Emulate The Classic Roland TB303 Using Logic’s ES1 Softsynth

There are many analogue synthesizers on the market and the best thing is they’re all different. It might seem strange at first because, when you examine them carefully, most of them seem to have the same features. On the other hand, if you were to examine them closely, the majority of them will appear to be identical.

There is only one oscillator in my Tal Bassline 101, and it has only one filter, one envelope generator, and one oscillator at the same time. 

You could compare that with any other analog synth, and everyone would tell you that they are indistinguishable from one another – just like many real-world instruments are completely different, each analogue synth has its own little quirks. 

Even the different batches of synths will produce slightly different sounds because that’s the nature of analog!

The synth we’re going to re-create today is a very special one that inspired a whole genre of dance music – acid house!

The Roland TB303 Bassline synth.

It’s an extremely limited synth, with only a few knobs to twist and turn, yet it’s amazing for creating rich, large synth patches that sound beautifully warm. 

TB303s are very expensive and rare. With the emulations coming in much cheaper (and sounding almost exactly the same) – but still enough to burn a hole in your pocket – you might want to know how to re-create a free version.

Here is the secret of making Logic’s ES1 software instrument do a close imitation of the ES1 software instrument, so you can save some money in the process. 

How To Make The Synth

Here’s how to make the synth:

Firstly, load the ES1 and set the oscillator to the sawtooth setting. Set the oscillator mix to the main oscillator and to the sub-oscillator setting. The TB303 has no sub-oscillator and only a dial for switching between sawtooth and square. If you prefer, you can switch to the square oscillator.

Secondly, you must set the oscillator range on the ES1 to 16′. 

Thirdly, you must also make sure that the ES1’s ‘Voices’ setting is set to ‘Legato mode’ and the glide is set to around a third of its maximum value.

There is an extremely important setting that must be set; we must ensure that there is no overwriting of notes and that we can slide freely between the notes.

In the fourth step, set the ADSR to very fast attack (not instant, but just slightly off will suffice) and set the sustain to zero as well as the release and decay to the second third position.

When you reach the 5th step, as soon as you have set the amp to ‘Gate R’, you should place one of the ‘Level via vel’ triangles at the top and the other 2/3 of the way up.

Sixth, set the ES1’s ADSR via vel triangles at zero and 2 o’clock, with the drive set at zero, and ‘Key’ set halfway between zero and two o’clock. The TB303 actually has an 18dB filter but the ES1’s filter sounds much more realistic in this setting.

Seventh, on the TB303, you do not have any modulation other than ADSR. To prevent this, you should set ‘Analog’ to 100% Set both modulation faders to zero.

You should be able to generate an approximation of the sound of a TB303 from your speakers when you set up your synthesizer in this way, but that’s only half of the battle: you also have to play the ES1 like a TB303 for it to really sound acidic.

It is important to note that you will not be able to play this, rather you will have to manually program a pattern just like that on a Roland sequencer from the early 1980s.

Creating a bassline pattern

1. By using the pencil mouse tool (esc > No.2), you can create a one-bar region in the arranged area by clicking one bar at a time

2. You have now created your piano roll, which you can now open up in the piano roll editor and draw the notes that you want to play using the pencil tool. Please note that the default length of the velocity setting is ideal for this song, since it is a 16th note in length, with a velocity of 80.

There are lots of ways to use glides, legato, and accents to create that classic Acid House feel. When things get really clever, the sound will start to become more than just a string of notes, each firing one after another.

The TB303 can certainly do that, but the best patterns will take advantage of glides, legato, and accents to create that classic Acid House sound. 

Here’s how to do that:

1. If you want to ‘slur’ the right hand corner of the note that you want to merge into the next note, drag it to the right so that the right hand corner overlaps the next note on the right. By doing so, you will be able to stop the envelope generator from triggering again and the ES1 will sweep to the pitch of the new note.

2. Adding accents to your notes is the finishing touch. You can do this with the velocity mouse tool (esc > No.9). Your notes are currently at velocity 80. To make that note louder and brighter, you need to click and drag up on the note that you want to emphasize until the velocity is 100. Just like the old days, that note will be louder as well as slightly brighter, just like you used to have to do.

The final touches

In terms of TB303’s performance, it comes down to the way in which you adjust the settings on the synth. You should play around with the Decay/Release settings on the ADSR, the Filter Cutoff, the Filter Resonance, and the degree of Filter Modulation (by clicking between the two triangles you can move the fader). 

The top filter triangle can be adjusted to provide an accurate sound to simulate the ‘accent’ setting on your guitar. You can also adjust the attack setting on the ADSR to give you a more realistic ‘filter lag’ sound by moving the attack setting up to just under a quarter of the way. 

A real TB303 connoisseur can also add a little more resonance to each accented note; this is easiest to do with automation. The key here is subtlety. The real TB303 connoisseur can also add a touch more resonance to each accented note.

Now add some extra spice with effects!

1. In order to achieve that classic ‘abused preamp on a cheap mixing desk’ sound, you will have to use a Bitcrusher, but don’t use it to downsample the audio… instead adjust the drive setting.

2. Add an ensemble to a pattern in order to bring it to life and allow it to come alive with movement.

3. It is possible to give the ES1 pattern an extra bounce and make it sound great when you add a dash of tape delay to your mix as it can give it an extra bounce with those shrill filter sweeps.

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