If you've been desperately seeking a TB303 at any price, this inexpensive software, which provides the equivalent of two of the little silver dream machines, plus a virtual TR808, could be the answer to your prayers. Derek Johnson & Chris Carter find out whether it's too good to be true...
In the years since the start of the analogue synth revival, we've been presented with a growing pile of newly‑built emulations of antique instruments. The high prices of the 'real thing' mean that small companies producing costly analogue technology can make a profit while actually saving the musician cash. A prime target for replication has been Roland's classic TB303 Bassline synth/sequencer combo, but the new machines, for all their good intentions, sometimes miss the point of the original by adding extra features and losing the sequencer, while also failing to exactly replicate the Bassline sound.
So a group of enterprising Swedes decided that the DSP and processing power of the latest generation of Power PC‑equipped Macs and Pentium‑toting PC clones (with compatible soundcard) could provide a launchpad for a different approach: a 16‑bit, 44.1kHz software replication of a TB303. Propellerhead, the company in question, actually went further, and the resulting package, ReBirth RB338, provides no less than two virtual TB303s and a virtual TR808 drum machine, with pattern‑based sequencing plus distortion and basic delay effects. Could this be the ultimate techno software package?
ReBirth has been mentioned in SOS in the past, notably in our two‑part software synthesis feature (April and May 1997). At the time, ReBirth was at an early beta stage, awaiting commercial release. Since then, Steinberg have become involved, helping to bring the full package to an eager public. This is not as strange a move as you might think: Propellerhead are also behind ReCycle, Steinberg's sophisticated sample manipulation tool.
Both PowerMac and PC versions of ReBirth come on a single CD‑ROM. Installation is painless (but follow all tips regarding buffer size), and the disc is used as a 'key'; it must be inserted in your CD‑ROM drive whenever you launch ReBirth. On the manual front, there's a thin, 'getting started' booklet that covers installation and simple operational guidelines, but the in‑depth manual comes in the form of a PDF document, for use with the supplied Adobe Acrobat Reader. Now, this makes good ecological sense, but on‑screen manuals are not my cup of tea, especially when you can't manipulate the text to fit it onto fewer bits of paper for more convenient off‑line referral.
Launch ReBirth, and what you see is what you get. If you can't figure out how to make it go within a few minutes, you're in the wrong business — it's that simple. The ReBirth screen is dominated by graphic representations of two TB303s and the TR808, with a strip across the top offering transport controls, tempo display and control, song position display and Loop display. You won't have found distortion or delay effects on the originals (as you can on the software equivalents), but they add extra interest to the software; if you want to be purist, you don't have to use them.
Each instrument is referred to as a 'Section', and contains, in addition to the main instrument, a Pattern select box, offering four banks of eight Patterns each, a Pattern length selector (up to 16 steps), a level fader, pan pot, mute switch, level meter, distortion switch (only one Section at a time can access the distortion effect) and a delay send knob. All that remains is the master level fader and bargraph meters.
Graphically, the TB303 Sections seem remarkably familiar. Almost all the controls present on a real TB303, bar Track and Pattern mode knobs and the Tie button, are included, if in a slightly mutated form — one set of transport controls, for example, governs the whole program. Even the LEDs have on‑screen equivalents. The sound control set is identical to the original, featuring a selector switch for square and sawtooth waveforms, and knobs for tuning (one octave up or down in semitones), filter cutoff frequency, filter resonance, envelope modulation, decay and accent.
Note input is accomplished with the one‑octave mini keyboard. There are two note entry modes: Pitch mode automatically moves along step by step as you assign a note, with octave up/down, Slide, Accent and Rest options, to each step; with the other option, you manually move from step to step, using, not surprisingly, the Step and Back buttons. Though, as mentioned above, there's no Tie button, which is used on the real TB303 to create notes that hold for longer than a single step; assigning Slide to two or more notes with the same pitch value achieves the same result.
If you don't like using a mouse all the time, to move the on‑screen controls, ReBirth gives you the option of programming the TB303s from the computer keyboard. This takes a bit of getting used to, but may well be the speed‑programming method of choice for most users.
