Following on from our brief history of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, we examine the life and legacy of another highly influential electronic instrument: Roland’s TB-303 bass synthesizer.
The Roland Transistor Bass 303 has become an indispensable part electronic music. From early Chicago house to the acid house Second Summer of Love, 1988-9; from the bedrooms of poor producers to the stadiums of dance music legends. Electronic music would not be the same without the 303.
Originally, the 303 was designed, marketed and manufactured to create automated accompaniment for guitarists practicing on their own. Despite Roland’s best efforts, it didn’t sell. 10,000 units were produced in an 18 month production run from 1982-1984, most of them sold to confused guitar players who didn’t like the 303’s complex controls, or its decidedly un-bass guitar-like sounds.
As Roland’s track record shows, their instruments often had hidden uses that even the creators didn’t clock. The 303, as electronic music fans know, went on to become a huge part of the Chicago house sound, and the essential bedrock of acid house. So how did a little bass box that confounded chord-strummers become one of the most important instruments in electronic music history?
Beautiful bass from the bargain basement
Since the 303 sold so poorly on its original production run, the machines were widely discounted and available in pawn shops. This meant the instrument was cheap enough to be purchased by young bedroom producers and musicians, eager to find and define the sounds of the future, many of whom lived in impoverished areas.
For an instrument that was intended for simple accompaniment, the 303 came packed full of complex features. At its core it was a simple oscillator, creating either sawtooth or square waves. It allowed users to programme in bass line patterns with up to 16 steps at their desired tempo. Crucially, it also allowed users to let notes slide into each other, smoothly (portamento) and create a kind of ‘squelching’ sound (using an EQ cutoff filter). It was these two elements that made the 303 unique, and it is for these two elements that it is best known today.
Most guitarists who bought (or, more likely, didn’t buy) the 303 were more interested in a realistic bass sound to back their playing, but the innovators who bought these discount machines recognised their potential, and the sound of the 303 slowly rose to prominence in Chicago’s dance scene.
The rise of acid house
One of the first uses of the 303 on Chicago’s house scene was Phuture’s ‘Acid Tracks’ from 1987. This track is where acid house gets its name from. Though it was poorly received at first, crowds warmed to the never-before-heard sounds of the DJ Pierre-produced track, and other producers soon began to make tracks using 303 sounds. The subgenre of Chicago acid house was burgeoning. Artists like Sleezy D, Armando and Bam Bam incorporated 303s into their music, and began championing the acid house movement.
Acid house was imported to the UK from Chicago by way of Ibiza. On their now legendary pilgrimage, UK DJs Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold, Johnny Walker and Nicky Holloway travelled to the Balearics where they heard Chicago acid house for the first time, courtesy of Argentinian DJ Alfredo. Alfredo played the best of house and dance music from all over the world, but it was the acid house tracks that stuck with Rampling. When he landed back in England, he started the legendary Shoom parties, and, to be very brief here, these parties led to acid house’s rise in the UK.
The 303 continued to be crucial to the acid house sound. Home-grown acid house groups and producers such as A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State put their own UK spin on acid house, and their music, alongside songs from their Chicago forebears, scored the Second Summer of Love, and much of UK rave culture in general.
Everybody needs a 303
The height of the acid house scene may be long gone, but the instrument is still widely used today, both in clubs and on records. Danny Rampling’s recent ‘Forever Acid House’ mix proves the instrument is far from dead.
Though the TB-303 is long out of production, and originals retail for steep prices, you can program a 303 in your browser here. As FatBoy Slim famously said, everybody needs a 303.