The demand for Roland's TB303 remains very strong, given that the 'fad' of the acid line continues unabated. No surprise, then, that Dutch boffins Syntecno have updated their 1996 TB303 clone to make it even more attractive. Christopher Holder limbers up his tweaking finger.Authenticity.
That really was the original TeeBee selling point when it arrived on the scene in the middle of last year. For starters, the name TeeBee gave the game away just a bit — hardly room for confusion there. Syntecno weren't just peddling monosynths, or analogue sound sources, or generic 'acid machines'; they endeavoured to be as faithful to the original and hallowed Roland TB303 as humanly possible. In the words of the (Dutch) manual writers, the sound of the TeeBee is "as original as god can make it", by which I take to mean 'as true to the original as humanly possible'. In truth, there were some attractive additional features: a good MIDI spec, four pairs of CV/gate mini‑jack outputs, a MTC‑to‑DIN sync24 converter, two MIDI Thru sockets, and an external analogue input, all of which made the TeeBee a versatile performer in any studio.
The TeeBee Mark III aims to make its clone format more desirable, again without betraying its principal reason for existence — TB303 emulation. The result isn't a radical watershed, but is still worth the upgrade title. Like the original, the Mark III's back panel is probably more socket than panel, this time with a further two MIDI merge sockets complementing the existing eight CV/gate mini‑jacks, DIN sync socket, and MIDI Out/In/Thru. Inside the guts of the machine lurks a ring modulator giving a third (Ring) oscillator option, adding to the square and sawtooth, for more sonic potential. Critically, the rather anonymous black chassis of the original has been replaced with a shocking canary yellow finish.
You've got to like the look and feel of the TeeBee, regardless of your feelings about the yellow livery. The 1U front panel is uncluttered, with seven big black knobs dominating proceedings. They're the sort of knobs you can really get a hold of and do some serious tweaking with — the action is very smooth and positive. To accommodate the extra ring‑modulated oscillator, a couple of extra pots have been added. Instead of the 2‑position Square/Saw switch of old, you now have a 4‑position rotary switch to toggle between Saw/Square/Ring and Analog In. It's all self‑explanatory, although it should be noted that if you're patching in an external audio signal via the front‑panel jack it will be mixed with the other oscillator output, unless the Analog In position is selected. The other additional pot is labelled Ring Detuning, and affects the tuning (and thus the severity) of the Ring oscillator. At its extreme, the ring‑modulated signal is sent into a real seizure. Magnifique.
The rest of the front panel is familiar territory. Cutoff, Resonance, Env. Mod, and Decay control the filter, while a Tuning pot fine‑tunes the pitch of the oscillator. An on/off rocker switch is also conveniently front‑mounted, with a red LED indicating its status — unlike the original model, the new machine's LED doesn't have 'LED' printed above it, which I always thought was a nice touch. Finally, next to the power switch is the Program push button. Ahhh, programming — now that's a story in itself.
Reconfiguring your sequencer's drum map, sorting out the rat's nest of leads behind your mixer, defragmenting your hard drive, flossing your teeth — these are all worthy, highly recommended tasks that a magazine such as Sound On Sound would exhort you to do regularly, but they're nevertheless incredibly tedious given that all you really want to do is get stuck into writing tunes. Add 'Programming your TeeBee' to that list.
The word is getting about that with Syntecno's attention to the TB303's quirks, the TeeBee is possibly the most realistic 303 emulation around.
For a more comprehensive insight into the Syntecno's ternary programming protocol, consult Martin Russ' excellent July '96 review of the original TeeBee. Meanwhile, I'll offer a quick synopsis. To alter internal parameters such as MIDI send/receive channel, and controller numbers assigned to resonance, decay and so on, Syntecno have devised a way of programming using the positions of the knobs and the program button. Enter Program mode by powering up with the Program button pushed in. This will trigger an audio trill prompting you to manipulate five of the front‑panel knobs to enter the parameter you wish to edit. Press Program again to confirm, and this sets the TeeBee trilling again (a little lower in pitch this time), cueing you to enter the value of the alteration in the parameter. My principal gripe with this method is that without the information contained in the manual it's virtually impossible to change something as fundamental as the MIDI channel number. If you scrunch up your eyes tightly and take your brain past the pain barrier you can figure out the positions of the knobs to arrive at the desired value in the ternary counting system, but you do need to consult the manual to find the ID value assigned to a particular parameter. Maybe a table could be printed onto the top of the unit in case of emergency.
If delving into ternary programming doesn't get your juices flowing, you can always talk to the TeeBee using System Exclusive. It's easy enough to dump the unit's entire setup via SysEx into your sequencer. Similarly, your sequencer can talk back to the TeeBee via SysEx messages. Marginally less infuriating.
I think all could be forgiven if DIN switches were fitted on the back for adjusting the TeeBee's MIDI channel number, leaving the more arcane parameters to be adjusted in Program mode. Normally you're far less likely to want to change controller numbers and CV/gate details than you are the MIDI channel number.
