Teenage Engineering OP-1
We were first introduced to this amazing portable synthesizer after having watched an interview with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who cited the OP1 as one of the key ingredients in his new album ‘22, A million’. And anything Justin Vernon praises is good enough for us. So we called one in.
In images, the Teenage Engineering OP1 looks like a toy or even a glorified Casio VL Tone. In reality it still looks like a toy but it’s only when you lift it out of the box and feel the weight and quality of the build that you immediately realise that it most certainly isn’t a toy.
The OP1 is essentially a travelling, battery- or mains-powered lap synth designed for the creation of loops, samples and much frequency manipulation. Therefore, it’s predominantly aimed at the ‘modern’ musician into techno, chill, rap and all those other subcategories of EDM. However, used sparingly, it’s also a brilliant tool for alternative styles of music like, er, Bon Iver.
Switch it on and the first thing you notice is the quality of its colourful OLED screen. While we’re on that subject, a tilting screen mechanism would be a handy feature since you do get a stiff neck from peering over the keyboard. And speaking of keyboards, this one is a key under two octaves (from F to E) and is comprised of 24 rubber pads that provide superb feedback when pressed or tapped. To make things easier to grasp – and there’s a big learning curve with this synth – everything is colour coded.
You may well wander what all the fuss is about when you first turn this thing on. After all, it’s garnered nothing but praise from pretty much everyone who’s bought one. The five main areas you’ll work in are the drum generator, the synth, the arpeggiator, the sampler and the old-style tape recording function. Both the synth and drum functions are infinitely tweakable, enabling the user to create some truly unique sounds out of what is essentially a pretty bogstandard set of default sounds.
However, it’s the four track ‘tape recorder’ that most users are so in love with. And it behaves just like a tape recorder, too, since everything is recorded without any quantisation – just like some of you would have done during the Fostex and Tascam four-track cassette tape years. You can easily overdub sounds – including your own samples – onto a single track before moving onto the next. However, it can be mighty confusing when trying to delete a duff take because it’s all too easy to re-paste the deleted clip into another part of the recorded sequence. We had quite a few head scratching moments during the first few days of use.
Luckily, there’s a very comprehensive PDF manual online which is essential because, while everyone says this synth is easy to get a handle on, we struggled quite a lot to get anything musically meaningful out of it. We can only assume its current crop of worshipers are all past masters at dealing with hi-tech electronic instruments. Indeed, it was only after a week of use that things suddenly started to click and we began to really enjoy using it.
The upshot is, if you’re already au fait with synths and other like-minded products and enjoy modern tech music above all else then this is an absolute must-have, albeit expensive, travelling music maker. But if you’re more of a traditionalist then perhaps give it a miss. We will go on persevering because, if anything, we’d love to get a few of its wild and wacky sounds onto our next Red Box album.