Innovation and unpredictability: everyone needs a 303 (but not for $1,500)

Photo: Kleine Gelbe Ente

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The novelty of disruputive technology soon becomes second nature. Social networking made the web intimate, a lingua franca to even the barely computer-literate, but its real achievement was to make itself mundane. Apple gobbled the Walkman market whole in just a few years. But the iPod is already at least three revolutions ago in Cupertino. In consumer electronics, the light always burns bright and brief.

Apple, now one of the world's wealthiest companies, knows this well; it could have been sold for parts 15 years ago were it not for one critical hiring decision. And for every Apple, there are a dozen Commodores.

Remember Dr. An Wang? In the age of Atari, his company made excellent word processors, an intermediary life form between typewriter and personal computer. Few doubt his visionary caliber, but the changes he inspired ultimately left his company trailing competitors.

That's not to say that major innovations are impermanent, only that the opportunies they create are unpredictable. In fact, innovation's greatest impact is sometimes felt only on the other side of the peak, when a marketable technology loses its shine and becomes part of the landscape.

Here's my favorite example. In 1980, Roland released a lineup of novel synthesizers designed to help traditional musicians in need of automated accompaniment. The TR-606 drum machine and TB-303 bass guitar synth were intended to be used as cheap, portable substitutes for acoustic performers. They were not a hit. Their cold, technical sounds must have sounded absurdly fake to guitarists and singers. Another new technology, digital sampling, offered more realistic results.

After Roland stopped making them, however, these gadgets were picked up years later by a new generation of artists. They unlocked the latent creative possibilities in something marketed for use in private, and the result was an explosion in popularity for electronic music. A 303 in good nick can now fetch $1500 or more at auction. Aficionados argue over the technical accuracy of handmade replicas. It's become culture, a slow-burning thread now woven into every synthesizer and software package capable of emulating it.

There are some impediments nowadays to the creative reuse of commercially-expired technology. Digital rights-management and the attendant legal restrictions make it harder to experiment with other people's ideas. Manufacturers often have their own ideas about what you should create with what they have created. And what they want to create more than anything else is a predictable marketplace for their own work.

But history shows that they can't predict much of anything, in the long run, and hackers will find a way to give anything a second life. And by the time it matters, the lock-keepers won't even notice the new old thing changing the world around them--even if they invented it.


  1. And here is an ad for it from 1981 or thereabouts. “Bound to appeal to any creative person writing music, practicing or simply communicating ideas to other musicians.” They really had no idea at all what they had created.

  2. The very definition of “happy accident”, this ridiculously robotic-sounding synthesizer was never admired until it was abused.  As such, the TB303 is my favourite musical instrument on earth.

    Thank goodness for creative people who find great potential in the most unlikely of tools.  Long live hackers.

  3. I think the premise of this argument is sound but the idea that the 606 and
    303 were rejected for sounding cold and technical is slightly off base. For one
    thing, they sold in the tens of thousands. They were really useful for
    composition, and could be integrated into finished recordings well enough. If
    anything, the timing might have been off; Roger Linn introduced his LM-1 in 1980
    and the Oberheim DMX was about to launch, and both sounded much more realistic
    (although neither sold in the same quantities as the Roland device, due to
    pricing). And of course Roland’s mighty 808 and 909 machines would soon follow
    and wipe away any memory of the 606! But musicians had long since embraced drum
    machines by 1981, when the 606 launched. Sly & the Family Stone’s “Family
    Affair,” which featured one, got to #1 in 1971. Brian Eno, Can and Arthur Brown
    all used them on releases in the early ’70s. Kraftwerk, the very essence of cold
    and technical, initially created their own drum machine sounds, of course.

  4. I love the 303 and the story behind it!  That Roland thought they could sell it as a “bass guitar” replacement is hilarious to anyone that’s heard one.  But put it in the right hands and it was a completely new sound, something that doesn’t happen more than once every few decades.  (Unfortunately the most recent “new sound” I can think of is autotune.. I suppose like the 303, it can be good in the right hands, but it’s torture in the wrong hands.)

