With full-blown computers as competition, how do you make sequencing with buttons irresistible?

While I was in icy Stockholm last month, I got a look inside Teenage Engineering’s studio, where their upcoming OP-1 instrument continues its gestation. The (literal) garage workshop is the sort of thing a lot of us dream of having: a room in which hardware and software design happen, on-site, simultaneously, with a small group of bright, zany, creative people. My timing (entirely unrelated to Teenage Engineering) happened to coincide with the creation of a new sequencer.

I almost hesitate to post these videos, as I suspect not everyone will get it right away from watching a YouTube demo. But the idea is, rather than sequencing with lots of menus or a big note grid crammed into a tiny screen, they’ve made the sequencer as compact conceptually as the device is small. It’s stunningly simple: you key in your sequence of notes, and adjust everything with the knobs.

For all the value of the touch interfaces I’ve been describing lately, it’s a sequencer you might actually practice, then perform. Muscle memory becomes part of the equation. Somewhere, I think, there will be people who will master the skill of “playing” the OP-1 sequencer. And to prevent the “squint at a tiny screen” phenomenon common on most hardware, they buck the prevalent trend. Instead of shrinking the graphics and enlarging the screen, they keep the screen small and enlarge the graphics. It’s impossible to convey in an early demo, but it made me want to retreat into a snowy cabin with nothing but a prototype and practice myself.

This isn’t just about inspiring gear lust, however. When you see a design that can reduce a musical activity to its most minimal activities, in a way that makes you want to practice and get better and using it, I think the design itself can inspire. It certainly makes me think about new ways of making sequencers with hardware and software. And since a sequencer is itself a kind of compositional game, working out how to design or play such a thing is engaging the act of musical composition.

Anyway, if none of this makes sense now, I promise to revisit it when the OP-1 is ready. And I’m happy to let the Teenage Engineers take as long as they want to get it right. More videos provide further glimpses of what they’re developing:

Here, it’s clear that the sequencing function can really center on the performance interface: it’s a sequence in the simplest sense, as in a sequence of notes, quite a lot like on analog sequencers:

Lastly, one more demonstrating the virtual tape feature:

Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 Instrument: Hands-on, Videos, Why it’s Different

More (HD) video updates and news at the Teenage blog, all posted a short while ago: