by Anders Johanson November 28, 2020 9 min read
A couple of days ago I wrote about how ROLI, who just launched their new LUMI Keys product, has established a reputation for themselves for being kind of “out there” when it comes to product design ideas. I still stand by that, as their Seaboard and new LUMI Keys are among the most unique designs on the market right now. That being said, if ROLI are “out there” in the grand scheme of the world of synthesizers, MIDI controllers, and overall product design, then Teenage Engineering probably isn’t even on the same map. Most known for their OP-1 synthesizer, Teenage Engineering has their own reputation for being unique yet functional in their offerings. The OP-1’s look and form factor wouldn’t necessarily lead someone to believe that it is capable of all that it can do, but that’s why we get the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”, right? Anyone who has spent any amount of time with the OP-1 knows that it is an incredibly diverse synthesizer, and in some applications even a digital audio workstation all on its own. With its built-in 4-track functionality you could record an entire album on just the one unit itself if you really wanted to. Teenage Engineering then followed that up with the OP-Z, a synthesizer similar to the OP-1 in a few ways but with more of a graphics-integration mindset as the unit can procedurally generate graphics in real time that go along with your music, creating a new performance every time you fire it up. Nestled between those two releases, though, is their Pocket Operator series. These small synthesizers are about the size of a calculator and are very industrial in their design. With just an input, an output, a small screen, and an array of buttons to work with, they pack quite a punch - especially considering their size. The buttons are laid out in a familiar grid style and the sounds on the machines are sequenceable, allowing you to create loops and beats and then record them into your DAW for further processing.
Now, Teenage Engineering is preparing to put out their fourth line of products, this time in partnership with Capcom, a decades-old video game developing house that has published many hits over the years, spanning from the days of old-school arcades through to computers, consoles, and handhelds.
The PO-133 is a Street Fighter pocket operator. Building on top of the skeleton of all of the models with the features of the most recent ones, the PO-133 is an updated and cross-branded spin on the PO-33 KO! micro sampler. The PO-133 has a built-in microphone for recording your own samples, up to 40 seconds in length, but the most importantly it comes with 16 banks of dialogue and sound effects from Street Fighter, the classic 2D, head-to-head fighting game. If you ever dreamed of having the ability to splice and chop the theme song, or pop in with lines from Ryu, Ken, or Blanka, you can now do that all with a device that could fit in your pocket or backpack. If you want to string together punching and kicking sound effects in a way that could resemble a percussive track for your song, you can do that as well. Sure you could download sound effects from the internet or record the samples from the game yourself, but this officially licensed product will provide the most authentic sounds available (and you don’t have to feel bad about ripping them from somewhere).
If Street Fighter was never your thing and instead you preferred puzzle solving and platforming, the PO-128 is a Mega Man pocket operator based on the PO-28 Robot sequencer. Equipped with true 8-bit synthesizer sounds, the PO-128 can crush and down-sample itself with authentic processing engines. Similar to the Street Fighter unit, the Mega Man version comes with 16 tracks featuring music and sound effects from the classic side-scrolling Mega Man arcade game. Adding both of these operators to your existing arsenal of miniature music machines would be a wise move, or if you aren’t quite sure where to begin with these products but you want something familiar that you can manipulate and play with in post-production, these have all of the classic stylings of the video games of yesteryear.
Teenage Engineering designed their pocket operators with the ability to only do one thing, but to do it really well. With a design form factor that allows you to slip the device into your pocket should you so choose (though you might break it), the goal was to show that even something so small could be fun to play with and produce music on. Just a pair of triple-A batteries is all you need to fire up these small machines, and with fun and intuitive graphics on the screen they have made it easy for you to figure out how to work with them on the fly. The machines are small but durable, made of high-quality metal and electronic components. Though their case exposes all of the inner workings of the design, and there are hard cases that you can purchase to put over them, they are incredibly sturdy and cool to look at. With several products now in their line of Pocket Operators, there should be one, two, three, or even four that you could figure out how to put into your music.
The current line of Pocket Operators already has quite the selection of sounds. The launch line featured three different operators, each with the ability to be linked together and tempo synced to create beats and jams with just those three small machines. The PO-12 Rhythm is a 16-sound drum sequencer with real drum sounds as well as sampled drum sounds, the PO-14 Sub is a bassline sequencer, and the PO-16 Factory is designed for synthesizer lead sounds. After the first run of products was a tremendous success, Teenage Engineering released some follow-up products with even more unique sounds. The PO-20 Arcade was designed specifically for chiptune sounds and sequences, the PO-24 Office is a noise percussion operator that takes samples from vintage hardware and software synthesizers, and the PO-28 Robot, which is more of a full synthesizer than its Factory predecessor. The popularity of the second line of operators pushed Teenage Engineering to really increase the production, releasing a third line of operators, this time with a more advanced featureset. The PO-32 Tonic is a drum and percussion synthesizer that has a corresponding VST with the capability to replace the sounds on the unit. The PO-33 KO! has a built-in microphone and 40 seconds of recording time, allowing you to record into the unit and then chop up and sequence your recording. Finally, the PO-35 Speak is a vocal synthesizer that plays eight different voice characters for sampling. The entire line of products has been extremely popular in the world of synthesizer enthusiasts, and at a price point that offers a very friendly approach to the hobby. If you are looking for a place to start with Pocket Operators I would highly recommend getting a PO-12 Rhythm and figuring out the basics of sequencing different elements of a drum kit. Once you get a handle on that, the rest of the product line opens up and becomes far more enjoyable to use.
