I always get dark when people refer to studio kit as “toys”. Especially when you save up the pennies to finally cop some new dopeshit microphone or some flavor of compression you didn’t previously have covered, and some well-intentioned friend offers congratulations for your new “toy”.
You’re standing at the precipice of elation, gazing into vast, uncharted territory—which has been made newly available to you by the purchase of this equipment—and in the eyes of your non-musical peers, it’s tantamount to a G.I. Joe.
Maybe there’s something sweet about their comparison, in that it suggests excitement or desire. I’d like to think that I’m filled with a similar childish glee, but that’s about where the similarities end for me.
It’s not like I don’t get it. Most of the uninitiated can’t really relate to major equipment purchases in terms of the potential energy they represent, so they relate through the more familiar ideas of fetishization of the object and the joy of consumerism.
Like the majority of you that might read this, I make my living making music, so most gear purchases are metaphorically closer to the role filled by a tool. A general contractor purchases a new saw because it can cut in a way that none of the others already in his or her arsenal can, and in a similar way, we grow our collections in the studio.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last couple of days after picking up the suite of Pocket Operators, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a device at any price that so deftly straddles the line between tool and toy.
It’s so beautifully made and packaged that it’s clearly intended as an object of desire. We’re supposed to want it like we once wanted new toys. And yet, the feature set is as deep, or deeper, than that found in many modular pattern sequencers.
And it has built in sounds, patch memory and crazy graphics? There are solder connection points available to you to connect external speakers and programmers? What the hell are these things?
Okay, so onto the technical basics. The masters at Teenage Engineering, in collaboration with the fashion label Cheap Monday, have developed a new suite of incredibly cool and unbelievably inexpensive synthesizers ($59!!) called Pocket Operators. PO-12 Rhythm, PO-14 Sub, and PO-16 Factory.
“Rhythm“ is a grimy, minimal electronic drum machine that sits somewhere between a Linn 9000 and TR-808, but ruggedly Lo-fi. “Sub” is a 2-octave-plus-a-minor-third bass synth with a wide range of useable sounds and includes FM, phase distortion, wavetable, and physical modeling. “Factory” is also a synth that provides 2 octave plus a minor third in range, but this one comes loaded with lead sounds drawn from a similar range of palettes, and sits a few octaves above the Sub.
Both Sub and Factory have what Teenage Engineering describe as a “micro drum machine”, which essentially means that you get a sort of light version of the Rhythm unit inside Sub and Factory, in addition to their synth sounds. Like the full Rhythm unit, the micro drum machine has 16 drum sounds though you can only program one drum per step (no kick and hi hat on the same beat) and the multifunction knobs behave a little bit differently. More on that in a moment.
At their core, each PO is a 16-step pattern sequencer, capable of holding 16 patterns, with 16 sounds to perform those patterns. (Actually, 31 for Factory and Sub if you include the micro drum machine). These patterns can be entered via step sequencing or with real-time punch input.
There are 16 effects built in to all three. The effects cover a very wide and useful sonic palette. From bit crushing and distortion, to pass filter sweeps and drops to beat repeats, these effects are hugely transformative and can make a simple sequence sound like something you labored over for hours, with just a few deft taps on the keys.
Using the Multifunction Knobs
Each of the three units has two multifunction knobs as well. Depending on the combination of buttons you employ, these knobs can manipulate a vast number of settings. For example, while holding the “bpm” button, knob “A” controls the swing amount and knob “B” controls the master BPM. Switch over to the program section, and each knob controls something program-dependent, with different options for each Pocket Operator.
On Rhythm, knob A can be used to pitch individual drums and knob B can control decay time. On Factory and Sub, the knobs can be used to manipulate global aspects of the synth patch like filter cutoff, FM rate / amount, LFO amount, so many fun and useful options. Additionally, you can use the knobs to step edit a specific step’s pitch in the synth section or to select a drum sound in a sequence.
The behavior of the multifunction knobs for the micro drum machine are slightly different. Knob A controls pitch across the whole drum set, while knob B controls overall volume for the drum machine. So, similar to the Rhythm Pocket Operator, though slightly limited, in keeping with the micro vibe.
Sub and Factory also have 16 “play” styles. The play styles are essentially articulations: Glisses, doubletime arpeggiator runs, triplets, held notes, chords, even transpositions. These key styles also apply to the patterns in the micro drum machine section, so that can lead to a whole host of other fun and useful rhythmic variation.
Audio out on each is handled by a 3.5 mm TRS jack. However, Teenage Engineering has even been clever in this bit of design: Each Pocket Operator has two TRS jacks, one the top right and one top left. Use a simple TS cable out of the top right jack and you’re getting audio out of the Operator into your system. But the Operators are all smart enough to send and receive clock as well. If you own two or more Operators, using a TRS cable instead will send audio down the tip connection and click down the ring connection. The manual describes setting up the sync modes required to link them, and it’s really, really easy to set up.
If you own any modular synth gear, you could distribute clock from your modular system to any or all three Operators to put them in lock step with a wall of synth madness. For more in-the-box users, a simple audio click out of the computer could be used to force them to lock to the DAW. Awesome.
A few important caveats for our modular people, however: The manual says it allows a max of 6 volts peak-to-peak for clock input, so you may need to attenuate the clock signal’s voltage going from your modular synth to the PO. (This should be fine for any modular gear that puts out 0-5V logic signal, but if you’re using anything that operates on 10V peak-to-peak rail, you’ll want to attenuate that signal, lest you risk damaging the unit).
If the previous sentence reads like Ottoman Turkish to you, don’t worry, each Operator in the family is a universe of fun by itself and they get exponentially more bonkers when you hook up all 3.