True to form, Teenage Engineering’s approach to modular synthesis is about as idiosyncratic as it gets.
The Pocket Operator Modular range was first introduced to the world around the time of NAMM 2019. They were bold, striking, unexpected and slightly odd. With everyone around them going mad for Eurorack, Teenage Engineering seemed to offer a more unique approach with these stunning objects of sound and colour. It’s an approach that seems to divide opinion and generates strong discussions about the relative merits of design, aesthetics and functionality. However, there were some issues highlighted by early reviewers in the first run of the POM 400 (the big yellow one), and the POM 170 (the red one) ran into some production problems causing very long delays. Eighteen months after their initial release the dust has settled, they’ve had a few course corrections in the latest production run and they are now available through regular distribution channels. So, I thought it would be the right time to dig under the surface of these design statements of music, metal and plastic, and see how engaging they could be.
There are three products within the Pocket Operator Modular or ‘POM’ range. We have the 16 sequencer, the red 170 single oscillator modular synth and the three‑oscillator expanded 400 modular synth. Just to be clear the 170 and 400 are modular synths in the sense that they are made up of individual synthesizer modules that have to be physically patched together. However, as the front panels are fixed the actual modules are not interchangeable so you can’t really call it fully modular because you can’t change the architecture of the synth. So could they be described as fixed synthesizers with modular articulation? Possibly, but there does tend to be a bit of confusion around the way Teenage Engineering labels and defines things.
The best way to describe the 170 is as a modular TB‑303 with a massively overspec’ed sequencer. In its rather gorgeous red console‑like form the top half has a single square‑wave oscillator, a filter, ADSR envelope, VCA and an LFO. The bottom half integrates the sequencer and touch keyboard from the 16 which is capable of sequencing and gating three more channels of CV than the 170 possesses.
The 400 appears to be designed much more like the ARP 2600, which is the sort of comparison that I’m sure many people would object to, but this realisation made a lot of sense to me in trying to articulate what this synth is all about. It has three oscillators, a mixer, two envelops and VCAs, a filter, a noise generator, a sample and hold, an LFO and a much simpler sequencer. It stands up with a near‑vertical rake and will probably be the most eye‑catching thing in your room. Some people have worried about the stability when patching, which I haven’t found to be a problem, but I’ve also seen that a few people have mounted it upside down and laid it flat to give it more of a console feel.
Both synths have a small speaker built in and can run on batteries for perfect portability. Or you can add an optional DC power supply for a more permanent installation.
The physical presence of these two objects is quite remarkable. None of the photos prepared me for how fantastic they are in the flesh. They are beautiful...