A few months ago I was told about a new hardware clone of Roland’s TB-303 BassLine Synthesizer. I was told that this would resemble the TB-303 more closely than any clone that we’ve seen so far. At the time I hadn’t been shown any images so I just assumed that this meant in terms of its sound. However, when Cyclone Analogic made their announcement just a few weeks ago it became clear what was meant. The Bass Bot TT-303 is no ordinary clone.
The TT-303 is a monophonic analog bassline synthesiser with selectable VCO (with saw and square waveforms) and a 24dB-per-octave 4 pole analog filter, with controls for cutoff frequency, resonance, and envelope modulation. Like the TB-303 there is a single control over the envelope generators decay as well as a control over the accent amount. It also has a classic step-entry pattern sequencer. Everything you’d expect from a TB-303 clone. Where the TT-303 is different to other clones, however, is with its design. Not only have they attempted to recreate the exact sound (more on that later), but the unit has been designed to look and feel just like the original. It is the same colour and dimensions (both size and shape). It has the same layout. Its knobs, switches, port/socket layout and labelling (type-face) are identical. The packaging is similar to that in which the original shipped too (see our ‘unboxing’ video on the right). Even the screw locations and battery compartment are the same. Just like the original the TT-303 can be operated from batteries or using the included adapter. At first glance you’d think that you’d just received a brand new TB-303.
So what are there differences?
The Bass Bot TT-303 is remarkably similar to the original, both in terms of its design and specifications (see the full specifications in the box to the right). However, there are some notable differences. For starters, unlike the TB-303, the Bass Bot includes both MIDI IN and OUT (using the supplied 8 DIN MIDI Breakout cable) so is great for syncing with your existing MIDI hardware as either master or slave (sending and receiving start, stop, continue and clock messages). It also means that the Bass Bot can receive and transmit MIDI Note data, including slides (two or more tied notes) and velocity (accent). Another benefit of MIDI is that the Bass Bot can perform MIDI dumps so you can easily backup your patterns, tracks and system preferences (such as console colour settings and MIDI channel preferences) to a computer. However, even with all the benefits that MIDI brings, some people may still be disappointed with the absence of Roland’s DIN Sync because it means that you won’t be connecting the Bass Bot directly to your old Roland gear (such as the MC-202, TB-303, TR-606 or TR-808). This isn’t a problem in itself as most people using old Roland gear already use MIDI to DIN Sync converters, or other modules that have both MIDI and DIN Sync such as the TR-707 or Novation DrumStation. But it would have been nice to have had the option.
Another difference is that the Bass Bot TT-303′s LEDs are tri-colour (red/green/blue) so are capable of producing up to 13 different user definable colours (unlike the TB-303 which, unless modified, has red LEDs). This is really handy for colour labelling groups of similar patterns or for easily identifying different patterns while performing live in a dark environment. Unlike the TB-303, the LEDs do not protrude from the front panel. Instead, they are visible through diffused windows in the switch plate (which is constructed with a polycarbonate as opposed to the TB-303′s aluminium). This doesn’t detract from the overall look of the unit while in use, and the LEDs are still visible in bright daylight.
I was pleased to see that, just like the TB-303, the Bass Bots knobs and buttons are hard chrome plated. It would have been easy for them to cut corners and save money by making these silver-painted, which shows the dedication to creating a product that is as close to the original as possible. However, the six knobs on the synth section (Tuning, Cut Off Freq, Resonance, Env Mod, Decay and Accent) are less ‘sunken’ into the unit than the original. This does mean that they’re easier to turn and that less wear is likely to the silver paintwork and labelling around the knobs through extended use (as is seen with most well-used TB-303s). But it does cause them to feel slightly more ‘wobbly’ in use. They do still however feel very robust so this should be seen as more of an improvement over the original than a criticism. Talking about the paintwork, the silver finish seems to be of a fairly high standard, and I suspect you’ll see less fading and wear over time than is usual with the TB-303.
