The humble TB303 has proved notoriously difficult to recreate in software, but ABL3 comes far closer than most.
It’s not exactly a new idea to replicate the Roland TB303. It’s been done many times in hardware and software — even by Roland themselves — but that doesn’t mean the quest for perfection is over. AudioRealism made their first attempt in 2003 with ABL1, moving closer with ABL2 in 2007. They were still not completely satisfied though, so a total rewrite was called for, resulting in ABL3 — in VST and AU formats.
It certainly looks the part; the resizable GUI is expandable to suit even ancient hippies whose vision is reduced to a vague squint. It doesn’t stick slavishly to 303 expectations though. For a start, patterns are batched in groups of 128, one for every possible MIDI note. It’s your choice whether to run in ‘note mode’ and play the synth with a controller keyboard or to use it to trigger all those ABL3-sourced patterns instead. The sequencer doesn’t work much like the original either — there are no triplets and no pattern chaining, to name but the most obvious differences. If you wish to string patterns together you’ll need to trigger them in the order desired and capture this into your DAW, but the process is so straightforward it’s hard to fault.
From the GUI’s Classic View, you can record patterns in step entry mode using MIDI input or by stepping through, clicking on the note, accent, slide and transposition as you go. Either way, it’s far more intuitive than the old Roland method! Quick edits can be made via the quartet of Shift buttons; these shunt the whole pattern left or right or transpose it up or down in semitones. For instant gratification there’s a Random button — a superb means of generating authentic-sounding TB303 patterns. If you’re using a master keyboard for pattern selection, I heartily recommend hitting Random after playing each key, then setting ABL3 in motion ready to audition all the patterns you just made. If any fail to please, simply hit Random again as many times as necessary. Or try its tamer alternative ‘Alter’, which randomly moves the order of notes already present. If any of the generated patterns are close but not quite right, flip to Pattern view where the whole thing is laid out graphically, ready for each detail to be adjusted. For better visual feedback, the pitch lane can be expanded to a series of sliders.
However you cook them up, patterns can be exported as MIDI files which can be imported back into your DAW for further editing and arrangement. According to the manual, the export process may not produce identical-sounding patterns due to the differences in the sequencer’s functionality, and the export’s assumption that patterns are multiples of 16 steps, which may not be the case. Ordinarily a pattern can be up to 64 steps long.
None of this would matter in the slightest if ABL3 was not believable sound-wise. I’m glad to report it’s better than merely believable — it’s totally convincing. ABL3 squelches and wobbles like a perfectly recorded Bassline, all ready for you to take liberties with via external processing. It delivers the distinctively odd square wave and the rich, buzzy saw we’ve heard countless times over the years. These are processed by a filter that is fat and punchy, its resonance almost liquid at its maximum. Accented notes wow realistically and ABL3 features a credible rising response on successive accents. It would take keener ears than mine to pick this out as a software impersonator in a mix.
Furthermore, since each TB303 sounds a little different to any other, it’s cool to find some user customisation included, on the Setup page. Here you can determine the VCO mode from a choice of three that contain varying amounts of grit, dirt and bottom end. For each, you can tweak the maximum resonance level, decide whether to include the simulated VCA click and noise (for added punch) and even trim the VCA’s release time so it deviates from standard behaviour. Low cut is present too; it’s essentially a bass EQ trim/boost, but with its character varying according to the VCO model chosen. Weirdest of all the additions is probably ‘VCO phase reset’ which, when enabled, gives ABL3 a static and lifeless sound more like a sample than a 303. Incidentally, every sonic tweak you make updates a floating 3D graphic on the Setup page, although quite what this means is a mystery.
The controls can be mapped to your favourite MIDI controller, but it’s worth pointing out that the knobs can’t escape your system’s latency so will never equal the direct and instant response of the real thing. Be aware also that the Tune knob doesn’t handle like the TB303’s: it offers +/- an octave of transposition. Apart from that exception, the knobs all behave within expected ranges and should be liberally tweaked to bring your patterns to life. When played from a keyboard, the accent is engaged by notes with a velocity greater than 100 and the slide function kicks in if you play legato.
Unlike many TB303 emulations, ABL3 doesn’t add effects or other sonic extras — even overdrive. The one exception is a delayed vibrato that’s triggered by setting both Up and Down transposition on the same step. The vibrato is best demonstrated in conjunction with slide, and while an interestingly wobbly diversion, is largely unnecessary and can be turned off completely from the Setup page.
Other pages worth a quick look include a ‘force to scale’ randomiser and — freakiest of all — a Wave Analyser. This makes an attempt to turn a recording of a real TB303 (or Xoxbox, etc) into an ABL3 pattern. There are instructions for setting up the source instrument to obtain the most accurate detection, but the few recordings I had were nowhere near the recommended settings. Consequently, I had mixed results. Despite this, it’s well worth feeding in miscellaneous selections of audio as yet another means of generating random patterns. For the sceptical, AudioRealism provide some examples that prove the process does work, and pretty reasonably too.
This is an easy one to sum up: if you’re still searching for an affordable, convincing and easy-to-use source of TB303 patterns, ABL3 comes highly recommended. It delivers the full repertoire of high-resonance squelches, punchy, decayed sawtooth basses and sliding, gut-wrenching hollow squares and does it effortlessly. Admittedly, if you prefer your TB303 tones overdriven, you’ll need to sort out the processing yourself, but that’s part of the fun anyway!