Teenage Engineering’s OP‑1 Field is much more than a sequel.
My obsession with portable music gadgets started the day someone brought a Casio VL‑1 into school. Twenty or so years later I found myself at the 2009 Frankfurt Musikmesse drooling on the sealed plexiglass over the original OP‑1 prototype. I don’t know if the OP in OP‑1 means ‘overpowered’ as in gamer parlance, but it certainly seemed like the money‑no‑object, concept car version of the VL.
The OP‑1 Field is kind of — but not exactly — an OP‑2. Functionally it’s much the same as the original, but just about everything about it has been enhanced and refined. The ‘Field’ moniker identifies it as part of TE’s new range of portable and interconnected devices for working without ties to the studio. This translates to direct USB‑C pairing with the TX‑6 mixer, MIDI hosting, and wireless connectivity.
Like the OP‑1, the Field is a multi‑mode micro workstation. It’s a digital synth with multiple sound engines, a sampler, and a drum machine. It has a sequencer with several (sometimes esoteric) modes. It’s not, however, multi‑timbral in the sense of a groovebox like an MPC, Circuit or the OP‑Z: only one instrument can be active at a time. But what makes it so interesting is a built‑in four‑track digital ‘tape’ recorder where you can capture and overdub performances from the internal sound sources, the built‑in mic, or external inputs.
The OP‑1 was already a beautiful object, but TE have managed to take it up a notch for the Field.
The OP‑1 was already a beautiful object, but TE have managed to take it up a notch for the Field. The unit feels significantly slimmer as the chassis has been shaved around the margins to a narrower aluminium slab, reminding me of the iconic iPhone 4 design. An effect of this is that the OP now looks more sculpted and futuristic than retro.
The encoders have a slimmer shape with fine knurling, and look and feel more grown up than the originals. They have the same indented, endless action but now have a new function: they are push buttons. The colour palette used for the encoders has been muted, and all colour has been removed from the key legending except for the Record and Mic buttons.
Other external upgrades include the high‑res meter strip, the highly satisfying power switch, and the hyper‑functional USB‑C port (more on that later). There are still two quarter‑inch jacks for audio input and output, but these are much upgraded: the converters are much better, the line input is stereo, and there’s a 32‑bit stereo audio pathway throughout. The output also supports headset mics.
The bottom extrusion is now a matte plastic, making for a warmer laptop experience in British heatwave clothing, and there’s a second passive speaker port which helps the reworked built‑in speaker kick out louder and deeper sounds. I love a built‑in speaker for random noodling, so this is really welcome.
The switch away from a metal base plate means the mounting threads have been replaced with a pair of velcro rings. In the box you get two more adhesive rings to mate these with. These are more versatile than bolts, but I’m not sure how confident I’d be with this solution. One of TE’s suggestions is to stick it on to a guitar. Given that the OP‑1 Field is at least twice as valuable as my guitar, I’m not sure I’d risk it.
As it’s come up let’s briefly address the cost, as it’s been a topic of interest in that urbane safe‑space of shared ideas and discussion, the Internet. The OP‑1’s list price is £1999$1999 for which you could, say, buy a really nice polysynth or an MPC Key 61, or heat the average UK semi for one winter (#funnybecauseitstrue).
Some have argued that their pricing reflects an increasingly boutique exclusivity from Teenage Engineering. Now, I’ll grant that a simple leather wrap‑around case for £249$249 is taking the mick, but remember TE also make the Pocket Operators starting at £49$59.
We are used to the majority of modern music tech gear being built to hit a low price point. Most synths and hardware workstations have plastic shells and use the same off‑the‑shelf components. Small desktop synth? 500 quid tops, right? Compare your expectations though to, say, a solidly built Thunderbolt audio interface and £2000‑3000$2000‑3000 or so feels ‘normal’. Custom Fender or Gibson? Twice that.
After booting up, an initial poke around showed that the fundamental OP‑1 navigation and functionality remain the same. The four primary modes are Synth, Drum, Tape and Mixer, selected from the main button row. The 1‑4 buttons below the screen always select between different sub‑views of the current mode, or the track number in Tape mode. The 1‑8 buttons select stored sound slots in the synth and drum modes, or trigger Tape functions.
There’s also a sequencer that can be toggled on or off from the rightmost button. Sequencing on the OP is synth‑like rather than groovebox‑like. You can set up a single sequencer at a time, and use it to perform with the current synth or drum instrument, recording the result to the Tape if you like. There are multiple modes including an arpeggiator, an SH‑101‑style step sequencer, a grid pattern sequencer and a couple of experimental toys (‘Tombolo’ and ‘Sketch’) that create unpredictable results. Perhaps the most well known mode is ‘Finger’, where you can set up different sequences for each note key, then trigger one or two at a time while two animated characters play along.
