The OP-1

A week or so before went online, I was banging my head on some metaphorical walls in much the same way Wily E. Coyote keeps going up against up road signs and needed something completely different to deal with, so I clicked over to Thomann and spent a small fortune on a Teenage Engineering OP-1, which I had had my eye on .

If you’ve never heard of the OP-1 at all, I recommend popping over to Wikipedia, with the forenote that this is not your average synthesizer and has become somewhat of a cult thing.

But if you don’t want to click over, it looks like this:

Objects in this screen may look larger than life.

And now, a few days after it , I think I can at least try to clean up my notes about it and give you some food for thought regarding what it is, how it works and what I think of it.

Design and Form Factor

The thing is almost unbelievably tiny (it’s smaller than my Apple Bluetooth Keyboard) and amazingly dense. When people say it’s “built like a tank”, that because it is, and you can easily understand why by browsing through the iFixit repair guides–there is a hefty chunk of milled aluminum inside.

The “plastic toy” appearance is literally just a thin, masterfully deceiving veneer. And when you take a second look and soak in the industrial design niceties, the looks are amazing. We have a Casio VL-1 in the house and the influence is there, but it’s clearly evolved beyond it.

Overall, the clear-cut, modular Braun-like moulding of the front panel feels like it’s channeling Dieter Rams1, and that is certainly no bad thing.

Either which way you think about it, it is certainly not by accident that it is up for exhibit on MoMA.

Learning The Way

A major issue with the OP-1 is that it is as much an artistic piece as it is a musical instrument, so the UX is fun, quirky and hard to grasp until you spend a lot of time with it.

There is an extremely good video tutorial playlist by Jeremy Blake of Red Means Recording fame that walks you through all the basics, but I’ve come to learn that every synth and effect engine has its quirks, and there are dozens of things that are all too easy to gloss over in the guide/manual (PDF).

So you need time. Lots of time to get to grips with it, and you’ll be constantly finding new nuances as you go along.

Since it operates like the amalgamation of a pack of slightly insane synth engines and a four-track recorder, it has a completely different workflow from what you’d expect if you’re used to conventional DAWs, and that usually puts many people off it.

If, like me, you struggle to play in tempo, you’re going to have a hard time, or you’re going to try to lean too much on the built-in sequencer and sampler.

And you’ll always have “only” four audio tracks, although with overdub and some editing that is really not a problem, because the tape editing/splicing controls are so slick that they soon become second nature (although a bit tedious and error-prone if you don’t think things through).

But any way you decide to go, there is a lot to tinker with and discover, so I spent a fair amount of the time during our fiddling and twiddling with enjoyment–again, the tape editor is extremely easy to come to grips with, the real challenge is doing the actual composing, playing and editing…

So far I’ve found that the best way to deal with that is to just relax, noodle on it without too much expectations and then get your tracks off it and into your DAW of choice for post-processing (many people seem to be able to do utterly amazing things with it alone, but I’ve hardly had the time to become proficient at anything musical over the past year, so the two-step approach is fine).

Documenting Your Journey

A big part of learning how to deal with the OP-1 is, surprisingly enough, taking notes.

For me, given my perennially limited time and/or ability to do anything for a couple of hours without at least three interruptions, documentation is critical to learning anything. Tutorials are great, but I need a quick, easy way to get back up to speed when I’m interrupted. And given the sometimes cryptical nature of the OP-1’s UX, you either spend a lot of time with it and can commit everything to memory, or you really, really need to document what you’re doing.

And the OP-1 fights you on that, just a bit. For instance, you can save your presets as “snapshots”, but you can’t rename them on the device (they get named for their timestamp, which works, but only up to a point), and you can’t (apparently) do a MIDI sysex dump of patch settings–you can get them as bogus AIFF files with the patch data (the device gives you full access to all its data and audio tracks when you plug it in via USB), but given its wonderful quirks, you’ll often find yourself unable to reproduce the exact same sound you had a couple of days ago if you don’t save often (or if you haven’t taken notes).