You’ll notice that the Bass Bot TT-303′s Write/Next button is also labelled with “Tap”. Just like many Roland synthesisers and drum machines of this era, including the MC-202 and TR-606, the TB-303 featured a “tap” function that allowed you to tap in the rhythm of a pattern. While the label is present on the Bass Bot TT-303 it appears that there’s currently no way to perform this function. We’re told that the Bass Bot TT-303′s InstaDJ operating system is upgradeable through the 8 PIN MIDI port so I suspect the tap feature will be added later via a firmware update.
Not immediately obvious is that the Bass Bot has a non-volatile memory. This means that, unlike the TB-303, you’re not required to have batteries installed in order to retain your patterns and tracks in memory. Speaking of which there’s far more pattern storage memory available with 224 pattern locations, as opposed to the TB-303′s 64. Furthermore, pattern copy and paste is available, including the ability to merge up to 8 patterns into one to create a pattern with up to 64 notes. All of your patterns and tracks can be transferred to PC/Mac for storage/sharing or transferred directly to another TT-303 using the 8 Pin DIN cable. At the time of this review the companion software was not yet available so I eagerly await its release. Even with the extended memory that the TT-303 offers it won’t be long before you’ve created a large number of patterns and tracks so the ability to backup your patterns is a great addition. Gone are the days where we had to share our patterns on a paper grid!
One final difference of note is that the Bass Bot TT-303 can self-calibrate its tuning. Another welcome addition for those of you used to manually tuning your analog synthesisers and having to get them serviced and calibrated regularly.
|About the “InstaDJ OS Sequencer”
One of the best features of the Bass Bot TT-303′s InstaDJ OS is its ability to produce randomly generated patterns. Well, not completely random – there are 7 different algorithms or “personalities” for you to choose for pattern generation. It comes preloaded with 224 computer generated patterns for you to use out of the box, all of which are stored in the ‘presets’ memory location (so not to fill up your user memory). See the video on the right for a demo of the different personalities.
Preset patterns can be regenerated individually or you can choose to regenerate several or all patterns at once. Each unit is said to be unique so no two “Bots” should produce the same patterns. In use, the pattern generation proved to be really good fun, and I found myself exploring the various personalities for several hours. Many of the patterns were immediately usable, but if not to your taste it’s a simple one-step process to regenerate a new one.
Presets 1 and 2 will produce ‘fluid’ styles as a lead instrument, usually with a 4/4 time signature.
Presets 3 and 4 will produce ‘glitched’ styles as spontaneous riffs in a track, breaks or segue transitions as a band background instrument, generally in 4/4 or 2/4 time.
Presets 5 and 6 will produce ‘triplet’ styles for accompaniment or as the lead instrument, usually consisting of twelve triplet notes.
Preset 7 will produce ‘chaotic’ styles for creatively more complex patterns as the lead instrument. Patterns will primarily be quarter notes or triplets and the length of patterns may vary from 1 to 16 steps.
If you want to manually edit a generated pattern (Notes, Accents, Slides etc.) you just copy and paste it into one of the user memory locations (‘Write’ mode) and select ‘Pitch Mode’ to edit as normal. This is also useful for learning about the structure of different patterns if you’re new to this method of sequencing. Patterns can be generated in ‘Write’ mode but it’s recommended to generate them in Presets mode and copy them over to avoid filling up your user memory.
Once you’ve generated (or programmed) a pattern that you like another useful feature is ‘Mutate’. This takes the current pattern and makes subtle variations to the structure, notes, accents and slides to produce a new similar pattern. I found that, together with the Bass Bot’s ‘copy and paste’ function, it was really useful for creating sets of different patterns that work well together. One thing I did notice was that sometimes the changes could be too subtle and you might not immediately hear any difference. However, a quick look in Pitch Mode will reveal one or two small changes, maybe just to the Accents or Slides. So, if you haven’t got your Accent knob turned up then they might not be noticeable. If you’re not happy with the results or wanted the changes to be less subtle you can always hit the Mutate button again, or several times in succession, until your pattern has mutated into something you want to use.
If you do make a mistake while using the Bass Bot TT-303 in Pattern Write mode it does include a handy ‘undo’ feature. This lets you undo the pasting of a pattern, the generation of a new pattern, mutating a pattern, clearing a pattern, saving a pattern and more! This is achieved by pressing the ‘Back’ and ‘Time’ buttons simultaneously. Given how easy it is to regenerate and mutate patterns this is a great addition. For example, if you forgot to copy and paste a pattern before mutating it then all is not lost, you can hit ‘undo’ and return to the original pattern.
