Known for their idiosyncratic approach, Teenage Engineering’s latest product is pocket friendly in every sense.
I remember it well: The Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 1981. Kraftwerk were passing toy instruments into the audience but I was too far from the front and so missed out on the bleeping fun. Now, thanks to a collaboration between Teenage Engineering and Cheap Monday (makers of clothing such as jeans and jackets!), my chance has come at last to be an operator with my pocket calculator.
OK, there have been pocket electronic instruments before, such as Korg’s Monotron and Volca ranges, but none fit Kraftwerk’s vision quite so specifically as the Pocket Operators. In a cash-saving innovation, each is supplied without an enclosing body, but for an extra £29$39 you can purchase a silicone case with proper buttons and added protection. Sadly none of the cases were supplied for review.
Six Pocket Operators are currently available, each packed with different sounds. They are as follows: Rhythm (green), Sub (blue), Factory (orange), Office (yellow), Arcade (purple) and Robot (red).
Before exploring the merits of each, let’s consider what they have in common. Apart from being the size and weight of a typical calculator, they have a consistent layout, which includes two coloured knobs, 23 buttons and a (non-backlit) LCD dishing out a mixture of useful information and frivolous graphics. There’s a hanger at the top you can snap off if you wish and a tight battery holder gripping the two AAA batteries (not included). Although what you’re presented with is a bare skeleton circuit board, the important technology is tucked away behind the display, so even if you don’t immediately buy a case, the POs should survive careful handling. A tiny speaker is hidden in there too and little folding stands are included, raising the Operators to an angle of approximately 20 degrees.
Glancing at the rear, you’ll note the two 3.5mm stereo jack sockets; these carry audio and sync signals (in and out), thus enabling the connection of multiple sync’ed units to a single mixer channel. Each model is mono so you don’t lose anything by the sync process, but you’ll need to source a splitter cable if you want to process them separately while sync’ed. A variety of typical audio pulses can be the sync source, examples being those produced by Korg’s Volcas, SyncKontrol app or the recent Electribes.
Each PO offers 16 patterns of 16 steps and a friendly method of chaining them together. The top three buttons select the sound or pattern and adjust the tempo, with three preset tempi defined: hip-hop (80 bpm), disco (120 bpm) and techno (140 bpm). Alternatively, you can pick freely from 60 to 240 bpm by holding the button and turning knob B. Swing is introduced in a similar fashion, but substituting knob A.
Down the right-hand side are four buttons that start and stop the sequencer, toggle Write mode, introduce effects and perform model-specific functions. This leaves the central 4x4 grid ripe for step-sequencer action, live performance and numerous selections in conjunction with other keys.
Having fitted fresh batteries, you can set the clock if you wish and there’s even an alarm to rouse you during those long studio sessions. Battery life should be at least a month, with two years promised on standby. All models power down automatically if not used for five minutes, but if a cable is connected, this extends to an hour. For the later trio (prefixed PO-2), you can power off immediately by pressing Sound and Write; this also stores the current settings.
The units arrive populated with example patterns which, after a quick audition, you’ll be itching to clear. Starting a pattern from scratch requires one of the many button combinations that quickly become second nature. Another is setting the output level: you hold the BPM button and a step key.
Should you have picked up the Rhythm model (green), the current pattern is cleared by holding the Funct and Pattern buttons together. Even though the other models have different names for ‘Funct’, the key combinations remain consistent throughout. Sticking with the green PO, its 16 available sounds are previewed by hitting the step keys. To select one to program, simply press the Sound button and a step key at the same time.
Despite much of the LCD being inexplicably occupied by a typewriter and a frantic elf, its top right-hand corner does at least serve a purpose: confirming the selected sound. In some of the other POs, the display presents visual impressions of note density, waveforms, etc.
Press Write and notes can be entered grid-style — and the LCD gains a helpful record icon to remind you. The process is fast and familiar, but if not fast enough, you can hold down Write and tap in each sound irrespective of selection. Tiny graphics printed on the circuit board give clues to the available sounds, and in the Rhythm model, the last two aren’t percussion at all, but synths. Melodies and bass lines are incorporated by turning a knob.
