by Stefan Wyeth | Approximate reading time: 5 Minutes
The original 303

Which software emulations do the 303 justice?  ·  Source: Roland

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It was originally designed to simulate a bass guitarist. However, the infamous Roland TB-303 has had as much of an impact on modern music culture as any instrument could. This unlikely hero was only produced from 1981 to 1984. So, ironically it was the characteristics that made the 303 a commercial failure that would later make it a global icon.

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The pattern-based monosynth with its non-resonating filter might not sound much like a bass guitar. However, it sure can cut through even the noisiest of mixes, and the slide and accent controls give the 303 such a distinctive sound.

Which are the best Roland TB-303 plugins?

Although the 303 probably has more clones and plugin emulations than any other synth, there are always those we prefer over others. We’ll discuss a few plugin versions, check out where the 303 has been famously used, and share some tips for replicating the sound more accurately from your DAW.

Roland Cloud TB-303

Capturing all the hallmarks and nuances of the vintage 303, the Roland Cloud TB-303 delivers the most authentic solution for getting that classic sound we know and love.

The interface and features appear in a very similar way to the original 303, with a few nifty extras here and there. The sequencer is easy to get your head around. Meanwhile, features like shuffle and multiple playback modes give you some interesting creative potential.

This plugin really begins to shine once you start adding overdrive or distortion to the signal chain, as the accents and slides are reproduced in a most pleasing way.

Roland Cloud TB-303 plugin.

The Roland Cloud 303 plugin is one of the most authentic emulations yet.

Pros:

  • Authentic slides and accents, especially with distortion
  • Familiar interface

Cons:

  • The sequencer could be improved
Roland Cloud TB-303 Download

Roland Cloud TB-303 Download

Price165.00 €

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D16 Group Phoscyon Bassline

With a design philosophy set on expanding the creative possibilities of the original 303, D16’s Phoscyon Bassline provides a plethora of additional features in areas you didn’t know you needed.

The sound produced is convincing enough, especially in the low and mid-range, and the extra functionality in the arpeggiator, sequencer, and effects sections make it possible to envisage creating sounds beyond the realms of house, acid, and techno music.

Despite the user interface being quite a step away from the original 303, the Phoscyon gives you the feeling you could easily experiment and make mistakes while using it – which is more than you could ask from most softsynths.

D16 Phoscyon Bassline

D16’s Phoscyon takes the 303 in a new direction.

Pros:

  • Produces the classic acid sound excellently
  • Additional features provide more creative possibilities

Cons:

  • Some might find the interface a little overwhelming
D16 Group Phoscyon Download

D16 Group Phoscyon Download

Price59.00 €

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AudioRealism Bass Line 3

In some ways, AudioRealism has carried the torch from the place where Propellerhead Rebirth RB-338 began back in 1998. Although Rebirth was later discontinued, AudioRealism remains focused on creating some of the most convincing software plugins available.

Like any softsynth, the ABL3 won’t pop out of the mix with the same degree of analogue “knock” as the hardware does, but it matches it sonically in almost every other department.

The controls respond incredibly well to even the most subtle or graduated automation, and once you have a good quality reverb or distortion in your effects chain, it becomes virtually indistinguishable from the original.

AudioRealism Bass Line 3

The ABL 3’s intuitive interface.

Pros:

  • Simple yet inspiring interface, just like the original
  • Outstanding sequencer

Cons:

  • The sound is perhaps too clean and clinical

The Roland TB-303 in popular music

Initially, the 303 was used in the early 80s with the prescribed method of imitating a bass guitar’s role on songs like Imagination‘s In The Heat Of The Night, before being used more melodically to generate loop-based leads in the Newcleus track, Jam On It from 1984.

From the mid-80s, the 303 was used and abused in unorthodox ways throughout house music.Although many artists were exploring the 303 at this time, it was the debut EP from Chicago-based group Phuture that would become an iconic blueprint for electronic music.

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The acid approach to the 303 would follow the global warehouse movement throughout the late 80s and early 90s with tracks like Flow Coma from the Manchester scene’s 808 State. Daft Punk truly brought it to the mainstream in 1997 on Da Funk from their famous debut album, Homework.

Since then, it branched out into many electronic genres like goa and techno, but Massive Attack‘s Protection from 1994 remains one of its most memorable epitaphs. More recently though, we’ve heard the 303 contextualized in interesting ways by artists like Nicole Willis and Acid Arab.

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Recreating the classic 303 sound

At its core, the 303 relies on the mechanical quality of its sequencer and its punchy but limited volume envelope. It’s a non-keyboard triggered synthesizer, which requires a different approach. Familiarise yourself with the expression controls for manipulating the sound throughout the song.

  • Even if you’re the king or queen of DAW automation curves, chances are you’re going to want a controller for this. Even an old Novation Launch Control will do the trick nicely.
  • This instrument will not do the work for you. Extend the range of your programming outside of a single octave. Your basslines and leads will be more expressive.
  • Define the pattern by adding slides and accents. See if you can get them to play off the downbeat, and create the push and pull effect of a classic 303 groove
  • As you build your track around this pattern, decide what role the 303 will play. This will determine the length of the pattern and if it alternates during the track.
  • The 303 loves reverb too, so send it to your favourite plugin – an AMS style reverb works wonders here
  • Once your sequencing is complete, you can automate the various controls in several passes. This is where the performance comes in. Try and access the expressive tone colour of the 303 with its filter.

More about analogue modeling the Roland TB-303:

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7 responses to “How to recreate the sound of the Roland TB-303 with software”

  1. Pierrick says:

    Great post.
    That Massive Attack track brings back memories. Beautiful.

  2. cloudface says:

    Personally, I would’ve liked to see at least an “honourable mention” to Propellerhead’s Rebirth. Some of us out here still miss it and are annoyed we didn’t squirrel away backup copies. So weird that Roland didn’t care about it for over a decade until it got ported to iOS.

  3. Imagination did not use a 303. It’s a Roland SH-1000. See here:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfcPry3pkAg

    An alternative early use is Let me Go by Heaven 17.

    • Stefan Wyeth says:

      I think the point is more that the style of sound became popular and when. Very few people care if you’re using a vintage 303, a clone, or a plugin on a record.

      • Hi Stefan. Maybe something is getting lost in translation but it seems that as you are the author of the article, that is a very circular argument to try to make. You’re the one who made anyone care in the first place, by stating that a 303 was used in the track.

        And I think you have the idea of “style of sound” the wrong way around. The 303 was an attempt to imitate what a human bass player does. It failed to do that. So it sold very badly. Well after its release date (and well after the Imagination track) people exploited its failings at being realistic, and invented new genres as a result.

        The most outstanding stylistic feature of “Imagination” is the portamento.. Or in 303-speak, Glide. That’s not unique to the 303, or even to human bass playing.

        The cool thing is the strange way the 303 implements portamento within steps. That’s what makes the 303 do what it does. Along with the programmable accent, the strange filter, and the inscrutable UI.

        But portamento was in music forever. 303 did not originate it. Neither did Tony Swain 🙂

        • Just to add- obviously we agree about the 303 failing at being realistic, and that being what is great about it. I wish I could edit that out since it is already understood 🙂

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