Roland TB-303

Roland TB-303 Bass Line

TB-303 front panel
Manufacturer Roland
Dates 1982-1984
Price £238 UK, $395 US
Technical specifications
Polyphony monophonic
Timbrality none
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 from 1982 to 1984 that had a defining role in the development of contemporary electronic dance music.

The TB-303 played an important role in the development of house music, influencing Chicago house and forming the basis for acid house. It is also commonly used in related dance genres such as acid techno and acid trance.


The TB-303 (short for "Transistor Bass") was originally marketed to guitarists for bass accompaniment while practicing alone. Production lasted approximately 18 months, resulting in only 10,000 units. It was not until 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.


Two simple TB-303 patterns
Two simple patterns on the TB-303. The second pattern has had the filter EG attack level altered.

Overdriven TB-303 patterns varying resonance
Two simple overdriven patterns on the TB-303. The second pattern has varying resonance to give a harsh screeching sound. Both patterns have gradual cutoff frequency.

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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.[1] 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.[2]

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. Roland referred to this as "gimmick" circuitry.[3]

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.


Charanjit Singh - "Raga Bhupali" (1982)
"Raga Bhupali" from Charanjit Singh's Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat (1982). A proto-acid house record that used the TB-303 with the TR-808 and Jupiter-8.

Jesse Saunders - "On and On" (1984)
"On and On" (1984) by Jesse Saunders. An early Chicago house music record that used the TB-303 with the TR-808 drum machine and Korg Poly-61 synthesizer.

Phuture - "Acid Tracks" (1987)
"Acid Tracks" (1987) by Phuture. An early acid house record that used the TB-303 with the Roland TR-707 drum machine.

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"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 hit to feature the synthesiser.[4] However, the most remarkable 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]

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 Tracks" (sometimes known as "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 well-known "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 1982 release of the TB-303 as one of the 50 key events in the history of dance music.[10]

Software emulation

By 1997, software synthesizers were beginning to take hold among electronic musicians. One notable package was made by Propellerhead Software's emulator package entitled ReBirth. The software became very popular, providing a cheap and easy way for musicians to reproduce the classic TB-303, 808, and later 909 sounds, without the need for any synthesis hardware. Roland contacted Propellerhead to give the company an unofficial "thumbs up" which Propellerhead considered as the Roland "Seal of Approval".[11] As of September 2005, support for ReBirth has been discontinued by Propellerhead software, and the software is now available online as a free download. In 2010 a new paid version was released for the Apple iPhone and iPad, making use of those devices' multi-touch capabilities.[12] 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.[13] 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 19th October 2016, Image Line released a new software emulation of the TB-303, named Transistor Bass.[14] 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.[15]

Open source emulations include Freebirth, VST Open303 and the Linux LMMS module LB302.

Hardware clones

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. 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.[16][17] 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

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, 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.[18]

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.[19]

In October 2015 Paul Barker of Din Sync announced[20] the RE-303 project as an attempt to make an authentic DIY replica and showed a working reversed engineered prototype.

Current commercial clones

In the fall of 2012 a Hong Kong-based TB-303 clone appeared. Cyclone Analogic TT-303 Bass Bot uses surface mount technology to match the original circuitry's sound, with flash memory and MIDI. Flash memory requires no battery, the cause of much corrosion to older TB-303s. It would be difficult to tell this machine from an original in a blindfold test. Unlike previous clones it looks and feels remarkably like an original TB-303. "Devilfish" designer Robin Whittle is exploring modifications for it. However the Bass Bot TT-303 uses a non-standard midi port that requires a proprietary Y cord and uses just one jack for midi in and out. It does not support DIN sync.[21] The TT-303 includes the "InstaDJ" firmware which allows for the creation of random pattern generated using seven different "personalities".[22]

In 2013, Korg released the "Volca" series of synthesizers, including the Volca Bass, which takes some style cues from the 303, but is not designed to be a TB-303 replacement.[23] The Korg Volca Bass uses a different filter, and it lacks control of the accent. It features the ability to use up to three oscillators.

In 2014 Roland released the "Aira" series including the TB-3 Touch Bassline synthesizer. The TB-3 is a digital re-imagination of the 303 more so than a replication. Original Square and Saw tooth sounds are featured, plus additional presets and modern features.

In 2015 Abstrakt Instruments released the Avalon Bassline synthesizer. The Avalon is 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, additional modulation envelope, and numerous other enhancements to the analog synth and digital sequencer. It also includes a filter cartridge plugin system to swap in additional filters.

On September 9, 2016, Roland introduced the TB-03, which is also powered by the AIRA sound engine, but was designed to look like the original Bassline. The module will be part of Roland's Boutique lineup.


  1. "Main Board : TB-303" (GIF). Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  2. "Diode Ladder Filters (including the pretension to 18dB)". Tim Stinchcombe. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  3. "VCF Envelope Modulation : TB-303" (GIF). 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.
  10. Vine, Richard (15 June 2011). "Tadao Kikumoto invents the Roland TB-303". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 July 2011.
  11. Propellerheads (2005). "The Debut". The Rebirth Museum. Retrieved 2007-04-15.
  12. Propellerheads Software (2010). "Rebirth for iPad and iPhone". Propellerheads Software. Retrieved 2011-07-25.
  13. "TS404 Instrument Channel". Image-Line. Retrieved 2012-07-22.
  14. Image-Line (2016-10-19), FL Studio Guru | Transistor Bass (Getting Started), retrieved 2016-10-28
  15. Image-Line (2016-10-19), TB-303 SAWED | What's inside a $2500 Classic Synth?, retrieved 2016-10-28
  16. "Novation BassStation".
  17. "Ten Of The Best: Analogue Mono Synths". Attack Magazine.
  18. "x0xb0x®: Transistorize the World". 2011-10-17. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  19. "Welcome to the x0xi0 Website". Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  21. "Cyclone". Retrieved 2013-01-17.
  22. "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.
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