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June 13, 2011

teenage engineering’s op-1: a paradigm shift in portable music making

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 2 years, you’ve most likely heard of the of the OP-1 (that is, if you follow new audio device and synth development). Teenage Engineering has been working for many years on this polished product (to the point that people would almost tag the item with vaporware) and has delivered a really solid tool which will leave its mark on the electronic music landscape. From the exterior the OP-1 is simply a new synth. But after playing with the actual device, you soon understand the vision behind the instrument.

The revolution of the OP-1 is not a technical one, but a conceptual one. There was nothing new invented here. But never before has so much been packed into one synth: drum machine, step sequencer, effect processor 4-track tape recorder and mastering tool, without mentioning the FM radio receiver and the g-force. All this in a portable, battery-powered (16 hours of life!), beautifully designed machine.

What’s interesting about this tool is that it presents you with 8 synth engines that have only a limited amount of effects and settings, instead of giving you complete control over all the building blocks like other virtual analogue synths (VCO, VCF, VCA…). It might sound constraining at first, but I found it sparked my creativity to a new degree. As an example, when playing a classical non-digital instrument, you generally have no settings at all – you tune your instrument and that’s as far as you can go. While most synthesizers can be programmed and re-programmed indefinitely, the limited sound structure of the OP-1 is quite refreshing and actually helps my creativity.

The OP-1 takes you from just playing around to almost post-production. You can choose from a few synths, add some effects or pass the synth through some step sequencers. Once you’re ready, you can start recording on one of the 4-tracks you have. You can cut, copy, past, change the speed, and remix what you’ve played infinitely. Then you can add some drums to it. From these sampled sounds, you can cut in notes and again add effects, or feed them through the step sequencer and record them onto the 4-track tape. When you have all that in place you can record what you have on your tape onto vinyl – where you can master your track. This is where you can add your fade in/out of your track and more effects, with even some compressor filter to add humph to your sound. Once that it’s all perfect you can simply plug your device into your computer and retrieve your completed track in high quality audio without any noise. I really like that final touch where the track is brand spanking clean.

The OP-1 is quite intuitive and it was exciting to play around to find all of its secrets before reading the manual (almost like a video game!). There are only 2 or 3 functions that were harder to find (the radio and the g-force modulation) so for me the instrument was indeed intuitive! The graphical relation makes it easy to find and remember all the settings, all the knobs are color coded and represent setting on the small screen. Compared to, let’s say, the microKORG XL (as an example of another battery-powered programmable synth), it’s day and night. With the synth engine of the microKORG XL, even if you can pretty much create any sounds, the sense of infinite possibility actually reduced my creativity. I spent most of my time trying to craft the perfect sounds, which in the end never happens. Somehow, the simplicity of the OP-1 is really its charm.

On the downside of the instrument, there is some electronic noise when you connect your device to a sound system or to your headphones. It’s not a major problem, but when working with a lot of silence and low volume music, it does get in the way. But this is only if you play live, since you can master your track directly on the OP-1 which saves it as a .wav file that you can retrieve trough USB disk mode. Leaving you with a perfectly polished audio track (yum).

The OP-1 has brought a lot of food for creativity, and the enjoyment I have with the device resembles the enjoyment of a video game. It puts the ‘play’ back in playing music. I can bring it everywhere and polish a track on the go, or simply find free space on the 4-track to scratch some new ideas about the next track. And if I am not ready to play but still have an idea, I can simply whistle the tune so I can continue later.

  • Lukesanger dot com

    nice review, getting me excited while I’m waiting for mine to arrive!

    • Anonymous

      sweet – yeah I realized it was more a praise than an actual review – but it so much fun – make sure to check out soundcloud, there is a group for op-1 who publish track made with the instrument. 

  • Ido Schacham

    Thanks for the review. I’m about to go check out the MicroKorg and Akai Miniak, and I’m really wondering whether I should buy one of those or be more brave and order the OP-1.

    • Anonymous

      well they’re really different beast. I can’t tell for the Akai miniak, but the microkkorg is a synth – and… that’s it’s. No sampling, looping, recording. It’s a great synth though. I love it too, and it has midi in and out (no throught) so if you want to create a setup with other synth, it’s important to consider how you will connect them together. If you want a tool that will do everything by itself, then the op-1 will be the good choice, and if you want to have a new tools in a set of other tools that you need to clock together or to control other device, then the microkorg might be better suited 🙂

  • Phillwilson

    Hey Damaru,

    I am after the answer to a simply question but im coming up blank until i say you have a similar hardware setup to me.

    I want to buy a Tenori-On (orange if it matters) and have it SLAVE to midi clocks sent from a Gibson Echoplex DIgital Pro (its got a very traditional old fasioned stable midi clock) basically all i want ot know is in your experiance can the tenori on follow midi clock without drifting over a five/eight minute song.

    can you help me ? thanks

    Phill

    • Anonymous

      Well I am using a tenori-on with a ploytech 34one (http://ploytec.com/34oneII/) as my midi master clock. The ploytech pedal is link to a midi solution quadra thru (http://www.midisolutions.com/prodqth.htm) which connect my other synth and my kp3 to it. So everyone is on the same clock, so even if one of them drift, they’re all sync to the same clock so that they would drift together. 

      I think it’s the idea generally in midi, to have all your instrument sync to the same master so that even if there is drifting it would still be in sync. What is your setup ? One thing you could do too is to have your midi out of your Tenori-on link to your other synth (or to your computer midi) so that it will be on the same tempo, since your tenori-on has 16 midi channel you can use some of them for controlling other instrument and some of them controlling local sounds. 

      Let me know if you need more information 

      • Phillwilson

        cheers for the heads up.

        my setup is very similar midi clock to thru to all devices that need clock…it sounds like you are managing it without issues so I will take a punt

  • My thoughts exactly 🙂
    It’s been so carefully configured; the design and functionality – both without much precedent – ‘sing’ before one even presses a key! And the illuminated display is graphic design at its finest.

    • Anonymous

      yes it’s really sweet and inspiring how much energy they put into details – it feels so complete as is and then you see that there is even more to tweak and make yours, I find it even hard to let someone else play with it and changes my settings :S

  • Scanbozkurt

    could you tell me if the product is durable enough to buy from outside of the states (i mean would you buy it disregarding the warranty) ? 

    • Anonymous

      The quality of the product and the solidity of the build is outstanding – I would also assume that the warranty can be applicable worldwide anyhow.

  • Best review of the OP-1 I’ve seen so far. I agree on all counts.

    Contraints really enable creativity.