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A pocket-sized synthesizer changed the way I think about music

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In January, Nathan Ingraham wrote about a new batch of Teenage Engineering synthesizers, designed to be as cheap as possible, a kind of Minimum Viable Instrument. I bought one as soon as I read the article, and it shipped a few months later. I've been playing with it for about a month now. It's already one of the more interesting devices I've owned.

I’m a hobbyist when it comes to music, and what I want in a device is generally something cheap that inspires me to play with a new idea. A while back, I bought a Microkorg on eBay — basically a keyboard with an intricate array of knobs attached — which does basically everything I thought I wanted from a synth. Add in a guitar and a microphone, and I figured I was more or less set.

But the PO-14 showed me something new. It's light and tiny, maybe twice the thickness of a credit card, but what's really interesting is how efficient the little synth has to be. There’s no keyboard, just 23 buttons and two knobs, so they had to make a lot of hard choices about what was going to be easy to do and what was going to be hard.

It's a new way to think about playing music, at least for me

For instance, it's surprisingly difficult to program in a melody: you have to hold down the button, twisting one knob to set the tone and another to set the duration of the note. Programming a melody takes a long time, and you don't really want to do it more than once per session. You can play the PO-14 like a conventional instrument, too, but then you don't get to use any of the effects, which are really the whole point of the device.

The effects are the easy part, and as a result, that's how I spent most of my time on the PO-14. There are 32 effects on board, one batch for manipulating the notes and another for manipulating the voice, and it's really easy to punch them in and out. You can hold a note or make it stutter on the fly, and make sure the filter hits at the exact moment you want it to. For me, playing the instrument is mostly punching in and out those different effects, which ends up feeling an awful lot like a band member playing with variations on a particular part. You could get these sounds out of another machine, but I don't know where else I'd get that feel.

It's a new way to think about playing music, at least for me. Most other instruments (including my Microkorg) take the opposite approach, setting effects in advance and letting you play notes within them. That's arguably more fun to play with, but it's less and less relevant to modern music, which tends to revolve around set loops and more inventive effects hits. For a hobbyist like me, it's hard to say how else to get there without more expensive sequencers and effects controllers.

That's not to say the PO-14 is better than the other instruments in my closet. But for $59, it's given me an awful lot to play with.