When you finally get the Teenage Engineering OP-1 in your hands, it’s hard to tell if you’ve traveled back in time or merely slipped into the near future. The OP-1 draws visual inspiration from musical treasures of the 1980s yet also features a sleek and intuitive interface that is reminiscent of some of the most forward thinking devices of today. The machine is very much geared toward electronic and portable-thinking musicians, but it also appeals to me as one of the finest all-in-one chip-tune creating devices around. Being a lover of all things chip-tune and a self-proclaimed video game music aficionado, I knew I had to try out this beautiful little device. Based upon looks alone, I would give Teenage Engineering my right eye for its stylish synth, but ultimately it’s more about what’s on the inside. So let’s see what this little synth can do shall we?
First thing anyone will notice about this piece of hardware is the beautiful design. The OP-1 is encased in beautiful, high-quality aluminum, and even though it’s rather compact, it has a great sense of weight and feel to it. The keys and knobs all seem extremely well built and I have no worries about long-term functionality. Digging below the surface, we will find an awesome and pixel-perfect OLED display which runs at the gamer favorite, 60 FPS. Everything is color-coded and works unbelievably well. It’s nearly impossible to explain all there is to be found within the display of the OP-1, but rest assured, you will find a succinct and crisp workflow navigating through the operating system. Every item on screen is color-coded and reacts to your every tweak and turn. Gone are boring and bland navigational screens and, although it might take a bit longer to grow accustomed to the more artistic approach to menus, in the long run you will be far more satisfied with the workflow you achieve. Every single screen is almost a game within itself and truly a visual delight to behold.
Now, none of these knobs and buttons would be worth a darn if the sounds crafted and created by the OP-1 weren’t solid – but thankfully – they are. The OP-1 features 8 different synth engines and 2 tweakable drum engines. The synth engines are incredibly varied and each features multiple built-in presets as well as nearly endless space for creating customized user patches. Whether you want a beautiful melodic Wurlitzer or a bit-crushed chip synth, you can create it with the OP-1. It is worth noting that all the synthesis is digital and not analog, but that will quickly be forgotten by any pessimist within minutes of hearing what this beauty can create. If you find yourself with musician’s block, there is a tremendous community online. Sharing, downloading, and applying patches, tracks and tapes with the OP-1 is incredibly easy. Sharing patches with others does require you to connect your OP-1 to your computer, but amazingly, there is no need for software or programs when connecting your OP-1 to your computer. Just plug it in (with the included cable) and it appears as a external hard-drive, giving you no hassle to back up, save or rename patches created by yourself or others. I have worked with tons of music hardware and software and never before have I worked with a device that was as easy to use in tandem with a computer. It’s incredibly refreshing and intuitive.
The OP-1 is first and foremost a musical instrument. But honestly, it is so much more than that. Besides the previously mentioned synth and drum engines, you’ll find a fully-fledged sampler, radio tuner, 4-track tape recorder, mixer, line input, hidden video game and a built in microphone and speaker. The sampler gives you near-endless opportunities to create even more synth and drum patches. You can sample from the built-in microphone, radio tuner or really anything you can find, like an iPhone that will plug into the line-input. Once sampled, you can cut up and arrange the entire sample or slice it up into as many different layers as you would like, all within seconds. You can save each of these samples as a user patch for later recall, so you can sample something else. Moving on, the 4-track tape recorder is possibly the most intriguing feature of the OP-1, besides the fantastic synth engines. Acting as a digital recreation of a real life 4-track, reel-to-reel tape recorder, you are given up to 6 minutes a song to build, arrange, copy, cut and mix-down anything you can come up with. You can even loop sections of the tape as you switch between sections to create a live multi-track looping station that is perfect for on-the-fly jam sessions. It’s totally rad and intuitive, and within an hour or so, it will be second nature to anyone with even a hint of looping familiarity. You may have noticed I also mentioned the OP-1 features a hidden video game on-board. You just have to press a certain key combination to access it. I’ve already spent a good couple hours trying to succeed in this old-school, simple yet tough as nails sidescroller. It’s the icing on the cake of a device that I couldn’t already get enough of. Pair all that with the fact that the battery life is upwards of 15 hours per charge and you can understand why it’s hard for me to ever find myself without this synth in hand.
I don’t think I can imagine a more intuitive and approachable instrument that also functions as an all-in-one professional grade, portable music studio. The first couple hours I spent with the OP-1 were a bit challenging as there is a lot to take in with this machine and its fully original operating system. Once you understand the workflow of the keyboard and how it works, however, you find yourself picking this thing up every chance you get to noodle down a quick idea or conversely find yourself hours later working on your next masterpiece. Although the compact nature of the OP-1 is fantastic for portability, it does limit some features that would have been welcome additions, prominently velocity sensitive keys. But the OP-1 does feature MIDI in/out so it can be used in tandem with any other MIDI keyboard, with velocity sensitive keys, or also integrated into your favorite DAW. Teenage Engineering also has released multiple free updates to the OP-1, adding more synths, effects and general features. The OP-1 is a portable electronic musician’s dream machine and I definitely happen to be that person. I don’t see myself finding a more all-in-one machine anytime soon and I completely recommend giving this synth a chance if you have any interest in music creation.