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Review: Mode Machines Xoxbox

by on at 14:18pm

The legendary Roland TB-303 synthesizer is probably the most famous piece of kit in dance music’s history. Manufactured for a period of approximately eighteen months in the early eighties, it was far from an overnight success, failing to hit the spot with the guitarists it was marketed towards as a bass accompaniment.

Some years later its full potential was realised by legions of electronic music producers, starting with the early US house pioneers such as Adonis, DJ Pierre and Fast Eddie. It wasn’t long before word of the new found use of the instrument spread across the Atlantic to the UK, where, thanks to the likes of artists such as Baby Ford and A Guy Called Gerald, acid fever started taking over. Later in Europe, German duo Hardfloor picked it up as their signature sound before the London acid techno scene pushed the little silver box to its extremities.

Since then it’s been a mainstay of the devoted and has recently enjoyed a renaissance, especially with the current wave of re-issues and producers craving that original stripped-back Chicago acid sound. Sadly there’s not many of them up for sale these days and those that do become available usually end up selling for more than the value of your average electronic musician’s summer holiday. But thanks to a group of German students who have reverse engineered the 303 using almost all of the original components and matching all the critical and intrinsic parts of the original bassline, we can all have a piece of the action.

“There’s not many 303s up for sale these days, and those that do become available usually end up selling for more than the value of your average electronic musician’s summer holiday. The makers of the Xoxbox have reverse engineered the 303 using almost all of the original components and matching all the critical and intrinsic parts of the original bassline”

The Mode Machines Xoxbox (pronounced ‘zocksbox’) is an open source project that is being constantly updated and improved by means of free downloadable 3rd party OS updates, which are transferred via USB from your computer. Measuring up at 27.5 x 19.5 cm x 9 cm and weighing in at 1KG, it is available in a variety of different formats, including the kit version, which you’ll need a basic level of soldering to attempt building, or the manufactured models which are available with either blue, red, white or purple LEDs. The Xoxbox comes complete with a sequencer, mini-keyboard and all of the beloved controls of the original model. You can also store 128 banks of track memory and 64 banks of pattern memory. It’s got a total of 40 LEDs, three encoders, seven rotary parameter controls, 10 utility keys and a waveform selector switch.

“The note nudge is a tasty feature which means you can play around with a notes position, jumping forward or backward within a sequence, and you can make your Xoxbox stutter in time (a nifty trick used by early acid bad boys)”

At the rear of the black sloping case you’ll find MIDI in, out and thru ports, DIN Sync, USB and 3.5mm CV and Gate outputs. The audio in, out and headphone sockets are quarter inch jacks and in the far right you have the 9V AC power adaptor and on/off switch. The user interface is almost the same as its silver predecessor, the controls being slightly better in their positioning, resulting in a much smoother tweaking experience. From left to right along the top panel you’ve got the sawtooth or square wave oscillator selector which was previously positioned at the rear of the 303. Then there’s the classic tune, cutoff, resonance, envelope modulator, decay and accent rotary controls which are bigger than those of its ancestor. On the next row down you’ll find the tempo encoder which increases or decreases by one BPM with each directional click. It has a range of 20 through to 300 BPM and can also be used as tap tempo when pressed in time. The bank encoder has 16 grids and each position represents a separate bank. In the centre of the console is the function knob which is used to select one of the 16 operating modes. The volume knob completes the rotary line up.

Moving downwards, Mode Machines have supplied us with a strip of 16 LEDs to display the position when the sequencer is running. The keyboard is in the same format as the 303, although the buttons sit a little higher and you can move the octave up or down with the transpose buttons. Below these are the multifunctional rest, accent and slide buttons. Their behavior depends on which mode you are in – for example hitting accent in ‘pattern edit mode’ will result in the respective note in the sequence being emphasised, whereas in ‘pattern play mode’ each note of the sequence is played with emphasis for the duration in which the button is held down. Then there’s the prev and next buttons which are also multifunctional. The run button is used to start and stop the sequencer and you can link up to 32 patterns together using the chain button.

“The sensitivity of the controls make sculpting almost any kind of acid sound possible and you’ll notice how bold, clean and powerful the sound is as soon as you turn it on”

Using the Xoxbox’s is straightforward and, unsurprisingly, very enjoyable. You can use your own MIDI keyboard or enter notes on the unit itself sequencing them via a computer (or other external device) and it’s possible to switch the internal clock on or off depending on your master/slave setup. The real fun starts when you program your own patterns in step-write mode, entering each note individually whilst static or while the sequencer is running, then saving your creations complete with rest, accent and slide information to memory. You can change the swing timing of your patterns, adding a bit of shuffle or jam in loop mode, cutting up your patterns and reversing them. The note nudge is a tasty feature which means you can play around with a notes position, jumping forward or backward within a sequence, and you can make your Xoxbox stutter in time (a nifty trick used by early acid bad boys).

When all is said and done, it’s the sound that really impresses. It is in fact technically purer than you’ll get from the Roland TB303 due to the now worn, ageing components of the original which degrades the sound (although some enthusiasts will argue that this degradation is what makes the 303 sound as it does). The sensitivity of the controls make sculpting almost any kind of acid sound possible and you’ll notice how bold, clean and powerful the sound is as soon as you turn it on. Check out the video below for an example of the kind of performance you are likely to expect. The drums are from a Roland TR808, which we very much hope is the next project from Modemachines!

Review: Dicken Lean

SPECIFICATIONS
Features: 100% analogue circuitry of the TB-303
Extended sequencer functions
MIDI In/Out/Thru
USB
Open Source OS (current: SOKKOS)
External Powersupply (included)
Cable set included
DIN SYN24 In/Out
CV/GATE
128 Banks for tracks
64 Banks for patterns
Headphone Out
Mix Input
Line Output
Available in 4 different LED colours: blue/purple/red/white
Technical Specifications:
Power 9V AC 500mA (PSU included)
Dimensions 27.5 cm * 19.5 cm * 9 cm (10.83″ * 7.68″ * 3.54″)
Weight 1 kg (2.2 lb)