Three new Pocket Operators from Teenage Engineering. Can they possibly be as good as last year’s hat-trick? Andy Jones goes 8-bit
Price €75 each (inc postage)
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Last year’s NAMM show – that is NAMM 2015 – was stolen by Teenage Engineering, with its Pocket Operator Series. Three calculator-style sound modules for beats, sub bass and leads had everyone crowding around the TE stand and while the big companies made big announcements, three sub €70 Euro gadgets walked away with the honours. A couple of months later they walked off with just about every MusicTech award I could bestow on them too…
Yes, the original Pocket Operators – PO-12 Rhythm, PO-14 Sub and PO-16 Factory – were and indeed still are incredibly fun and big sounding melody and beat makers. Sync them together for complete tunes, admire the fancy and fantastical LCD screens, marvel at how such a small device can deliver such a big sound. They were great and still are, so for Teenage Engineering, this year’s NAMM was always going to be a case of, ‘well how do we follow that?’
So How Do They Follow That?
The answer, of course, is with something as cool, something as geeky and something as futuristic as the first three POs. So we have a new trio of POs known as the PO 20 Series comprising the PO-20 Arcade, PO-24 Office and PO-28 Robot.
The names give a little away about where each of the new series is heading sonically, but it’s all perhaps a little less obvious than the PO-10 Series, each of which effectively offered beats, bass, and lead sounds (actually it was a little more complex than that but that will do for now). So here the Arcade focuses on beats and chip tunes; the Office on percussion and sequencing and the Robot on synth and sequencer. Three new strands of PO, then, and each promising a tantalising tangent away from the original three, already innovative devices.
Time for a quick overview of the main ways of using the POs before I get specific. With all three it’s a similar scenario and less than a year after reviewing the 10s I am on familiar ground. So the first thing you’ll do after slotting in the batteries in the ‘case’ around the back – actually a couple of hard wires and I had to push the connectors to make sure they connected with the batteries on the first unit I tested – is hit the ’Play’ button to hear the on-board patterns.
Press the Pattern key and you will be able to choose your pattern from the 16 number keys. Hit the Sound button and, similarly, you can play one of the on board sounds, again by hitting a number key. The two dials here typically alter volume and an effect, like filter, per sound. So you can adjust the pitch of the sound you want to record at this stage and then you can record it either by step sequencer or by playing live over a pattern as it plays.
The former recording method is done by holding the Write button down (along with Chord) and then inputting notes of the sound you chose above on the 16 part grid. You can also play them in live by holding the Write button and playing them (again you choose the pitch before hand). Initially this is a bit hit and miss, but better if you make use of the screen to make sure the Record icon is highlighted, and then you choose either method. Just make sure your pitch is defined before you record so a little reverse thinking is in order.
If you’ve used any of the 10s, though, you will be at home here, as you will with other functions like adding effects live – hold the FX button and choose your effect, as you would a pattern or sound. There are lots of filtery, trigger and glitch type of effects to choose from which really do bring an extra edge to all pattern performances.
These can also be recorded in real time as the pattern cycles (any changes using the two rotaries can be recorded). Then there’s a Chord button that lets you choose chord changes over following patterns by selecting them in number order – again this is a nice way of bringing in some variation.
Other features common to the range include tempo selection – either home in by holding the BPM button and using the dials to choose a value, or select from Hip Hop (80bpm), Disco (120) and Techno (140bpm) at the touch of the button. The volume of each PO is set here too: hold the BPM button and set a level, highlighted by the number of the number keys lit. And just like last time, I’m pleasantly surprised by just how loud these things go, and also by the quality of the sounds on each.
Additionally you can chain the patterns together by holding the Pattern button down again and then hitting the pattern number buttons in the order in which you want them to play to create complete songs.
All the units can also be sync’d together so you might use the beats from one and play live with another – and as we’ll see some do excel in certain areas for this. The manual (a.k.a piece of paper) that comes with each unit lists some scenarios here including syncing a PO with a phone and Volca, something that has ‘achingly cool’ written all over it.
Finally, there’s a clock on each unit, very much reminding me of my old school calculator. I’d have also wanted games – especially on the Arcade one – but that’s probably just me. (Maybe we’ll see some chip tuners hack these to play games as some kind of weird reverse-parallel universe stuff.)
In Use Tips
When using the new PO series (as with the current PO-10s) it’s all about what you can do with them in real time/live. The Robot might be more about playing along with patterns and Office might be more about the beats but each one allows chaining of patterns to make songs, the addition of live effects (which can be recorded), chord changes (again which can be chained) and a Step Multiplier that allows retriggering of steps.
You can even fade your performances out with a couple of key presses (FX and Play) and on the Arcade add a Drone version of the current chord. These real time additions are the PO’s core strength.
So that is the overview. I’ll now deal with each unit in number order so it’s PO-20 Arcade first. Arcade sound effects have been used in music since Space Invaders, from the Yellow Magic Orchestra onwards via novelty hits through the 80s where the scene flourished via Tracker software.
Of course now there’s a whole community of chip tuners who have taken the guts of old gear and made new sounds from it. Arcade (and in some respects the other two new POs) is a reverential nod to that scene. Ironically, though, having a machine with the 8-bit sounds laid out so accessibly might not appeal to many within that scene but for the rest of us Arcade brings a taste of it to our fingertips.
