As distinctive and striking as Teenage Engineering's OP-1 Portable Synthesizer is, it wouldn't be unreasonable to mistake it for a toy at first glance. The tiny speaker, the large, brightly colored knobs, the big, bold print and labeling — its physical characteristics can give off the vibe of "my first synth." So seeing CEO and head of design Jesper Kouthoofd strap it on with the brand-new “guitar strap” accessory, attach a small plastic crank to one of the knobs, and perform a synthesized "guitar solo" (complete with whammy bar dives thanks to the OP-1's accelerometer) is quite a sight to behold. He certainly looks the part of the beginning-to-age European punk rocker, unkempt hair flying — though his axe of choice is not a Fender or Gibson, but a tiny, futuristic-looking keyboard.
The performance sums up two things about the OP-1, as well as Teenage Engineering itself. For starters, the toy-like appearance of the synth is not an accident. This company values fun above nearly all else — head of sales Tobias von Hofsten told me that "fun is one of our guidelines in everything we do." Secondly, the OP-1 is a high-quality, professional-grade tool that brings something unique to the synth market, despite its playful appearance.
his axe of choice is not a Fender or Gibson, but a tiny, futuristic-looking keyboard
While visiting New York City from their native Sweden to prepare for the launch of a new suite of OP-1 accessories and the corresponding software update, Kouthoofd and von Hofsten gave me a close-up look at their newest creations which both alter the way one interacts with the OP-1 and reveal a great deal about Teenage Engineering’s approach to its place in the technology landscape.
It's been just over a year since the OP-1’s formal release, and Kouthoofd and von Hofsten are throwing a party tonight to celebrate the latest additions to the device. While most companies wouldn't hold a major event in New York City for a line of inexpensive, plastic add-ons to an $849 synthesizer, von Hofsten says the accessory launch makes it a good time to “recap the year” that has passed since the synthesizer first hit the market.
The new accessories break down into two groups: there's a variety of plastic add-ons that change the way users interact with the OP-1 as well as specially-designed bags and cases. There’s a total of three new physical OP-1 accessories that provide a fresh and unconventional way to interact with the synthesizer: Crank, Brick Shaft, and Bender. Each of these plastic pieces (made in Sweden, "not in China," Kouthoofd was quick to note) can attach to any of the OP-1's four main control dials and expands the interaction options beyond what the standard knob offers.
While users may come up with physical hacks for existing hardware on their own, it's a bit more unusual to see the original manufacturer rethink the the physical controls a year after the product’s release. The Crank provides a much easier way to continuously turn a dial, particularly when flying forwards or backwards through any pre-recorded sound on the built-in four track recorder (or flying through a programmed sequence of notes, as Kouthoofd showed off in his "guitar solo" demo). Using Crank with a pre-sequenced arrangement feels like you’re using a music box, with the recording playing back at different speeds depending on how fast you turn the Crank.
Bender comes with a rubber band that adds tension to the knob and lets you use it like a more traditional weighted pitch-shifting control found on most synths, but of course any parameter you desire can be assigned to the knob. Using Bender for pitch-shifting lets you modulate tones from a subtle shift to a dramatic low-to-high sweep, though it’s the kind of feature seen on nearly every synth available. Still, it’s a clever and effective solution to the OP-1’s lack of a build-in pitch-bending control — and one that lets users tweak virtually any setting they choose.
The Brick Shaft, however, is probably the most creative new tool, and also the hardest to grasp. It’s another small, plastic attachment that allows Lego Technic gears and wheels to be attached to the OP-1’s control knobs. In a demo video, a giant wheel simply terms as a much larger and more tactile knob, but using a gear allows for automation. Teenage Engineering shows the gear being turned by a Lego Mindstorm kit. This would allow the assigned parameter to cycle continuously without the user ever having to manipulate the knob. (Check out 2:00 in the video below to see the Brick Shaft in action.)
It's not the easiest thing to understand without seeing in action, but Kouthoofd noted that its creation was "like research for ourselves, to broaden our imaginations." He went on to say that "we work so much with this stuff that we need some kind of input or tool to expand our mindset." It’s the kind of tool that Teenage Engineering isn’t entirely sure how customers will use quite yet, but the company is putting it out there anyway to see what people can come up with.
The new bags are also deceptively creative. They’re designed by Unit Portables, another Swedish company with a similar design philosophy to Teenage Engineering. The OP-1 case has a rugged, minimalistic, almost military look, but the real feature of note is the modular integration with Unit Portables' laptop bag. This larger bag (which Teenage Engineering sells on its site) features a number of external loops that smaller cases can hook on to, allowing the owner to customize the bag to fit his particular needs.
Of course, the new OP-1 case (and smaller, accessory-sized cases) can fit right into this system — and the laptop bag's strap can double as a "guitar" strap for the OP-1 (provided you pick up the new connection kit). It's a highly functional and intelligent approach that I'd expect to see more high-end bag and case manufacturers adopt in the future.
Just as Teenage Engineering hopes owners will use these new accessories in unconventional ways, the very production and creation of them is very much an exercise in expanding the way the company views the OP-1. Instead of building a product and telling potential customers how to use it, Teenage Engineering experiments until something captures its imagination, releases that experiment to the world, and hopes its customers will come up with innovative ways to use it.
"it's as complicated as an iPhone and we didn't realize that when we started."
While Teenage Engineering's most visible and successful product is a synth, I would never classify it as a musical products company. Rather, it’s a group of designers who love high-quality, physical products and happen to be obsessed with music synthesis at the moment. The OP-1’s genesis can be traced back to 2007 with the Absolut Choir — an architectural installation commissioned by Absolut Vodka which saw the four-person Teenage Engineering team create 22 wooden, electronic, singing dolls installed in a Swedish department store and could be activated via the internet.
