Photo by Teenage Engineering. Check out their full photo gallery.

Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 is something unique in music hardware. It’s got a form factor inspired by the Casio VL-Tone series – you know, those cute little 80s-vintage synths. It’s a sampler. It’s a synth. It has an FM radio. It will have a variety of sequencers. It has, we’ve just learned, a multi-track tape mode that lets you do beat-synced virtual splicing as a performance technique. It is expected to integrate and interoperate with a design lifestyle including, if you like, a luxury-priced, meticulously-machined desk lamp, and according to one rumor I heard, perhaps even a specially-designed electric bicycle. (Seriously.)

I got to spend some hands-on time with the current prototype of the OP-1, and hanging out with the guys from Teenage Engineering. I do mean “the guys” – I had expected to go out to dinner with the CEO and found myself with almost the entire team of 9. (One was sleeping off Sweden-to-California jetlag.) The company has a pedigree in sound engineering, including the legendary drum maker Elektron, but also in marketing, advertising, industrial and product design.

The OP-1 is real, it’s coming, and it’s far enough along in the prototyping phase that I think we’ll see real details on getting one soon. Pricing will be under US$1000 – perhaps a goodly amount under, depending on the final details of manufacturing. There’s no availability date, but progress appears to be accelerating. I poked fun when the OP-1 was introduced, only because it seems like something too cool to be real. I am surprised, though, that people are now complaining that the OP-1 is taking a long time – I think some people don’t realize how time-consuming hardware development really is, and we only just saw an under-glass prototype last spring. The fact that the OP-1 does integrate hardware and onboard software tightly and does do things in new ways is a testament to having a single, small team that works on the whole product.

Teenage Engineering – OP-1 @ NAMM 2010 from Neil Bufkin on Vimeo.

Reporting for CDM, Neil Bufkin shot this discussion with more details on what to expect from the OP-1. Via our namm blog.

In the din of the NAMM hall, some people didn’t seem to “get” the OP-1. The prototypes available aren’t entirely refined in regards to the sound engine, so it’s too soon to judge sound quality, and some functionality was missing from the units on display. And it’d be easy to see this its collection of synthesis and sampling tricks as nothing new. (In fact, I get the sense that some people dialed up essentially an init preset and judged the sound quality based on that.) But look closer, and even prior to the finished product, there’s real design genius here. Some of the little touches I was able to glean:

You can record backwards, an idea so simple in sampling, but also powerful, it’s a wonder it’s not widespread. Go crazy with this, and you can prove some pretty out-there results. It’s not hard to imagine putting an OP-1 alongside a computer, and using it alternatively as a hardware synth and a tool for resampling the output of a live computer mix.

It’s a four-track virtual tape recorder, complete with virtual splicing. The craft of early electronic music was deeply connected to the process of recording to tape, then splicing, into a finished product as a collage. The OP-1 is the most convincing adaptation of that idea I’ve ever seen. A simple, iconic on-screen representation of a reel-to-reel shows you your recording in real-time, with even some light physics simulation so it behaves like tape when you stop the transport. But you can also cut the virtual tape – split, lift and join features are quick key shortcuts away. Just like on tape, you can change the speed during recording, not just during playback. And, so as not to be too caught in the past, the tape deck itself can be beat-synced. Let’s just reflect on that for a second: you can sample the instrument or an external source, and then speed and slow the recording like tape synced to beat, all on hardware. Sampling features are nothing new, but the implementation here really is something special.

Whereas clunky hardware designs from mainstream manufacturers have typically treated tape recording as something you do to record an arrangement, the OP-1’s tape recorder is one you can play as an instrument. (See our video of one of the Teenage Engineers jamming with this feature, which I smuggled off one of their Mac laptops.)

And it’s finally a sampling feature that functions on recording like tape, not just on playback. That sound you heard all around NAMM was the sound of developers and engineers collectively saying to themselves, “why didn’t I do this myself, first?” (Okay, knowing this site, I’m sure we’ll get someone on comments who has done this first, so do speak up.)

Watch it in action in this video of a live jam, shot by Teenage Engineering and smuggled off one of their computers for CDM:

The screen isn’t just beautiful: it fits perfectly. To me, the greatest accomplishment of the OP-1 is making a small screen seem integral to a hardware design, rather than a concession to practicality. Since computers became commonplace in the 80s, the primitive screens on music hardware have seemed an anachronism, a compromise. I remember synth shopping for the first time around 1990 and being frustrated by that, and things aren’t much different now. The design of the OP-1’s interface is so minimal, however, that the onboard screen seems perfect. The display itself seems like part of the hardware and the instrument, rather than being a menu system or a tacked-on indicator.

It’s finally a small screen that seems ideal for its purpose – maybe even better than looking at a computer-sized screen. And that’s not just because it’s pretty; it’s because it’s functional. For a look at some of these beautiful design ideas in motion, here’s a video from a hands-on (more with sound yet to come):

Above, quick video shot on the screen, showing how physical interactions map to iconic, graphic feedback — all appearing in high-density, 60 fps glory on the OP-1’s screen.

