“Surprise!” might well be Teenage Engineering’s best tagline.

The latest unexpected invention from Sweden is the OP-Z – pronounced “oh pee zed.” It’s an all-in-one instrument/groovebox like its predecessor the OP-1, packed into a tiny, game-like form factor. And even from the early prototype shown at NAMM, it’s fantastic.

opz_top - 1 (1)

That is a ‘z ‘ in the name, not a number 2, but the new OP is a sort of sequel to the OP-1. It doesn’t replace the original so much as provide an alternative take on the idea.

The hardware combines multiple step sequencers with a synth, drum kit, and tape sample mode. And it also has the unlikely addition of visual sequencing, for adding projected animations to your performances.

The most striking feature initially is the form factor itself. Gone is the OP-1’s signature display, and those keys have been shrunk even further to game console-like trigger buttons. But that makes the OP-Z downright tiny – not pocket-sized, but small enough to sleep with it under your pillow. (Okay. Maybe that was just me fantasizing about that.)

In place of the display, the OP-Z syncs to visuals on computer software. The hardware itself doesn’t output any video – that’s a USB-C port, not HDMI, so you use the OP-Z just as a controller. But once you do add another device, you can follow beautiful animated screens that give you feedback on what you’re doing and how the OP-Z’s structure works.

It’s a clever idea. It means you get big visuals whilst learning your way around the OP-Z, but can then practice until muscle memory take over for live use. And the Teenage Engineers have gone a little crazy with the idea. In addition to menus, you can load animations and visuals, and sequence VJ sets directly from the OP-1. The TE booth actually used the same software to show slides of their NAMM stuff. It suggests a compelling picture for how OP-Z performances could go – just the synth hardware onstage, with VJing to accompany, all from one solo artist.

No word yet on what platforms that software will support, though to me, Mac, Windows, and iOS ought to be no-brainers.

opz_hands - 1

The real fun of the OP-Z, though, is as an all-in-one step sequencer and performance box. The multiple sequencers mean it’s easy to get a synth line, some beats, and samples going at once. Tape mode is just as much fun as on the OP-1 – the Z uses the same sound engine – and adds peculiar performance styles. In drum mode, the OP-Z reminds me of my favorite features of the volca sample, down to gritty re-pitching and stretching of samples.

To this, add macro controls for parameters. Those four circles on the side are encoders, equipped with the LEGO-compatible widget for adding hardware atop the knobs, as seen in the OP-1 accessory line. (LEGO’s patents have expired, meaning this opens up third party and 3D-printed gadgets that company may not have envisioned.)

Unlike the OP-1, the full keys of the OP-Z keyboard double as triggers for other parameters. That means you can quickly tap out sudden effects when playing live.

And all of this comes together in an insanely fun package. Even without knowing what the controls did, in just moments I found myself jamming away.

I have just one concern about the hardware. That handsome dark gray could be tough to see in the dark onstage, if you do want a visual clue to functions. But this isn’t final hardware yet.

I am sure online, people will knock the OP-Z as a toy. But that misses the whole point. It is indeed a grown-up toy, cramming pleasure into a tiny, polished form factor that makes improvisation irresistible. And it should be spectacular for live performance – while eschewing the complexity of (cough) other, spendier drum machines and the like. I’m keen to try it because I think it might challenge the conventional wisdom of some of that complexity.

Teenage Engineering were as surprised as we were that they were showing this prototype at the show – they didn’t originally plan to reveal this very early hardware, and there were some bugs here and there, of course. But none of that made the demo any less impressive, and the OP-Z for some even stole the show.

As the hardware isn’t done, pricing isn’t set, either, though TE say they do plan a price below that of the OP-1. Picking up the hardware, I can’t imagine it’ll be hugely cheaper – though maybe they can open enough daylight in price to make it appealing to those who passed on the flagship synth.

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  • DJ Hombre

    TE dream up the most fun and creative pieces of kit. Their new PO series are a gradual evolution from the first 3, with another 3 hinted at next year. The OP-Z is only 4 months old as a prototype, so in another 12 months who knows where it will end up?

    I just like the way they eschew popular trends and beat their own path…which incidentally way off in the opposite direction of everyone else at NAMM.

