Place and time Room 210, Altes Theater (Marktstraße 13/15), 88212 Ravensburg, Germany.
Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, 8:00 pm.

Lecture developed by Cornelia Lund (University of Hamburg, DFG project “History of Documentary Film in Germany 1945-2005”) and
Holger Lund (DHBW Ravensburg, Media Design course of studies).

Roland TB 303 Bass Line – the creative misuse of a musical instrument and its innovative music-historical consequences.

If Friedrich Kittler saw rock music as the “misuse of army equipment,” then techno and other popular music styles of the 1980s and 1990s could be understood as founded on the misuse of the Roland TB 303 Bass Line. This instrument was intended to allow bass lines to be created electronically-synthetically, without the hassle of learning to play an instrument like the electric bass or the double bass. The interface chosen was not a fretboard, but a keyboard with filter controls. However, the Japanese Roland Corporation not only created a new, unconventional bass interface, but also an astonishing communication strategy: for the Western markets, the TB 303 was initially marketed exclusively with Japanese operating instructions.

The ambiguities of use and the unconventional playing style initially led to the instrument proving to be a commercial flop. This is where creative misuse comes into play. Unsuitable or too complicated for the development of bass lines, it was possible to manipulate completely new, unheard sounds out of the TB 303, if one did not try to use it as a bass instrument, but rather changed the pitches upwards by turning the filters in a way that went against the intention of the instrument makers. This didn’t sound like a bass at all, but rather like the spacey, machine-like sounds that the music of the 1980s and 1990s was looking for in its sound aesthetics. The TB 303 was used more as a kind of synthesizer, which it was by no means intended to be. It was intended as a bass replacement, but not as a melodic or even hookline instrument, or as a harmonic arpeggiator. Thanks to its misuse, the commercial failure turned into an aesthetic success, which led Roland to produce a new version, the MC 303 Groovebox, in 1996, which in turn became a considerable commercial and aesthetic success, not as a bass instrument, but as an artificial digital TB 303 simulation.

Using video and sound examples, this paper focuses on the history of the TB 303’s intentional and abusive use, with various theories of creativity and innovation providing a contextual framework.


Poster design: Alexander Legath