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, with 10000 units ever made. Ironically, it was the characteristics that made the 303 a commercial failure that would later make it a global icon.
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.
D16 Group Phoscyon 2
With a design philosophy set on expanding the creative possibilities of the original 303, D16’s Phoscyon 2 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. Moreover, the extra functionality in the arpeggiator, sequencer, and effects sections makes 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 2 gives you the feeling you could easily experiment and make mistakes while using it – which is more than you could ask from most softsynths.
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.
The Roland TB-303 in popular music
Initially, the 303 was used by artists in the early 1980s with the prescribed method of imitating a bass guitar’s role. After that, it was 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.
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.
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. The Novation Launchkey 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:
- Recreating the sound of the Roland SH-101
- Acid Voice, a 303 resource
- All about Roland
- Everything vintage
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- The Roland Cloud 303 plugin is one of the most authentic emulations yet.: Roland
- D16 Group Phoscyon 2: D16 Group
- The ABL 3's intuitive interface .: AudioRealism