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Teenage Engineering's New Pocket Operators

Adding three new members to the affordable, miniature synth family

by Nara Shin
on 08 February 2016

Miniature, inexpensive and incredibly addictive: the Pocket Operator series has electronic music producers and fans furiously making music on the go with dexterous thumbs. The Swedish collaboration between audio tech nerds Teenage Engineering and fashion brand Cheap Monday has just been expanded, adding three new members to the Gameboy-like Pocket Operator family. While the debut three products (Rhythm, Sub and Factory) covered the bases in creating and manipulating beats, deep bass and melodies, the latest three synthesizer units (Arcade, Robot and Office) add even more colors—and fun—to the mix with their vintage-like sonic personalities.

Physically stripped to the bare essentials—it's basically a slim circuit board with display and buttons—the Pocket Operators are surprisingly capable of a lot, with built-in speakers, 3.5mm ins and outs (plug in headphones or even speakers), and even an alarm clock function. It's not something you will get tired of after an hour. The PO-24 Office is a noise percussion drum machine and sequencer; note the tiny symbols under each button which describe the recorded samples you're triggering. The floppy disk, computer mouse and bugs (aka error sounds) made us laugh, but can also transform into an industrial techno beat in seconds. PO-20 makes use of synthesized arcade sounds, and PO-28 has actual 8-bit synthesizer engines, meaning you could play melodies on it like a piano keyboard. And that's just one of the many options, from noodling on the Pocket Operator solo to hooking it up to an effects pedal or syncing it with an external device.

A lot of original Pocket Operator users were unhappy about the absence of an on/off button. In addition to the "auto power off" (which turns the device off after no buttons have been pressed for an unspecified amount of time), Teenage Engineering has now set up a manual power off (pressing sound + write buttons simultaneously). Yet this issue continues to be our only pet peeve because even when the device is off, the graphics still remain on the display screen; consider it a permanent standby mode. There's no way to tell if it's truly "off" without taking the batteries out. Yet at the same time, it's kind of awesome to press a button and not have to wait for the synth to power up; you can start making noise immediately. Overall, the change of scenery is welcoming—taking a break from blue-lit laptop screens to play with something tangible.

Pocket Operators retail at $59 and are available from Teenage Engineering online, and select stockists. There's also a case (for an additional $39) that will protect the board but also keep the buttons soft—take it from us, hours of play lead to sore fingertips.

Images by Nara Shin

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