I’m an operator with my pocket calculator – Behind the scenes of Teenage Engineering


Are you a Pocket Operator? If you are, you are certainly not alone. With the exponential growth in mobile instruments, both when it comes to instruments available for mobile devices like the iPad, and with hardware pocket-sized instruments like Korg’s Volca series. In the forefront of this development we also have Teenage Engineering who in the eyes of the general public popped up from nowhere with the release of the OP-1 synthesizer.

At the start it wasn’t really clear what future direction the TE-team would take, or even if the OP-1 was kind of a one off, but the company has since then taking several steps towards an intriguing hardware portfolio, especially with their line up of micro hardware synths and drum machines, aka Pocket Operators. With last year’s releases they now exists in seven flavors; PO-12 rhythm, PO-14 sub, PO-16 factory, PO-20 arcade, PO-24 office, PO-28 robot, and the latest one PO-32 tonic.

With modest price tags and their inherent ability to work independently or seamlessly connected make them the perfect travel companion for the musician on the go. That these small “toys” go hand-in-hand with Kraftwerk’s now 30+ year vision song Pocket calculator goes without saying.

What is really neat about the Pocket Operators is there distinct personalities, with different sonic identities, and unique tools with which to exploit them. Compared to downloaded apps for your smartphone Pocket Operators score over if you prefer your mobile tune-making tactile and buttony. So regardless if you compare them with different polished and sleak mobile apps, they have a clear advantage in the fact that they are so self-contained, they sync to external gear and can sound impressive — especially with a spot of external treatment. The PO-24 is currently one of our favorites from the range – its built in variety of thumps, buzzes and clicks may be up to personal taste, but it makes for a really unique and inspiring sound source. However, on a more general scale it’s the effects range that really brings the Pocket Operators to life. The well-selected range of filters, distortions and rhythmic effects are perfectly calibrated to suit the built-in sounds and vastly multiply the potential of each.

The latest entry in the series though — the PO-32 Tonic drum machine — got some important upgrades, including the ability to import and export sounds via a 3.5mm jack or built-in microphone. This means you can create a beat on the PO-32 and transfer it to another unit as a data burst played through the microphone (just like a modem), or store it on your computer or phone via the audio cable. Users can also load new sound effects onto the device using a program called Microtonic — a drum machine plug-in for Mac and Windows that’s built by Magnus Lidström and which provides all the preloaded sounds in the PO-32. Both of these features are firsts for the Pocket Operator series, and although it’s not the same as, say, converting the beats you make into a piano roll you can edit in Fruity Loops, it still offers a lot more flexibility than previous devices.

The intriguing part of this is that now we also have the opportunity to get to know the team behind these micro machines and learn more of the design philosophy and legacy, since a new two-part Youtube documentary has been released on the subject.

If you have an opportunity to visit the TE-team in their hometown Stockholm you may not recognize this as a place of die hard synth manufacturing plant, but appearance may deceive you. The OP-I, when it was conceived, counts Beck, Depeche Mode, and Jean Michel Jarre among its fans, and one DJ has even made an entire album on it. But before releasing the device, the team had never developed a product before. Most of Teenage Engineer’s founders are self-taught engineers who started off in the media world. Kouthoofd directed TV ads. Another founder, David Mollerstedt, headed up the audio team at EA’s DICE studio, which produced the Battlefield and Mirror’s Edge games. What they all had in common was an interest in sound and a nostalgia for physical interfaces.

The founders grew up in the 1980s and played around with the home computers and Japanese synthesizers of that era. Working with hardware as well as software meant dealing with, and sometimes pushing, physical limitations. Kouthoofd says these experiences helped shape the OP-1.

One of the founders has stated in an interview: “To have a portable machine which is dedicated to making music is a big difference compared to a computer, on which you can do a lot of other stuff. We hope that you get a little bit more focused and perhaps a little bit more creative as well. One of the most inspiring things about the OP-1 is that it can’t do everything that a computer can do. Those limits boost the creativity. Limitations are OP-1’s biggest feature.”

In the video below Jens Rudberg offers his thoughts on how to run a successful business, based on his own interests.

So what about today? Who’s using these neat Pocket Operators for real, well here’s a tip from TE-crew themselves; Anna Straker covers Shape of You and Ain’t Nobody on Pocket Operators.