After some excellent teaser material, Roland finally came clean on their new Aria lineup of future retro gear. The reboots of their legendary TB-303, TR-909/808, System 100 and Voice Transformer, are now the TB-3, TR-8, System-1 and VT-3 respectively. The famed analog circuitry has unfortunately been replaced by what Roland describes as Analog Circuit Behavior, basically a pseudo-new analog modeling technology meant to replicate each and every circuit of the original boards.
Roland certainly threw their A-Game at the endeavor and modules are all sleek and tasty. The marketing is also first-class with a sexy new logo and a “back to formula” chemistry-lab vibe to showcase that this is not your mother’s lame MC-303. The effort is commendable considering that Roland lost their electronic music mojo for some time, and they are finally listening to their customer’s instead of Mr. K’s ranting and raving about not going back in time, this is not how Roland does things, yadda, yadda, yadda. The sad face that one gets upon hearing this, especially if you’ve been tweaking knobs before the new millennium, is why now? (We’ll get to the why not analog question in a moment). One could say that with Mr. K out of the picture, the savvy executives grabbed all their engineers by the hair and dragged them into Research & Development (what’s left of their R&D) and told them to get to work. They’ve been probably calculating all the lost revenue over the years from not putting out their own reboots, as well as licensing software emulations to other companies such as Arturia, and figured, let’s give this a real shot. Another may offer that Roland hasn’t really done much on the synth front in years, and they could really use a runaway success to bolster their coffers and propel the company forward. Sometimes you do have to grab some low lying fruit.
However, Roland got here, no one will really know and industry-watchers can pontificate all they want, but the reality is that we have four new products from Roland to finally get excited about, or at least try and get stoked. Their new TB-3 is a nice fusion between the legacy 303 and an iPad. It does a respectable 303 emulation and adds a few new features without trying to do too much. The pressure-sensitive, multitouch screen is downright sweet, and it is much more intuitive than the original as far as programming. That said, it is not real analog. Worse, you can’t get under the hood to really tweak the sound of the 4-oscillator virtual-analog engine, like you could if you had full access to sculpting parameters of a real analog synth like a Moog, or the latest BoomStars from Studio Electronics. What you’re relegated to is, wait for it, wait for it, presets. Yup, fifty of what Roland believes are the most popular 303 sounds. Now each present allows you to tweak it to your hearts desired with dedicated Resonance, Filter and Accent knobs – Envelope Modulation is accounted for via the X/Y matrix of the touch screen. So there’s a lot of wobbly, acid action to be garnered, but there are definite limitations.
Roland did attempt to up the ante with the TB-3 by adding an effects package and a Scatter button for instant glitch action. There is also two addition banks of fifty sounds each to add to the sonic palette of the box. The second bank is general bass presets that goes beyond he signature 303 sound and the third bank are just general synth sounds that reminded me of the SH-08. Again, the 303 emulation is quite good, with plenty of lower end punch and mind-melting resonance, so it will certainly be on an electronic musician’s test drive list if they want that vintage acid sound. The other sounds are good, but are certainly not the selling point of this unit. For connectivity we have Phones, Left/Right output, MIDI I/O and USB. A wall wart adapter is supplied.
The TB-3 is currently streeting at about $299 / £245 / €299 during the pre-order process and should drop another 50 or so by the fall, which is more in line for what it should be selling for, but Roland is hoping to cash in on the pre-release momentum they’ve curated. So is this worth it? Well, it’s certainly worth it if you’ve been searching for a 303 sound and can’t afford the astronomical price that sellers are currently asking for the original, but for someone who owns the little silver box, or a clone, or even a Moog MiniTaur, the question becomes a little harder. We think Roland did a commendable job on the reboot. The “Kaoss iPad,” multitouch aspect of the unit, which brings it instantly up to date, especially with the pressure sensitivity, is well-executed. However, it would have been brilliant to have the ability to sculpt the sounds in order to truly personalize the sonic characteristics, and push the envelope a bit (pun intended) to explore new realms. One of the mistakes many clone manufacturers make is that they just seem to be content to cross the finish line. “It sounds pretty close to the real thing, OK, let’s go to the pub.” If they’re not saying “what can we do to really extend the limits to what is possible,” then an opportunity has certainly been missed.
