Roland TB-303 Bass Line
One of the most interesting little boxes to be seen and heard at the recent Frankfurt musical instruments fair was Roland's new TB303 Bass Line machine, designed to some extent as a partner-in-rhythm for the not-quite-so-new TR606 Drumatix drum machine (see review in E&MM February 1982), although more than useful on its own. In fact, on first glance the 303 does look rather similar to the 606 — the same slim, silver box measuring about 12in by 6in by 2in contains the works, but there the similarity ends. We have had a brief preview of what, at the time of writing, was the only 303 in the U.K.; by the time you read this, supplies should be reaching Roland dealers at an attractive retail price of £215. This page is therefore intended as an introduction to the machine's main capabilities.
So what is the Roland TB303 Bass Line? It's a machine which enables the operator to devise, write, and recall from memory 64 melodic patterns, or measures, of up to 16 steps each, and then to link these patterns either by 'chaining' or by inserting them in selectable order into one of the unit's seven track memories. The aim is to provide programmed bass guitar-like or bass synth-like lines for recording and (more adventurously) live use. In addition to the expected outs for headphones and mixer or amp, other interface sockets give sync facilities so that the 303 can be linked with, say, a 606 to give a rather wonderful electronic rhythm section in two small, portable, good-value units. And, of course, all manner of other interconnection and control is possible.
Writing patterns into the 303 centres on the machine's 13-note C-to-C keyboard which takes up most of the bottom left and centre of the fascia. 'Keyboard' is perhaps a slight exaggeration, but readers familiar with the Casiotone VL-1 will not be disappointed by the description. As with the 606 drum machine, the 303's controls are nearly all multi-purpose — Roland have once again crammed an awful lot into a small space so this initial confusion is really to be expected, and doesn't last too long. Thus the keyboard's 'keys' double as pattern memory location switches — after turning the large Mode knob (third from the left over the keyboard) to Pattern Write, you select a pattern memory position by pressing one of the eight 'white-note' keys. These eight memory positions each have a choice of four pattern groups (selected on the knob next to Mode), and a further choice of 'A' or 'B' pattern section (on a switch to the right of the keyboard). This, then, gives us 8 x (4 x 2) = 64 pattern memory locations.
Having cleared your selected memory position with the Clear/Reset button, you can write a pattern, or measure, of up to 16 steps into each location, activating the keyboard with the Pitch Mode button. At this stage you're not concerned with the timing of notes — you're just putting the pitch of the notes in the required order into one or more of the pattern memory positions. Once this pitch information is correctly written in, you then press the Time Mode button, whereupon you can go through the already memorised measure step by step, giving each note its value by using three switches which correspond either to 'start sound', 'continue sound', or 'no sound' for each step. You can choose between two step modes to give virtually any time signature you care to play with.
And so, with your overall composition in mind, you continue to write measures into the relevant number of memory positions. You can add accents to particular steps and slides between certain notes to give a better overall feel, and have the choice of five 'tone controls' along the top of the machine with which to alter the eventual playback sound. They are: Cut-off frequency, for overall tonal quality; Resonance, to bring out certain frequencies; Envelope Modulation, which controls the tone 'movement'; Decay, giving the fading-away characteristic; and Accent, giving intensity of accented notes. These combine to give most sounds that you'll need, from a reasonably accurate and wooden string bass to much synthier bass runs. There's also a selector switch for either sawtooth or squarewave, plus a tuning rotary and a tempo control. Patterns can be written into one of the seven track memories, each of which can accommodate up to 64 patterns — you can write in more by using two or three consecutive tracks if necessary. With a little diligence, results can be as complex as you need them to be.
As with the 606 drum machine, you really have to write things down at an early stage to get the best from the 303 — you can if you like use it for off-the-cuff bass lines in a sequencer-like fashion, but for anything beyond very basic use you have to plan out what you're going to do before even switching the machine on. Playing with the 303 for a few seemingly wasteful hours — making a few mistakes, losing a few programs, swearing once or twice, etc — helps you understand that things which seemed like stupid idiosyncracies at first are merely the machine's inherent insistence on mathematical order. Once you grasp this basic notion, the 303's potential can be more fully realised.
The Roland TB303 Bass Line has plenty more handy tricks tucked away inside, all accessible to the practised button-pusher. They include: checking written pitches and note-lengths; transposing written patterns; writing by the alternative of hitting a Tap button; correcting tracks by deletion and insertion; return and repeat functions; chaining patterns for measures greater than 16 steps in length; using two different step modes within a measure; and recalling particular bars within a track by number. We've only scratched the surface here (not literally, Mr Kakehashi!): the detailed 90-page owner's manual is a long and pellucid read. We await the next Roland innovation with interest!
The TB303 Bass Line is distributed by Roland (U.K.) Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Tony Bacon