This new clone of the legendary Roland TB-303 claims to be one of the most realistic replicas ever made – both in terms of its sound and its appearance. We put it to the test and take the opportunity to discuss the value of vintage classics and the age-old question of whether clones harm their value.
The Roland TB-303 is one of the most iconic pieces of electronic music gear ever made. It’s overly simplistic to suggest that acid house exists solely because of a few Chicago producers discovering a unique way to use the 303 – or that acid house necessarily needs to involve 303-style sounds – but the entire genre nevertheless owes a major debt to the unit Roland originally intended as an accompaniment tool for solo musicians or bands without a real bass player.
For a unit which is so widely described a commercial failure, Roland sold a hell of a lot of 303s. The company claims to have manufactured 10,000 of them between the model’s release in 1982 and its discontinuation in 1984 (other sources suggest that it’s twice as many, but we’ll take Roland’s word for it). That may well have been considered a failure in the eyes of the ultra-competitive Japanese synth giant, but it’s still equal to the number of TR-909s sold, or five times as many as the Jupiter-8.
We’ve all heard those apocryphal tales of 303s being thrown away by disgruntled jazz musicians frustrated at their inability to replicate a Charlie Mingus bassline, but even if we accept that all those stories are true, there’s still a hell of a lot of 303s out there. Nevertheless, second-hand prices continue to rise exponentially.
The continuing demand for 303s has spawned a thriving market for sound-alikes which stretches all the way back to the mid 90s, when companies including Novation, Doepfer, MAM and Syntecno launched models attempting to cash in on the demand. Even the first widely popular soft-synth was a 303 clone.
Despite the proliferation of hardware clones, it’s notable that companies have always shied away from aping the 303’s appearance too closely. Cyclone Analogic’s TT-303 BassBot looks so close to the real thing that you’d be forgiven for believing it was a TB-303 at first glance. Cyclone is an offshoot of Technology Transplant, who manufacture and sell replacement components for vintage synths. Parts like the knobs and battery cover are such perfect replicas that they’re interchangeable.
There’s a lengthy and potentially very interesting discussion to be had about clones, replicas, emulations and how they relate to copyright, patents and the legal mechanisms in place to protect electronic instrument manufacturers’ intellectual property, but this probably isn’t the right place for it. In summary, my take on it is this: if you accept that commercial x0xb0xes are OK, then putting a similar clone into a 303-style plastic case doesn’t immediately make it any more of an infringement on Roland’s designs, especially if you also don’t have a problem with software based on the sound and appearance of the TB-303. Given that the product is still on sale a couple of months after its launch, we can only assume at this stage that Roland Japan don’t have a problem with it either, just as they haven’t had a problem with the various x0xb0xes or software clones.
Old vs new
TB-303 clones have always led to heated arguments. Owners of genuine TB-303s, in particular, seem keen to deny that clones sound exactly the same as originals. It’s totally understandable. If you’d just spent over £1,000 on a 30 year-old synth, you’d want it to sound better than a new version at half the price (or less in the case of software). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that owners of real 303s have anything to fear from modern clones. When it comes to any product, clones, reissues and reinterpretations of vintage classics are rarely as valuable as the originals, and there’s barely any evidence to suggest they have any impact on the value of the real thing.
You can buy a brand new Moog Voyager Performer for around £2,750. An original Minimoog Model D will still set you back somewhere in the region of £3,500. A brand new Fender American Standard Stratocaster will cost you just over £1,000. Vintage 50s and 60s models regularly change hands for anything from ten to thirty times that amount. Not even the existence of £42 copies can harm the ever-increasing value of vintage guitars.
There’s more to these classic products than just their inherent value in terms of production costs and marketing. These are now collectors’ items. Many are kept for display or as investments rather than for use. In the case of the 303, it seems to make sense. Assuming there isn’t a forgotten stash of brand new 303s sitting in a lock-up garage somewhere in Osaka, supply levels of the real thing will never increase. We can’t see those second-hand prices falling substantially any time soon.
But it’s equally true that not every producer wants a badly built, unreliable early 70s Minimoog. Likewise, not every guitarist wants a 1950s Strat, which is so rare and valuable that it’d take a seriously brave owner to dare to transport it to a gig. And not everyone wants a real 303. Owners of the real thing, you don’t need to be so protective; the TT-303 probably isn’t going to harm the value of your vintage classic no matter how good it sounds.
99.9% as good as the real thing?
With all this in mind, there are a few different ways you can approach a product like the TT-303. Firstly, you can compare it to the original Roland TB-303. Does it sound exactly the same? Secondly, you can compare it to other x0xb0x-based clones on the market. Are cheaper versions of similar things available? Finally, there’s a much more simple approach: to judge the TT-303 on its own merits. Does it sound good, whether that means it’s just like the real thing or not?
The boom in 303 clones has meant that our expectations have increased dramatically. Back in the 90s, if your 303 clone sounded 90% accurate, that was probably good enough. The next generation of hardware and software clones raised the bar to 99%. The x0xb0x boom of the last few years means you’ll now find forums full of people arguing that 99.9% isn’t good enough, or debating the relative merits of one transistor over another.
All of which slightly misses the point. Of course there’ll always be those for whom nearly identical just isn’t close enough. To those of you, there’s a very simple solution: save up and buy the real thing.
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