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
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
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
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.
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.