It's finally here! Roland have re-introduced their iconic TB-303 bass module and what's more, some of us at Absolute Music got to hear and play with it before the official announcement! Unfortunately for you guys, we've been bound by a strict contract that has forbidden us from sharing our knowledge with our customers and many of our colleagues... until now! As Roland have now released full details to the world, we're also free to share our thoughts with you (something that we've been bursting to do for a long time)!
In this article, we'll describe exactly what the Touch Bassline TB-3 is, what features it offers and exactly what we thought of it. Excited? You should be!
*** UPDATE: I ended up buying one in the end! Read the updated end of my review to find out what I now think of the TB-3 as an owner of one! ***
ROLAND AIRA TB-3 - A BIT OF HISTORY
The Roland TB-303 was originally designed as a kind of virtual bass player for bands. However, no one could have predicted what would happen when it was picked up by experimental electronic musicians, who discovered that the synth was capable of creating amazing futuristic sounds that sounded like nothing else.
The signature squelchy analogue sound of the original TB-303 formed the foundation of acid house and its sound has been synonymous with dance music ever since. You'll even hear it cropping up in new tracks today.
However, in 1984, Roland ceased production of the TB-303 and in recent times, if you wanted to own an official unit, you would firstly have to find someone willing to sell one and secondly, reach their valuation, which was unlikely to be less than £1000.
At least, that was the case until now...
ROLAND AIRA TB-3 - ANALOGUE OR DIGITAL?
The Roland AIRA TB3 offers a brand new incarnation of the classic TB-303, but with modern features to bring it right up to date and a price that isn't going to break the bank.
Now, one of the big questions that many people have been speculating about online is whether Roland's new AIRA units will have an analogue, digital or hybrid design. The answer to this question is that the TB-3, just like the other products in the AIRA range, is digital.
Now, I can already hear a wave of groans from analogue purists, who were hoping for a different answer, but I personally think that Roland have moved in the right direction on this one. Yes, I love that real analogue sound, which is very difficult to emulate with digital circuitry or software. However, digital can come exceedingly close... if done correctly that is! For example, I own a Waldorf Q synth in my home studio (which I would best describe as an older version of the Blofeld) and whilst this is a digital synth, some of the sounds that it can create would definitely fool me if I didn't know otherwise.
I also get the feeling that the analogue vs digital debate has ensnared some people into believing that analogue is 'better' than digital. In fact, I would wager that there are some people spouting this 'truth' to their friends, who have never even heard a proper analogue synth before!
The fact that analogue is 'better' than digital is a complete myth, as it's all subjective. Yes, classic analogue synths have this lovely warm, organic and often slightly unpredictable tone that is so pleasing to the ear. However, digital synths can do so much more and can cram in many more features for your money. Plus, if designed in a certain way, they are able to replicate that analogue sound so that a) your average Joe off the street isn't going to be able to tell the difference and b) once the synth sounds are mixed in with other elements to make a full track and bounced to a digital format, I doubt even many professionals would be able to discern between a proper analogue sound and a digital sound pretending to be analogue!
That said, if you're going to set out to model a classic analogue synth with digital circuitry, you're definitely setting yourself a challenge, because the question that people will ask themselves when they hear it will not be: does it sound good in its own right? In this case, you've already got a marker against which your instrument will be judged, so you'll need to satisfy the vast majority who want to know: does it sound like the original?
So, how did Roland go about this challenge and more importantly, does it sound like the original?
ROLAND AIRA TB-3 - AUTHENTIC SOUND?
To re-create the authentic sound of the TB-303, Roland went to great lengths to analyse the circuitry of the original synth, taking into account how each individual circuit within the instrument affected to overall sound. They then went about re-creating these circuits in the digital domain. By working in this modular way and making constant sonic comparisons with the original unit, the Roland engineers were able to carefully build up accurate models of each part of the original TB-303, from the original analogue sawtooth and square wave oscillators, to the [-18dB/octave ladder filter with its unmistakable squelchy cutoff and resonance characteristics. Tests included meticulously comparing waveforms emitted from both the analogue and digital instruments to ensure that they were identical, and of course listening to both at each stage to make sure that they sound the same. Once each piece of the puzzle was complete, they then put the whole thing together, carried out more tests, went back and made refinements and so on and so on, until eventually, a complete product was made that they were happy with.]
