Check out these four MP3 examples of AudioRealism Bass Line 2, created by the author, Deepsky mastermind Jason Blum. Bass Line 2 is a very accurate emulation of of the Roland TB-303 synth.
I can still remember how I felt the day I picked up my first Roland TB-303. It was a religious experience, holding that Holy Grail of early techno, feeling the cheap plastic under my fingertips and realizing that this underwhelming little silver box was at the heart of so many records I'd come to love over the years. Indeed, it may well be that the dance-music scene wouldn't be what it is without that analog wonder — it formed the cornerstone of acid house, shaped the sound of early Detroit techno and became a fixture in timeless dance classics spanning the decades between.
UP AND SQUELCHING
Naturally, the omnipresence of 303 sounds in dance music launched the price of these rare units into low orbit. With a limited supply in circulation and demand through the roof, 303s began trading for prices in excess of $1,500, and value-conscious producers began turning to a new crop of software-based alternatives that were easier on the pocketbook.
AudioRealism's Bass Line 2 (ABL2) is one of the latest such clones to hit the market. It's a virtual emulation of the classic TB-303 and promises to bring the magic of the little silver box to your VST- or Audio Units-compatible host sequencer. Let's take a good look and see if it's really a worthy successor for die-hard old schoolers weaned on the magic silver box that launched a thousand raves.
Getting ABL2 up and running is a snap. Purchasing the plug-in is quick and easy on AudioRealism's Website, and after forking over 95 euros (roughly $135) and downloading the package, installation is a simple one-click affair. Setup was also painless, and I was pounding out acid riffs in Cubase 4 in less than five minutes.
As a download-only product, ABL2 doesn't ship with a printed manual, but it does include a 23-page PDF that is generally well-written and discusses most of ABL2's features: the overall layout and basics of programming it via internal and external sequencers. As an old 303 user, I didn't really dig into the manual until much later — programming and general usage is so similar to a real 303 that I felt right at home.
TRUE TO ITS ROOTS
Navigating the ABL2's interface feels comfortable and will seem like second nature if you've spent any time with a real TB-303. All of the traditional controls sit front and center where you'd expect them, knobs are large and easily tweakable with a mouse, and softly illuminated push-button controls offer visual cues during programming and playback.
The yellow and black default skin is a far cry from the silver plastic of the real 303, and while the high-contrast color scheme is easy to read and laid out like the original, it certainly isn't authentic or particularly cool. Fortunately, the interface is fully skinnable, so you aren't stuck with the default bumblebee colors if you prefer a more traditional look. Select one of the two other included skins, spend some spare time rolling your own custom skin or download additional themes for free at AudioRealism's site.
Looks aside, ABL2 is quite simply a stunning emulation of the classic TB-303. Every detail of the original hardware is meticulously re-created — from the unique filter slope and accent “bite” all the way down to the funky step sequencer that made the real 303 such a bittersweet joy to program. ABL2 delivers a convincing performance on just about every level. I was able to reprogram 303 riffs from old songs with such accuracy that I could scarcely believe I was hearing an emulation — and that's auditioning the ABL2 as a solo instrument. Placed in the mix with effects and musical accompaniment, it's a dead ringer for the real deal. The Preferences window dishes out a wide variety of adjustable parameters for dialing in the perfect sound for any tune.
As authentic as ABL2 sounds, there are still a few scarcely audible imperfections — or perhaps perfections — that keep this emulation just a hair shy of ideal. They're somewhat difficult to pin down precisely, but the ABL2 seems to have more presence and upper-range bite than a real 303. There's a clarity and consistency in its tone that simply isn't present in the original, and I can only speculate that the real 303's less-than-pristine audio path has a lot to do with its dirty character. In all honesty, I preferred the ABL2's clarity in this regard, and to be fair, this was a direct A/B comparison between a real 303 and ABL2. Without this context, even die-hard purists would be hard-pressed to tell the two apart.
Other than this minor divergence from the original, ABL2 sounds absolutely remarkable. The built-in distortion is good for squelchy and acidic 303 riffs, and just like the original, once ABL2 is burbling along in a track, it's nearly impossible to keep your hands off of the cutoff knob. With the resonance and cutoff cranked to the max, the ABL2 takes center stage as a no-holds-barred lead instrument. Lower resonance settings make it a great tool for kicking out thick and syrupy bass lines. Regardless of how you use it, this is one seriously addictive plug-in, and you'll have a tough time putting it down once you've got it in a project.