During playback, red LEDs chase along the 4x4 key pad, flashing to show which sounds are being triggered. Having begun to make a basic groove, it’s straightforward to copy it to other pattern locations and start building a more complex structure. A pattern chain up to 16 steps long is soon assembled, the patterns ordered as you see fit. Already this strays beyond the capabilities of typical budget drum machines, but it’s when you apply effects that the Pocket Operators really open up!
In every model, the FX button plus a step key activates an effect. Information about the 16 algorithms is sparse but if you were expecting lush reverbs, warm delays or other regulars, think again — and think nasty! In the models prefixed PO-1, you’re given sample-rate reduction, distortion, bit crushing, delay, feedback, low-pass and high-pass filtering (in fixed and swept varieties), plus several cool repeat and stutter effects. There’s also ‘vibrato’, which is a bit unexpected and on the Rhythm model translates to an odd glitching mess. Finally, there’s ‘parameter LFO’, which sounds like combined distortion, transposition and filtering, although its effects differ from model to model.
By inserting effects, even the simplest patterns begin to grow in stature and if you make a mistake, they can be cleared as easily as playing the pattern through while holding only the FX button. The technique soon becomes as important as sound programming itself, whether for adding movement with a filter sweep or breaking up the timing with a well-placed stutter.
Finally, for the Rhythm model and a couple of the others, note multiplication is offered. It’s a feature activated on a per-step basis, with repeat button presses cycling through the multiplications of 2, 4, 8 and 16 iterations. This generates super-fast multiplied notes even posh drum machines like the new Electribes can’t match.
PO-12 Rhythm: We’ve seen that the Pocket Operators have plenty in common, but they also have markedly different sonic personalities and unique tools with which to exploit them. Having started with the green one, let’s stick with it. Its kit is made from 14 percussion sounds, each with a ‘gritty analogue’ flavour. These are: an overdriven bass drum (which is softened nicely with low-pass filtering), a trashy snare, closed and open hi-hats, another snare, sticks, cymbal, noise, handclap, a click, a couple of toms, a cowbell and a blip. Knobs tweak the pitch and length of each drum voice, while for the two synths, knob A tweaks the pitch and B the timbre. For the bass synth (voice 16), this results in a fair impression of a swept low-pass filter.
PO-14 Sub: Compared to the Rhythm model, Sub, the monophonic bass PO, seems more limited — at least until you realise that bass lines are supplemented by a ‘micro drum machine’, located in the last sound position. Although this simplified drum box can play only one sample per step, its sounds are well-chosen and it could be a worthwhile addition even if you already have the Rhythm PO. To select a drum, you hold a step key and turn knob A; the samples include a particularly solid kick, plus synth stabs and mixed percussion, all with tweakable pitch and volume.
Of course this module is really about bass, and its main sounds include a chunky FM bass, dirty, distorted basses, a formant-type bass, a noisy, gritty bass, LFO-modulated basses and more. Suitably amplified these are quite capable, and both knobs apply useful timbral changes you can record into a pattern as ‘parameter locks’. You can switch sounds during playback too, but probably the biggest innovation over the Rhythm model is that you can play bass lines directly via the step keys. You’re tied to a fixed scale, which is a fraction over two octaves and white notes only. Here, the effect known as ‘parameter LFO’ is drafted in to perform upwards semitone transposition. Unfortunately, as the effects are a global blanket over the entire pattern, any transposition limits your options for other effects on the same step.
PO-16 Factory: The PO-16 is primed for a ‘lead synth’ role, but has a micro drum machine too. Its mixture of synthesis types are comparable to those of the Sub (with important parameters assigned to the A/B knobs) and deliver more variety than expected. Yet somehow Factory never quite matches the appeal of the previous pair. Again the drums have some useful samples and the synth tones are much improved by the 16 ‘play styles’, which modify note articulation. Styles can be switched during playback in a similar manner to adding effects and even though they aren’t documented, experimentation soon makes it clear. For example, holding down ‘Play Style’ plus button five adds a fifth interval, but with button four instead you get an arpeggio. The tiny manual seems inaccurate in places, claiming ‘note shuffle’ and ‘feedback’ when what I’m hearing is transposition — unless excessive earbud action is triggering hallucinations.
