Roland TB-303-inspired modern synths to put on your radar

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Roland TB-303-inspired modern synths to put on your radar

303 synths
Words by Mixdown Staff

Does everybody need a Roland TB-303? We endeavour to find out.

It’s time to get squelchy and weird with TB-303 style bass lines. This topic’s been done to death, but it is actually worth revisiting as some new synths have appeared in recent times that take the 303 concept and run with it. And while I don’t necessarily agree with Fatboy Slim’s ‘Everybody Needs A 303’, that’s mainly because the original ‘80s Roland unit is fetching stupid money these days.

Read up on all the latest features and columns here.

Fortunately, modern 303-inspired units can be extremely fun, affordable and a great entry point to synthesis. Here’s a few products you can look at for filter tweakin’ fun.

Roland AIRA TB3 & Roland Boutique TB-03

Adored as they may be, it’s anyone’s guess as to why Roland have two very different reinterpretations of their own ‘80s product on the market simultaneously.Both of Roland’s modern interpretations of the 303 are digitally driven, unlike the original’s oddball analogue heart, but they’re actually very fun and sound great.

The AIRA unit has a touch pad and a range of acid house inspired presets to play with, while the Boutique has buttons and a more faithful sound and look. Neither are completely faithful recreations, but both are very capable of getting a 303-style squelch with much less painful sequence programming than the original.

Korg Volca Bass & Volca NuBass

While Roland are happy to emulate their own product, Korg went and made the Volca Bass, which doesn’t particularly sound like a 303, but has its own appeal with a very Korg sound – comparable to their classic MS20 synth. The Volca Bass has three analogue oscillators, compared to the original 303’s one, and is capable of recording three 16 step sequences individually. Very fun, and very affordable unit.

The new Volca Nubass has just arrived in the country too, bringing a harder, grittier sound via its vacuum tube powered architecture. A classic combo in acid house scene was a TB-303 with a Pro-Co RAT overdrive pedal to really make it scream – I suspect the Nubass will be able to achieve that, sans rodent.

Abstrakt Avalon Bassline

If you’re happy to spend a bit more money on an incredibly faithful 303 recreation, with the benefit of a much more modern (and fun) sequencer, then this boutique unit might be what you’re after.

Abstrakt have even gone as far as sourcing circuit components used in the original 303, noting on their website “carbon film resistors, united chemi-con electrolytic capacitors, poly foil film capacitors, original IC’s, and Sanyo/on semi and Mitsubishi transistors.”

The downside of using vintage components is they’re constantly struggling to meet demand, so you’ll have to get lucky to score yourself an Avalon.

Novation Circuit Mono Station

Like the Korg Volca units, Novation have gone and put their own spin on the fun and quick synth/sequencer acid box that doesn’t sound a whole lot like an original 303, but has its own appeal.

It’s an analogue synth engine with two oscillators and a sub-oscillator plus some very fun additions like a ring modulator and Novation’s killer distortion circuit. Has a much larger price tag than the Korg Volca, but you get a more fully featured synthesiser, so there’s options if you want ‘em.

Arturia MiniBrute 2S

Last but not least, Arturia have gone the raw analogue semi-modular route with their MiniBrute 2S. There’s no presets on this bad boy, it’s more designed for the synth-nerds who really want to dig in and tinker around with experimental sounds.

Attached to it is a powerful and intuitive sequencer, so it’s a nice compromise on modular-style functionality and the convenience of a fully contained product. That said, this unit will play very nicely with a Eurorack modular system if you’re that way inclined.

For more electronic music content, check out our wrap up of the birth of house & acid house.

This article was originally published July 24, 2019.