this ‘rave scene’ still continues (albeit smaller) to the present day (Anthony, 1998). “I think the most important thing about the 303 was that apart from electronic organs with inbuilt drum machines this was the first time a musician/dj/producer could be a ‘one man band’ when coupled with the 606….the first laptop set! [The] 303 had a massive influence on dance music, acid house was as important as punk and early Detroit techno shaped the future of dance music…many of those tracks sound more original than the millions of clones since.” (Thair, 2013)
The TB-303 sound was very distinctive and unlike any other synthesizer of the time, the core of the acid house sound was it’s low-pass filter. Like the Moog synthesizers before, it utilized a ‘ladder’ style filter (each pole is a matched pair of transistors that, presented on a schematic, are stacked to look like a ladder). However Roland made it’s filter unique by using a three-pole, 18dB filter rather than a four-pole, 24dB circuit (Some argue Roland actually used a four-pole, 24dB circuit as with the Moog) (Edwards & Wilson, 2009). In place of the transistors of the Moog structure, Roland inserted diodes. However critics commented on its limited timbre and programming style. “[I] first discovered it (the TB-303) on the house music recordings out of Chicago. some of those records are standards of house and dance music today. I think it did influence dance music in general but thought it was kind of limiting.” (Shakir, 2013). However some found it’s random nature of programming to be its best feature. “I can tell you its a very inspiring machine because of his sequencer. Even if a lot of people felt it was a bit complicated to build a real bass line with it, it was his stronger element [sic] …Intuitive sequencer with a part of ‘chance’…Yeah…just type on every button…and wait for the result…Sometimes nothing…Sometimes Amazing! So, no need to be a super keyboard player…No need to be a musician…You were able to reach the sky.” (Lig, 2013)
The TB-303 is now iconic in the dance music scene, it’s image and logo being used on many diverse items such as T-Shirts amongst others “…. once you start making 303 cushions,bed spreads,transfers on cups etc. then it seems as though some-thing’s not right. Personally I am not interested in that side of it….from my point of view acid house started underground and it’s stayed there. It’s the only genre of dance music that stayed true to its formation. Certainly for me anyway, we don’t want acid to be popular. The machine had reached the icon stage, same with most of the Roland range from 101 up to 909.although there is no 404 because 4 is am unlucky number in Japan.” (Yasi, 2013)
With the units selling for upwards of £1300 on Ebay, a market opened for both software and hardware clones to be produced. Early efforts wholly failed to emulate the sound, however later example made a decent effort at emulation. “About the clones and software emulations, I think than we reached the goal to make similar sounds…maybe not the perfection but enough to do the acid job…XoxBox, the bass bot TT 303…and others are good machines. The one who made clones without the sequencer missed the real spirit of 303.” (Lig,2013). Some artist even preferred the new features added by some of the clones. “Gerald and I got together to revisit our Acid set up in 2006 as REBUILD and then again in 2012 . For which I purchased an xoxox 303 emulation box, which I’m very happy with It cost under £300 instead of £3000 or what ever 303’s go for. plus its a lot easier to program, and has some nice features for doing things on the fly when jamming , such as changing the start points, reversing sequences, easy transposing, Swing on the fly. (Massey, 2012)
The Roland TB-303 changed dance music in a way its designer could never have imagined influencing not only the house music scene but indeed society as a whole. “Back in the 80s those early acid records spoke about alienation , they said square peg round hole , the surrounding records were almost gospel like messages of hard times and hope , quite churchy. Or euphoric weekend escape Anthems like Someday ‘Aint no Stopping us now’,they had R n B roots. Something like Phuture or Adonis hit the spot for me with insistent abstraction, it was outsider music with pure energy, it had cut from the line of history, it was a page turned, a clean page. These machines meant we all had the same accent ,previously a UK record and a US record, or a Belgian record or a Dutch record all had an accent musically speaking, Roland was an esperanto.”
(Massey, 2012). Perhaps never in music history has one piece of equipment created a genre entirely by itself, its distinctive sound is still evident today in not only dance music but also mainstream popular music,an example being Madonna’s 1998 hit ‘Ray of Light’ (Madonna., nd.). The TB-303 is now seen by many as just a collectors item but others see it as a sound that is here to stay; indeed a member of Ultra-Sonic suggests that “the sound of the Roland TB303 makes a revival every 10 years – right now their are loads of brilliant tracks kicking about in the HOUSE / ELECTRO genre that have real 303 licks building and squelching sending crowds into a frenzy at just about every gig I play all over the world.” (Lee, 2012) also worth noting are the comments of one of the designers of a modern software clone, “The 303 is here to stay.Its sound has been around for over two decades now and people just use it more or less frequently. You were always able to find a number of 303 infested tracks – the amount is constantly changing though. Not sure about all those “revivals” in the end. It’s never been really away and so it won’t ever be wearing off its beauty. Not within the last 20+ years, nor in the coming 100 or 1000!” (Pries, 2012)
Anthony, 1998. Class of 88: The True Acid House Experience. London: Virgin
DJ Swift, 2012. (Steve Mackie’s Collection): Newcleus (Jam On It) (CD Single) (1984) [Online Image]
Retrieved from http://stevemackiescollection.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/newcleus-jam-on-it-cd-single-1984.html
Viewed 27 March 2013.
