Teenage Engineering OP-1: Getting Started
Unleash the potential of this magic Swedish box
In 2011, Swedish audio firm Teenage Engineering released their now-flagship device, the OP-1. As well as looking like something from a museum of modern art (indeed, it actually is) this device promised an entire, portable electronic music studio in a very small footprint. It looks, at the same time, both futuristic and archaic. But the things this unit can do attracted many players, who fell for its dinky charms in a big way.
The OP-1 delivered on its promises, and then some. It’s used, and highly approved, by some of music’s biggest names. Jean Michelle Jarre, Trent Reznor, Thom Yorke; all have been seduced by the top-quality sounds, intuitive design and logical workflow on offer with the OP-1. That said, it’s not without a learning curve.
You see, a large number of its features are skeuomorphic in nature. This means they make modern, clever appropriations of what is essentially old school tech. Think how Apple’s iPhone used to make certain features – like note taking – look like it was being done on vintage blotting paper. The OP-1 takes this even further, basing its recording system on a virtual tape machine (complete with whirring rewind and fast forward sounds), along with other self-conscious nods to a more retrofied music-making age.
Chances are, if you’re not over a certain age, you won’t be overly familiar with bouncing tracks down to free up space. Or sampling from an FM radio. Or any of the other obscure methods employed by the OP-1. With that in mind, let’s take a look at getting started with the Teenage Engineering OP-1.
When you fire up the OP-1 via its slider switch at the side of the unit, you’re greeted by the sight of two tape reels. Get familiar with these – you’ll be using them a lot. Now, it’s worth pointing out at an early stage that navigation of the OP-1’s menus and parameter settings is not without its quirks. You will, to put it bluntly, become extremely well acquainted with the ‘shift’ key to the left of the piano roll.
Using the shift key accesses extra options or settings for pretty much every function on the unit. There are lots too, so you’ll need to memorise them.
Underneath the attractive little OLED screen you’ll see numbers 1 to 4. In the record setting, these access the different tracks you can record onto. Old school or what – it’s an actual four track. Of course, you can bounce recordings you’re happy with down onto earlier tracks as you add extra layers.
To the left of the unit, underneath the speaker, are buttons which enable you to choose between the available synths/samplers/keys, drums, and back to the tape unit. Underneath there are the cut, copy and paste keys. These give you the tools to punch in and out of recordings, copy parts and edit where required. Under there sit your transport keys, while at the top you have buttons to access the metronome, a ‘help’ key in case you get lost, and a key to enter the unit’s mixer.
To the right of the screen, you have four rotary encoders, along with numbered 1 to 8 buttons underneath. As you’d expect, the encoders change the parameters within your selected setting (be that ADSR, mono/poly or effects) while the numbered buttons store your presets. Perfect if you’re planning on using the OP-1 for performance, so you can store the different instruments you’ll need.
Synths, samples and effects
Focusing on the synths for a second; if you hold shift and press one of the 1-8 keys, you’ll access the preset menu. Here you’ll find a huge range of different instruments, from wavetable synths to sampled acoustic instruments. Once you’ve found one you like, have a play with it using the buttons under the screen. Page 1 is the instrument itself, page 2 is its ADSR, page 3 is effects (hold down shift to access the full list) and page 4 is its low frequency oscillator (LFO.)
To the far right you’ll find, at the top, buttons to operate the OP-1’s sampler functionality, and also to access its in-built (and bonkers) arpeggiator.
Sampling is worth a look at in slightly more detail; hold down the drum button to the left of the unit, and then press the microphone button at the far right. From here you can choose whether to sample something from a line-in, like a drum machine or MP3, or you can use the unit’s in-built FM radio. This offers great potential; you might happen upon the local Classic Hits-type radio station and be able to sample something cheesy, or the more adventurous among you might simply sample some white noise and sculpt it to your needs. White noise, once processed and edited, makes for great hi-hats, don’t ya know. Finally, you can choose to re-sample what you’ve already recorded on the unit, which makes for some tantalising sound mangling opportunities.
At its most basic, recording is pretty straightforward. You line up your chosen instrument, set the tempo via the metronome button, and hold down the record button. The screen will indicate it’s ready to go. Then, soon as you hit your first note, you can lift your finger off the record button and you’re away. Once you’re happy with your part, you can adjust its length using the encoders, as well as setting it to loop if required. To re-record, simply press the up arrow above the record button, then hit the scissors. Simple.
In straightforward terms, that’s it. There is a huge amount more that the OP-1 can do, in an advanced way, but if you can navigate your way around a menu screen and know how to get to the page you want, then you’ll pick it up no problem. Don’t be put off if it all starts to baffle you though. This unit is full of those glorious ‘eureka’ moments we love when we’re learning new gear. Stick with it, and you’ll have a portable, if admittedly oddball, friend for your musical life.
If you liked that, then you might like this
Following on from the incredibly popular OP-1, Teenage Engineering released the diminuitive but exceptionally powerful OP-Z, which we cover in great detail in our “Pocket-Sized Synth Mastery” article.
For anyone new to the world of Synthesizers, check out our article on “What is Analogue Synthesis?“, where we give you a rundown on the need to knows.
Also, you might want to check out our “Quick Guide to Using Synth Modules” too, for help in building up your Synth-Stash in style.