The 8 best TB-303 clones according to the artists who use them
We celebrate 303 day with some of our favourite acid experts
One of electronic music's most iconic sounds, Roland's original TB-303 is truly a classic bit of kit. Over the years, its been often imitated, rarely bettered, with a seemingly endless list of familiar model numbers attempting to add more or tweak what was already a firm favourite. Given that it’s 303 day — 3rd March, geddit? — we thought we'd reach out to some of our favourite acid experts to find out what's filling the 303 hole in their hearts and studios. Reach a higher state, below...
“I've been somewhat of a fan of acid for a few years now. In that time, I've tried a lot of clones and replicas of the classic [Roland] TB-303 – as well as also borrowing the original at times, though I've never owned an actual TB-303 myself. I think my first real exposure was Rebirth, a software emulator of the 303 and 808. It was an eye-opener for me and many of my generation, discovering electronic music in the mid-90s after the first wave of acid house had faded.
“Fatboy Slim had released ‘Everybody Needs a 303’ and Josh Wink's ‘Higher State…’ were at the forefront of the acidic sound, but the likes of Aphex and Vibert were pushing through newer interpretations. TB-303s were actually pretty cheap at that point, kinda unpopular (for the second time in their existence) and viewed as a bit ‘dated’ but then Rebirth changed all that.
“In the early 2010s, I sold my x0xb0x and bought a new clone that had come out, French-designed but Thailand-built Cyclone Analogic TT303. It looked almost exactly like an original TB-303, and was a real analogue clone. This was the MkI model, which was eventually subject to a cease-and-desist from Roland, and discontinued. Cyclone Analogic built a second model with a new look, sadly it was quite ugly and suffered from a lack of battery power and a deeply inset MIDI port that cables fell out of.
“I currently own two TT303 Mk1s, and two others have passed through my hands. The advantages they have to the original TB303 is full MIDI, rather than older DIN sync, and an advanced sequencer that plays like the original, but can be programmed in much more detail [and] edited and copied with huge ease.
“It also has assignable colours on the LEDs which is very useful for grouping sequences visually. The sound and sequencer are the closest I've heard to a TB-303, and the inside is so similar to the original you can even get them Devilfish modded.
“They also have a great feature where they can run from MIDI sync and simultaneously push out a MIDI sequence, which is great for harmonising your acid lines with other instruments, or another TT303!”
"The Devilfish was a mystical mod for me after first hearing it and seeing one whilst up to my knees in mud at a Devon free party! My 303 was knackered when I first bought it for 200 quid. I saved and saved and sent it to Robin and Tina Whittle in Australia for the overhaul! They are fascinating people and live for the Devil Fish – both of them are involved in doing the mods.
“The Devilfish is often mistakenly thought of as being much more offensive squidge wise – but for me, its mods actually open up quite a bit more flexibility, subtle to distorted chaos. The filter tracking pot is so good, unlike the original 303 where the filter frequency was not affected by the pitch of the note the oscillator was playing. The Devil Fish’s filter tracking pot enables the filter frequency to track the note being played. Nerding aside, in reality, if used right, you can overtrack it to gain an additional groove on your bassline, switching it in and out – sounds ace.
“Then it's the additional decay pots – normal and accent. To be honest, I find it hard to use a normal 303 without these now! They are that good for percussive transient snappy lines or help push long drawn out basslines. They are also a great tool for giving pattern variation within your tracks – you can work them to call and respond, bouncing off each other."
“RE-303, brainchild of Paul Barker, is a replica kit of the Roland TB-303 Bassline Synthesizer. It can be purchased in kit form or from builders as a completed unit. The functionality is dependent on the CPU – it currently comes with the Pixiepowered RE-CPU, but it can be fitted with the original TB-303, Quicksilver or Sonic Potions CPUs.
“My RE-303 has the Sonic Potions CPU, which gives it the following functionality: MIDI I/O, live recording up to eight bars, real-time tweaking of accent, slide and transpose, random pattern generator, chaselight, different playback directions and all available while the sequencer is running. None of which is on the original TB-303. In the studio I sync my RE-303 using MDI and program it using the built in sequencer. Setting pattern length is easier than [on the] original and is displayed by the LEDS. When you edit pitch information, each step lights up, which is useful to see what step you are on. There are some slight differences in button procedure when compared to the original.