PO-20 Arcade: Packed with the distinctive, trashy noises of ancient arcade games, I initially consigned this one to the ‘so-so’ pile after a quick audition. However, I later revised this opinion upwards on discovering hidden depths such as chords and drones. Chord chains of up to 128 steps are possible, although there’s a fixed pool of just 16 chords (a mixture of major, minor and suspended) to draw from. For extra fun, holding the Chord button and turning knob A introduces a drone and as you crank up its partner, knob B, a pumping compression effect appears, as if responding to a side-chained kick. In another neat innovation, when you press FX and Play simultaneously, playback fades gently away and stops.
Apart from the unmistakeable chiptune flavour, Arcade is a versatile little beast. Its mixture of percussion, basses, dirty sync, arpeggios (they follow chord selection) and warbling synths work together to deliver cheery impressions of games machines. Some of the effects are a little different too and include performance fills (that aren’t recorded) and various solo combinations that separate the drums, lead, chords and bass parts.
PO-24 Office: Office is an unusual offering with its blend of synthesis and samples of 1980s computer hardware: floppy disks, printers, PC beeps and so on. The sounds are strange, mechanical and not massively interesting but should you wish to identify instruments in the general mayhem, PO-24 has a useful solo function. Release the button and the solo ends at the next pattern boundary, a feature I’d love to have seen in the earlier models, most especially in the Rhythm PO.
This one’s pattern chains can rack up an incredible 128 steps, although the pool remains at just 16 patterns. Office also incorporates Elektron-style parameter locking in addition to the regular ‘tweak and record’ kind. Accordingly, you can hold a step button and turn the knobs to program exact values. With the application of effects, the various bleeps, taps, squeaks and clicks begin to coalesce into a workable sound set, although probably not one you’d start your collection with.
PO-28 Robot: This last PO is a second attempt at a solo or lead synth, with tones that are much less aggressive than the Factory. It features a two-channel sequencer (melody plus drums) and is optimised for manual performance, at least in the sense you can record a melody then play over the top with a different sound. Vibrato may be introduced, and the various flavours of glide and glissando go some way towards simulating typical keyboard tricks. I found its synth waveforms softer, sweeter and with less grit than the others. One of the sounds has a built-in delay and many have built-in cheese. Its micro drum kit consists of percussion and sound effects, but there’s a distinct impression that, by this stage, most of the good drum samples have been snapped up.
I regret these passed under my radar when first announced because they’re more entertaining than their skeletal forms imply, even if the displays could have been better employed. Thanks to pattern chains, trashy effects and parameter recording, they could brighten your daily train journey and be a source of distinctive loops when you get home again. They are pretty small though, and after I lost one down the back of the settee for a few days, I began to see the Pro Case not as an option but as a necessity, even though it would bump up the price significantly.
Pocket Operators score over a smartphone full of apps if you prefer your mobile tune-making tactile and buttony. There’s no denying they’re rough and ready compared to plush apps like Korg’s Gadget or Propellerhead’s Thor, but they’re also self-contained, sync to external gear and can sound impressive — especially with a spot of external treatment. However, the built-in effects are as vital as they are unashamedly lo-fi, so the crunchy, aliased character is never too far away.
I found it easy enough to pick a personal favourite. The Rhythm model appealed from the outset and held its own against all comers. The format seemed best suited to drums and X0X programming, while the Rhythm’s gnashy, grating tones were strangely consistent with the toy-like construction. Next on my list would probably be its logical partner, the Sub, although the Arcade model isn’t without some appeal. As for the rest, none are entirely without merit and at the price it’s hard to complain too much. After all, Pocket Operators supply more fun through earbuds than I’ve had in a very long time!
Korg’s Volcas or a smartphone full of apps are the most obvious alternatives.