The irritating operating system aside, the actual sound of the TeeBee is what's really important, and I'm pleased to report that Syntecno deliver. I understand that the company have kept the same innards as the earlier model, and the sound approximates the TB303 BassLine's oddball VCF with a 18dB 2‑pole low‑pass filter of its own. The result is instant gratification. There's no painstaking fiddling about here — just start tweaking and you'll find a killer sound to fit into your mix. Whether it be a hollow square‑wave bassline, a brash lead‑line, or some real acid you're after, you're on your way with a minimum of fuss. The filter is intended to emulate the TB303, but if you're after something a little more extreme, Synecno have thoughtfully supplied a small hole, labelled 'Aggressiveness', in the front panel. Actually, somewhere inside the hole is a tiny, one‑turn screw that controls this parameter. In the end 'Aggressiveness' was quite an appropriate description — it took me half an hour to find a Philips‑head screwdriver tiny enough to do the job, then another 10 minutes to locate the head of the screw.
The Ring oscillator gives considerably more strength to your sonic arm. The ring modulator is said to be based on the one found in the Korg MS20. I wish I could confirm this (by which I mean, I wish I had a Korg MS20). What I can confirm is a very useful sound source, with a wide degree of variations possible, from mellow clanging to completely wigged‑out Underground Resistance‑style madness.
I feel that the most authentic aspect of the TeeBee's TB303 emulation lies in the fact that best results generally result from trial and error, or completely by accident. Syntecno offer a few hints to set you on your way — keep most of the notes in your acid line very short, incorporate octave jumps, and don't be sparing with the slide and accents — but there's no substitute for luck. Slides and accents are tell‑tale features of any TB303 line, and the TeeBee uses controller and velocity information to achieve the same effect. There's little rhyme or reason to a good acid line, but after about half an hour of trial and error I got the TeeBee sighing, squealing and burping away like it was 1989 all over again.
The TeeBee has a lot going for it. Primarily it's the multiple CV/Gate outputs and Sync24 converter that you won't find on any other synth on the market. Meanwhile, the Ring oscillator certainly adds a sound that I haven't encountered in any other recent synth. What's more, the inherent tone of the TeeBee is actually darn good — there's real character to the filter, and I probably prefer it to the other monosynths of the moment that I've demo'd. You might think that all this in itself would be enough to sell the TeeBee in numbers, but I doubt it. It has a retail price of £529, and at this price you're not looking at much more for a second‑hand Prophecy, with all its whizz‑bang bells and whistles. Also for around the same money, the TeeBee is up against the appreciably more flexible Waldorf Pulse, and Novation's new Super BassStation offering. No, I wager that if you're going to buy Syntecno's TeeBee it will be on the strength of its TB303 emulation, and if that's the case it's money well spent. The word is gradually getting about that, with Syntecno's attention to the TB303's quirks (zero decay on the accents, and authentic glide treatment), the TeeBee is possibly the most realistic 303 emulation around, and that's still probably enough to make it sell by the crateload. My only advice is to try it yourself, and then (as the annoying git on Blind Date would say) the choice is yours.
If you've got a use for the CV/gate conversion facilities of the TeeBee (or you think your shopping list will include some pre‑MIDI 'classics'), that may be all the reason you need to get the cheque book out. What's on offer is four pairs of CV and gate mini‑jack outputs. All four may be assigned different MIDI channels, while the gate may be altered to be inverted and the CV signal can be switched between volts/Hertz or volts/Octave.
You should find yourself being able to control most of the old pre‑MIDI synths, from Moog to Roland, Yamaha to Korg. The MTC‑to‑Sync24 converter is handy as well. The old Roland drum machines (such as the TR808 and 606, or even the MIDI‑equipped TR707 and 909) used Sync24 to synchronise their clocks with the arpeggiator or sequencer from a Roland synth (such as an MC202 or SH101). Syntecno also decided a couple of MIDI Merge sockets would be useful, as well as the standard In, Out and Thru. This way you can send the MIDI output data of your control keyboard and any other MIDI device going into the back of the unit to be merged with the output of the TeeBee. This is a bright idea, as it saves repatching your MIDI leads just to record your tweaking.
It's about as well‑specified a back panel as you're ever likely to encounter, and potentially could make the TeeBee the hub of your MIDI and CV/gate configuration. On the other hand, if your setup is small and without the luxury of racks of vintage esoterica, you may be tempted to wonder in a quiet moment why you paid the considerable surcharge to have all those unused holes in your back panel.
- Genuine TB303 emulation.
- MIDI to CV/gate & MTC to Sync24 conversion.
- Ring modulated oscillator.
- 2 MIDI merge sockets.
- Solid construction and smooth, positive pot response.
- Bizarre user interface.
- No user memories.
Not exactly a versatile all‑round performer, but great for the sonic purist looking for another distinctive analogue voice in the studio, as well as the TB303 purist looking for that sound without that price. Feature for feature it doesn't stack up against its competitors (although the bristling back panel is attractive), but audition the TeeBee sound and you may find you can't do without it.