OP-1 the most curious music gadget of them all!

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Aah, the Teenage Engineering OP-1. What a thing of wonder! It is the most peculiar little electronic music device I have ever encountered bar none! I have been the proud owner of one for a few months now and I’d like to share a few stories about it with you if you don’t mind?

This Swedish device first came on the global radar back in 2009 or 2010 and we discussed it on Sonic Talk (on Sonicstate.com), the weekly podcast I usually partake in, keeping track of the developments and even wondering if it would remain ‘vapourware’ as in never existing as a consumer product. But in August 2011, Nick at Sonicstate managed to get an early one in for review and I was fortunate to get a bit of a hands on. I was fascinated but felt that since I’d recently bought an iPad ostensibly for the same job – mobile music making, I’d give it a miss plus it’s extremely high price was a a turn off. €799 seemed like a ridiculous sum for a tiny little music toy. Fast forward to April this year and during a stop over at Cologne on the Karl Hyde European tour, we popped into the massive Music Store. Sure enough in their music tech department they had one of these tiny miracles in a fancy wall display, I immediately got down to some serious twiddle with it, Karl being bemused but sagely talking me out of the impulse buy. But what had changed? Why was I now ready to shed some serious wedge on one?

Firstly, the iPad, as good as it is just sometimes doesn’t inspire, I simply get too distracted to stay within one piece of software, even grade A titles like Samplr, I just end up going online or switching apps. This is a terrible bourgeois guilt I have but the plethora or riches on the iPad often leads me to a kind of paralytic state of too much choice. The OP -1 just seems to be a little more restricted, focused even.

Secondly, I recently read Jean Michel Jarre’s top ten synths of all time and he included it there. That really hit home, made me think about it differently.

I had decided to spend a bit of my touring spoils on a new synth as there were a bunch of new (analogue) ones released this year that took my fancy. In fact this year has seen some really great new releases:

The Contenders

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Moog Sub Phatty – even though still retaining the dated, cringe inducing ‘street’ epithet Phatty, this little gem from synth pioneers Moog looked like just the ticket – a knob laden true analogue synth with interesting filter drive controls, modern connectivity with its USB port plus a whole raft of useful and well thought out ideas. Nick’s Sonicstate review is here.

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Arturia MiniBrute – although launched 2012, it really became widely available this year. Like the Sub Phatty, the MiniBrute is an all analogue mono synth with sub oscillators for beefyness. Unlike the Phatty however is the almost agricultural return to a preset less structure, what you see is what you get, no memories just plain and simple synthesis. Eyebrows were raised by the somewhat peculiar Steiner Parker filter which sonically quite different from the Moog ladder filter that one might expect to be included on a product like this. Bravo Arturia for creating something a bit different. Again, here is Nick’s review.

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Korg mini MS20 – This one took us all by surprise somewhat when it was launched at Winter NAMM this year. A  3/4 scale replica of the venerable 70’s Korg legend. True analogue but also like the aforementioned Moog and Arturia synths, replete with a midi USB socket. Patch leads and mini keys are a funny match but Korg managed to make this little gem sound virtually identical to its classic forebearer.  Nick’s review is here.

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Novation Bass Station 2 – The British synth gurus new all analogue monosynth with its switchable filter from classic to acid!  I was fortunate to have a go on an early one of these at Barcelona’s Sonar festival back in June.  A very nice synth that I reckon will do well for Novation.

Apart from these four mentioned there were other class acts released this year for my consideration. The unexpected (and still very tempting) Stylophone S2, the newly released Waldorf analogue module the Pulse 2 and the exciting Dave Smith Prophet 12. So with all these quality instruments, why oh why did the two year old tiny digital OP-1 make the grade? Oh and what the blooming hell is it anyway?

The Teenage Engineering OP-1

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In a nutshell, the OP-1 is a self contained synth workstation/groovebox.  It has a multitude of different synth engines and also can function as a drum machine.  It has a sampler built in and can sample from its line in, it’s surprisingly good built in mic, resample itself or from a built in fm radio! It has cute graphics for the different modes ranging from a pair of apes, a 3D view from a racing car, a boxer and a psychedelic cow! These little touches lend the OP-1 a toy like appearance but that is slightly misleading as it can be a very powerful professional instrument.  One of its most compelling features is a four track (simulated) reel to reel recorder which can also be put to use as a looper (although can be glitchy).  The OP-1 is resolutely a mono timbral affair though so utilising the four track is the only way to get layers out of it.  It does have midi functionality through its USB connection and I have had much fun connecting it to my iPad and using it both as a midi controller and as a sound module.  This can be fun as one of the downsides of this little wünderkind is the lack of velocity sensitivity or pressure on its keyboard. Using the iPad I have been able to access the sounds of the OP-1 with some expressive midi control apps like Soundprism Pro and Thumbjam.