While retaining an authentic look, the virtual TR808 is rather more stripped down than the 303s, though the essentials are there: the 16 step buttons at the bottom of the display, the drum sound select knob, plus the controls for each drum voice. There are 15 drum voices altogether (plus an Accent option, which will affect all voices assigned to its Pattern step). However, as with the original 808, some voices feature a choice of two sounds, and a switch selects which sound is used. Each drum voice has a level control, and where the original 808 offered Tone, Decay or 'Snappy' controls (the latter belongs to the snare drum!), they are also included here. All drum sounds can play together on one step, apart from the open and closed hi‑hats. Here, the closed hat has precedence.
To create a rhythm Pattern, select a drum voice using the voice select knob (or by clicking on the voice legend that runs underneath the controls), and click on the step buttons for the steps where you'd like that drum to sound. This can be done with the sequencer running or not, and you can even run your mouse pointer across the step buttons to quickly activate them all, just like using your finger on the original.
Just as the original TB303 and TR808 did, ReBirth offers the user both a Pattern and a Song mode. While the software's interface may be different, the goal is the same: creating a finished song by chaining the 32 Patterns in each of ReBirth's three sections. Think of ReBirth as a 3‑track pattern‑based sequencer with sounds, where each sound has its own set of Patterns, and you shouldn't go far wrong. To get going, select a Section, choose a Pattern, either with your mouse or from the computer keyboard (note that Banks can't be selected with the latter option), and start inputting notes or drum beats. As you may have gathered, a Pattern can be any length you like, up to 16 steps; it's worth mentioning that Patterns with different lengths can play side by side, so if you fancy a 16‑step drum pattern running alongside 11‑ and 7‑step Patterns in the TB303 Sections, go for it. Strangely, creating Patterns in Pattern mode doesn't actually involve pressing the Record button at all: simply press Play, and notes or drum hits are added as you play them.
While knob‑tweaks can't be recorded in Pattern mode (though they can be played in real time), there are several other editing functions available in this mode. For example, you can cut or copy Patterns and paste them to other Pattern locations, either in the current or a different Song, and Patterns can be shifted, one step at a time, forward or back. If you're editing a drum Pattern, individual drum voices can also be shifted. One octave of transposition, up or down, is also available to the TB303 Sections. In addition, there is a range of options for randomising and altering your patterns. The options for the TB303 Sections are to randomise the whole pattern; pitch or accent; slide; rest; and octave. In the drum Section you can choose to randomise a whole Pattern or an individual drum voice. Randomise is pretty unpredictable, but using a related option, Alter, can add a bit of unexpected variety to material you've already prepared. Be warned that Alter and Randomise functions can not be undone, so copy or save your work if you might want it back again.
A finished Song is created in Song mode, where you chain Patterns together and record knob movements. A Song can be up to 500 bars long, and the editing and control possibilities are pretty comprehensive. You can record Pattern changes and controller movements on the fly, or record Patterns separately (again, on the fly or in step time), adding the controller movements separately. Controller movements you're not happy with can easily be changed, simply by going into Record again, and tweaking the offending control or controls. Nothing is recorded until you touch a given control, and all other movements remain unscathed. When you're done, simply press Stop. Using Loop mode allows you to focus on a few bars at a time in order to get your tweaks absolutely right.
There may be occasions where you'd like a control or controls to have the same position for a whole Song (or Loop) — an example might be the level and pan settings for each section. Simply go into Record, move the control to your desired position, and select the Copy Touched Controls option from the Edit menu. This feature saves you the hassle of having to record a control's movement for the whole Song. Cut, copy and paste functions are also available in Song mode. Something to keep in mind is that if you change a Pattern used by a Song, any sections of a Song that use that Pattern will also change.
One strange thing is that when you have more than one Song open, there's no way to switch between them on the menu bar — you have to drag the Songs around the desktop and click on them; luckily, though, when you bring another Song forward the original doesn't stop playing until you tell the new one to start.
Naturally, you can save as many ReBirth Songs as you have hard disk space, which is a great improvement over the original TB303 and TR808, which lacked any way to save their memory externally.
