Hardware synth machines that fit in your pocket

Every now and then, a product comes along which has an undeniable cool factor about it. Something which either looks completely different, or creates interesting and unique sounds, or that has some other crazy unique selling point which you’d never even entertained before. Even more rare than that are products which come out of nowhere and combine all of those factors, and do so for the price of a video game. Step forward the Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators. So what are these obscure looking devices, and what can they do? Let’s take a look.

There are three in the range, a synth, a drum machine and a bass synth and, at first glance, you might be mistaken for thinking they are some kind of archaic high-school calculator. They are certainly unique visually. They appear to be some kind of printed circuit board (PCB), with a bunch of buttons and dials and an unashamedly 80s LCD screen. They could almost pass for a knock-off Game Boy that someone has torn from its exterior shell. Minimal doesn’t even come close. They’ve even got a hang tag at the top as if you’d find them hanging up in a supermarket next to the stationary.

Electronically, each boasts a fully integrated sound source which specialises in crunchy, lo-fi tones, further adding to the overall vibe. The PO-16, the synth version, allows you to create and store up to 16 synth lines, and also has a variety of great sounding effects including delay and bitcrusher, as well as a sequencer for coming up with your own tunes. The PO-12 is the drum variant, and as you can imagine, can create all manner of obscure, twisted beats. Lastly, the PO-14 is the bass station, capable of some truly speaker-rattling sounds to complement the other devices.

On their own, they are all easy to pick up and experiment with, and can be incorporated into your existing setup thanks to the 3.5″ jack slot. It gets better though; similar to the Korg Volca range, each Pocket Operator can be synced up together to work completely in time with each other, providing a whole band sound with the tiniest of footprints. Each runs off a standard AAA battery, and because of the minimal nature of the Pocket Operators, you will get a frankly bonkers two years worth of life out of your Duracells.

Teenage Engineering are responsible for some amazing gear. Their OP-1 device is another example of the Swedish company’s ability to take standard audio tools and package them up in a way that turns heads. The Pocket Operator range came about as a collaboration with Swedish clothing line Cheap Monday, hence the slight whiff of hipster on display, but don’t let that put you off. And yes, while they probably aren’t going to form the cornerstone of your next album (although they could easily cope) they are yet another way into making music that doesn’t involve learning the myriad ins and outs of music theory or spending endless hours building calluses on your fingers.