The OP‑1 Field has one new synth sequencing mode: Hold. This lets you set up a keyboard split, and have one area that holds notes or chords as a drone. Honestly not super‑useful, but Teenage Engineering have hinted that there might be more new things to come. Some Eurorack‑inspired modes like Euclidean sequencing would be great.
As well as the primary modes you have the Output mode, where you can create a mixdown and also transmit over FM radio! One of the oddities of the OP‑1 is that it has a radio receiver which you can use for recording random stuff or as a modulation source. The Field adds broadcasting, with the idea that you can output directly to a hi‑fi at a party, or use Teenage Engineering’s own fancy portable speaker, the OB‑4.
In Synth mode the OP‑1 Field feels like familiar territory to an OP‑1 user. The same synth engines are all present and work much the same. However there are various UI tweaks which take advantage of the upgraded screen resolution, such as a pop‑up graphic that shows encoder parameters and values when they’re not obvious. Each synth engine has a unique control screen, then generic pages for amp envelope, an insert effect, and a modulation page.
The big synth news, though, is a new engine called Dimension, and it’s a beaut. Dimension is the ‘basic’ synth that was missing from the OP‑1, providing simple, classic analogue mono or polysynth sounds. It has a single control that morphs the oscillator from noise to pulse, then smoothly to square, and on to sawtooth, sawtooth+sub and back to noise. You then have a stereo width control, filter cutoff and resonance. The output is represented rather beautifully by a Lissajous curve on an oscillator display.
In Drum mode the keys trigger up to 24 sounds. There’s a drum synth mode or sample playback to choose from. In sampler mode each kit loads a single audio file, with each key playing a slice of the file. Kits can be loaded to the OP by transferring a file with sounds laid out in sequence, or you can quickly sample on the fly into the unit by holding a key and playing sounds in. Slice editing is straightforward on the screen so the OP‑1 is great for classic beat chopping.
What fundamentally changes the Drum mode, and nearly every other aspect of the OP‑1 Field, is the upgrade to stereo. Everything is mono on the original OP‑1 apart from mixer panning: synths, effects, inputs, sampling and tape tracks. All of these can now take advantage of the 32‑bit audio pathways and mixer.
Drums and the sampler instrument in Synth mode now support stereo sampling and playback and have a gorgeous new waveform editor with a zoomable display, where you can trim and set loops and fade points.
Only the new Dimension synth has a stereo spread control, but all the legacy synths appear to have gained some subtle stereo characteristics. All instruments can take advantage of the new stereo reverb effect called Mother. Mother sounds suitably lush, and has the kind of quirky UI we’ve come to expect from an OP effect. The old Spring reverb had its charm but this really elevates what the OP can do without calling on external effects.
Stereo is a huge boost to the central feature of the OP‑1 experience: the tape machine. Although it’s of course a digital recorder, the Tape is the closest thing you’ll find virtually to the tactile and experimental fun of a tape machine. You can change and nudge the speed, during playback or record, and hold momentary buttons to reverse, stop, etc. Even shuttling and winding through the four‑track tape timeline is analogue‑like both visually and audibly.
Recording workflow on the OPs is mostly true in concept to traditional tape tracking: I remember being humbled realising how much I rely on quantisation in my DAW or MIDI‑based workstations. However there are some more modern aids. There’s a timeline display that shows where audio has been recorded. You can set a tempo for your project and the OP‑1 Field will display a bars/beats grid on your track; you choose whether this syncs to speed changes. A metronome then aids with recording and overdubbing, and you can quickly step through the timeline using the grid. Sections can be selected then ‘lifted’ (cut) and pasted.
The OP‑1 Field upgrades make the Tape mode considerably more usable and useful. With stereo to match all the possible audio sources, the tape is kind of an 8‑track in old money. There are now multiple tape modes, imparting a different sonic fingerprint on the recorded audio. You can choose the original Studio 4‑Track mode for full digital audio quality, Vintage 4‑Track, Porta 4‑Track, or Disk Mini for different analogue and digital characters. Each mode changes the graphics for the tape as well as the tone. The Vintage mode has become my go‑to recorder, staying high‑quality but imprinting a touch of warmth and saturation.
But perhaps the biggest workflow upgrade on the OP‑1 Field is the ability to store multiple tape ‘reels’, up to eight in fact. On the OP‑1 you could only have one tape stored on the machine at a time. If you wanted to start something new, you needed to back up to a computer and wipe the tape. As an awkward workaround I’d end up with several ideas on the machine at a time at different points through one big tape and sharing a tempo. Unfortunately the reels don’t store any other information about what’s happening with the instruments or mixer, so they are not comparable to Projects.