Communication between ReBirth and the outside world is certainly possible. On a simple level, ReBirth can be synchronised to other applications running on your computer, via OMS on a PowerMac or a (supplied) utility called Hubi's Loopback Device on a PC, or to external devices over MIDI. The software is always a slave, never the master, though. It is also possible to run ReBirth alongside Cubase VST and mix the audio tracks via the PowerMac's audio hardware, using Sound Manager. If you have a PCI audio card, VST could be routed to that, while ReBirth would use the PowerMac's native hardware.
I wasn't able to test the options on a PC, but the manual is quite clear in explaining the techniques. It may be, though, that PC users will need to add a few system enhancements. Running ReBirth synchronised to Cubase, without audio, should be fine: simply launch ReBirth first to ensure that it has access to the audio on your PC If you have two audio cards, Cubase Audio can use one and ReBirth the other. If you've only got a single audio card, you're probably stuck, since Cubase currently takes precedence over any other audio demands on your soundcard. The manual notes some exceptions, however, and states that some advanced audio cards, such as the Terratec EWS64, can fool the PC into thinking that there's more than one card installed. If you have such a card, follow the instructions for use of two cards, above.
If your computer is under‑powered, or there are other problems with running several audio applications on it, there's an easy answer: save your ReBirth song as an AIFF or WAV digital audio file, using Export Loop. The resulting stereo file (complete with delays and distortion) could then be loaded into a track of your MIDI + Audio sequencer or beamed over to a sampler. If you need to make any changes to ReBirth's contribution to the track, make them in ReBirth and re‑export the loop. Expect sample CDs to include the fruits of this function soon.
If only all software were like this: graphically attractive, simple to use, and crash‑free. Operationally, the only problems with ReBirth arise from using software to emulate hardware: in the real world, you can tweak two knobs at once and quickly move from knob to knob. On screen, it's always going to be one knob at a time, with that most unmusical of interfaces, the mouse. It can also be fiddly to program the TB303 sequencer with a mouse, but at least this can be done quite acceptably with the computer's keyboard. It would be very nice if the knobs were addressable via MIDI controllers — they're not — so that a device such as Peavey's PC1600 could be used to program knob tweaks. There's also no way to program the ReBirth TR808 other than on screen.
Some dedicated analogue freaks will wonder at the lack of individual outs for the drum section, assignable, perhaps, to the separate outputs of a PCI card; one compromise would have been to provide a pan control for each drum voice. As it stands, apart from a pan pot for each Section and the delay, everything in ReBirth is in mono.
The most important aspect of any analogue emulation, though, is the sound, and to these ears, ReBirth is one of the most convincing copies available. Unfortunately, I haven't been in possession of either a TB303 or TR808 for some time. Chris Carter is not quite so deprived, however, and was able to test the software side by side with the real thing — see Chris' box for his conclusions on this matter.
Operationally and sonically, ReBirth can hardly be faulted. A perverse thought occurs to me: if you haven't got a computer, or a TB303/TR808 duo, you might actually come out ahead by buying a new computer and ReBirth, rather than paying the inflated prices demanded for 15‑ or 20‑year old hardware. And if you already own a PowerMac or a compatible PC clone, you'd be way ahead. If you have any kind of interest in dance music or the sounds produced by Roland's antique twosome, go out and get a demo of ReBirth. Now. You will not be disappointed.
Long‑time TB303 and TR808 user Chris Carter wrote our TR808 retro review in May's SOS. We asked him to check out ReBirth (running on his PowerMac 7600) side by side with the real things; here are his conclusions...
I started by setting up some basic, but identical, 16‑step patterns on the TR808 and the 808 Section of ReBirth and running them side by side. Initially, the most obvious difference is in the instrument tunings, with some quite noticeable deviations. The snare, toms, congas, claps, cymbal and open hi‑hat are all pitched about a tone higher, while the claves and cowbell are pitched lower than the original, with the cymbal and cowbell deviating the most. Other differences are less pronounced, such as the ReBirth bass drum having less buzz and body, and a slightly shorter decay. The claps, cymbal and hi‑hats all sound a little less full than the original, but the classic 808 snare, if anything, sounds better on ReBirth, distinctly brighter and 'snappier'. With a rhythm in full swing, switching between the TR808 and ReBirth revealed a definite 'lift' in the overall sound when listening to ReBirth, probably due in part to the higher tunings, and also the slightly brighter sound some of the instruments have. On the whole, though, it's a pretty convincing and successful emulation of the 808 sound.
