I was really surprised when I heard that Teenage Engineering were going to launch three new Pocket Operators to the lineup at NAMM 2016, and thrilled to learn that I would be able to try them out prior to the release. I honestly don’t know why this was such a surprise to me, considering that the original lineup seems to have sold really well, but as surprises go, this was an exciting one. Perhaps I thought they considered it a one-off experiment before moving on to new things.
I really love these things. They are quirky, fun, yet makes decent enough sound to be used in serious work. I know people who bought them for their kids, only to end up buying for themselves as well. They also trigger my creativity in providing an experience where it feels like I interact with the instrument in a way that is not always predictable, but always musical. I can’t wait to see more of this line of thinking in bigger products (I secretly dream of an upgrade to the OP-1 that would bring the PO interactivity to it as well)
Let’s start with the most traditional one of the lineup, named “Office”. It basically contains 16 sounds that are firmly rooted in office environment of old, with a few honks, buzzes and a couple of decent bass sounds added in. Holding it in my hands felt immediately at home, with the familiar controls, and a graphic depiction of a huge printer filling up most of the screen.
The first few sounds made me smile. There’s obviously going to be the screeching sound of the old matrix tractor-style printers, which is very useful for piercing rhythmic sounds, I nodded knowingly to the perfectly captured sound of an old disk drive reading data, and enjoyed the other sounds of computer keys, mouse clicks and so on.
But then there are other sounds as well, useful, but perhaps not as “office” as you would expect. And I guess this is where the challenge of the concept becomes visible. Of course, it is almost a no-brainer to produce a device with retro sounds of old office gear, especially at a point in time where interest in 70’s and 80’s computers and technology is on the rise. But how many sounds are recognizable? I remember spending some time in my mother’s office as a child, sometimes hearing (or fantasizing about) rhythms emerging from the constant noise of typewriters, telephones, electro-mechanic calculators etc. But how many of those sounds are at all remembered or even recognized today? So while I kind of sensed a missed opportunity to include sounds of telephone dialing, calculators and typewriter carriages, it may make sense to keep an even balance, including other types of useful, glitchy sounds. The tonal sounds (including the bass) are good, but can be tricky to program in a musical way.
This is the Operator most resembling the previous three in layout and operation. The most striking new feature is the Solo button, which when pressed together with a sound button solos that sound for the duration of the pattern. A side effect of this is of course that if you select a sound that is silent throughout the pattern, you will end up with silence. For that reason I found myself wishing it would just do nothing if I selected a sound that is not used, but I guess that is nitpicking.
New with the PO-24 is also a “stutter” or “flam” function they call “Step multiplier” which can be used to program repeats of a single hit by pressing the BPM button and a certain step while recording. But apart from this, the rest is familiar territory, with parameter locks and a really good selection of 16 real-time effects (my favorite being number 10: “distort high”). I go through several of the effects and sounds in the first look video below (produced by me and my good friend Alpaca Sound)
I think this may risk becoming the most underrated of the new Pocket Operators, as it offers less new features and stays more true to the original models than its new siblings “Arcade” and “Robot”. But it is incredibly fun and useful for making glitchy, quirky beats, and I often find myself getting lost in making evolving and mutating beats, recording them into Ableton Live for later use.