  5. well, on auctions, the price is always what people WANT to pay. and let’s not forget the snob and audiophile factor. no doubt nowdays you can get the sounds for free for FLstudio and such, but hey, I payed 1500 bucks, it MUST sound better!

    1. You’re exactly right.  There are lots of very accurate 303 emulators out there– it’s actually not that complex a sound and pretty easy to emulate.  There are lot better ways to spend $1500.

    2. “let’s not forget the snob and audiophile factor. no doubt nowdays you can get the sounds for free for FLstudio and such, but hey, I payed 1500 bucks, it MUST sound better!”

      The “samples” are amateurish and poorly done, and sound exactly like disjointed samples. If you were suggesting people use VSTis, which are far better quality, I might tend to agree.

      But just because YOU can’t tell the difference between one-shot samples and the real thing, doesn’t mean that anybody’s being a snob.

      I use fruityloops AND actual synths, for the record.

      1. hey, chill, sorry if I upset you. fortunately I have a good ear, use also synths with FL and most of all, (and I think you agree) I know that today is not that hard to reproduce exactly the electronics and their exact sound, bit by bit. all the rest is brand mystic. peace!

  6. The thing is, it’s hard to make grand pronouncements about the history and future of consumer electronics, when the whole industry has barely existed for 50 years or so. (I count the birth of the transistor radio as the dawn of the industry, and that was only in ’54.)

    As far as “burning bright but brief’… how about Sony? They aren’t the market leaders anymore, but they’ve been major players since their first radio in ’55. Motorola only just now died, and they were around since the ’30s.

    The common thread? They’ve all been bigger than a single product and they changed with the times. Even Apple… they were a major player in the early PC market, nearly died and after a couple false starts managed to completely reinvent themselves.

    As Jobs himself has said, sooner or later someone is going to come up with a product that will replace yours… the trick lies in inventing it yourself. Sony failed at that, partially because they lost sight of what’s actually important to people, and partially (I believe) because the various factions of the conglomerate had goals at odds with each other.

    1. How has Motorola died? I agree the mobile phone part has been in a death spiral for some time, but that was always a fraction of their business. The spin off of Mobility ( the phones and cable boxes) was the excising of a tumor. Moto Solutions still sells tons and tons of public safety radio systems and enterprise wireless gear.

      disclosure: I work for Moto Solutions.

      1. As far as I can tell, Moto Solutions only sells to govt and enterprise. When the company split in January, that was the death knell of Motorola as a consumer electronics company. While I would consider Moto Solutions as a successor to certain parts of the original company, it isn’t that company. Motorola Inc. was founded in 1928 and no longer exists. Note the past tense on the Wiki entry: “Motorola, Inc. (pronounced /moʊtɵˈroʊlə/) was an American multinational[6] telecommunications company based in Schaumburg, Illinois”.

    1. The Future Retro “Revolution” is also another good hardware clone.

      …but none of them sound like the real deal which is why I will be selling my first born in exchange for an original 303.

    2. Wow, you just made my day by sharing that link. I had no clue you could buy a 303 clone making kit, I am definitely scooping one of those up.

      When I first started recording music in the early 90’s, my buddy had a 303. It does have a great, crunch sounds, but the interface is a bit of a nightmare. Nowadays, I would hook up a 303, make my sounds, sample them, and dump them into my sequencer of choice (Logic) and create beats that way. The interface of modern sequencers makes things so much simpler. However, I often wonder if the limitations imposed by early electronic instruments like this, were a bg part of the charm, and part of the reason why those songs sound so good.

    3. re: the x0xb0x is now available from/supported by — not that there has to be a canonical source — it is an open source project. But he stocks boards, panels, and full kits. 

  7. Wouldn’t you know it… the one I have (the Roland TR-505) is only going for around $100-$200 on eBay these days.  Oh, well… guess I’ll put it up there anyway.  Never thought it would be worth one thin dime.  I got it for free from my composer sister-in-law once she tired of it in 1990 or so, and I always felt it was more of a toy than anything else.  But if some schmuck wants to blow their hard-earned scratch on it, who am I to stand in the way of their creativity?  For all I know, it still has Rhino Bucket’s “Beat To Death Like A Dog” programmed into it.

