Hands On with the Teenage Engineering + Cheap Monday's Pocket Operators
Super-fun, miniature synthesizers that look like pocket calculators for all ages and levels
What happens when audio engineers and a clothing brand get together? Swedish brands Teenage Engineering and Cheap Monday broke news of a collaboration at the start of the year, generating more than a little hype about the resulting products named Pocket Operators (PO): miniature synthesizers resembling calculators that will cost just €69 each. "The Factory" for melody, "Sub" for bass oscillations and "Rhythm" for beats, all of which fit easily into your back jeans pocket.
The discussion about a possible collab began in 2013 when Teenage Engineering's co-founder Jesper Kouthoofd approached his friend Ann-Sofie Back, who had become creative director at Cheap Monday, to create some utility-wear for lab work. She agreed but asked in return for a favor of her own. Thus, two years later Cool Hunting opened a parcel containing all three Pocket Operators.
Each one is (for those born of a certain age) a whimsical journey back in time to an age when tech was governed by the basic motor skills of the user. Straight from the box, the only set up is popping in a couple of AAA batteries and setting the time. The PO's LCD screen shows gestures of narrative to enjoy while playing, intentionally reminiscent of early Nintendo handheld graphics. A quick read of the PO packaging reveals more about each unit and the story behind its busy sound-making engineer; either staving off boredom by making sub bass wobbles in its submarine, trying to harvest harmonies from birds released from captivity or loading new drum patterns into its sewing machine.
While the graphic touches are pretty, the display itself remains fairly pared-down in terms of information about the music being made. Which is perhaps a good thing. All you get is a BPM, metronome and couple of level indicators to help if you're linking multiple units. Otherwise everything is blissfully analog. There's no case either to speak of, which only adds to the analogue nature of the PO, micro-buttons are exposed, as are batteries, its little punchy built-in speaker, LCD display and some PCB pathways. It's not Teenage Engineering's polished OP1, but it keeps the product at that sweet price point while being very endearing and tactile.
Playing wise, it's a tinkerer's dream. Each PO comes with 16 different pre-programmed patterns running over 16 steps, with BPM running from a sedate 60 to 240. Each pattern can be played, hacked into, chopped and spliced while two knobs create parameter changes. Alternatively, users can program their own sequence by stabbing buttons and hitting play (or go solo using the PO more as an instrument). Perhaps for fun, the synthesizers also function as an alarm clock.
Having our hands on the PO for a few days we can confirm, as originally intended by Teenage Engineering, that it's a music machine for people who can't play an instrument. It's a synthesizer that transcends language and acts a real enabler for those who enjoy music and musical craft, but might not have had a way in before. Accessible for all ages, these synthesizers have some real soul inside their little bleeping hearts. They're available from Colette and Teenage Engineering.
Images courtesy of Teenage Engineering and Cheap Monday