Open source hardware may not sound like something that would produce a huge musical hit – unless you’ve met the x0xb0x. A clone of Roland’s legendary TB-303 bassline generator, the open version offered not only greater afford-ability than the now-rare antique, but expanded possibilities for hacking the hardware into a musical device you could love as your own, all with the backing of an impassioned community. The gadget was designed by Limor Fried and an unidentified “crazy German engineer” who has kept his identity private. (I wish I had my own secret crazy German engineer. Darnit. Any volunteers?) The resulting design has been marketed by Limor’s adafruit shop. The only downside of the x0xb0x’s awesomeness? It was something of a victim of its own success, with rare parts a challenge to find and an ongoing waiting list of pent-up demand. After shipping 900 units from 2005 through the beginning of this year, adafruit announced it was dropping sales of the x0xb0x.

But the story doesn’t end there. Aside from ongoing efforts by the x0xb0x community in general, one figure has stepped forward to lead sales of the project and (most exciting to me) generate new projects that share its open license and build on some of its components. As announced on adafruit (via Synthtopia), x0xb0x community member James Wilsey is launching a new design and sales effort.

My goal with Willzyx Music is to keep supplying the x0xb0x community with Parts and Kits. I have spent the last year building up a stock pile of parts and will bring the Kits back at an affordable price. Any new projects that are produced from Willzyx will have the same MIT open source license, so you can hack, modify and commercialize any of Willzyx’s original designs.

James is no stranger to the x0xb0x community, having sold his own completed kits as bitcrusher76. But his vision is, refreshingly, even bigger than the x0xb0x: he hopes this could lead to other open projects with shared resources. With the growing quantity and quality of free hardware and software projects, many with shared goals and features, I think now could be a great moment for the larger open source music ecosystem.

The new store:

Price for a kit is a very-reasonable $185.

And for more on the x0xb0x project:
x0xb0x Forum @ Adafruit

I asked James to answer a few questions about the project for CDM.

The x0xb0x takes its place in hardware history. Photo (CC-BY-ND) Roman Filippov.

Peter: Looking back at the x0xb0x’s first half decade, obviously it hasn’t been an easy piece of gear to get. Was it just not a goal to make it more widely available?

James: I think this is a big misconception among a lot of people involved with the x0xb0x. Adafruit made something that had a huge want factor. If you were at all interested in synths, a TB-303 clone was something that you have been dreaming about for a long time. So in 2005 a huge flood of people come and there was just no way that they could keep up with demand. They killed themselves to get 1,000 kits out. The way I look at it is this: They made a TB-303 clone that kicked ass and everyone wanted it.

That’s where I came into this. For the last year I have been selling complete x0xb0x’s on eBay and was very successful with it. I was only able to do this because of the open source nature of the x0xb0x. I started talking to Adafruit and it became clear that I have the time and resources to get the x0xbox out to as many people as possible.

Peter: What does this mean for availability of the x0xb0x?

James: If we are talking about kits, they will be coming back very soon.

Will you be accepting preorders?

Perorders scare the crap out of me.

I think demand is manageable at this point and I am not the only one selling kits. If you really want a kit you can find one if you poke around on the adafurit forums. The kit will be coming very soon and I should be able to keep up with demand.

That sounds great. So you’re looking at working up new designs, as well?

Really all I want to do is expand the firmware, I want a few LFOs and some more CVs and gates. We need to look at a new microcontroler, but its all pretty doable. The only downside is we are going to be dealing with SMDs which can be really unpopular in the DIY world.

I see listed on the site a separate item that’s just the “rare parts.” Is that idea that people could source the more common parts, then get the rare ones from you?

That is correct, the rare parts have always been a road block if you wanted to self-source your own kit. There are quite a few situations where it doesn’t make sense to get a full kit.

What’s your own connection to the x0xb0x? Do you use it in your music?”

I have always wanted a TB-303. My first attempts at making music were with Re-Birth. So that sound has always been a part of my music. When the x0xb0x first came out I had to have it! I have been in love with it ever since.

Any plans for the future of the x0xb0x?
My first priority is to keep the kits available but I am looking at the x0xb0x as a open source hardware platform for other synths that are not necessary TB-303 related. The analog synth business is very grassroots. There has been a big boom with small synth makers that might only do a run of 50 or 100 synths. It would be cool if they could just copy and paste the digital section from the x0xb0x. I am not too sure what this is going to look like but that’s the direction that I will be pursuing. Of course any of my designs will have the same MIT open source license that the x0xb0x has.

If people want to help out, what can they do to get involved?
Make and sell kits, hack the firmware, do mods but make it available to every one. Transistorize The World!

But is it as good as a 303?

I like the fact that the x0xb0x could be hacked as an entire platform, but since I missed it when picked up by Synthtopia in February, here’s a shoot-out between the open hardware and the original Roland piece.