Tools of the Trade

The best TB-303 hack we've ever seen: extended pitch range, full MIDI control, and no batteries required

By Matt Ferry

Roland’s TB-303 Transistorized Bass synthesizer is one of the most iconic and revered pieces of analog gear in any producer’s collection. Simply filtering the cutoffs on a single pitched-note sequence will having you waxing nostalgic of those succinct and emotional slices of timeless acid techno tracks you first heard in Chicago and Detroit tracks of the early ’90s. The 303 may be passing the three-decade mark at the end of 2012, but it’s still in as high demand as ever—and upgrades and mods that breathe new life into it are readily available with a quick search. Today we’re happy to share with you one of our all-time favorites, John Kimble’s Quicksilver 303. Below, John goes through the MIDI functionality, the added ability to program patterns while the sequencer is running, and more tweaks that beef up your old 303 to mean-machine status!

So John, where are you from, and how did you get involved with electronic music?

Originally I’m from Michigan. I studied electrical engineering at the University of Michigan near Detroit from 1992 until 1997. I guess I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Techno music and the Detroit scene were really taking off at that time. I would spend most of my weekends driving to Detroit or Chicago for various raves and parties. Since then, I’ve moved between Chicago and Texas, and am currently based out of Dallas.

Who were some of your early influences when you were doing all those drives out to Detroit and Chicago?

Early musical influences include Art of Noise, Depeche Mode, Skinny Puppy, Front 242, and the whole Wax Trax catalog. After starting college, I really got into electronic dance music. I remember going to the Journey Through the Hardcore party at the Majestic (in Detroit) to see Moby, Kevin Saunderson, and Richie Rich (aka Richie Hawtin). That was the first time I had been exposed to bass so loud! You could get sick just standing in front of the bass bins. I was hooked. After attending the Plastikman Sheet One release party, I ran out and bought the album. I took that album to the keyboard store and asked the salesman, “What makes this sound?” He guessed it was an Arp Odyssey! Eventually I figured out that it was a TB-303, and about that time the whole midwest was exploding with acid house. Drop Bass Network, Communique, Analog, and a bunch of other labels were on weekly rotation at the midwest parties and, of course, Detroit had all of the Plus 8 parties. There was no other feeling like walking towards an abandoned Detroit warehouse, with bass rattling the windows and the echo of a TB-303 bubbling away.

Yeah, the bubbling can still make most people get all hot and bothered, but what made you decide you wanted to reprogram the 303 CPU?

After saving up enough money, I was finally able to get my hands on a well-used TB-303 in 1995. It was a simultaneously exciting and frustrating experience. I was using an Amiga 1200 [computer] to compose music, which had pretty solid MIDI capabilities. The 303 obviously didn’t use MIDI, and even getting it to synchronize would require another (expensive) box. At that time, DIN sync boxes were rare and expensive items, so I had to order out to a company in the UK and wait for a sync box. Meanwhile, I started trying to program the 303 and get some of the sounds I had been hearing on my favorite records. Unfortunately, my 303 had bad switches and would frequently enter incorrect data. I would hear glimpses of that glorious acid sound, but overall my first encounters with the 303 were so frustrating that I ended up selling it only a few years later. I was also interested in using my electrical-engineering skills to build my own synthesizer. I ordered the 303 schematics from Roland with the naive intention of building my own 303—of course, that didn’t happen. This was at least a decade before kits like the x0xb0x were available.

In 2008, I started building customized x0xb0x kits and ended up buying another TB-303 to use for testing. This 303 required some repairs and some new parts, which I took care of. After that, more and more vintage Roland machines started showing up for repairs from friends and customers. One of the 303s arrived with a dead CPU. Rather than scrap the dead 303, I decided I would create a completely new CPU replacement. This meant programming a new sequencing engine from scratch.

There are some aspects of the 303 sequencer that make it different from other machines, and this forces the user to work within certain limitations. I wanted to keep those limitations where it made sense, but at the same time improve and enhance almost every other aspect of the sequencer. Most of the new features are geared toward live composition and performance, as well as connectivity with modern studio equipment.

When I started programming the new CPU, I looked at how I would naturally expect the machine to behave in an ideal world. I also looked at all of the best features from other hardware sequencers. I wanted to combine all of these ideas together and come up with a result that was still a uniquely “303″ experience.

After all that work, what are some of your favorite features on the new OS?

The most important feature, for me, is the ability to program patterns while the sequencer is playing. It’s such an obvious feature, but it really opens up the machine. You can dial in the perfect pattern while the sequencer is playing. After that, I would say that the rotate function is dear to my heart. For some reason all of my patterns end up being off-beat and the rotate function makes it easy to line things back up!

Have you had any feedback on the upgrade from “top” producers?

So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive! I think everyone has commented on how the Quicksilver 303 CPU has built on the original 303 and at the same time just taken it to the next level. I have also been taking feedback and suggestions to continue making the CPU better. For instance, one “top” producer suggested the pattern-import function, which allows all of the patterns in the original 303 memory to be loaded into the new CPU. This feature was just added in the latest operating system update.

What about other gear? Is there anything else you’ve been experimenting with or would really like to try in the future?

I have been experimenting with some other machines. Both the TR-606 and TR-808 use the same core CPU chip as the TB-303, so with some additional programming it would be possible to create an upgrade for these machines. Of course, we will only announce new products when they are ready.

What about making instruments from the ground up? Is that something you’ve ever considered?

That is something I would really be interested in doing. One of the things that I find interesting is the whole product experience, the packaging, the industrial design, the functionality, and especially the limitations that encourage creativity. I think any hardware instrument should carefully balance features with usability and at the same time present a compelling physical interface which software can’t match.