The Field incarnation of the OP‑1 is more capable on its own than its predecessor, but it has also leapt forward in its ability to work as a team. The archaic mini‑USB port is replaced by USB‑C, and it’s more than just a port change. As well as providing charging, file sharing and MIDI comms like the original, the OP‑1 Field’s USB implementation includes MIDI hosting and class‑compliant audio interfacing.
USB hosting means the OP‑1 Field can talk directly with other MIDI gear without requiring a computer or USB hosting interface. This is huge: you can simply plug a MIDI keyboard in directly and enjoy full‑sized, velocity sensitive playing. I also connected an Elektron drum machine (using a USB hub when I wanted both) and took advantage of the OP‑1 Field’s ability to send MIDI transport and Clock messages to sync up. As another test I connected a Retrokits RK‑006 MIDI interface and was able to send MIDI notes and Clock over regular minijack and DIN MIDI connections. Bluetooth MIDI has been added as another option for connecting wireless MIDI controllers or tablets.
But the USB port is not just for MIDI, it does audio too. I didn’t manage to get USB audio from the Elektron (although it’s also class compliant) but the Field did work without fuss connected to my laptop, where it appeared as a 2‑in/2‑out interface.
There’s more: file management and backup have been improved with the Field. The OP‑1 has a Disk mode, which is a dedicated mode for mounting the internal storage on your computer for transferring files. The Field can still do this but additionally supports standard MTP (Media Transport Protocol), which means that you can connect the Field to your computer and manage files without having to lock yourself into a special mode.
Sum Of Its Parts
The original OP‑1 is a lovely, desirable device, but the truth is I didn’t use it half as much as I thought I would. I wanted it to be a micro workstation I could use to record other kit as well as being a portable synth and drum machine. But the limitations, especially mono recording, were too, well, limiting. The OP‑1 Field is much closer to my original dream for the OP. With one USB cable I can connect an Elektron Analog Rytm and have it chasing the OP Tape transport. Stereo audio coming in can be captured and overdubbed alongside the internal synths.
The OP‑1 Field’s differences from the OG OP reads like a list of revisions and improvements, making the Field sound like a comprehensive MkII rework. It is, but more than that the core new features (stereo, connectivity and Tape reels) come together to make this a fundamentally more useful device as well as a thing of beauty.
Velocity & Acceleration
Like the original, the Field does not have a velocity sensitive keyboard. As a drum sampler and a portable synth this is limiting. However, both the synths and the drums do respond to velocity from external MIDI controllers, and you can now use velocity as a mod source in patches. With Bluetooth and USB hosting, the Field lends itself to being played as a module — I had mine on an iPad stand with a Komplete Kontrol 32, and it feels like a different instrument.
Intriguingly, in a video from Superbooth, Tobias from Teenage Engineering hinted that they might be able to approximate velocity using the internal accelerometer. The accelerometer lets you modulate parameters in the OP’s synth engines by tilting or shaking the device. Far from a gimmick, this can be really expressive. I found that if you have the OP on a soft surface that lets the OP‑1 tilt a bit as you press the keys you can get a workable approximation of aftertouch. The same effect could potentially be used for velocity.
In fact, if Teenage Engineering were to add this feature as an update, I’d love to see them improve the overall modulation possibilities at the same time. The biggest limitation of the current synth architecture is that only one internal modulation connection can be made in any patch.
Teenage Engineering describe the OP‑1 Field as the “next chapter” of the OP‑1, but they have another product which they call their “next generation portable instrument”: the OP‑Z. Apart from their form, the two are fundamentally different beasts. The Z is a more like a groovebox or drum machine in the sense that it’s a multi‑lane, multi‑timbral pattern sequencer, where the OP‑1 is a mono‑timbral synth/sampler with a multitrack audio recorder. If that way of working is more up your street, the Z might be a better fit, even though it doesn’t have the tactile luxury of the OP‑1.
While there’s a clear separation between the two products, it would have been great to see some of the cool stuff from the Z make it into the OP‑1. In particular the sequencer with its per‑step operators and momentary effects, and the ability to pair with an app for extra display elements and controls.
- Stereo throughout.
- USB‑C connectivity and hosting.
- Multiple Tape reels.
- Luxury reverb.
- Dimension synth.
- Reels are not Projects.
- It’s expensive.
A perfection of the OP‑1 vision rather than a brand‑new device, but it’s a thing of wonder.
£1999 including VAT.