The portable OP-1 synth by Teenage Engineering is still going strong after almost 2 years. Probably because of its ‘hipster’ appeal this little machine always invokes strong opinions over its capabilities, making it a hate it or love it scenario. With the recent OS update that introduced a new synth and new effect among other improvements it’s time to give the OP-1 a review at Momupro.
There are no doubt people that would buy this thing on looks alone. It is reminiscent of a vintage Casio keyboard, but very sturdy. The keys, rotary knobs and colourful OLED screen are all inviting to play around with and the device is small and light enough to carry around with you everywhere.
The unorthodox keyboard is a brave approach by Teenage Engineering, it’s perfectly playable for its size and layout, but since the keys aren’t velocity sensitive you’re missing some expressiveness when playing.
For connectivity, the OP-1 has a headphone/line out, a line in and a USB port, the latter both for hooking the device up to your computer and for charging the OP-1.
Yes, the OP-1 is battery-powered and goes longer off a single charge than your iPad.
The in- and outputs aren’t of the greatest quality, something that you especially notice when connecting some low-impedance headphones or when tracking out your OP-1 in a DAW. You can be confronted with an audible noise level (think of a HD noise in a laptop output) or clicks and pops at times. It’s best to experiment with different headphones, and avoid tracking out of your OP-1 if the noise level is an issue for you.
While we categorise the OP-1 as a synth, it can do much more than that. It’s also a sampler, sequencer and 4-track recorder among other things. The OP-1 manual does a better job going over everything, but let’s talk about our general experience.
The OP-1 provides instant results in every area. Because the functionality is laid out in a intuitive way you can easily load one of the available synth modes, fiddle with the coloured rotary knobs and define your own sound. Then, without configuring any BPM, you can play and record your performance to the 4-track tape recorder and slowly build up an arrangement. You don’t have to know anything about synthesisers to operate the OP-1.
When your timing isn’t up to par, just set a BPM and build a beat using one of the available drum and synth sequencer modes. Let the sequencer arpeggiate your melody while you twist the knobs and turn the sound mangling into a performance. By equipping the rotary knobs and transport controls the tape recorder allows you to easily cut, copy and paste parts all over the place to a maximum of six minutes.
For sampling there is a drum and synth sampler mode available that lets you sample up to 12 seconds and respectively lay the sample out as one-shots or chromatically. For longer samples you can always record on tape and cut your sample into 12-second pieces. You can sample the line-in, a built-in mic, a built-in FM radio(!) or resample the OP-1’s output. For the radio you’ll need an antenna which is unfortunately sold separately. Without it, you’ll have a hard time getting in a good signal to sample, unless you fancy sampling static noise most of the time.
Pair up the OP-1 with an iPad or iPhone and you’ll have a wealth of sound to sample from and keep it portable at the same time.
The mixing and effect section gets a basic job done and helps giving the OP-1 its signature sound. Per synth and drum mode you can configure an ADSR envelope, an LFO and a single effect (choosing from a total of seven effects). The effects are all fairly basic, ranging from a compressor to a spring reverb, but they will benefit from going wild on the rotary knobs. You can also pick an additional global effect that goes after your 4-track, further filtering your sound.
Connecting Your OP-1
The USB port is your friend on the OP-1. Not only will it provide the OP-1 with the needed juice to run, you’ll also require it to transfer your samples or hook the OP-1 up as a controller or MIDI slave.
And like we mentioned, transferring your samples through USB is preferred over tracking out of the line out because you end up with a clean recording that way. You’ll see the OP-1 pop up as a hard drive and you can take your 4 tracks (or album recording) as AIFF files and import them in your DAW.
The OP-1 Community
Let’s dedicate a special section of this review to the OP-1 community which you can find at OhPeeWon.com. It’s packed with a group of very helpful and talented OP-1 owners sharing workflows, tips and soundpacks for the OP-1. Even when you don’t own an OP-1 it’s a great forum for discussion.
And we can’t mention the OP-1 community without going over Cuckoo, a creative individual who pushes the OP-1 to its limits. Check out an example of his work here:
So, is the OP-1 a fun toy or a serious synth? It’s both really. There are some obvious constraints of working with this machine like the keys, the in- and outputs and the maximum of 4 tracks which requires some workarounds and keeps it from being a truly professional synth. Other than that, the OP-1 is a breath of fresh air when you’re only used to working in the box. The tactile interface makes it a great companion or alternative to an iPad for making music on the road. If only the OP-1 was €200 cheaper it would be a no-brainer synth.
You can buy the OP-1 on the Teenage Engineering webstore