So, this all sounds very promising, but how does it actually sound?
I'm pleased to report that all this hard work definitely paid off, because it sounded superb to me! In fact, my colleague, Chris, who is a self-confessed synthaholic and has worked with (and owned in many cases) almost every vintage synth under the sun (at some point or another), described it as 'spot on'! Believe me, that's high praise indeed!
Now, I'm sure there will be people out there that claim that the sound of the TB-3 is slightly different in character to their own original analogue TB-303 and I wouldn't doubt them for a second. The analogue nature of the TB-303 means that there are going to be slight differences in sonic character between individual units, as analogue synths rely on voltage differences to then be converted into the sound we hear. This voltage has to pass through a number of different physical components in an analogue circuit, all of which have an effect on it. Therefore, any slight differences in component batches will have an effect on the voltage and hence the overall character of the sound. It's even common for the sound of analogue instruments to change depending on their age, the temperature, the humidity, how long they have been switched on for, etc., making it impossible to create a digital instrument that models every analogue unit ever made... because every analogue unit sounds different!
So, to sum up on how it sounds, yes, the TB-3 does a fantastic job of emulating the original unit, but if you already own an analogue TB-303, don't be surprised if it doesn't sound exactly the same as yours if you're listening extremely critically.
Check it out in the first video in this article to hear it in action!
ROLAND AIRA TB-3 - MORE THAN JUST A TB-303
So, the TB-3 is an instrument that offers a very faithful representation of the original, so that should hopefully satisfy the purists. However, if you're going to make a digital instrument, why stop at simply creating something that models an analogue unit? The digital domain is an extremely powerful one, allowing you to do things that would either be too expensive, require too much space or simply impossible with analogue gear. Thankfully Roland have realised this, so they've gone not just one step, but a few leaps further than simply emulating the original TB-303, by equipping it with features that bring it right up to date.
Let's start with more sounds...
The TB-3 doesn't just recreate the classic TB-303 sound that we all know and love; it's actually packed with 134 different sounds, all of which can be manipulated in real-time using the controls on the unit itself. Of course, you've got you're classic acid sounds, but there are also edgier distorted basses, delayed tones and some unusual effects.
The sounds that we were presented with when we had our secret demo with Roland all sounded superb, especially some of the distorted sounds, which went from crunchy to just WOW! The 134 sounds are split between four banks, with bank A containing original TB-303 sounds, bank B featuring aggressive bass sounds (that make use of 4 oscillators and built-in effects), bank C featuring aggressive lead sounds (that again make use of 4 oscillators and built-in effects) and bank D packed with sound effects.
If you're wondering what built-in effects are hidden within the TB-3, then I can reveal that you get compression, ring modulation, bit crush, tremolo, chorus, flanger, phaser, delay, pitch shift and reverb, along with 25 different distortion types. This makes the TB-3 a very flexible little synth indeed.
ROLAND AIRA TB-3 - BUILD & DESIGN
The TB-3 felt like it was built really well. I personally find it an instant turn-off when something feels cheap and tacky (as you'll already know if you've read some of my past reviews), so I was glad then the TB-3 passed the test in this department with flying colours.
ROLAND AIRA TB-3 - TOUCHPAD
The TB-3 has a striking bright green and red pressure-sensitive touch pad at the heart of its interface. This lets you program your melodies, but can also be used as an X-Y, pressure-sensitive touch screen, allowing you to control pitch, volume and modulation all at the same time. For example, placing your finger on the touchpad and moving it side-to-side controls the pitch of the sound. Moving your finger up and down alters the volume and the pressure of your finger controls the amount of modulation that is applied to the sound. This allows you to play around with sounds in a very natural way, which is great for creative purposes and performing live.