The choice Roland made to go with analog modeling, instead of using the real thing, should not be overlooked. Korg opted for the real deal with the Volca boxes, which are basically their version of the Roland SH-202, TB-303 and the TR-606. Again, if you’re going down the 303 road, the Volca is a compelling alternative, at half the price, despite some truly bizarre feature choices, but we digress. So Roland decides on the virtual analog path, but then caps the 303 acid presets at 50 and throws in a bunch of other presets you really don’t want. From a purely sonic standpoint, it just appears that this is one step forward, two steps back, but let’s take a closer look at this Analog Circuit Behavior business.
» Instruments Preset Patches: 134
» Sequencer User Patterns: 64
» Maximum Step: 32 Steps (each pattern)
» Scatter Preset: 8
— Pressure Sensitive Touchpad
» Display: 7 segments, 3 characters (LED)
—PHONES jack: Stereo 1/4-inch phone type
—OUTPUT (L/MONO, R) jacks: 1/4-inch phone type
—MIDI (IN, OUT) connectors
—USB port: USB type B (Audio/MIDI)
—DC IN jack
» Power Supply AC adaptor, or obtained via USB port (USB bus power) Current Draw 500 mA
» Size and Weight:
Width (W) 240 mm / 9-1/2 inches
Depth (D) 173 mm / 6-13/16 inches
Height (H) 57 mm / 2-1/4 inches
Weight 820 g / 1 lbs. 13 oz.
Here’s what Roland has to say about Analog Circuit Behavior:
Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB) is the technology behind the authentic sound and responsive behavior of the AIRA products. It faithfully captures the sound and feel of some our most revered classics, using original design specs, consultation with original engineers, and a detailed, part-by-part analysis of each analog circuit in our own pristine units.
Analog electronic musical instruments consist of various analog components including resistors, capacitors, and transistors. The unique sound of analog instruments is due to the distinctive characteristics of the individual analog components. So-called “vintage” instruments, in particular, show extremely distinctive sound and behavior due to the variable instability of the electronic components.
Rhythm machines and synthesizers such as the TR-808, TR-909, TB-303, and SH-101 enjoy entrenched popularity to this very day even though they first appeared over 30 years ago. This is because musicians across the globe have recognized their unique sound and used them to forge entirely new genres of electronic music. To produce the new AIRA products, we aimed to pick up where these analog classics left off and to develop a completely new technology which models the traditional analog circuits, right down to their behavioral levels.
ACB is drastically different from conventional methods of modeling, and reproduces each analog component by thoroughly analyzing each detail of the original design drawings. By combining the analyzed components in exactly the same manner as the original analog components, detailed characteristics of the original musical instruments emerge and can be reproduced completely.
This analysis requires knowledge of the design and development processes of the original analog instruments. It is not possible to reproduce the original sounds just by logically analyzing the analog circuits. This is because the original engineers used a design approach which maximized the capabilities of the analog components. Throughout the development of ACB, we cooperated with the original engineers who designed and developed these iconic instruments. With their expertise, we could ensure that we fully reproduced the ideal state of their creations.
Utilizing the enormous calculation power of state-of-the-art DSP, ACB not only precisely emulates the analog-specific characteristics or our classic gear, but also delves into areas the original engineers tried to go but ultimately abandoned.
After reading this, it’s easy to get excited about the possibilities of this new modeling technology. Wow, modeling each individual resistor, capacitor and transistor? That opens up a lot of potential for tweakers to really get their hands dirty and maybe push the TB-3 into new Acid frontiers. But no. The new box doesn’t allow you to delve into any sound design action at all. Imagine what Robin Whittle (and others) could create if they had access to all those intricate models. Going down the rabbit hole here, but what about a Max-styled environment for the Analog Circuit Behavior modeling? It’s possible to go on and on about “What If…” – but, at the end of the day, Roland should have gone further with the sonic potential of the Transistor Bass Three. Great interface, and form factor though.