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The Roland TB-303


April 14 2015

There is only one time in my life that I saw a real Roland TB-303 synthesizer.

Many moons ago, I went to the local music store to get something cheap to expand my then very simple recording studio. I went up to the owner and asked him to show me the really cheap stuff he was getting rid of; I had already gotten a cheesy analog ARP AXXE from him for under $100.

He bought out his cheapest stuff: A Roland TB-303 and a DOD Chorus 690. The TB-303 was appealing; while it was a really, really crappy analog synthesizer, and didn't even have MIDI, it did have a built in sequencer and I could hook it up to a drum machine I had already bought. Alas, I only had $35 and it would have cost me $60 to get the TB-303, so I ended up leaving the music store with that chorus pedal.

As I type this, TB-303s are going for $2,000 to $3,000 on eBay. People who spend that kind of money on what is, in truth, one of the most lousy analog synthesizers are missing the point.

The reason why so much great music ended up being made with the TB-303 is because talented musicians with low budgets ended up buying those units and being really creative with them. It had a lot more to do with the talent of the musicians than it had to do with the fact that the cheapest synthesizer + sequencer at the time was the TB-303.

These days, I would get a basic M-Audio 2-in 2-out and MIDI interface for under $100 and download free digital audio workstation software and plugins. If I didn’t have a computer, I would — indeed, I just did — get a cheap Yamaha QY10 synthesizer/sequencer for under $50.

A lot of really great music is being made on computers, which are far more powerful and flexible than the setups those musicians using TB-303s and TR-808s had, before their prices went through the ceiling.

The secret to making good music is having something to say. It’s not about the gear; it’s about the talent and the willingness to spend the time to do things right. That just as true for those dance musicians who made amazing stuff with the TB-303 back in the day, as well as the musicians making amazing stuff with computers today.

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