Even though the UI is (brilliantly) whimsical and exposes only key parameters, taking screenshots might help, but there’s no way to do that on the OP-1 itself, and it’s fiddly to photograph the screen.

This means that saving frequent snapshots (201114_1231 and 201114_1245, 201114_1301, etc.) is essential, and you’ll need to sort out later which is which and rename them to something meaningful by mounting the internal storage via USB.

So just take notes.

Samples and Third-Party Stuff

Samples, however, make the thing shine. You can sample from the built-in FM radio and mic, but there are a bazillion samples over at op1.fun, and plenty more out there for the taking–for instance, I got a lovely set of samples for a Rhodes piano in AIFF format that I just dropped in to the OP-1, and the ability to roll your own and tweak them on the device itself is priceless.

There is also an OP-1 Manager app for the Mac and iOS that is a bit fiddly but makes it relatively easy to import and export patches, samples (directly from op1.fun, too) and rendered audio, providing a sensible workaround to the thing’s single biggest limitation–being unable to hold more than one project at a time.

Challenges

What I confirmed during that week in the countryside was that the OP-1, albeit being an uncontested manifestation of genius and parsimony when compared to most machines costing the same, is a bit… weird.

Like the VL-1 it has a built-in speaker, but I found it somewhat tinny and with a tendency to distort sound, so you’re better off with a good set of earphones (or studio monitors)2.

The keyboard doesn’t do the OP-1 any favors, either–it is more challenging to play on than the that usually tags along with my iPad, and if you’re a fussy keyboard player you’re much better off using another keyboard altogether, which is a bit of a challenge as it doesn’t come with standard ports and you have to cobble up something via USB.

Don’t get me wrong on it, though–the keyboard is perfectly usable, but just lacks feel. There is no velocity sensing, let alone aftertouch (which is something I’m looking for in my next desktop keyboard, since I have grown accustomed to the expressiveness of my gear), but then again that might be just overthinking things.

More important to me, it doesn’t have any Bluetooth connectivity, which would be great for integrating with the iPad.

Also, it requires a somewhat old-fashioned USB mini cable (no, not micro, mini, which is borderline ancient in this age of USB-C).

On the other hand, the battery seems to last forever, which is a great thing. I’ve only charged it once since August, and it’s still going strong.

A Note on FM Synthesis

One of the things people apparently complain about the OP-1 is that it sounds too electronic (another is that the default presets lack warmth, which I mostly fixed with those Rhodes samples and a few others).

Well, one of the first things I decided to do with it was to figure out how to do an E-Piano sound with the built-in FM synth (because that’s one of my favorite synth sounds in general, and one of the best sounds on the .

And it is quite feasible to do so–the biggest hurdle, like in anything other OP-1 related, is actually figure out what the controls do in each circumstance, but I got a decent enough approximation to stop worrying.

Conclusion

Another of the things people complain about it is the price, and there is endless debate about whether “it’s worth it” in an age when you can shove a bazillion soft synths (and at least four different DAWs) into an iPad.

Well, putting aside for the moment that there is a non-zero chance that I would not have spent a borderline insane amount of money on it if there wasn’t a pandemic going on, and avoiding comparisons to other gear that I’ve mentioned (or bought) in the meantime, I can only say that it is an experience that I’ve found worthwhile, in much the same way I found using the first Macs worthwhile.

It not only redefined what I expect out of modern music gear (even with its quirks), but it is extremely enjoyable to play around with.

I love it to bits, and it is most definitely not a completely rational thing, but I get what it is about, and I enjoy it even though I cannot really take full advantage of it.

And what is life for if you can’t enjoy it?


  1. And if you haven’t seen the documentary, believe me when I say you’re missing out. ↩︎

  2. The works beautifully with it and my desktop speakers. I liked it so much I got a second one, just in case. ↩︎

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