We like it when a small outfit pops up to give the establishment a big kick up the backside. The last time that happened in the world of music tech was when Swedish start-up Tonium released the now sadly defunct Pacemaker pocket DJ system. Once again it's a bunch of Swedish upstarts that have stepped up to show the big boys how it should be done with this, the OP-1.
Teenage Engineering OP-1: not a toy
As with most miniaturised music kit, it does look like a toy. We like that. Music is a thing to be played with, after all. Anyone who was a budding electro-popper of the 80s will notice its design parallels with Casio's VL-Tone, but in terms of power and scope the OP-1 is worlds apart.
Teenage Engineering OP-1: in a nutshell
In short, it's a synthesiser, sampler, drum machine, sequencer and multitrack recorder. What makes the OP-1 special is the sheer amount of tricks and surprises that have been packed into it. There's an FM radio, for instance. Such a simple idea, and so useful. Combine this with the onboard virtual tape deck and you've already got a world of sound-mangling possibilities.
Teenage Engineering OP-1: tricky
The claim is that it's been designed to be intuitive to use, but in reality, figuring it out feels like a Rubix Cube/ZX Spectrum mash-up. All suitably 80s and quite intriguing, but you will need to spend time reading the manual. And that's a manual that isn't included in the box – you'll have to download a PDF from the web.
OP-1: no dinosaur
We love it all the same. It's designed for modern times, so when you plug it into your computer you can drag and drop sound files for use in the synth, drum machine or tape sections. The USB port is used for charging and MIDI sequencing too, although we're a little disappointed that it doesn't send its audio output over USB. For that you have to go analogue via the 3.5mm headphone socket.
There's a little colour LCD screen that's used to display all kinds of infographics. It's switched on in all these pictures but isn't that bright as you can see, so it's best used indoors rather than in daylight. Depending on which mode you're in, the screen could show two reels of a four-track tape, a vinyl turntable (used for recording masters of your multi-track doodles), or all manner of weird synth and drum machine controllers.
OP-1: Choplifter game
The OP-1 has recently had an OS update that includes even more sound creation tools and a Choplifter game. Yes indeed. To access it you'll need to know the secret key code. Look away now if you don't want to know which four buttons to press at once to fire it up...
And this isn't just a plaything for technoheads. The connections (labelled in braille on the rear) include an audio input that can be used to record vocals, guitars or any other instruments or sounds.
OP-1: how it sounds
As for the OP-1's own sounds, it does a great line in lo-fi, retro digital bleeps. That's not to say it's basic, as the sonic potential is huge once you dig into it. Mess around with the tape deck playback and recording speed, throw some notes into the tombola sequencer and give it a spin, make a drum kit out of snippets from the weather forcast, lay down some random "beats", play three chords over the top and you're flying.
Maybe the OP-1 will shake up the music tech biz, maybe it won't, but one thing is for sure: it's the best thing to happen in music gadgetry for years.