The TB-3 maintains roughly the same portable size (9.5 by 6.7 inches for the TB-3 compared to 11.8 by 5.75 for the original), but the majority of the faceplate has been devoted to a touchscreen interface. This may upset the producers looking for a direct replacement for the 303, but the upside is that it goes a long way toward simplifying the interaction with the instrument compared to the 303's somewhat cryptic combination of buttons. The TB-3 is not completely buttonless, though—some are required to switch the touchpad between its roles as keyboard, XY play, envelope mod, pattern select and control of Scatter (the effect that Roland has bolted on to all of the AIRA series instruments).
Moving to the back of the unit, you'll find the usual fare for hardware instruments these days: stereo quarter-inch outputs, MIDI-in and -out and USB. The hardware and USB MIDI options are nice, as it makes the TB-3 useful for sequencing other hardware or software instruments. All of the AIRA models have the ability to transmit audio from their USB ports, but this limits the ability to use a studio audio interface without creating an aggregate device (which on PC is less than straightforward). Since it's 100% digital, the 303's CV & Gate inputs have been left off.
When you press play on the TB-3 for the first time, it'll start playback of one of its preprogrammed patterns. Just like on the 303, there are 64 total patterns available (eight banks of eight)—but that's pretty much where the similarities end. Roland added some nice modern touches when it comes to patterns on the TB-3. You can program in step mode, as one would expect, but you can also record notes in real time using the keyboard mode of the touchpad (although I noticed some odd quantization of our played notes). Adjoining patterns can be chained for playback, and copied/pasted into different locations without stopping the TB-3. My favorite feature is the ability to add an element of randomization. You can either randomize everything (including notes) in a sequence, or if you like the notes you've programmed, you can randomize everything else, including octave shift, slide and accent. This is a great way of introducing some life into an uninspiring sequence, and Roland made it easy to accept or reject the randomization on the fly.
The sonic options of the original 303—a single oscillator with two waveforms (sawtooth and square) going through an 18-dB filter, with controls for filter cutoff and resonance, decay time, envelope amount and accent intensity—were surprisingly limited considering the level of expression that talented musicians have been able to coax out of it over the years. The TB-3 carries on that legacy, for the most part maintaining the same set of tone adjustment controls. (Envelope amount and decay time are now controlled by the touchpad's envelope modulation mode, though, which may put off some purists.) Those original 303 waveforms have been recreated in digital form, and the results are impressive. While some ears may be able to pick out the digital instrument in a blind test, it's authentic enough to be a convincing sonic replacement. If they had stopped there, the TB-3 would still be worth a look, but the 303 sawtooth and square waves represent only two of the 133 sounds that ship with the TB-3. These sounds are divided into four banks labeled A through D. Bank A contains 26 variations of the signature 303 sound, with effects driving most of the variation found above A02. Bank B houses 50 general bass sounds, C has leads and D contains a small selection of what Roland calls SFX sounds. There's a diverse mix of styles represented here, but on the whole they're pretty up-front sounds. If you're looking for subtlety, you may need to look elsewhere.
The final bit of spice that Roland added to the TB-3 is effects unique to each sound. These are controlled with a single knob that ostensibly drives the intensity of the effect. Curiously, I found that the touchpad also controlled the effect amount for some of the TB-3 sounds when in envelope mod mode. A look into the manual shows that this mode "controls the most appropriate parameters for the sound that's selected." This, plus the fact that you can't choose which effect is active for a given sound, feels a bit patronizing, like Roland is saying, "trust us, we know what sounds good."
Moving past that, we still came away pretty impressed with the TB-3. For $299 it would be nice to have a bit more control over the sound, but when you look at it through the lens of the 303, Roland's choices makes sense. If you're looking for a pretty bang-on digital version of that classic silver box, it's worth the money without a second thought. And the sequencing and other sound options are icing on the cake.
Ease of use: 4/5