As Roland revisit their classic Bassline, we ask does everybody need a TB3?
Such was the demand for Roland's TB303 in the years since it was discontinued that a flourishing market arose for companies willing to step in and plug the gap. We've therefore seen countless rack clones, wannabes and awkwardly close 'homages'. The first I reviewed was the FAT Freebass in 1997 and, in my conclusion, I suggested that if Roland ever started to make the 303 again, it was more likely to be in the form of a computer‑modelled version. If only I'd had such insight a decade earlier when I decided I no longer needed many of the vintage synths, drum machines and, yes, TB303s I owned!
That Roland have finally acknowledged the love for their classic silver box must surely be a step forwards, but coming this late to the party, expectations are high. Can ACB (the 'Analogue Circuit Behaviour' fuelling the Aira range) really deliver a satisfying and convincing Bassline experience?
Resembling the twisted lovechild of a Kaoss Pad and a butter dish, the TB3 is a bolt from the blue — or rather, the green. Designed to accompany the other Airas, the Touch Bassline is simpler‑looking and, frankly, more toy‑like than the plastic box of yore. Much of the space is taken up by a 150 x 60 mm touchpad. Lit mostly in red but framed in green, the pad is capable of recognising a single contact only, its functionality decided by a line of small rubber buttons. When the pad's duties involve playing or recording notes, a one octave keyboard lights in red, with two green keys used to add transposition. The panel is labelled with note names that act as an additional aid, with other essentials such as accent and slide marked for good measure.
The five mode selection buttons are the key to touchpad functionality and you need to be aware of their status before your finger sets to work. As well as the aforementioned keyboard, the pad can become a pattern selector, a kind of bizarre theremin or a combined control for envelope depth and decay. The list includes one last entry, 'Scatter', in which the pad sets the depth of an audio looping effect.
There aren't many knobs and they're packed rather closely together considering the space available. It's not all bad though. At least they have a single function each. The knobs feel good too, resembling those on the TR8 and older gear such as the V‑Synth, which bodes well for their longevity. But as we're here primarily due to the TB303, comparisons are inescapable. Do a quick checklist and cutoff, resonance, volume and accent are all present and correct. Then it gets a bit awkward and I have to question some of the choices, particularly the inclusion of an effect control that's more accessible than 303 necessities Env Mod and Decay. Along with those, the TB3 also lacks a tune control. Worse, there is no menu or pad mode for tuning, it simply isn't present.
If lack of tuning seems an odd oversight, the relegation of two important controls to the touchpad is an even stranger decision. Unlike a TB303, you can't just reach out whenever you fancy and tweak one — first you have to press a button to switch the pad's mode. The X-axis is mapped to the amount of envelope modulation, which leaves decay's values spread over the far shorter Y-axis. The position isn't displayed directly either. Instead, you need to interpret the brightness of four of the pad's outer green areas. If you release the pad while in the top right-hand corner, it lights brightly while the remaining three corners are at their dimmest. Release the pad when it's bang in the middle and all four are set to an equal (lower) magnitude. I reckon the differences in brightness could prove rather subtle in a live situation. Verdict: knobs are better.
If you apply pressure to the pad, it adds modulation, confusingly transmitted as pitch‑bend over MIDI. The results of pressure vary according to the sound selected, but even with the sensitivity at maximum, I found it hit and miss, which probably sums up my feelings towards the touchpad in general. Compared to, say, the Korg Kaoss Pad 3, it didn't always respond reliably, especially to a light touch. It's difficult to see this as an improvement on the TB303's little button keyboard.
It will be hardly unexpected to find no CV and Gate output jacks. Instead the TB3 has a MIDI In and Out, the latter switchable to perform soft Thru. It also has a USB port brimming with audio and MIDI functionality. There are two audio outputs, making stereo operation an option, which is ideal for exploiting the full width of the built‑in effect processor. Power percolates in from an external adapter but can be obtained from USB if you're using it that way.
When in Pattern Select mode, either the touchpad or Value encoder is used to pick the next pattern to play. There are eight banks and eight patterns in each and if you drag your finger across the pad, a full bank can loop one pattern after another. The factory patterns offer promisingly realistic bursts of accent and slide, suggesting that the time is ripe to tweak some knobs and listen carefully.
Making either the Keyboard, 'XY Play' or 'Env Mod' modes active will tie sound selection to the encoder. There are four banks (A‑D) of presets to rifle through, the first hint that Basslines are not the extent of the TB3's ambition. Most sounds have added delay, reverb, distortion or compound effects and a flick through them revealed an elaborate underlying synthesis, with multiple oscillators and far more complexity than is needed to emulate a TB303.
While I was still coming to terms with the TB3's multiple identities, I turned to the first two locations for reassurance. A01 and A02 contain the raw TB303 sawtooth and square waveforms required for the main business at hand. They're full‑bodied and fat then hollow, deep and slightly odd, respectively — exactly as they should be. Doubters are recommended to take a quick workout of the filter cutoff and resonance to allay any fears that modelled analogue can't threaten your sub like genuine circuitry. If it's a straight, untreated TB303 you're hoping for, the journey ends here.
For an acid test, I borrowed a real TB303 and sat the two side by side. Hours bleeped and squelched by. I swapped from one to the other on the mixing desk and the results were as close as variations between two genuine 303s. Only at maximum resonance did the TB3 acquire a more brittle edge than the older machine, but on numerous occasions I found them to all intents and purposes indistinguishable. All but the most obsessed 303 fans could probably embrace these first two sounds, but they represent only the beginning.
What follows in the rest of the bank are two dozen additional treated, distorted, delayed and downright squawky 303s, tweaked by some unspecified internal cleverness. You're provided with a fine demonstration of many facets of this enduringly popular machine, all set up and ready to use. A slight pause precedes the loading of each new sound, presumably as the underlying architecture is shunted around. This is only mildly annoying and its impact can be lessened by zeroing the effect level before switching. The effects are typically delay, reverb and flanging, and some are pretty full‑on. Even if it isn't possible to edit the sounds or the effects, it would be really helpful to group favourites into a user bank, perhaps via some future software front‑end.
Moving on to bank B, there's a collection of basses, some of which are not 303‑sourced. Once again, several have unfeasibly wide stereo delays and extreme regeneration but, more significantly, some alter the function of the Env Mod button. No longer can you count on quickly accessing mod depth and decay time. For example, in sound B04 you're given control over four independent oscillators via the touchpad, with the central point representing 'friendly tuning'. Somehow you'll need to remember which sounds to be wary of! B07 is another that scrambles the parameters, this time adding noise to what is a chunky and usable synth patch. Its built‑in effect is a chorus of variable speed and depth, but maybe a delay or reverb would have been preferable. Having begun the bank with a handful of genuinely different basses, I found it almost a disappointment to return to 303 territory so soon afterwards. It's more extreme terrain as the tail end of bank B is laced with exotic ingredients and increasingly dirty or wonky variations, but more bass variety wouldn't have gone amiss.
The two remaining banks are quite adventurous, with the first consisting of up‑front and usually spiky, edgy or supersawy dance leads. I returned often to the delay‑soaked C11 and the selection of stereo‑panned digital bleeps that followed it. Some sounds come alive with a twist of the effects knob or a press on the touchpad, while others spit venom like the Daily Mail, or cough with throaty sync, all of which bodes well for ACB as a technology. Of the 40 lead patches, there are a fair percentage I'd use — assuming I could remember their numbers.
The final bank contains sound effects, atonal thunks, space pings, formant grunts, laser battles, games machine gabble and miscellaneous examples of aliased insanity. Most include deviant modifications courtesy of the Env Mod button and it's a shame there are only 17 in total. More please!
Patterns are recorded in real or step time, with the latter not a million miles from the implementation of the original sequencer. In some ways it's even easier — once you get used to it. In step record mode, spinning the data encoder hurtles through the pattern, the step number shown by a green LED, as well as numerically on the display. This extra confirmation is handy, not least because patterns can be of any length from 1 to 32 steps, which isn't easy to show with 16 LEDs. To change a pattern's length, hold down the Step Rec button and turn the encoder. Do this while sync'ed, however, and there's no way to resync without stopping playback.
Notes and rests are entered via the touchpad and the sequencer advances automatically as you release each one. It's a little disconcerting, especially if you don't yet trust the touchpad to register every note accurately. The lack of visual confirmation can mean that, at first, you're constantly winding the encoder back again to check. If your pattern needs slides, accents and octave shifts you should add them before the note. For a more 303‑like experience, I preferred to bang in the whole pattern then spin the encoder while randomly adding accents and slides later. Ideal for lovers of happy accidents!
Patterns are always in edit mode so there's no need to save anything. For the cautious, a pattern copy function ensures you needn't sacrifice a potential classic on the altar of chance. However, for the speediest (legal) compositional aid, look no further than the built‑in patch randomiser. It's easy to use and, like the TR8 before it, asks whether you're happy with the generated pattern before overwriting the existing data.
Real‑time recording is another possibility, although only notes are captured; any knob twiddling is discarded. If you make a mistake, notes can quickly be erased using the pad's clear function, or you can slip into step record and make edits that way, adding accents and so on. Incidentally, parameter automation is possible but only when you use an external sequencer. But before moving on to MIDI, there's a tiny operational niggle I should mention. To leave either of the record modes, the TB3 insists on a second press of the active 'Rec' button. When you've been playing for a while, those extra button presses feel unnecessary.
The TB3's knobs and pad transmit MIDI data. The sequencer outputs notes too so, in theory, you should be able to capture any pattern in your DAW alongside manual tweaks. However, when I tried this and replayed the data back to the TB3, all was not right. Glide had been lost in translation. Since much of the TB303's appeal is based on its glide and accent, I asked Roland about it. The initial response suggested that the sound of the TB3 could not be played back completely from a MIDI sequencer. Apparently the behaviour of the original sequencer was judged to be "complicated and difficult to describe by MIDI signal”.
I was baffled. The worn but still game TB303 in my studio had been fitted with the MIDIBass 303 from Sequentix. Its MIDI output has been handled accurately by every clone I've tried, including a Freebass, a MAM FB33 and a X0Xbox. Before my eyebrows set in a permanently furled state, Roland were back in touch, saying they planned to take another look at this for a possible update.
In common with the TR8, the TB3 can function as a 24‑bit USB audio and MIDI interface. Again there isn't a separate volume control for the computer audio and (unlike the drum machine) there are no audio inputs, but such an interface thrown in is hard to complain about. It would be even more versatile if the sequencer's note transmission could be turned off though. Currently it obstructs the function of the MIDI interface when active. Roland have promised to address this.
XY Play mode is a bit unexpected. With it you can play the touchpad in a theremin‑like way, with pitch on the X-axis, volume on the Y. If a pattern is already playing, XY Play takes precedence, and when my performances finally began to improve from the starting point of 'dying wasp', I found some of the wilder lead sounds helped me warm to the pad slightly.
Scatter is another quirky inclusion: it's an audio grabber comparable to that found on the TR8. There are a choice of eight effects that consist of audio looping, bit‑reduction and glitching, through to progressively increased levels of filth. I wasn't sure whether Scatter's bump and grind was at its best processing monophonic bass lines, but when effects were introduced it became more interesting.
I suspect the TB3 will have a harder time establishing itself than the TR8, mainly because it lacks the drum machine's focus and immediacy. Ironically, if Roland had chosen exactly the same physical layout as a TB303 and blessed it with this engine — specifically sounds A01 and A02 — I couldn't have found many faults. Sonically, the TB3 is close enough and I personally don't care about the underlying technology when that's the case. The Touch Bassline not only sat unintimidated next to a real TB303, it also has many extra goodies to call upon.
However, while the extra sounds and effects are pretty cool, I'm not sure they are compensation for those missing TB303 controls and this is where it becomes less clear‑cut. Getting the sounds right is vital, of course, but so is the interaction with them. With that in mind, the touchpad, although usable, didn't seem like a step forwards.
I'm acutely aware that the original Bassline was not regarded in wonder at its birth and Roland have at least dared to try something new. The sequencer is plenty of fun and if there were an editor to tweak the sounds and effects, or simply collect favourites, the TB3's desirability would grow exponentially. Ultimately, though the ergonomics didn't win me over and the MIDI glide issue needs addressing, the TB3 has numerous pluses. It may be slightly unsure of its identity, but at the price, and considering you get a USB audio and MIDI interface bundled in, there's a lot to like.
From the various X0Xboxes to the rack clones of the '90s, alternatives are legion.