Pocket sized operator offers a world of fun
Teenage Engineering is an interesting company. Operating on the fringes of the mainstream musical instrument scene, the Swedish brand produces a small range of interesting, unique and extremely stylised items which are quite unlike anything else on the market. As such, they don’t have much in the way of true competition for your hard-earned cash, and they’ve used this to their advantage. Free from having to follow industry trends or participate in a specification arms race, the company can continue producing new gear which offers forward thinking individuals with a stack of innovative ways to create and produce music.
We recently looked at the Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator series which, despite looking half-finished and a bit ramshackle, were actually hugely entertaining. The Pocket Operators piqued enough interest for us to want to look at the company’s flagship creation tool, the OP-1 in more detail. In truth, based on our previous experience of Teenage Engineering gear, we had no idea what to expect. Hopefully our Teenage Engineering OP-1 review will shed some more light on things.
At a headline level, the OP-1 is an all-in-one music creation tool. Part DAW, part keyboard, part drum machine; this little box contains everything you would need to create, record, mix and produce electronic tunes from scratch. Physically, the OP-1 is an unassuming grey rectangle. Nostalgic late-80s video game fans might recognise the colour as the classic NES grey. On its face sit a cavalcade of buttons and rotary knobs, with a few dashes of colour to help you navigate your way around. There is also a small colour screen which acts as the visual interface, again to help you ensure you’re on the right page. At the top left hand side of the face is a small speaker, meaning you can play the OP-1 without requiring headphones or an external audio outlet. On the right hand edge are the inputs and outputs, which amount to a 3.5m in and out and a micro USB. And…that’s it. The OP-1 is an exercise in stark minimalism which would look equally at home in a studio or a design museum. However, switch the unit on and the magic begins.
To understand what’s going on, it’s probably useful to list some of the key features of the OP-1. Despite its clean, efficient looking exterior, there is a whole load of stuff going on under the bonnet which far belies its simplistic appearance. What we’ve got are nine different synth engines, each with their own individual characteristics and tweaking potential. From basic FM synthesizer sounds through to the more esoteric sounds beyond anything you’ve probably heard before, there is enough choice and interest available here to please even the most hardened of electronic music veterans. The drum machine continues the theme by offering on one hand a selection of presets which take in the far extremes of electronic and glitch music, and on the other a stack of more ‘mainstream’ sounding kits. Clearly though, in the best way possible, if you’re using an OP-1 your tastes probably lie far from the mainstream.
An included four-track recorder is used to capture your sounds, and true to old style tape four-tracks, everything can be bounced down to free up space as your recordings grow. There’s also a slew of interesting and creative things you can do with the tape machine, from slowing everything down to re-sampling and mangling your recorded tunes, while the in-built sequencer ensures you can quickly and easily lay a melody down over a drum break. An in-built microphone and FM radio – yep, radio – add a sampling dimension to the OP-1.
Controlling the OP-1 is actually pretty intuitive, once you’ve got over the initial barrage of buttons and knobs. The four main rotary knobs are all colour-coded, and their functionality matches clearly and easily with the corresponding parameter on screen, meaning changing settings and generally exploring the unit is quite simple.
The best thing we can say about the OP-1 is that it brings about a kind of child-like glee to the process of making music. The on-screen animations are quite wonderful; where else would an instrument interpret a delay unit as being a cow’s stomach churning, or the sequencer as two gorillas mashing up a drum kit? Each and every place you turn on this unit is something else to make you either smile, laugh or show your mates. But don’t equate that with the OP-1 being some kind of toy. You’d have to have some kind of grounding in music to understand it. Make no mistake, this is a serious bit of kit, as the price tag would confirm. But, put simply, in the time we’ve had this review unit, there hasn’t been one occasion when we’ve picked it up for a play and haven’t come away with an idea or the basis for a full track. It simply begs to be played.
Often when musicians come to write a track, they have a melody or chord progression in their mind. What the OP-1 does brilliantly is dispense with the need for that. You can turn it on, choose your sounds and whatever happens next is down purely to how adventurous you feel. Its one of those things you just have to experience for yourself. Great fun.