You’ll recognise the sounds in PO-20 from a hundred trips to exciting and slightly sinister amusement arcades that still litter the coastal resorts in this country (that is if you had my kind of childhood and haven’t completely had the seventies tragically erased from your mind by now).
The key sounds are there: drones, lasers, beeps and basses. And while the sounds might be based in the 70s and early 80s, like the Chip tune scene, the patterns that they produce are vibrant and fresh and surprisingly varied. This has much to do with the PO ethos, which is to shove as many features in there to vary, let’s face it, not that many core ingredients and patterns.
So the pitch dial will radically alter your core sounds and the effects and tempos will radically alter your patterns. Throw in some chord changes and real time effects and you will be altering these ingredients a lot more than you think. Teenage Engineering has pulled off something of a sonic curry-fest here: a few core ingredients, yes, but a huge variety of results.
I didn’t expect to be blown away by Arcade – Margate was always a lot more exciting to drive to on the school trip bus than actually getting there – but I found myself charmed by it. Whether the unit has the longevity is another matter, though.
On to Office and while I was excited by Arcade but not expecting big things, I did struggle with the idea of this one: office noises to make beats, right? It’s hardly the stuff of dream rhythms is it? And if you worked in our office and made beats out of the noises you hear here, it would result in the stuff of nightmares, let me tell you.
Fortunately the Teenage Engineering office seems to be a little more musical and alongside what could be photocopy, typing and general shelf/door/filing cabinet hit sounds there are half a dozen decent beats and basses to bolster things up – almost like Richie Hawtin is sat your office, maybe just like your new intern, and making beats out of your hole punch and stapler. “Alright Richie, yeah two sugars in my coffee please mate.”
The resulting Office beats and patterns are surprisingly punchy and aggressive and very edgy. It’s here that the PO effects really do come into full force and you’ll find yourself performing full live sets without realising it with a few button pushes and casual glances over to your imaginary crowd (of co-workers).
So, yeah, Office is surprisingly cool, and out of the three units I’d probably pick this one to use in my studio and to extract beats and ideas from and into my main DAW set-up. I just love the overall level of control that enables you to stamp your own authority onto the existing sounds and patterns, and again, you are amazed what PO has done with so few initial sounds.
Finally it’s time for the robots. Being a certain age, I must make the link between robots, operators, and calculators and mention Kraftwerk (yes I didn’t just hang about in amusement arcades in the 70s), and perhaps here we have the whole Teenage Engineering philosophy wrapped up in one unit.
Robot is solidly electro, comes packed with a bunch of synth sounds (not so much in the way of robot voices though) and the ability to actually play and synthesise notes (to some extent anyway). In this way it seems more open than the other units as you can make more in the way of melodies and have some control over the filter and envelope of the sound (via the rotaries).
The sequencer is a little more limited in the sense that the sounds you play live are not necessarily recorded when you hit Write – they are more designed to be played live – but the overall feel is more ‘play me’ than ‘program me’ which is a nice variation.
Back to the sounds and you get good leads, whistles, the odd arcade bleep and some fantastic delayed synth notes (very Kraftwerk) although I’d have wanted some vocoder action – maybe that is an idea for the PO-30 range…
Patterns are chugging electro, some interesting more glitchy, off-beat breaks and again some arcade-type movement. Because the source sounds are more synth than beat, the underlying rhythm sounds (from a micro drum kits selected as sound number 16) are a bit less varied here so I wasn’t perhaps as blown away by the patterns, I have to say.
This is probably down to the fact that each sequencer makes use of one of the lead sounds and beats. The other units have more varied sounds across their key ranges (rather than just different pitches) so their patterns sound a little more varied. But fun wise and ideas wise, and particularly just for playing tunes with beats – and there are additional options for vibrato and expression for playing – Robot is where it’s at for me.
Korg’s Volca range is still the closest thing out there to the original PO-10 series but there’s little out there that touches the new PO-20 series, not in standard hardware anyway. I say ‘standard’ because, of course, there is a world of chip-tuning, DIY electronic customisation out there where people are taking every day gadgets and making them make notes.
Expect a feature on that soon. Until then, grab a Speak n Spell and a screwdriver… and experiment. (Actually, thinking about it… don’t.)
I’ll leave aside any debates over chip tune purity – whereby the ethos is to mod old gear to make sound rather than have it done for you – and attempt to sum these up as music making devices. And it’s a little harder this time around compared to the 10s. Inevitably this set of Operators is a little more niche – the bass, leads and beats have been done, after all. This means that some will love them even more than the first set but they will probably appeal to less people overall.
I have to say, though, that Office was the biggest revelation to me while Robot was the most amount of fun. Like the reface keyboards from Yamaha – four devices for very specific and different tasks – these are very personal, so my opinions are, as always, just a guide. But I doubt there are any other products anywhere on the planet with which you can have so much musical fun and creativity and that cost so little cash
● 16-part step sequencer with 16 patterns
● Parameter locks on sequencer
● Built-in speaker
● 3.5mm audio out/in sync
● Jam sync
● Folding stand
● Step Multiplier
● Beat making and chiptune improv
● 16 synthesised arcade sounds
● 128 chord and pattern chaining
● 16 punch-in effects
● Noise percussion drum machine and sequencer
● Sampled vintage h/ware and real synth engines
● 16 sounds
● Solo control
● 128 pattern chaining
● 16 punch-in effects
● Live synth and sequencer,
● 8-bit synth engine
● 15 sounds + micro drum
● 128 pattern chaining
● Live play + sequencer