Music

Are The Teenage Engineering Kids Alright?

I’ve added another new device to my music-making arsenal. Well, two, really. Both are from a company called Teenage Engineering, a small company well known for their calculator-like Pocket Operator series of miniature synthesizer/beat-boxes.

To be honest, I really had no plans to buy anything from Teenage Engineering. I’ve always thought their stuff was neat, but I didn’t think it was really for me — because I was mostly familiar with the Pocket Operators, which tend to be lo-fi, chip-tune-ish, beat-oriented devices, great for hip-hop or techno … or … whatever that’s called these days, or playing around in the park or on the train. It’s not that I don’t like that stuff. It’s just not what I tend to want to make right now. I figured that all the TE stuff was oriented towards that kind of music production. And, if you look around on YouTube, that is mostly what you’ll find.

At the moment, I’m more interested in making ambient and/or melodic music and soundscapes, incorporating electronic instruments with natural sounds. Hence, my purchases of things like the Microfreak and the Model:Samples and the Skulpt SE and the Craft Synth 2 and the little Zoom H1 field recorder. My original intention was to have the Model:Samples act as my sequencing device, and provide some level of sample playback, as I wanted my creating to not be tied to my computer DAW. I wanted to be able to be portable. I wanted to be able to sit beside a river or on the beach or in the woods and create my music. Or, equally, in the chaos of the city. Either way goes. I wanted to be able to work wherever.

Teenage Engineering PO-133 pocket operator and OP-Z multimedia synthesizer and sequencer

I also want for these creations to be mostly repeatable and reliably performable, with the sequencing device providing the groundwork for live performance and improvisation. Unfortunately, I recently discovered that, as well suited as the Model:Samples’ sequencer is for creating self-iterative loops that can be grouped as projects and chained together in any order I desire, those chains — or songs — can’t be saved! And, the production of the samples themselves is not, exactly, straightforward. A computer is required to prepare the samples and transfer them to the device. So, it’s not exactly waiting for inspiration to spontaneously combust the kinds of music I was hoping to use it for. This is not to say that I won’t be able to use it — I will. But just not in the way I had originally intended.

Which brings us back to Teenage Engineering.

I started back down the rabbit hole that is YouTube to see what other creatives are using to make similar music, and looking for a portable, creative sketchpad that would allow me to flesh out a piece and collect ambient sounds and maybe even become the centerpiece of my computerless music productions environment. And, there are a number of amazing options out there, all variously succeeding and failing at ticking the boxes of my givens and druthers list centered around relative simplicity, portability and flexibility. I wanted a one-stop-shop for music-making.

To help show just how small it is, here’s a picture of the Teenage Engineering OP-Z with my aging 9.7″ iPad Air 2

About now, some of you are probably thinking, “Dude, why not just use an iPad?” It’s a valid question, and believe me, I thought about that pretty seriously. There are at least a couple of iPad apps that are really great for generative and iterative soundscapes. I have them. And I like them a lot. Fugue Machine controlling various synth apps, all mixed through AUM is great. But, at it’s heart, it’s still the thing I’m trying to get away from — a kinda complicated computer-based setup.

So, after much consideration of things like functionality and sonic qualities balanced against budgetary constraints, I landed on the Teenage Engineering OP-Z as the most likely candidate to satisfy my needs. And, upon ordering, I found that it would be coming along with a free PO-133 Pocket Operator. Aces.

I’ve no music to share from these little gizmos just yet, as I’m still learning my way around them. Both are surprisingly deep and very clever. The OP-Z incorporates a sophisticated 16-track sequencer that’s split between 8 audio tracks — 4 sample-based and 4 synth-based — and 8 control tracks. There are are numerous synth engines, and the control tracks cover things like master audio effects, step-specific effects, a master track, external MIDI and CV, as well as show controls for lights and visuals. There’s also an on-board sampler. Most, if not all of these functions are accessible using controls on the OP-Z itself, although they’re made a bit more user-friendly via the companion app, which is also used to generate the visuals.

Here’s a representative sampling of the iOS app screens. You can click for an enlarged image with a brief description, and for those interested, the complete OP-Z user guide is available online.

In addition to all of the musical control and programming built into the OP-Z, there are also “show control” tracks to allow programming of DMX-controlled lights, as well as two flavors of visuals for projection, which I plan to highlight in an upcoming episode of What’s In My Head.

Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator PO-133

The PO-133 Street Fighter Pocket Operator is a far simpler beast. It’s based on the hardware of the earlier PO-33 K.O., but sports special branded graphics and a custom display. I honestly would not have gotten it if it hadn’t come free with my order of the OP-Z. However, it’s still a pretty impressive device. It’s basically a little baby sampling groove box with [some] effects. It’ll store up to 40 seconds on mono samples, and you can sample from either it’s inbuilt microphone or from it’s line input jack. There’s a pattern sequencer that has space for 16 patterns, which can be chained to make a song.

There are 16 sample slots, eight of which are “melodic,” while the other eight are “drum” slots. The melodic slots stretch or compress a single sample across a 16-note range (using a harmonic minor scale), so bass notes drag out, while high notes are pretty short. The drum tracks are “one shots” that do not alter the pitch of the recorded sample by default. The sixteen “drums” are automatically and somewhat intelligently “sliced” if an appropriate file is “played” into the line input. It’s also possible to convert a melodic instrument into “drums,”, and likewise, a “drum” sound can be saved as a pitched melodic sound.

All of the samples can be loosely edited — there are trim controls for sample start and duration, though there’s no sustain looping. Samples can be further manipulated with basic effects to alter base pitch, tone, and there’s a resonant filter. It’s also possible to apply certain affects to playback like loops, stutters, rolls, mutes, scratches, octave bends, scratches, etc.

The pattern sequencer is simple, but does offer parameter locking. Tempo can be set to one of three presets (80 BPM “Hip Hop,” 120 BPM “Disco,” and 140 BPM “Techno,” or manually adjusted to any tempo between 60 BPM and 240 BPM. Patterns can be step-entered or recorded in real time, and can be chained in any order, including repeats. The single chain is remembered until altered.

Multiple Pocket Operators can be chained together using simple 3.5mm stereo cables. Both audio and sync pulses are passed between units, and it’s also possible to sync them to other devices, such as the OP-Z or Volcas or certain other instruments with an appropriate clock in/out connection.

The PO data can be dumped to an audio recorder (like the Zoom H1) for backup and later recall, but the recorded file MUST be a WAV or AIFF file. It’s just like the old days of using a cassette recorder to save and load programs from a TRS-80 computer, so the process is slow and finicky, but it does work. Since they share basically the same hardware, I was able to easily “convert” my PO-133 into a PO-33 by simply downloading the appropriate file from the to my laptop, and “playing” it into the line input.

I can actually see this being quite useful as a little baby drum machine or a song sketchpad (I was actually banging out a little tune until I got distracted and started playing parts of Van Morrison’s Dancing in the Moonlight on it) or as a lo-fi field sampler for use with the OP-Z.

Like the OP-Z, the manual is available online, though an actual printed copy does ship with the unit. The whole thing fits on half a sheet of paper.

I have curated YouTube playlists for both the OP-Z and the PO-133/PO-33. They’re in no particular order at the moment [Update: The first video in each playlist is now a quick overview of the device], and I will be adding to them as I find appropriate videos.

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