The synth and sampler are friendly – toy-like in the best way. In keeping with some of the most fun instruments of all time, the OP-1 is something people will want to play. Color-coded knobs and extensive graphical feedback make a reasonably sophisticated set of synthesis, envelope, and sampling options accessible. There’s nothing revolutionary in the synth or sampler; it just takes the 90% of sound-making techniques most people use and makes them more immediate.

All of these things are wonderful, and clearly it’s a gorgeous little device. And it’s impossible, as always, to judge a design that isn’t finished. I have a suspicion, however, that some of the most important magic of the OP-1 lies in what the impishly-secretive Teenage Engineers aren’t saying:

  • What are the sequencers? I don’t know what braincell-killing spirit the Swedes prefer, but I’m going to need a lot of it if I want to find out what the deal is with the OP-1’s internal sequencers. That’s sequencers – plural. Teenage says they’ll have multiple ways of sequencing the instrument, and they won’t say what any of them are. I saw a brief glimpse of a grid of dots that suggested a tracker-style sequencer of patterns, but I wasn’t able to conclude anything. And ask anyone from Teenage what this is all about, and they’ll hint that what we haven’t seen is what they think will make the hardware must-have.
  • We haven’t heard most of the synths yet. When it ships, the OP-1 promises the following models: “FM • String • DRW • Pulse • T10 • Cluster • PSE.” I did get to play with the pulse synthesizer engine, which you can see a little bit in the short video I saw, and was struck by how intuitive the display is – the OP-1 really makes it easy to visualize the harmonic content of your sound patch, and gives you immediate control over the sound. But I didn’t get to hear much, and some of the synth models I most want to play with weren’t ready yet. That means most people at NAMM missed out not only on the coming sequencers, but also on a lot of the sounds. I’m convinced enough by the interface that I think those synth models hold a lot of promise.
  • What other sonic recipes might make it onto the OP-1? Teenage prototypes their sound creations and interface in Python, wrapped around native code, before re-implementing them on the device. That means there are all sorts of potential software features that could still make the cut. By the way, if you’re wondering why hardware tends not to work this way, it’s because too many music hardware developers have huge gulfs between the people who engineer on the hardware/embedded/DSP side, and on the computer desktop software side. At Teenage, it’s really just one group of guys who know their way around both. They’re in one office, not separated by lots of time zones or a language barrier. (It makes a difference; trust me.)
  • Where do the bike and lamp come into this? This isn’t Roland or Yamaha, or even IKEA. Teenage have an immaculate studio, and have conceived and built an expensive work-lamp that’s machined out of medical-grade metal tooling. The lamp can be used to conveniently produce stop-motion animation, noted one of the Teenage staff. It’s not only a standalone lamp: it’s a modular system for all sorts of application. Oh, yeah, and they’re also working on an electric bike. TE are design-obsessed, and I get the sense that there could be a connection between these products. Already, it sounds like it’ll be possible to integrate the lamp and the OP-1 in your work setup. Could the electric bike and the OP-1’s synth have some connection in the future? TE weren’t saying. Will I be able to afford this luxury? No. Does it tickle my inner design geek? Yes. Oh, yes. Maybe for those of us who are poorer, I can publish some hack that lets you connect your OP-1 to the unicycle and cheap IKEA desk lamp you own.
  • There’s been no mention of MIDI in. Something a number of people seem to have missed: TE has promised MIDI output (so you can use the device as a controller for software), and even a USB storage device (for drag-and-drop sample interchange). But one thing they haven’t yet said is that you’ll be able to route MIDI into the OP-1. This could be a deal-breaker, of course, to some people. But I’m holding out hope for another solution, like finally having hardware you can sequence with OSC. (I’m going to be doing as much research as I can on USB OSC implementations and dumping them on the studio in Stockholm, just as a hint.) The problem with MIDI has been that it tends to impose certain design decisions in regards to timing, how musical events are represented, and even the size of devices (given the amount of hardware that still has onboard DIN connections). So, while this aspect of the OP-1 remains a mystery, I’m intrigued by where it could lead.

The OP-1 is definitely one I’ll be following; it’s at the top of my list for the year. And it’s about time we got some really significant new hardware. For more information…

MusicRadar got a hands-on with some sounds.

Teenage has a lovely set of photos on their blog – and yes, that’s me, by coincidence amidst a crew from Hispasonic:
NAMM Photo Bananza

Check out the full Teenage Engineering blog for loads of videos, including a few in the fabulous luxury of their Super 8 motel room:

And don’t miss the product page, which now has a lot of detail on it:
Teenage Engineering OP-1
Among the juicy specs: how about an onboard accelerometer, Li-Ion rechargeable battery, a 60-fps display, and a powerful (for this kind of gear) 400MHz processor core?

Just please, please, don’t judge the sound quality of a non-shipping synth based on YouTube videos. I’ll be sure to report back on final sound quality before you unload your hard-earned change.