Edwards & Wilson, 2009. Sines of reality. Engineering and Technology Magazine (Vol 4 / Issue 18). 19
Keyboard Magazine, 1992. New York: New Bay Media LLC
Madonna.com, nd. Madonna Official Web Site > Discography > Ray of Light. Retrieved from
http://madonna.com/discography/index/album/albumId/7/ Viewed 29 November 2012
Pump Up the Volume – The History of House Music, 2001. [TV]. Channel 4. November 2001.
Reid, 2004. The History of Roland Part 1: 1930-1978. Sound on Sound Magazine. November 2004.
Roland Corporation, 2013. About Roland – Company History. [online] Retrieved from
http://www.roland.com/about/en/history.html Viewed 15 January 2013
SynthGear 2009. Oscar Peterson – techno producer?. [Online Image] Retrieved from
http://www.synthgear.com/2009/vintage-synth-ads/oscar-peterson-techno-producer/ Viewed 30 January 2013
Vine, 2011a. Kikumoto invents the Roland TB-303. Guardian, 15 June 2011.
Vine, 2011b. Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s Jack Your Body is No 1 in the UK. Guardian, 15 June 2011.
x0xb0x, 2011. x0xb0x®: Transistorize the World. [Online Image] Retrieved from
http://www.ladyada.net/make/x0xb0x/ Viewed 27 March 2013
Fatboy Slim (1997). Everybody Needs a 303. [12” Single] Skint Records, UK. SKINT 31
Hurley (1986). Jack Your Body. [Single] London Records, UK. LON 117
Madonna (1998). Ray of Light. [CD Album] Maverick, US. 9 46884-2
Newcleus (1984). Jam on It! [7” Single] Sunnyview, UK. SUNY 103
Cenac, 2013. E-Mail [Personal communication]
“Newcleus is an American electro and old school hip hop group that gained popularity in the early 1980s. The
group is primarily known for its 12-inch singles “Jam-On’s Revenge” (re-released as “Jam on Revenge (The
Wikki-Wikki Song)” (1983)) and “Jam on It” (1984).
A precursor to the group, known as Jam-On Productions, was formed in 1977 in Brooklyn, New York, which
included teenagers Ben “Cozmo D” Cenac and his cousins Monique and Pierre “Pete” Angevin. The group’s
popularity grew as it played block parties in Brooklyn. By 1979, the primary group’s members were Cenac,
Yvette “Lady E” Cook (who would later marry Cozmo D), Monique Angevin, and Bob “Chilly B” Crafton (who
would later marry Angevin). The coming together of families inspired the name change to Newcleus.”
(Courtesy of Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Cenac)
Lee, 2012. E-Mail [Personal communication]
“From his humble beginnings in Rave as Ultra-Sonic to global chart success with Public Domain, busting
rhymes with Chuck D and Professor Griff from Public Enemy along the way, his collaborations with German
producers The Warp Bros under the name Red Monkey and work with David Forbes as C-90. Its not only in
Tech Trance and Hard dance Lee has applied his talents. In Nov 2005 he signed to the uber cool house label
Subliminal Records as part of Scanners, the man of many guises Mallorca Lee shows no sign of slowing
down and proves time and time again that music is not about what you should and shouldn’t do, its just about
(Courtesy of Fantazia Rave Archive – http://www.fantazia.org.uk/DJs/djmallorcalee.htm)
Lig, 2013. E-Mail [Personal communication]
“Fabrice Lig, Also known as the Soul Designer. Fabrice is someone really committed to essence of his artistic Soul. As a natural consequence of his way to perceive, play and conceive Music with no frontiers or
limitations, he received constant invitations to play and perform live on acclaimed festivals and events such as Montreux Jazz Festival, Sonar in Barcelone, Detroit Fuse-In Festival (voted best dj performance of 2005
by Detroit free press), I Love Techno from Belgium, Printemps de Bourges Festival from France (With JeanMichel Jarre on stage), among other important ones, and also countless clubs of respect. After the release of
his “Evolutionism Promo Single” on late 2007, Fabrice’s new homonym album as Soul Designer is coming out in 2008 together with an international tour called ‘Evolutionism World Live Tour’ that just started this
February with brilliant Fabrice Lig’s live performances in Brazil & Japan.”
(Courtesy of Resident Advisor – www.residentadvisor.net/dj/fabricelig/biography)
Massey, 2012. E-Mail [Personal communication]
Graham Massey was a founding member of the British band, 808 State, formed in 1988 in Manchester, England. Originally a hip-hop group called Hit Squad Manchester, the band shifted to an acid house sound, recording their debut album, Newbuild in 1988 under the new name 808 State.