  8. Surprised that this post wasn’t about the x0xb0x… why pay $1500 when you can get a solid 303 emulator with MIDI for a third of that?

  9. I own a Roland MC-09, which to my not-so-talented ears sounds pretty close to a 303,  when set to “vintage” mode. It also got MIDI. Pretty fun little machine, goes for about 100 USD on ebay. The built-in drums are worthless, though.

  10. Remember Dr. An Wang? In the age of Atari, his company made excellent
    word processors, an intermediary life form between typewriter and
    personal computer. Few doubt his visionary caliber, but the changes he
    inspired ultimately left his company trailing competitors.

    Of course naming the company after himself didn’t help — you couldn’t even bring up the name of the company in the 1980s without somebody making a juvenile joke.

      1. I was told The Otis Elevator Company has an office in Reading, UK. 
        They answer the phones with “Hello, Otis Reading”.

    1. I think that they were “in” on the joke. I remember a commercial where a guy is typing on his keyboard and someone asks, “Are you coming?”
      He replies, “No, I’m gonna stay home … and play with my Wang.”

  11. An Wang got his start building core memories — the little ferromagnetic donuts with wires running through them.  When those started to be replaced by solid-state memories, he cast around for another product.  He happened to see a demo of the Hypertext system at Brown, where his son Tom was a student, and seized on word processing.  It was a huge change from weaving cores, but he did it brilliantly.  Unfortunately the second generation of management — Tom — wasn’t as successful.

    On the other hand Xerox tried to do a second-generation version of the Wang word processors, using innovations like the laser printer, Ethernet, Engelbart’s mouse, and their Alto graphic-display computer, and failed.

  12. I disagree that DRM is hindering experimenting with other peoples ideas.  In the “olden days” i.e. before 2004, we sampled the old fashioned way:  Using an audio cable plugged from the output of one device to the input of the sampler.  In that case, laziness is what’s hindering people to experiment more.  

  13. 303’s still fetch high prices? That’s utterly insane..the emulations are so accurate now it makes a mockery of the collector culture..

    Sold my 303 (which I bought for 80 bucks in a pawn shop in ’95) for around the same (ie $1500) a few years ago…

    The instrument is in fact not that much fun to use…the sequencer in particular is hard work at the best of times…I find the trainspotter culture around it a bit sad and there are particular artists (Orbital/Hardfloor) who have really exhausted the beauty of what it can do in a track..

  14. I used the Roland MC-202 step sequencer back then. You could micro-manage every nuance of each note, the 303 was cruder in this regard.Still, as with the MC-202, the 303 had CV/Gate output so you could hook up an external synth if you couldn’t deal with the cheesy onboard sound.

  15. There is a really delicious energy that these boxes have when they are (often crudely) trying to hang in sync together. When I finally got my 1st gen Oberheim DX to lock up with my TR707 & SH101, thru an Alesis 3630 compressor, the sexiest funk was heard that day.

    I really must video document it one day. The 1st DX’s couldn’t get the MIDI mod, and didn’t have the OS which allowed for MIDI clock divides, so I was ready to sell it for parts. I had tried EVERYTHING. TWICE.

    So I sampled the Oberheim’s sync out into my MPC, and output that sample back into the sync in of the DX and much joy and merriment was had that day.

    Let’s hear it for the mutant machines!

  16. The whole original TB-303 versus clones discussion has been done to death on countless websites. I got one in 1999, a decade after I was hooked on the sound by numerous acid tracks. The 303 has been declared dead so often I can’t even keep track. All I know is that people still go nuts when a good acid riff is introduced in a set.

    I like the sound and obviously the story behind it is also a big part of the appeal. I wanted an original, for the same reasons people invest in classic cars when there are perfectly fine new models out there.But the clones are pretty good these days, especially the x0xb0x one. Software synths are pretty bad at (I dare say incapable of) emulating the dog whistle high of my analog silver box.

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