Much of the ABL2's authentic sound comes straight from the built-in pattern sequencer. In the original TB-303, the sequencer and synth work together to produce a sound that's more than the sum of its parts, and the same holds true for the ABL2. Its implementation is spot-on, and all of the unique elements from the original are there: slides, accents and triplet programming all come together to turn the ABL2's monophonic oscillator into a raging acid monster.
Programming the original 303 was a daunting task, and the ABL manages to ease this chore yet still hangs on to the creative headspace of the original. The step sequencer can easily move forward or backward, and a numeric display shows which note and time interval you're modifying. Patterns can contain 1 to 64 notes, a single instance of ABL2 can hold 127 patterns in memory, and entire banks of patterns can be saved and loaded individually for easy management — a far cry from the original 303's meager memory allotment.
If you prefer to program visually using the matrix or piano-roll editor in your sequencer, that's no problem — ABL2 can be fully controlled via MIDI. Simply draw or play in the desired notes, and ABL2 will comply, diligently attempting to re-create authentic slides when notes overlap. You'll lose some authenticity working this way, but the possibilities of using irregular note lengths and swing by writing patterns in a DAW make it a worthy trade-off in some circumstances. Truly convincing 303 riffs take a little elbow grease and a willingness to work with ABL2's internal sequencer.
Of all the things I always longed for on my 303, MIDI control was at the top of the list. The 303's rudimentary electronics made it a nightmare to work with in a sequencer-based environment, and merely synchronizing it to tempo was a laborious chore requiring an obscure bit of equipment called a MIDI to DIN Sync converter. Even after locking to tempo, there still wasn't any way to change patterns or tweak knobs mid-song without going hands-on with the box. It was all manual control.
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Thankfully, ABL2 does away with that by offering complete MIDI control over every parameter. Setting up external control surfaces is a breeze with ABL2's MIDI Learn mode, a convenient tool that allows you to quickly map any MIDI control in the software with a couple of mouse-clicks. I was able to lay out a complete control setup for ABL2 with my Novation Remote 37 SL without any issues and was happily tweaking away in just a couple of minutes.
Since the ABL2 is a VST/AU instrument, it includes the same comprehensive automation facility as any other quality plug-in. All of its parameters are available for easy graphic control from any compatible host sequencer — something that even the most heavily modified TB-303s could never hope to achieve.
One notable tool in ABL2 is its audio-detection facility. This unique ability analyzes audio clips of 303 riffs and attempts to extract pitch information from the file, providing a rudimentary basis for reconstructing the loop as an ABL2 pattern. It takes clean source material and some help from your own ears, but with a little patience, good results are possible.
Don't expect your swiped riffs to sound just like the source — ABL2 doesn't have any way of detecting variables like knob position or effects used, so you're on your own in that regard. However, audio detection could be a great tool for someone with a large sample library of 303 riffs who wants greater control over their tone or for anyone who has an original 303 and would like to copy old patterns into ABL2.
The 303's impact on modern dance music is truly staggering. Consider just a few of the classic songs built on its unique sound — Josh Wink's “Higher State of Consciousness,” Fatboy Slim's “Everybody Loves a 303” and pretty much everything Hardfloor ever did. It becomes clear just how important this little box has been to the dance scene over the past 20 years.
BASS LINE 2 > 95 (APPROX. $135)
Without a doubt, there's something about a real 303 that has a certain je ne sais quois, a vibrant sense of soul and personality, and duplicating that in the digital realm poses a daunting task. After closely comparing ABL2 with a genuine 303, it's clear that AudioRealism's virtual clone is a dead ringer for the real deal. The minor sonic differences are negligible; ABL2 offers unprecedented flexibility in programming and automation, and multiple instances run flawlessly from a single inexpensive plug-in.
I'll always treasure my original Roland TB-303; I won't part with that piece of history. I will put it safely in my closet, though. AudioRealism ABL2 is a near-perfect emulation that gives me all the 303 I'll ever need.
Pros: Impeccable 303 emulation. Improved filter and distortion quality. Audio pattern analyzer. Full VST/Audio Units automation. Can be programmed using step sequencer or via MIDI.
Cons: No stand-alone mode. Audio Analyzer slightly inaccurate. No swing function.
Mac: G4/1 GHz; 256MB RAM OS 10.3.9 or later; VST or Audio Units host software
PC: P4/1 GHz; 256MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP; VST host software