Kouthoofd told me that the installation was "the starting point for the [OP-1] synthesizer, because we started working with synthesized sound and we wanted to do our own stuff without the client." From there, an OP-1 prototype was displayed at Frankfurt Musikmesse 2008 (a German music trade fair), though it was non-functional at the time and the company took three more years to release a finished product. Kouthoofd said that, "we worked on it hard, but it's as complicated as an iPhone and we didn't realize that when we started."
The styling, sound, and interface of the OP-1 were all an effort to do something completely opposite to the prevailing trend in synths at the time, says Kouthoofd. "When we started working on this, the other synth companies were very much into the virtual analog style” — Kouthoofd’s referring to a trend amongst both music hardware and software designers to emulate classic analog synth sounds and stylings using purely digital hardware.
it feels more like digital-native art than an interface for music creation
“But we said ‘OK, it's digital and we want it to be pure[ly] digital.’" While there are the occasional references in the OP-1's interface to traditional, physical interfaces, most of the graphics you'll see feel straight out of old Atari video games — it feels more like digital-native art than an interface for music creation.
There were numerous challenges in the intervening three years, and even since launch. For example, Teenage Engineering initially produced the aluminum chassis in Sweden, then shipped them to China to have the guts assembled. Kouthoofd explains, "it was too expensive to ship all that metal to China and keep shipping it back if things were wrong." As such, only the first 2,000 units were not completely assembled in China. Additionally, the painted aluminum chassis often takes several tries to get just right — Kouthoofd says “we have to return half of them because they don’t look perfect.”
Kouthoofd actually had to learn CAD to get the OP-1 built as he envisioned — it’s the kind of DIY mentality that pervades a company of only ten people. "We hired a CAD guy, but he wasn't that good," he said. "We wanted the outside and inside to look good so we had to buy the SolidWorks software and learn it from scratch." Kouthoofd (who’s responsible for all graphic and industrial design) says that "we do everything from hardware engineering, to software engineering, to CADing, to design."
While production may still be a work in progress, it hasn't hurt sales — Kouthoofd says that "we've sold all the units that we produce." Still, there's a lot of room for growth, but Teenage Engineering is fine taking things slowly. With the OP-1 accessory launch, Kouthoofd says the company is preparing for "a little more grown-up" retail strategy, but von Hofsten notes that "in New York City, we're not in a single [traditional] music store." According to its website, Teenage Engineering products are sold in 13 US retail stores, though most are decidedly less mainstream and focus on more obscure electronic music devices. “We're not so well-represented,” von Hofsten says, “but that's okay because we don't want to rush. We'd rather keep it personal and grow slowly."
After spending time with the Teenage Engineering team, it's clear that their products evolve in an unconventional way. When talking about the "guts" of the OP-1, Kouthoofd reveals that the motherboard only takes up a small portion of the insides because they want to use it for more, smaller products in the future. However, he's not talking about a mini-synth (as fabulous as that would be) — he's talking about a clock radio.
Kouthoofd's voice rises with excitement as he describes the kind of clock that you'd never find on your local store shelves: the clock will "wake you up every morning to a new voice singing," using similar technology to what powered the Absolut Choir. He adds that the clock will be "connected to the internet, so if it was like…the national day of Sweden, it would be the national song of Sweden." And if you happen to have more than one clock, "they'll start singing in harmony." Rather than push its synth technology into more products and make a bigger name for itself in the music space, Teenage Engineering is focusing on a singing, harmonizing, internet-connected alarm clock.
Internet-connected clocks, singing in harmony
However, those hoping for more music creation and tweaking options don't need to look any farther than Oplab, Teenage Engineering's "Musical Experimental Board" that was released in June. It doesn't look like much on the surface, but Oplab promises to let users interconnect virtually any electronic musical instruments through a variety of onboard ports, including MIDI in and out, a synth port, CV in and out, and more.
"This is the sneaker that the whole Soviet Union wore."
The real kicker for Oplab are the wireless sensors — there's a set of three sensors that you can connect to any device and physically manipulate the sound as it is fed through the board. One sensor features an accelerometer that lets users get the same type of physical modulation Kouthoofd showed me with the OP-1, while another is pressure-sensitive. The last is known as "tap" and simply acts as a virtual trigger for something like a kick-drum beat.
These sensors work best when paired a moving object — like the official Teenage Engineering sneakers that von Hofsten showed me. These sneakers come complete with a side pocket that can hold an Oplab sensor; after sliding the "tap" sensor into his sneaker, von Hofsten says tapping his foot on the floor would trigger any parameter or sound he wanted. Similarly, the accelerometer sensor would respond to the movements of his foot and modulate the sound accordingly.
Even the sneakers themselves have a great story behind them — Kouthoofd tells me that "this is the sneaker that the whole Soviet Union wore — you know, back in the day." They're now made by Spalwart, who uses the exact same factories and molds to produce the shoes — though with the extras Oplab sensor slot included.
For those hoping for more from the OP-1, a major software update is coming tonight along with all these new accessories. Among other things, the update includes Ableton Live integration, a new synth filter that von Hofsten says will "take the unit to the next level when it comes to sound creation," and of course tweaks that make the unit more compatible with the new accessories.
When talking about the new filter, von Hofsten calls the OP-1's way of visualizing music "both scary and liberating at the same time." While his statement referred specifically to the OP-1, he could just as easily have been talking about the company as a whole. While it sounds like we'll hear more about the OP-1 in the coming months, the next big project for the company is likely something that hasn't fully envisioned yet.
That creative restlessness ingrained in the spirit of Teenage Engineering became increasingly apparent throughout our conversation. When von Hofsten says, "I've always wanted to escape the grid, not be locked down by bars," he may be talking about software, but he’s also summing up Teenage Engineering’s reason for existence.