Roland TB-3 Touch Bassline reviewed

May 7, 2014
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Roland’s Aira series also includes a 21st-century reworking of the TB-303 Bass Line synth, which helped launch acid house music in the late ’80s and was hugely influential in early hip-hop. Propellerhead ReBirth did an uncanny job of replicating the sound over a decade ago, so it’s certain that Roland would improve on that. They also took a lot more liberties relative to the original than they did with the Aira TR-8, and that’s a wonderful thing. Let’s face it: Programming the TB-303 was complicated, and a joke among users was that you actually had to be on acid to get it. In contrast, the TB-3 features an LED-backlit touchpad and decidedly enjoyable approach to making hypnotic loops.

PROS: Knockout modeling of the TB-303 sound. Covers classic as well as contemporary sounds. Integrated effects complement the oscillator modes beautifully. Sequencing is fun and immediate. Doubles as a USB audio interface.

CONS: Changes to synth parameter values can’t be saved. Sequences can’t be exported via sys-ex.

Bottom Line: Roland captures the essence of the TB-303 and makes it more fun, more flexible, and easier to use.

$299 street | rolandus.com/go.aira


Overview and Sounds

The TB-3 eschews slavish devotion to the original’s features, starting with its whopping 134 preset tones for use as “oscillators” in the context of its synth engine. Twenty-six of these tones are replicas of the TB-303’s oscillator, and they each cover a different approach to its sound.

Bank A’s collection of 26 modes is entirely devoted to the original 303’s sound, including some cool processed options. The first four modes in the bank are outstanding recreations of the original unit’s basic sound with its distinctive sawtooth and square waves beautifully replicated. After that, things get pretty wild.

Despite the original 303 only offering those two waves, there were quite a few common processing tricks that were applied during its heyday in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Notable production tricks included different types of distortion and overdrive, as well as delay, reverb, and chorus/unison effects. All of those are represented in the rest of bank A and sound fantastic. The other three banks cover bass, lead, and effect sounds, respectively. Many of these cater to current dance fashions and may sound dated in the future, but others are inspirational and timeless.

After you’ve selected a tone as your starting point, you’ve got a few knobs for dialing in your sound: Volume, Cutoff, Resonance, Accent, and Effect. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that the 303’s legendary envelope modulation and decay are absent. Not so—they’re simply accessed via the unit’s touchpad as you play and program, courtesy of four interface modes for the screen.

Get beyond bank A, and the envelope modulation affects more than just filter and decay. Bit-crushing, elaborate modulation, and even some granular-style effects can be performed here. The same applies to the TB-3’s Effect knob, which adds time-based effects like delay and reverb. The TB-3 also includes the Aira series’ “Scatter” function, which warps and twists the patterns in a musically intelligent and glitchy manner.

Another performance option is the X-Y play mode, which gives the TB-3 a distinctly Kaossilator vibe. When this is active, the touchscreen lets you inject pitch swoops into your performance, even as a sequence plays. When you switch to X-Y mode, finger contact temporarily interrupts the active sequence. The piano keyboard mode works in a similar fashion, with the onscreen keys interrupting the sequence as long as your finger remains down.

Like the TR-8, the TB-3 can serve as an audio interface, thanks to USB implementation that includes both MIDI and bi-directional audio.

Sequencing

The TB-3 includes 64 pattern slots for your sequences. Each is one measure long, but Roland’s Pattern Select mode lets you chain up to eight patterns (a single bank, to be clear) in sequence with a swipe of the finger. This gives the unit a lot more musicality in a performance context, but like the TR-8, there’s no chaining of patterns into songs per se. As with the TR-8, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a reminder that these grooveboxes specialize in live performance.

You enter sequences via either step recording or realtime note entry. In step mode, the TB-3 recaptures the original 303’s approach in all its wacky glory, but thanks to the touchpad, the process feels friendlier overall. The original’s rest, accent, and slide/tie functions are handled by the touch screen’s green panels, which flank the red keyboard.

Realtime mode works as you’d expect, with the bonus of the step LEDs scrolling across the top of the unit as you enter notes. I have to say that a simple metronome would have come in handy here, but there’s none.

I was initially peeved that the TB-3 didn’t store any synth parameter edits with its sequences. In light of everything the unit is capable of, this would put it over the top, especially considering the sonic range of its synthesis engine. Then I considered the original 303, which didn’t do this either. Neither do the Korg Volcas. So, as with the TR-8, the intention here is to engage your imagination as you work. That can lead to a lot of happy accidents, so if you’re noodling away on the TB-3 in the studio, have your DAW rolling to catch them.

TB-3 or Volca?

We’ve been asked—a lot—whether the TB-3 is better than the Korg Volca Keys or Volca Bass. The answer is deeper than, “Well, they’re different,” because they have quite a bit in common, such as touchpad keyboards, extremely similar workflows, and no ability to save edits to sounds. The TB-3 has eight times as many sequence patterns—but the Volca Keys can automate parameter changes. In the TB-3’s favor, it can double as a USB audio interface. On the Volca side is the cachet of being real analog. The Volca synths also have more knobs, a speaker, and battery operation. They have no swing or shuffle, though, which limits groove options. Each has a distinct character, and after a lot of listening, I still couldn’t say which sounded “better”—honest.

Conclusions
 
Overall, the TB-3 is an astonishing accomplishment. If you stick with a few select TB-303 models in the first bank of preset tones, it’s a beautiful emulation of the original that sounds absolutely massive through speakers. Then, when you add in another 100 or so tones that cover a lot of both analog and digital synthesis territory, you’re out of 303-land and into a whole new arena of sound. While some of the sounds have a bit of digital sheen, there are a lot of Virus users who crave that sound, so their needs will be satisfied by the TB-3 as well.

The other performance modes, like X-Y play, envelope mod, and the touch-keyboard all take the performance angle even higher. I fully expect to see this wonderbox in as many DJ rigs as the TR-8—most likely in combination, which is another sign that the club landscape is about to outgrow its roots of simply mixing tracks together. All in all, the price-to-performance ratio on the TB-3 makes it a modern classic.


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