(Courtesy of Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_Massey)
May, 2013. E-Mail [Personal communication]
Derrick May, also known as Mayday and Rhythim is Rhythim, is an electronic musician from Belleville,
Michigan U.S.A. He was an only child born in Detroit on June 4 1963 and began to explore electronic music early in his life. Along with his Belleville, Michigan high school friends Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, commonly known as the Belleville Three, May is credited with developing the futuristic variation on house music that would be dubbed “techno” by Atkins.
(Courtesy of Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derrick_May_%28musician%29)
Pries, 2012. E-Mail [Personal communication]
Producing and DJing since 1991, Ronny Pries is one of the last remaining forces of raw Techno to come out of his hometown Hamburg. His music has graced such labels as Supersitition Records, Forte Records, Bash
Again & Thinner. His boundary defiant vision of Djing has found significant exposure at an eclectic variety of clubs, venues, and festivals, including the Tresor/Berlin, MS Stubnitz, Objekt/Dresden, Pudel/Hamburg,
Uebel & Gefaehrlich/Hamburg, Club Prag/Stuttgart, Love Parade ’98, Norberg Festival ’02, and TMBase
Festival/Romania ’10. Additionally, he has served as a resident DJ at Unit III/HH from ’97 to ’99, and Vorspiel/HH from ’04 to ’06.
Pries has also been a driving force in the netaudio movement since its early days in the mid ’90s. His tracker-based labels Schleudertrauma and _rohformat were precursors for the scene to come, featuring artists such as Dave Ellesmere, Bauri, Dupont, Ronald van Aggelen, Danny Andersen, Sascha Mueller, and more.
His disregard-for-limits style of DJing and involvement in the scene caught the eye of Native Instruments. Official mixes made by Pries shipped with the 2.x versions of Traktor DJ Studio and Final Scratch.
An obsession with achieving purely software-based music production lead Pries to be among the first wave of producers to take his hardware experience and successfully reproduce previously hardware-exclusive sounds in software — long before VST was established as a standard. In 2003 he teamed up with AudioRealism to develop the world’s first virtual TB-303 — the highly-acclaimed “Bass Line” — used by artists like KiNK, K-Alexi, Rob Acid and much more.
(Courtesy of Discogs – http://www.discogs.com/artist/Ronny+Pries)
Shakir, 2013. E-Mail [Personal communication]
Anthony “Shake” Shakir, who also uses the aliases Sequence 10 and Da Sampla, is an American techno producer, best known for his contributions to Detroit techno. Shakir began producing in 1981, and worked with Detroit musicians such as Derrick May and Carl Craig for many of their early Metroplex releases. Shakir appeared under the name Sequence 10 on the Virgin Records compilation Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit. While many of his peers on the Detroit scene have worked to increase their profile in Europe, Shakir never gravitated toward this scene, working more closely with the second wave of Detroit techno musicians such as Mike Banks and Claude Young. He formed the labels Frictional in 1995 and Puzzlebox in 1996, the latter with Keith Tucker.
Among Shakir’s credits are remixes for Telex and Inner City, as well as co-production of the Urban Tribe’s 1998 album for Mo Wax, The Collapse of Modern Culture.
(Courtesy of Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Shakir)
Thair, 2013. E-Mail [Personal communication]
Red Snapper are a British instrumental band founded in London in 1993 by Ali Friend (double bass), Richard Thair (drums), and David Ayers (guitar). The three core members are also joined by various guest musicians
and vocalists on different records. According to music journalist, Jason Ankeny (Allmusic) “the British acid jazz trio were notable for their pioneering synthesis of acoustic instruments and electronic textures”.
(Courtesy of Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Snapper_%28band%29)
Yasi, 2013. E-Mail [Personal communication]
Ege Bam Yasi. Formed in Stirling, Scotland in early 1984 as a free form eggsperimental one piece playing McAcid House before anyone knew what it was called, fusing many eggclectic influences, including Can, Captain Beefheart, Fad Gadget, and Electro, into a uniquegg style – in retrospect a style way ahead of it’s time. In 1985 saw two further members join, along with girls with whips, gallons of baby oil and a five foot papermache penis among other visual and performance props, and a foray into a more commercial musical direction with the first release in 1986 of the single “Circumstances” on Survival Records – basically a HiEnergy variation along the theme of Donna Summers “I Feel Love”.
(Courtesy of Ege Bam Yasi official website – http://egebamyasi.com/bieggraphy.html)
Also thanks to Tom Bailey (Thompson Twins), Leee John (Imagination), Asio (aka R-Play) and Keith
Tucker (Aux 88) who’s correspondence I have not used for this piece.
Oscar Peterson on the Roland PianoPlus!, with a Roland TR-606 and TB-303.