Here is a little video I made of the OP1 and iPad

The OP-1 is a design classic, make no mistake.  It has been heavily influenced by a peculiar mix – Casio VL Tone mini keyboards of the early 80’s, Nintendo Game and Watches (graphically), Apple Macbook’s Unibody construction and various Roland drum machines and grooveboxes.  It is really small ( 282x102x13.5mm) very light (580 grams) and has a built in lithium battery that gives it something like 16 hours use on a single charge.  I recently put this to the test during a long haul flight from the UK to Australia and after using it extensively, I still had over half the battery remaining.  Since it’s 2011 release, there have been several significant OS releases for it too adding new synths and FX’s plus some operational tweaks too. Nick’s Sonic State review typically was one of the first to surface so therefore is a bit dated as it has come on quite a bit.

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Probably the thing that is most striking about using the OP-1 is that you make music you simply wouldn’t have created on any thing else.  The peculiar workflow means that due to NO undo, you have to plan and be a bit more careful, approach it with a bit more reverence than you would  computer based music software.  The virtual reel to reel is six minutes long and you can make mix downs onto a virtual album, side A and side B. You have to be careful though and not do what I did,  finish a six minute mix, make an album mix, delete the multitrack so I can start a new piece but then blooming well press record on the mix down page instead of play and wipe the whole thing instantly! I tell the tale here on a Sonic talk podcast.

Cuckoo

One of the glorious things about the internet is discovering new talents and interesting people.  Cuckoo is one such find and he is the greatest proponent of the OP-1 I have yet discovered.  He has made a load of useful you tube videos like this one here showcasing how to create drumkits on the OP-1.

He also makes great presets which he gives away for free.  He is a regular contributor to the fan site OhPeeWon.com.  This forum is a great place to discover more about the OP-1 and is a friendly place populated by real nutters.

Bag!

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My father sadly passed away a few weeks back which was a devastating thing for our family.  A few days after his passing, my mother and me were glumly on the sofa as the midnight hour approached.  We were both feeling thoroughly depressed and lacking motivation.  I then said to my mum “umm there is something you could help me with…” and proceeded to explain my Op-1 travel dilemma.  You see, I have a nice leather bag which I use as my carry on luggage when I fly and other such things and the Op-1 fits quite nicely in there but without sufficient protection.  I had been wrapping it up in bubble wrap which is hardly a dignified way to transport my mini marvel.  So then after an hour of frantic sewing machine action, she made me a custom bag for my OP-1 which is just perfect!

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20 Comments

Filed under Gear, Music Tech

20 responses to “OP-1 the most curious music gadget of them all!

  1. I was going back and forth on the OP-1 for some time too. I wanted a versatile, portable solution for composing on the go, but I ended up with a pelican case filled with gear. I guess you could debate whether its even truly portable, but I’m very happy with it. Check it out here:

    http://glitzerstrahl.com/2013/07/27/portable-sound-system-live-setup/

  2. I basically lived next door to Music store Cologne (Koln) for 2 years which did nothing to help me save money!

  3. I was recently at the Just Music store in Berlin which isn’t quite as big as Music Store in Cologne but then what is? Anyway, I tried out all the synths you name above and I must say they all impressed me – except one. The Bass Station II sounded thin and lacking in sonic quality compared to all the rest. In fact, it didn’t impress me at all. Each of the others had it’s own unique character which made choosing which to buy a really hard decision. I’d certainly give the Bass Station a miss though based on my ears.

  4. Really cool personal story Gaz. I can really relate to being on the fence and eventually getting one. It was Nick’s comment, “Do you need it, no, do you want it, yes.” that finally convinced me to take the plunge, and, amazingly, I didn’t even like it right away, though it is now my favorite bit of kit.

    If you wind up writing about the OP-1 again, perhaps you can try to ascertain why it’s so divisive as a device. It’s a mystery to me. If I don’t like something, I don’t go around complaining about it as OP-1 haters like to do (reminds me of the Apple haters).

    • I think people actively hate it because they view it as an expensive toy, and thus anyone who can afford one must be rich and not deserving, or something. What’s funny is, every single person who has used mine has fallen in love with it. It really is a device that needs to be seen and heard in person.

      Also, those original demo videos made by TE were atrocious. They do NOT know how to use and demonstrate their own device. It wasn’t until I saw the Cuckoo videos that I realized the OP-1’s potential for real music.

