Review: Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators
Earlier this year the team at Teenage Engineering, known for their stylish boutique synthesizer the OP-1, announced its collaboration with Cheap Mondays on a new line of portable music making devices: Pocket Operators.
Unlike the OP-1, these Pocket Operators come with a much more affordable price tag and in three distinct varieties: Factory (synth), Sub (bass synth), and Rhythm (drum machine). Their unique styling sets them apart immediately from other entry-level synth toys out there, mashing up the best of old school pocket calculator and Nintendo Game & Watch aesthetics with a dash of Radio Shack circuit kit sensibilities.
Everything from the bare circuit board presentation to the recycled chipboard fold-open packaging screams kitsch appeal. Each unit is designed to be used on its own or in conjunction with the others. Connecting the out jack of one to the in jack of another sets up a chain that keeps the rhythm in sync and opens up a world of sequencer noodling opportunities.
While there are on-board speakers soldered beneath the LCD screens, the music coming from these tiny powerhouses is best enjoyed with high-end headphones or through a pumping stereo setup.
Interestingly, the Pocket Operator series’ low cost of acquisition ($59 USD each) would make it more appealing to folks who might not otherwise consider picking up a synthesizer gadget. However, the sequencer interface coupled with the multi-function nature of each of the buttons and the sparse included documentation (full instructions are online) means that the devices are initially obtuse and take a while to get used to before any decent beat making can happen.
Their sequencer nature means that anyone familiar with drum machines will be able to wrap their heads around the Pocket Operators with minimal effort, and this is especially true for the drum module, Rhythm. But for those who like the tactile feel of traditional keys, the Factory and Sub units can often feel esoteric. After spending hours with each of the units, I felt that Rhythm was the one that worked best and provided the most fun.
One wouldn’t expect such tiny devices to output incredible sounds, but all three Pocket Operators delivered exceptionally in that respect to the point where I was surprised that such little devices could create such huge sound.
I don’t see them becoming a staple of live electronic performances, but they are fun additions to your gadget orchestra and Teenage Engineering offers a bunch of optional accessories including cases for the circuit boards (which are mostly unnecessary as they are sturdily built). Their portable size makes them the perfect travelling companions, and getting to see the little Game & Watch-inspired animations move to the beat of your music is a real treat.