The plugin

You can download a tarball of the most recent version of nekobee here: nekobee-0.1.7.tar.gz

If you'd rather get it from Subversion, go to svn://www.nekosynth.co.uk/nekosynth/nekobee/tags/0.1.7/

You can listen to a rough mix of the demo: nekodemo.mp3

The newgui version will be ready in the first week of March 2009.

In the beginning…

In 1982, Roland released the TB-303 Bassline. Aimed at small bands and "one-man-band" performers, it had a simple single-oscillator synthesizer and a step-time sequencer. You could program in the bass for a song, sync it up to the matching TR-606 drum machine, and let it play. Unfortunately, the sequencer wasn't terribly easy to use and the synthesizer didn't sound much like a "real" bass. Before long, the TB-303 languished forgotten in gig-bags and cupboards all over the world. They made their way to second-hand shops and were traded in for newer and shinier effects in music shops, and sat at bargain prices for a long time. In total some 10,000 TB-303s were made, and many of them were dumped as they failed to sell.

The birth of Acid

The TB-303 cropped up on a few records in the early 80s, most notably by Heaven 17 (you can hear it on "Temptation") and early records by Ice-T. It was not until the mid-to-late 1980s that it appeared on house records. For DJs and producers looking for a cheap source of sounds, it was ideal. No-one really knows who was the first to use the TB-303 on a house track, but probably the earliest record to be recognised as Acid House is "Acid Trax" by Phuture. I'm going to regret setting that in type, I just know it.

From there on, the TB-303 became one of the most distinctive sounds in electronic music. From the bubbly bleeps of Hardfloor's "Acperience" to the searing distorted howls of "Confusion - Pump Panel Remix" by New Order (you know, the one from the start of Blade with all the vampires dancing in the club when the sprinklers come on, you've heard it even if you don't know it), the TB-303 lent its unique sound to almost every record in the charts for a while. Of course, with this increase in popularity, so came the increase in price. By the early 1990s, you couldn't find a TB-303 anywhere and they were selling for as much as full-featured workstation synthesizers.

Send in the clones

By the mid-1990s, various manufacturers were building copies of the synthesizer stage of the TB-303 with a MIDI interface instead of the sequencer. The service manual included a full circuit diagram and PCB layout. Even now it would be possible to build an exact copy of a TB-303 if you could figure out what was in the single-chip CPU - it includes a mask-programmed ROM which cannot easily be read.

When Propellerheads released Rebirth in 1997, the TB-303 had been out of production for almost ten years. Software synthesizers were new to most musicians then, but this was all about to change. The next version included a TR-909 emulation as well as the TR-808 and two TB-303s of the original version. Now you could have - for around £100 - the software equivalent of these instruments. To buy the real thing would cost about as much as a new Nissan Micra.

And now…

In theory, the TB-303 is a simple machine. One oscillator, a decay envelope generator, a resonant filter and a voltage-controlled amplifier. However, there are subtleties that set it apart from other monophonic synthesizers. The first thing you need to remember is that the TB-303 simply isn't very good. There, I've said it. Let's examine why, shall we?

The oscillator is quite good. It's simple and stable, but provides a not-very-square square wave and a rather saggy sawtooth wave. These are fairly easy to model in software, though. There is a simple glide circuit, but unlike a normal portamento (which glides at a constant speed) it takes the same amount of time no matter which notes you play, but this can be done in software. The filter is described as being 18dB/octave. There are actually enough bits for it to be a 24dB/octave filter, but I suspect it's a more "honest" description based on its actual performance. It's a catalogue of compromises, but we all love it really.

The clever bit is in the accent circuit. You really need to study the circuit diagram for a while to work out what's going on here, and in fact it deserves a page all to itself. It doesn't help that the circuit diagram published by Roland draws all the controls at the right-hand side, with long lines going back to the relevant bits of the circuitry. When the accent is triggered, the decay time is reduced to minimum (around 220ms). The accent control sets how much louder the note plays, up to about twice as loud as normal. The pulse is also fed to the filter cutoff through a time delay network to slow the attack as well as the decay, which is formed by a capacitor and part of the resonance control. So, as you increase the resonance, the filter cutoff is swept up and down giving a kind of "waaooww" sound. It's hard to describe but if you listen to Josh Wink's "Higher State of Consciousness" it becomes quite apparent.