When I first saw the TB-3, apart from being intrigued, my first thought was 'what have they done with the decay knob?'. The decay parameter was an essential part of messing around with that acid sound, so its apparent omission was something that I was secretly very concerned about. However, I was soon pleasantly surprised to find that the decay could also been controlled using the touchpad, at the same time as controlling the envelope modulation. This allows you to control, for example, the envelope modulation, decay and filter cutoff (using the dedicated knob) all at the same time, for highly expressive performances (much more so than was possible with the original TB-303).
That's not even the end of it, as the touchpad can also be used to switch patterns, chain patterns together and transpose, which massively de-clutters the interface of the TB-3, making it a lot less intimidating compared to the TB-303.
But wait a second... you may be wondering how the touchpad is able to control all of these aspects. Thankfully it's really all very simple. Above the touchpad are four buttons: 'Keyboard', 'XY Play', 'Env Mode' and 'Ptn Select'. Simply press the button to activate the mode that you want to use with the touchpad and that's it!
ROLAND AIRA TB-3 - STEP SEQUENCER
It's common knowledge that the original TB-303s weren't the most user-friendly when it came to programming. I can vouch for that! In fact, I would describe the TB-303 as a downright pain in the a**e to program! So, with the TB-3, Roland sought to address this issue and they've done a great job.
The TB-3 is simple to program using the Step Sequencer. Simply activate 'Step Record' mode and work your way through a pattern step-by-step using the touch keyboard. Once recorded, you can then adjust the tempo of your pattern to suit. Alternatively, you can record a pattern in real-time using the TB-3's touch keyboard, which is a a really nice feature. At last, you can actually create the patterns that you hear in your head with ease!
However, for those that liked the fact that the complexity of the original TB-303 often unwittingly tricked you into creating unintended patterns and sounds, the TB-3 also features automatic pattern generation and random pattern modification options. Again, a nice touch.
For those wanting to add a bit more movement to their pattern, the TB-3 also has a Shuffle feature, which is well worth experimenting with even if you think you've already got a good pattern!
ROLAND AIRA TB-3 - I'M THE SCATTER MAN!
The TB-3 throws up another surprise in the form of the new 'Scatter' feature, which allows you to add effects such as slice, reverse and gate to your sound. This can really take your sound to new and unexpected levels, with complex glitches, stutters and variations that would otherwise take a lot of laborious work in your DAW to achieve. You can even add effects per-step and control all Scatter effects in real time.
My thoughts on the Scatter effect were that it was definitely a very cool feature, although it's definitely tempting to overuse it and accidentally kill the vibe of a pattern when playing around in this mode. It can throw up some awesome results though, so it's definitely worth playing around with, especially if you want to add twists to the classic TB-303 sound.
ROLAND AIRA TB-3 - CONNECTIONS
The Roland TB-3 connects straight to your computer via USB, which carries both audio and MIDI data. It can also receive MIDI clock information, allowing you to sync it with other devices, such as other AIRA units. It also features a 1/4 inch stereo headphone output, as well as left and right 1/4 inch main outputs.
ROLAND AIRA TB-3 - SUMMARY
I completely get that there are going to be people out there that are disappointed with the fact that the TB-3 isn't analogue and I'm sure they'll argue that Korg's Volca series manage to combine affordability, playability and a true analogue sound, so why haven't Roland gone down the same route?
Whilst I admit that a true analogue sound would have added to the appeal of the TB-3 on paper, it has been modelled in such detail that I would challenge anybody to spot the difference between the TB-3 and an original TB-303, especially when placed alongside other elements in a complete track. Plus, the fact that the TB-3 is digital allows it to do so much more than the original ever could, such as providing you with different preset sounds and built-in effects. Whilst I seriously doubt that the TB-3 is going to be a game-changer in the music industry in the way that its predecessor was, the fact that it's not just a replica of the original TB-303 opens it up to a new era, allowing it to start to carve out its own legacy.
