Right up there with the iconic TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines, the Roland TB-303 bass synth ranks as one of the most influential pieces of electronic music gear of all time.
First made in 1981, the 303 and its "squelchy" sound would go on to define multiple electronic music genres as its drum machine brethren did. The foremost instrument in the development of Chicago House Music, the 303 was also instrumental in defining the sound of Acid House, which provided the soundtrack for the rave scene of the "Second Summer of Love" in England in 1988. Both of these styles would go on to influence countless producers and musicians, forever cementing the 303's place in the canon of electronic music machines.
At its core, the 303 is a monophonic, monotimbral bass synth with a sawtooth and square oscillator. A 18dB low pass resonant filter helped define its distinct sound, while its built-in sequencer allowed it to be programmed in a similar manner to the drum machines of the day. Its key layout could function as a keyboard, but most users found more utility in the sequencing end of the equation.
Although originally conceived for accompaniment, the 303’s most famous uses ran contrary to the vision of the original designers. It was only produced for three years, but its failure to launch as originally intended meant that Chicago House pioneers could pick these up for relatively cheap later in the decade.
One of the most cloned and copied synths of all time, the Roland TB-303’s limited design scope has spanned generations of influence. The list of 303 users is extensive and includes, but is certainly not limited to, Aphex Twin, 808 State, Future Sound of London, Massive Attack, Fatboy Slim, Air, Plastikman, Überzone, Moby, and The Chemical Brothers. If you include the artists who have used samples and software taken from the 303, the list would be virtually endless.
Original TB-303 specimens tend to sell in the $2000 range, with very pristine examples with original packaging going for much more. Most recently, Roland released the TB-03 as part of its Boutique Series, which packs the same original sounds and layout into a readily available modern package. If you're interested in nailing the tones of Chicago or Acid House, some manner of 303 soundbank should be in your setup somewhere.
View the Roland TB-303 here.
*Found on Reverb is a regular column from the team at Reverb.com, the online marketplace for buying and selling music gear. In each installment, Reverb.com will dive into a drool-worthy classic, vintage, or rare piece of gear found on the site. For more, click here.