      It’s similar, in some ways – mainly unwarranted biases and perception – to the way that “serious” musicians feel about the MicroKorg. Many think it’s a throwaway toy. Then I play them some music that I made exclusively on the MK, and they’re blown away by the sonic capabilities, or they don’t know it was made on the MK and think that it was made on more expensive, analog gear.

      Many musicians are very particular about their perception of instruments that they don’t know much about – it’s an odd phenomenon.

  5. Nicely written. I got mine a few months ago as well, and have absolutely fallen in love with it. My latest release is about 75% OP-1, and was mostly composed, arranged, and recorded on the bus while commuting to and from work. If you have a few moments, check it out.

    http://carlsagansghost.bandcamp.com/album/music-for-escalators-modern-mobility-volume-one

  6. Ross

    Gaz what ipad apps do you use regularly? I have watched sonic touch since the beginning before I even got my ipad (ipad 2 last Christmas) Since that little wonder has come into my life my brain has exploded with music creation. I use ikaossilator,imini,thor,loopyhd,beatmaker2,samveda and turnado for fx. I play the ipad in conjunction with a kaossilator 1 ,and kaossilator 2 running through a monotron duo into a behringer mixer. Sorry for the long message and kudos for the new blog!

    • gazgoldstar

      Hi Ross. The apps I use regularly are Sound Prism Pro, Loopy hd, Synth X, Nave, Modular, Thumbjam, DM1, Animoog, Galileo, Impaktor, Thor, Jam Up Pro, Musix, Samplr, Cubasis and GarageBand. There are plenty of other apps I use too maybe not so regularly but right now if I had to single out my favourite it would be Samplr.

      • Ross

        I’m a big fan of samplr that app is amazing. I’ve made a song recording the sounds of my old house with samplr. I wouldn’t have known about it if not for you, so thank you! Entirely unrelated but maybe you have done some things like this. I live on the second floor and I really want to put an amplifier in the basement and mic the laundry chute opening in my apartment. Maybe record vocals and synth pads that way.

  7. lance

    Nice article Gaz. As a former Casio VL-1 owner, and now iOS developer/iPad music fan, I just caved in and bought an OP-1! What a fantastic device. The Ableton Live and Reason integration is superb for use while travelling also.

  8. Saxifraga

    Hi! Sorry for your loss. 😦
    Regarding the OP-1 and velocity insensitivity: Do you know a way to connect an external keyboard like the Korg microkey 25 or the CMX Xkey to the OP-1? I have to use my laptop which kind of defeats the purpose and a powered USB hub alone is not enough to create a connection. The OP-1 always thinks it´s the slave not the master. There was the iConnect midi device as shown by BlueSkyRepublik on YT, but it´s out of stock now. Any ideas? Thanks in advance and for your sonictouch series with Nick.

    • gazgoldstar

      Thanks for kind words. Regarding OP-1 keyboard connection I too am eagerly awaiting the iConnectMIDI 4 as that looks like it should work. I am assuming that you can set it up to send midi from one USB device to the other. Going to be a bit of a tangle of leads though as you have to plug a USB hub into it which needs to be powered and the iconnectMIDI needs to be powered too. Kenton make a midi to USB converter that would be possible to use two of them to achieve this but again a mess of leads and power supplies. Someone needs to make a device that has its own battery and can route USB midi from one USB device to another, I’d buy that in an instant!

      • Daniel J. Davis

        I use a powered USB hub connected to my iPad, with the MIDIBridge app – this way, I can send USB/MIDI data to just about anything, turning the iPad into the ultimate MIDI host. But yes, too bad there isn’t a battery-powered USB hub that can work with the iPad.

      • gazgoldstar

        Aha I have been wondering if MIDIbridge would allow for that. Hmm does it work on the iPhone too now that supports the CCK?

      • Can’t say re: the iPhone. I’ve only ever used it on my iPad. However, it’s one of my most used utility apps. It’s so easy to route MIDI from app to app, app to hardware, and hardware to hardware. The other day I was using the endless sequencer on the OP-1 to control my 106 and Slim Phatty. It’s very cool.

  9. Saxifaga

    Yeah! It works! Midibridge does the trick.
    OP-1 is now able to get all the Midi data from the Xkey keyboard. All I need now is a battery powered HUB to call it still a mobile system. And it works with iPhone 4S, a hub, two usb cable and this wonderfull App I should have written myself a long time ago. Thx for the good tips, Daniel and Gaz.
    Have a great weekend both of you!

  10. Daniel Davis

    I made this little video and track this morning before I started work. OP-1 recorded directly into the Zoom Q4.

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