On a practical level, the operators are really simple to use. Simply throw a pair of triple-A batteries into it and you’re ready to make music. The symbols on the front might seem like hieroglyphics in the beginning but once you figure out how to maneuver around you will find that they are actually more helpful than you may have realized. I do suggest taking some time to sit down and figure out how to use one, and if you need to use YouTube for some help then certainly do that as well. There are loads of videos from wonderful teachers and personalities who will show you how to use a pocket operator, from simple things like what button does what, all the way up to how to make an entire song using just one or two operators. Regardless of which device you purchase, they are all more than capable of finding a place in your compositions - even the new Capcom operators. I have used PO-12 Rhythm on several tracks to add a different type of percussive element to the background and assist the primary drum beat by making sounds and rhythms that aren’t necessarily essential to the track but still add flavor. With a little bit of EQ and a filter, putting a sequenced drum beat behind a piano or a similar ambient track adds a rhythmic element that you could not really pull off with an acoustic drum kit, and these pocket operators do it beautifully. The Capcom operators could be sequenced and sampled and recorded into your digital audio workstation, and then with some further processing you could blend it into your track without people even really noticing what it is. Sampling video game music and dialogue, and even sound effects, is popular in synthwave and underground music, but can be incorporated into music of any genre.
Chaining multiple operators together is as easy as plugging in eighth-inch patch cables from one device to another, and that will be enough to send and receive tempo and sequence data to get all of your pocket operators singing in harmony together. The following video from YouTuber Ricky Tinez gives a fantastic overview on how to sync and program pocket operators to make music together.
This licensing deal with Teenage Engineering and Capcom seems like a match made in heaven. Pocket operators are only increasing in popularity, and having the ability to team up with classic and well-known video game companies to release a machine based on sound and sequencing was a perfect move by both companies. As retro gaming machines increase in their demand (who would have thought the NES or SNES Classic would have been a thing?) the classic video games that accompanied them will continue to remain as relevant as ever. For a music hardware company to lean into that and develop niche products that are not only fun in concept and design but also have a practical use a studio setting, they really knocked it out of the park. This isn’t their first time joining forces with another company for a pocket operator, though, as they also have a limited edition Rick & Morty-themed pocket operator. The PO-137 is similar to the PO-35 Speak in that it has eight character voices, but this time they are all voiced by Rick & Morty creator Justin Roiland.
Whether it’s Capcom, Rick & Morty, or whatever else is on the horizon, I have full faith and trust in Teenage Engineering to develop a quality product that is also at the forefront of creativity and innovation. Their OP-1 is always on my desk, charged and ready to go in a moment’s notice, and a few of their Pocket Operators are tucked away with some other musical gadgets for when inspiration strikes and I need something specific that only those machines can do. If you have yet to jump on the Teenage Engineering hype train, now would be an awesome time to do so. While the OP-1 and OP-Z might be a little expensive for most people, the Pocket Operators are all around $60 each, with some coming in just a little more expensive than that but still under $100. The price of three would get you anything from the Korg Volca series, but with three operators you would already be well on your way to creating a full track from only these tiny Teenage Engineering products.
If you would like to browse through Teenage Engineering’s complete catalog of products, click through this link here. They make a few other things that aren’t musical instruments, and they’ve even partnered with IKEA to make a line of home speakers and lighting units. Hopefully this Capcom partnership is a sign of more fun things to come with Teenage Engineering. Even if they don’t release physical products, an officially licensed sample pack for the OP-1 or OP-Z could be interesting and I am sure a lot of people would purchase those. Teaming up with Nintendo, the king of vintage video games, may be out of the question, but there are plenty of other video games and development teams with classic sounds that Teenage Engineering could link arms with. I would keep an eye on these guys as the calendar page folds into 2021. The company is usually quiet for a while and then all of a sudden they announce a new product is right around the corner, which is one of best ways to do it, in my opinion. Be sure to grab a PO-128 or PO-133 and start writing songs with the best kicking, punching, and Megablasting samples that will have all of your friends and family clamoring to get your next Soundcloud link.
Writer and musician based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Hannah. Extensive career as both a writer and a musician previously working with brands such as Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated. As a musician, Anders has played in several bands throughout the last decade, and has experience in touring, booking, band management, engineering, producing, mixing, and composing. Anders has recently composed music for short films and media presentations in universities, and has launched a podcast focusing on giving musicians and artists a place to talk about their work and the process behind their creation.
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