The TT-303′s “InstaDJ” operating system also includes a number of live performance features including a ‘pattern-based arpeggiator’ which will cycle through the selected steps of any pattern in an up, down, up/down and random fashion. What’s unique here is that the arpeggiator maintains the length and timing of the chosen pattern as well as the note data (Octave Up, Octave Down, Accent and Slide). This is something I’ve never seen before and I found this to be great fun and really useful for adding quick variations to patterns while playing live. Other performance enhancements include Live Pitch Transpose, Live Accent (velocity) and Live Slide (portamento). This means that as a pattern or track is playing you can temporarily change the base note of the pattern by pressing the relevant button on the keyboard. You can also quickly change the characteristics of the pattern on the fly by tapping away at the Accent and Slide buttons, with the pattern returning to it’s original state after you release the buttons. These features are great for artists and DJ’s wanting to quickly add interest to your performance. Check out the video on the right to see this in action.
So how does it sound?
Many of you will probably be most interested this section, and for good reason! In terms of design, Cyclone Analogic have produced what can only be described as a ‘replica’ rather than just another clone of Roland’s TB-303. But have they nailed the sound? I’m pleased to report that, to my ears at least, the Bass Bot TT-303 does sound very close indeed. It’s not perfect, but it’s closer than any clone I’ve experienced so far. The raw oscillator, for both saw and square waveforms, sounds great. The filter is every bit as ‘squelchy’ as the original. The accents and slides seem to behave just like they should. Though I would say that Bass Bot TT-303 does have a slightly fuller bass response than the original, especially noticeable with the filter cutoff at its lowest setting with just the lower frequencies coming through. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is a bassline synthesiser after-all. But if you were to compare it directly to the TB-303 there would a noticeable difference at some settings.
What about the build quality?
Cyclone Analogic have done a good job of ensuring the Bass Bot TT-303 looks and feels just like Roland’s TB-303, except for a few minor differences. But what about the build quality? Will the TT-303 survive the same kind of abuse that the original has endured for the last 30 years? I mentioned that the raised knobs on the synth section wobbled slightly. This does mean that they feel a little more delicate in use. If you gently push down on them there is also some downwards movement. For these reasons I wouldn’t recommend carrying or storing it without adequate protection. Speaking of the knobs, when I first received the Bass Bot TT-303 I was a little concerned that while turning them you could feel and hear them “grinding” against something underneath. I was never lucky enough to own a brand new TB-303 but I have been told that this was also the case on the original and that the grinding will slowly disappear. Sure enough, after a week of extensive use the grinding does seems to have reduced (especially on the Cutoff and Resonance, the two knobs I use most), although it hasn’t yet gone altogether.
Another thing to note is that, on the unit I received at least, neither the “Track/Preset” or “Mode” dials are centre-aligned. This is also the case on all of my Roland x0x gear, but not having owned it from new I assumed that it was due to age. However, I’ve been assured that misaligned dials were common with TB-303′s straight out of the factory. I just expected the TT-303 to have perfectly aligned knobs and dials, like the other synths that I’ve bought brand new. Both dials do turn and function just fine so this is really just cosmetics. It seems to me, that in an effort to fully replicate the original hardware design, Cyclone Analogic may have also carried across the same “niggles” that were present with the original Roland machine.
Is it worth my hard-earned cash?
The Bass Bot TT-303 is currently priced at GBP £449.00 / EUR €549.00 / USD $699.99 (plus local taxes). This is around the same price as other ‘factory-built’ clones. It’s also about a third of the price of a used Roland TB-303 in fair condition. So yes, in my opinion, it’s worth the price. If you’ve always wanted a TB-303 but have struggled to part with the kind of money that they command, or if you’d like a second TB-style synthesiser to add to your arsenal, then Cyclone Analogic’s Bass Bot TT-303 could well be as close as you’ll get to the real thing!
I bought the Cyclone Analogic Bass Bot TT-303 from Superior Sounds London. They offer free next-day shipping (for UK residents) as well as fast shipping to Europe and Worldwide. Great customer service too. Highly recommended!