Synth icons: Roland TB-303
21st Feb 2014 | 16:47
Down the acid rabbit hole...
When it was first released in 1982, Roland’s TB-303 bass synthesiser was originally intended as a rehearsal tool for solo guitarists and bands lacking a bassist. Needless to say, today, some 30 years after it was discontinued, that’s not what the machine is best known for.
Thanks to its simple envelope generator and iconic filter, the 303 was able shape its single square/saw wave oscillator to create the style of squelchy bass loops that would come to define acid house and techno. Moreover, run through a distortion pedal or an overdriven desk the synth took on a gritty, hard-edge character all of its own - creating a sound that would become ubiquitous at raves on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the late-‘80s and early-90s.
Seeing as Roland has recently revived the TB concept in the form of the touchscreen-equipped TB-3, we thought now the perfect time to disappear down the acid rabbit hole to commemorate some of the tracks that made the TB-303 a household name.
Jesse Saunders’ Space Invaders-sampling On & On is generally considered to be the first house record to get a proper vinyl release.
The track, which was produced in collaboration with Chicago house icon Vince Lawrence, bases its groove almost entirely around Roland’s TR-808 and TB-303 grooveboxes. The bassline might lack some of the distortion and grit that came to be associated with 303-led house in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, but its bouncy, hypnotic quality laid the groundwork for pretty much every house track that would appear in the decade that followed.
Indian musician Charanjit Singh’s Synthesizing: Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat is something of an anomaly in the chronology of 303-led music.
It was recorded by Singh, a Bollywood session musician, in 1982 using a TB-303 and TR-808, and was intended as an exercise in fusing classical Indian Ragas with disco.
Upon the record’s release, it received some airplay around India but was largely overlooked elsewhere. In recent years, however, the album has come to be recognised as - entirely coincidentally - the first recorded instance of the 303-led sound that would come to be know as acid house (arriving some five years ahead of Phuture’s Acid Tracks - more on that later.)
The TB-303 was originally intended as a bass accompaniment for rock bands, so it’s worth commending Edwyn Collins and co. for being one of very few acts included in this list that actually used the synth as it was intended.
Alongside Rip It Up, Heaven 17’s Let Me Go is one of a handful of New Wave tracks released in the early-‘80s that prove the 303 can do funk-laced pop just as well as it can created hard-edged rave sounds.
Chicago trio Phuture’s 1987 classic Acid Tracks - which was actually recorded in 1985, but only released two years later - is the first instance of the squelchy, resonant 303 sound that came to define acid house and techno.
It’s the track that created acid house, but it’s also very much the track that defined the iconic TB-303 sound we know today.
Gerald Simpson (aka A Guy Called Gerald) is responsible for a whole host of classic 303 tracks; both as a solo artist (just listen to Voodoo Ray) and as one third of seminal Manchester outfit 808 State.
The band’s 303-focused reworking of New Order’s Blue Monday is a stone cold TB-classic in its own right, but this track, from their debut 12”, is still possibly 808 State’s finest bassline workout.
This one comes from Dutch stalwart Speedy J, working under his harder, acid-orientated Public Energy alias. It’s a proper slice of dark, gritty acid techno built around the groovebox it takes its name from.
Back in the early-‘90s, German duo Hardfloor took the ‘acid’ sound that had emerged stateside and began to push it in a harder, trance-influenced direction. Their signature take on the sound involved tweaking multiple 303s running in sync.
Eternally overplayed and relentlessly remixed, Wink’s breakbeat-driven, acid techno banger sounds (let’s face it) slightly naff to modern ears. It’s hard to deny its status as a classic though, and we’d never be forgiven for not commemorating its screechy, hi-NRG 303 lines here.
It’s fair to say Richard James is a fan of the TB-303 - its sounds can be found, in various warped and mangled forms, scattered throughout his releases.
In the 21st century the TB-303 might not be quite as prominent as it once was, but there are still plenty of producers playing around with the squelchy acid bassline sound.
Both solo and as one half of the duo Karenn, British producer Blawan is one of the finest proponents of hardware-driven, analogue techno currently operating.