    Long may it continue.

  • It should be noted the synth engine in the OP-Z is stereo now too, which will be nice for some people.

  • Foosnark

    The impression I was getting from videos is that the sound was fairly weak and uninspiring; the disappointment in some circles online was palpable. I’m kind of surprised to read it shares anything in common with the OP-1.

    I like the whole aesthetic of the OP-1, and the OP-Z just doesn’t have any of that. It looks like a TV remote or something, it just doesn’t scream “fun” or “cool shiny fetish object”.

    Making the display of a synth depend on an external device really seems a wrong turn to me. It makes the device smaller but less truly portable for all that. And is it going to be a good citizen in a setup with sequencer/host software, or are you expected to have a separate iPad for a display or something? Is it even going to be PC compatible at all?

    The video stuff just makes me think of some of FL Studio’s throwaway animation plugins.

    • The display does depend on a separate device, but the display isn’t required, so it doesn’t really effect portability.

      The design just looks unfinished, I’m guessing it will change. I like those knobs, though—much more portable than the protruding knobs on the OP-1.

    • foljs

      “”” the disappointment in some circles online was palpable. I’m kind of surprised to read it shares anything in common with the OP-1.”””

      I’d be more surprised if it doesn’t have the same exact sound engine with OP-1.

      Besides, online videos with interview mikes are not the best place to gauge an instruments sound quality. Not that some kind of phat sound was a major selling point of OP-1 anyway…

    • Ralphie

      FL Studio’s throwaway animation plugins?!?@!? The dancing girl is an integral part of my productions.

    • aaron

      It’s a big multi-track version of the Pocket Operators with a video output instead of the tiny screens. This isn’t any kind of follow up to the OP1.. it’s just another instrument.

  • Looks like they’ve taken a lot of cues from their PO series. I love the inclusion of visuals.

    As much as I love the sequencer-centric design, I do find it creatively limiting (tempo-locked, loop-centric, not as genre-agnostic). This makes it harder to integrate into a broader production environment. This is my issue with the the PO’s, as well. I like my OP-1 because I can use it in all aspects of my work. If I already have a song and want to augment it, a sequencer-centric instrument isn’t very useful. It’s an island.

    It is what it is! Very happy with their innovation.

  • Cillian Warfield

    I didn’t see this coming, but I can see loads of potential.

    Since there’s no hdmi/video out does that mean the op-z will always be communicating with an app which runs on iOS/iOStv, mac, windows etc? i.e. you can’t just hook it up to a monitor.

    VR music-making potential?

  • Man, that thing is really tiny.

  • James Husted

    I saw a video interview where they alluded to a possible update of the OP-1 soon too. THAT might be interesting.

  • an3

    l00ks pretty kewl, For me it all depends on the video synth: i f u can load or generate your own material (based on 3d rendering formats, or kinect recordings fi) im in, if u can just adjust stock material it’s not usefull for creating ur own work i think.

    Also hope they will use some of the features in the coming op-1 os update (liek a normal arpeggiator 🙂 )

  • Ed Emberly

    does the OP-Z connect to the device running the visuals through the USB-C cable, or is it wireless?

    (i thought i read it had some sort of wireless connection elsewhere)

    Either way, is it just syncing midi with the visuals, or some other form of messaging?

  • heinrichz

    Cool stuff, a piece of art in itself, but as far as a musical instrument ..how does it sound? i mean really that’s where the rubber hits the road and there are no two way about it;) I would expect some major limitations there, and not the sort of limitations that are desirable for any good musical instrument to be playable.. Not to be a party pooper here..

  • richard conrad

    can this make toast

  • qip

    Hey @peterkirn . none of the other previews i’ve seen mention the various modes

    The op-1 tape mode is legendary, is this the same thing sans oled?

  • DJ Hombre

    Apparently it’s not just audio & video you can control via the OP-Z, they had a dancing doll on display too which was sequenced from the unit!

  • Matthew Battaglia

    I have an op1 and like it but I prefer this style of multitimbral sequencing over the op1’s SOS looping style. I’m looking forward to this, it just fits the way I like to work better.

  • Matt Black

    amazing. those guys! particularly the video stuff Im fascinated by.