I think that Roland have got this product right, not only in terms of sound, but also in terms of price. The fact that there are a fair share of authentic TB-303 software plug-ins on the market already meant that the TB-3 was going to have to be competitively priced. Like most people, I prefer to play around with hardware controls when possible, as I find that it makes for a more natural workflow, but I'd certainly settle for software mapped to a MIDI controller if the difference in price was extensive. However, the fact that the TB-3 is not only well priced, but also capable of going beyond most software emulations due to its additional features, will make it a highly desirable product indeed, in my opinion.
ROLAND TB-3 - UPDATE - I BOUGHT ONE!
I just thought I'd add a little bit of additional info to this review... I tried to resist, but I actually ended up buying one for myself! I've got a few synths already and while a part of me was insisting that the TB-3 was a one trick pony with a sound that was almost too 'obvious' in today's dance music, the fact remained that it just sounds too damn good and there's nothing else that sounds like it (bar of course a couple of notable 303 emulation plug-ins that I've come across)! There's a reason that the 303 sound has had such an impact on dance music and is still being used extensively... you just can't get away from the fact that there is something so pleasing to the ear about its sound - when you get a good groove going it just squeals, drives and pumps with pure energy! Even when you're using it in isolation (which I often find myself doing when I have a spare few minutes) and you're playing around with the controls, you begin to imagine all the other parts of a track coming together in your head and before you know it, you've got a solid composition idea ready to lay down in your DAW.
What's more (and I know I've already eluded to this in my review, but it is a point that is worth re-iterating) is that the TB-3 is extremely easy to use - unlike like the original! Without even looking in the manual, I was programming and manipulating my own melodies within a couple of minutes of getting it out the box. Even my girlfriend, who has absolutely no idea about synths, was attracted by the bright lights and 'cool' sounds of the TB-3 and with very little instruction, she was soon creating her own patterns using both step and realtime record modes, switching between them on the fly and playing with the controls. This thing just offers immediate fun and I have to say that it's almost easier to make something that sounds good than it is to make a melody that sounds bad - I've not come across anything else like it before!
Obviously you can go deeper with the TB-3 if you want, although it is completely preset driven, so it's not one for those who want to program their own sounds - it would complement this sort of synth very well though. Of course, the sounds that I'm most interested in are the classic 303 sounds, although there are plenty of other highly useable presets in there; some of the distorted 303 sounds are just superb and (although I can't remember what program number it was off the top of my head), there was an extremely subby one that had my low frequency drivers dancing!
In terms of the scatter function, it's not something that I've particularly used, bar when I first got it and wanted to test out all of the features. If you're using the TB-3 in a live situation (which it lends itself really well to due to its simplicity), then this feature may come in useful, but to me, it's not something that I now imagine I'm going to make too much use of in the studio. The effects are another element of the TB-3 that I don't tend to reach for too often in the studio. Sure, some of the effects (when added subtly in my opinion) add a lovely sheen to some of the sounds, but as you begin to crank them up, they can also potentially destroy a groove. In addition, with the lack of control over the effects that you get compared to standard VSTs, I personally usually prefer to add my effects in my DAW.
All-in-all, the TB-3 is the most fun and immediately satisfying piece of kit that I have ever bought and the part of me that was originally condemning my most recent purchase was won round extremely quickly.
If I were to give it a star rating, I would go for 4 1/2 out of 5. Although the sheer number of sounds that you get included with the TB-3 take it out of the 'one trick pony' league, let's face it: if you're buying a TB-3, you'll be buying it because you want those 303 sounds! Sure, it has some other nice lead sounds on there, but the lack of editing functions means that if you're after a different type of sound, you'll probably reach for a VST or a different synth. If pure 303-ness is what you seek though, then I'll wager that the TB-3 will be one of your best (and certainly most fun) buys as well!