Teenage Engineering PO-32 tonic Review – The Best Beats Around

One of our products of NAMM 2017 was the new Teenage Engineering PO-32 tonic. Andy Jones discovers another twist in the trend of software becoming hard…

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Manufacturer Teenage Engineering
Price £85 (case £35), Microtonic software ($99)
Contact Sound Technology
01462 480 000
Web www.soundtech.co.uk, soniccharge.com, teenage.engineering
System requirements Host that supports VST 2.4 or Audio Unit 2 plug-ins

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Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operator series has certainly impressed us over the last three years. Released in two batches of three, it comprises the 10s (the rhythm, sub and factory) and 20s (arcade, office and robot). They cover all grounds: drum machine, synth, bassline, vocoder and more.

Often, you also get multiple instruments, so you can produce complete tunes from each unit. They’re very cool. Teenage Engineering is very cool (check out their T-shirts and sneakers!) and they make me feel very old. How, though, can they be even cooler with their next release? By getting completely out there…

When soft went hard

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Microtonic (actually spelt µTONIC, but we’ll go with the easy option on our keyboards) is a piece of incredibly well-regarded software, released some 13 years ago – I used it for pretty much all my beats back in the day. The developer Magnus Lidström famously developed Malström for Propellerhead and has several other titles under the Sonic Charge brand, including the bonkers Synplant.

At the NAMM Show in January 2017, Lidström told us: “Teenage Engineering and I were talking about doing something together for some time and when they were talking about doing another Pocket Operator, they asked me. So we’ve come up with this, a version of Microtonic in hardware.”

What we have here, then, is something very unusual. We’ve seen a resurgence in hardware, but not so much a direct release like this – this is a partnership where the software and hardware works very well together, as Lidström showed us at NAMM by downloading a sound by way of the PO-32’s onboard mic, from the software into the hardware. It’s maybe the opposite way around than you might expect, but a fantastic concept. Very Teenage Engineering, of course…

In operation

On power-up, you’ll notice the screen, which has a typical TE cartoon scene. You may remember previous ones that at first seem unrelated to the Operator, but are. This one has a bar scene with people drinking tonic – see where this is going? Apparently, you drink the tonic and it turns you into a ‘neat drummer’.

And a drum machine is what is at the heart of PO-32 tonic – albeit a very different one. I loved Microtonic for its way-out-there sound, and happily, this is no exception.

PO-32 tonic features 16 main buttons, with 16 sounds or patterns to select. The sounds can be adjusted with the two rotaries, either for pitch or another parameter (often drive or filter). Pre-programmed patterns can be chosen via the 16 keys and you can easily add to them by choosing one of the 16 sounds, twisting its character and then recording over the patterns in a 16-step, switch on, switch off way. It’s very easy and great fun. You can also add one of 16 very good effects to the mix, simply by holding the FX button and selecting as patterns play.

As a drum machine in its own right PO-32 tonic is fabulous and just like the other six in the 10 and 20 range, in terms of the ease in which you get there and its amazing flexibility. However, now’s the time to add some tonic to this particularly beaty gin…

A dash of tonic?

So this is the really cool bit. You’ll need to download and buy a copy of Mictrotonic from the Sonic Charge website if you don’t already own it. Don’t worry, though – even after 13 years, this is one cool piece of software and it sounds better than ever. You can also trial it for three weeks free of charge, although the link with the PO-32 tonic doesn’t work until it’s fully registered. Once you have it up and running, you’ll hear what a great piece of software it is.

On a simple level, have it running in the background with tunes you are working on and step through the preset patterns. They’re very similar to the style of the ones on the hardware and you can easily change sounds within them, tweak and distort, filter and pitch, really mess with each beat to get some extreme sounds.

Within minutes, I had a menacing late-70s Human League beat going under a too-sweet piece of music I was working on – the perfect counter. I’m not kidding, this software is worth every cent of the $99, if you want something a little extreme with your beats.

Anyway, I’m getting a little carried away. The exciting bit comes when you take that early Human League beat you’ve come up with and transfer it to the PO-32 tonic. Press ‘Acc’ and ‘Sound’ on the PO-32 and the TE logo on the software and you transfer that sound – either by putting the TE mic close to the computer speaker, or connecting a cable via the headphone to the mic input on the PO-32. Choose your destination sound button (from the 16) and the sound will be transferred to that location.

Conclusion

That might sound a little gimmicky and, yes, maybe it is. But it also marries up a piece of software and hardware like I’ve never seen before, and it adds a lovely edge to the PO, making it the first to be updatable in this manner. Think about future POs married to other pieces of software like this – the mind boggles!

Ultimately, Microtonic is a superb piece of beat software and with the patterns and manipulation over them in PO-32, the latter is already a great representation of the former. But now you can transfer exact sounds to the PO, you really can get the best of both worlds. PO-32 tonic has (re)opened my eyes to the fantastic world of Microtonic, and the fact that it works so well with the software brings two great beat-making worlds together.

PO-32 tonic key features

  • Pocket drum machine with synth engine and sequencer
  • Unlimited sounds when partnered with Microtonic
  • Built-in mic for data transfer
  • Built-in speaker
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