Teenage Engineering announced two new Pocket Operators at this year’s NAMM — the PO-35 Speak, a vocal synthesizer and sequencer, and the PO-33 KO!, a sampler. Both models are part of the Metal line, which previously only included the PO-32 Tonic drum machine.
Pocket Operators are small, hand-sized devices for making electronic music and at under $100, are relatively cheap. I heard rumors that Teenage Engineering was going to be at NAMM, but I didn’t find them on the showroom floor. Instead of a booth, the company had camped out in a white Ford Expedition in a parking lot near the expo halls. We were greeted by a lanky rep in pineapple-colored Hunter S. Thompson sunglasses who ushered us inside and clambered in the back seat. Once the doors slammed shut, I looked down to see three daisy-chained Pocket Operators neatly laid out on a makeshift presentation table. The first Pocket Operator in the chain I recognized as the PO-32 Tonic drum machine. The other two, I was told, were brand-new. Altogether, the three complete the company’s Metal line.
The PO-32 Tonic drum machine had some firsts for Pocket Operators, including the ability to load new sounds onto the device using a program called Microtonic. These two new models, the PO-33 KO! and PO-35 Speak, also work with Microtonic and have another first for the company: built-in microphones that allow you to record audio samples. This capability makes the PO-33 KO! and PO-35 Speak act more like grooveboxes, as you can play with and layer preset sounds or record in your own samples to distort and add character.
The Teenage Engineering rep popped the PO-35 Speak into my hand and instructed me to press the record button, then choose which of the 16 pads I’d assign my sample to. Upon tapping record, the Speak played a click track (a form of metronome). Then I held the calculator-sized device up to my face and spoke into it. Once done, it was incredibly easy to adjust and toy around with the sample I just recorded. I shaved off dead space recorded in the beginning, adjusted the pitch down, and assigned a vocoder effect, making it sound dark and robotic. The result was crunchy, grungy, and more pro sounding than what you would expect from such a tiny and unassuming piece of gear. In total, the PO-35 Speak comes with eight different effects, eight voice characters, and can hold up to 120 seconds in sample memory.
Next up was the PO-33 KO!, which can sample any sound source using line in or the built-in microphone, but has a smaller memory — it can hold up to 40 seconds of recorded audio. This unit has drum presets already loaded to it, but the mic option encourages easy sampling. Like other Pocket Operators, once sounds are decided on, the interface can be used as a sixteen-step sequencer to program sounds into a beat or melody. Then, there are 16 effects that can be punched in on top to add extra depth.
I’ve always loved the straightforward simplicity of Pocket Operators as well as their tiny size. Within minutes, cramped in the passenger seat of a van, I was able to record and adjust a vocal sample, chain all three of them to play in sync with each other, and make modifications to the loops that were playing. The PO-33 KO, and PO-35 Speak are a little spendier than other Pocket Operators (normally $49-$59), but the built-in mic, accompanying Microtonic software, and other new features make the Metal series much more versatile than other models, which are locked with stock sounds. The PO-32 Tonic, PO-33 KO!, and PO-35 Speak all cost $89 each.