“I also use the MIDI input to sequence the RE-303 from my [Elektron] Digitakt’s sequencer to make longer more random or evolving acid sequences. Accents are velocity controlled and slides are created using overlapping notes similar to sending MIDI to a VST or other 303 clones. While there are many clones out there, only the RE-303 is an exact replica. It sounds great, alongside the original, has a bunch of modern features and the DIY ethos behind it is akin to that of the early acid house and rave movement.”
Beyun: “The [Roland] TB-03 is my favourite acid box for sketching patterns on the go. I power it with rechargeable AAs, pair with a TR-09/TR-08 through the Mix In & MIDI, and add overdrive, reverb, and delay all in the box—nothing extra required. The build is solid – the potentiometers can take more stress than the original because the knobs overlap with the case rather than being recessed and putting pressure directly on the board. While the knobs are tiny, they're easy to swap out with bigger ones – at least the tuning knob has a click at the center (if you've ever struggled with tuning a TT/RE/303, you will understand). When writing patterns, there's more flexibility to go two octaves up or down on each note, rather than one. It's also massively easier to back up patterns via USB rather than doing a magic SysEx dance.
“As for the downsides, it comes down to the sound. The digital TB-03 can be tinny in the lows and screechy in the highs. The onboard effects also leave something to be desired. When I record the final take, I'll use a pedal or VST rather than anything onboard. If you power it via USB, beware of the ground-loop hum, especially when you put it through a pedal. All that said, it's vastly superior sound-wise to most of the clones out there.”
Lauren: “When touring my live set it’s just me and one pelican case for all my gear, so given my own small size: the smaller the unit, the better.
“I considered getting the [Mode Machines] x0xb0x because it’s true analogue, but I decided to go with Roland’s TB-03 which uses Analog Circuit Technology. There is a slight difference there in quality of sound, but ultimately I decided to go with the TB-03 because of its size and programming, which felt much more intuitive. I’d say the only downside is the volume drop when going into those higher frequencies. All in all, though, I’m quite happy with it.”
“Whereas the original 303 is the classic club-jacker – I see the the ABL-3 as its dystopian step-sister, alone in the Blade Runner wilderness. Have used ABL-3 in my last 100 studio sessions, across Jozef K and Bluematter aliases. [I] think the clone is dope, but better used as itself rather than a straight 303 replica. With the right effects processing users can create some cold, sci-fi type lines. It’s also quite cool to use it for non-acidic basslines with the parameters stripped back. Though [I] personally prefer using ABL-3 for the futuristic take on the classic 303 sound.”
“I’ve had a few 303 clones in the past but I've held onto my Revolution. Looking like it fell from a passing spacecraft, this now discontinued box sounds decent. [It’s a] nice intuitive circular sequencer which works for techno. Loaded with a bunch decent sounding effects, which is nice for experimentation on the fly. It’s been used by electronica royalty like Apex Twin and The Chemical Brothers so it's got to be good enough for me. Does it sound like an original TB-303? Erm, well, sort of but not exact. Does that matter to 3,000 ravers screwing their faces to acid lines in the Gashouder? No.”
“My preferred 303 clone is the x0xb0x by Mode Machines. Before buying my first acid box, I tried a few different ones and the x0xb0x really stood out to me – in my opinion, this one is as close to the original sound as you’ll get. Every machine is unique and has its own specific sound. Using an external distortion unit, I like to give my machine a little more colour and can make it sound very close to the original TB-303. I have some other clones in my studio too, but I decided to take the x0xb0x on tour with me when playing live as the knobs are really big so it’s easy to modulate on the fly, especially in dark nightclubs.”
“I picked up my MB33 at the bargain price of £99. It doesn’t include the sequencer part of the original (which explains its tiny sub-Volca dimensions), but that’s not entirely a bad thing. The TB-303’s sequencer is famously awkward to program, and over MIDI the MB33 can still easily do all the slides and accents to give you that dynamic acid experience. The sound itself isn’t the most accurate impersonation but in the mix it can definitely hold its own. Mixing between saw and square waveforms is something it has over a real 303, although personally I always found that made the tone a bit weak and thin. Not bad for the price though.”
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