Comparing the TB303 Bassline is possibly a slightly more subjective task. Playing various identical sequences on the real TB303 and ReBirth's simulation, it was pretty easy to create similar filter, envelope and accent settings, and to most ears ReBirth will sound almost identical. To 'experienced' ears, the main difference (and this isn't a criticism) is the partially extended upper and lower filter range. Also, the ReBirth 303 has a slightly brighter sound, which could be attributed to the extended filter range, but at the upper limit it definitely has a slight digital edge, compared to the original. The accent control doesn't quite have the range or extra punch of the original TB303, but this is just nitpicking. Overall, the sound is just about as close to the original as you can get — and setting the controls to the same position on both hardware and software TBs results in the same sound. Very impressive indeed.
Programming ReBirth is a piece of cake compared to a real TB303. Any 303 owner will know that this can be a very frustrating experience, often involving large doses of guesswork and luck. However, with the TR808 I wasn't so convinced, and found programming the original to be a little easier — I also missed the printed numbers above the 16‑step buttons, a freely rotating instrument selector, an A/B pattern switch and the I/F variation switch. Some of the level controls seemed a little quiet compared to others.
Bearing in mind that most people won't be comparing the two like this, I think ReBirth emulates the original TR808 and TB303 sound very successfully and improves on the programming of the original 303 immensely. Of course, you don't get the individual outputs that are so useful on the TR808, but if Steinberg came up with a way of interfacing ReBirth with something like Korg's 1212 I/O or Emagic's Audiowerk8 PCI cards, that would be a pretty powerful combination. Funnily enough, after a couple of days, I began to favour the ReBirth 303 over the Roland — sacrilege, I know, but having two to play with, with MIDI sync to boot, is impossible to resist. Chris Carter
Here's a list of the virtual TR808's drum sounds, and their abbrieviations. As mentioned in the main body of the review, some voices feature a choice of two sounds; these 'shared' sounds are separated by a slash.
- Accent (AC)
- Bass Drum (BD)
- Snare Drum (SD)
- Low Tom (LT)/Low Conga (LC)
- Middle Tom (MT)/Middle Conga (MC)
- High Tom (HT)/High Conga (HC)
- Rim Shot (RS)/Claves (CL)
- Claps (CP)/Maracas (MA)
- Cowbell (CB)
- Cymbal (CY)
- Open Hi‑hat (OH)
- Closed Hi‑hat (CH)
- APPLE: Power Macintosh with 16Mb RAM, 16‑bit audio, Apple Sound Manager 3.2 and System 7.5.3 or later.
- PC: PC clone with a Pentium processor, 16Mb RAM, Windows 95/NT 4.0 and a 16‑bit soundcard.
After having read this review, it may have occurred to you that the most trendy drum machine at the moment is the TR909, the TR808 having reached its peak a few years ago. So why isn't the TR909 part of ReBirth? A look at the FAQs on Propellerhead's web site (www.propellerhead.se) reveals the company's reasoning: the TB303 emulation was the reason for ReBirth's existance, with the drum machine being sort of a bonus. They picked the 808 because it's 100% analogue, "which is totally in line with the whole idea of ReBirth" The TR909, remember, actually contains samples.
- Authentic emulation of two (or is that three?) analogue classics.
- Easy to use, and apparently bug‑free.
- Great value, if you already have a suitable computer.
- Loops can be saved as samples for transfer to audio sequencers or samplers.
- A graphic tour de force!
- No multiple audio output capability.
- Syncs as slave only; can't operate as a master.
- Mouse interface is occasionally frustrating.
- No MIDI control of knobs.
While not operationally a complete replication of the vintage hardware it's designed to emulate, the feel and sound of ReBirth is unmistakeably vintage. The on‑screen knobs and pattern‑based operation make for an easy‑to‑use, immediate and fun environment — though knob‑tweaking with a mouse will never be as enjoyable and intuitive as the real thing. Thoroughly recommended.