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Our Guide to the Teenage Engineering OP-1
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Our Guide to the Teenage Engineering OP-1

In an endlessly evolving world of musical gadgetry, the Teenage Engineering OP-1 still captures the imagination of musicians and producers alike. It’s a powerful and intuitive instrument with a distinctly unique approach to synthesis, sequencing and sampling. All contained within a portable, lightweight chassis to take with you anywhere and everywhere. It’s no wonder this small gadget is an accredited writing tool of artists such as Bon Iver, Bonobo, Deadmau5 and Flume.

These days, computers, tablets and even smartphones are also very capable as portable music production devices. When combined with a multitude of apps, plugins and controllers they make excellent composition tools. So what does a dedicated music-making device like the OP-1 offer that other gadgets don’t? In this guide, we will delve into the depths of what this quirky little microsynth can do.

The Unit

The OP-1 may appear toy-like at first glance, but don’t be fooled by its colourful array of buttons and dials. The unit is housed in a solid aluminium casing with a high quality keys (good for 10 million keystrokes), 4 industrial grade encoders and a sharp, detailed display screen. Weighing in at 580g it certainly doesn’t feel light and ‘plasticy’ when you hold it.

It’s powered by a lithium-ion battery - a common power source modern electronics. Li-ion batteries have gained somewhat of a bad reputation for running out of charge pretty quickly. However, the OP-1’s power cell offers 16-hours of play time and an impressive 2 years in stand-by! According to Teenage Engineering, that would allow ‘travel the Atlantic Ocean, and back again’ before needing to charge up via the USB port. Let's put it this way, you'll never get bored on a plane journey again! 

The Screen

The vivid AMOLED screen is truly stunning and one of our favourite features on the OP-1. The crisp display runs at 60fps with a contrast ratio of 10000:1. Basically, whatever your viewing angle or ambient lighting, you’ll have no issue seeing every pixel. The screen is a key attribute to the OP-1, as it is window into Teenage Engineering’s clever and playful user interface design. Wordy parameters and complex menu systems are replaced with imaginative scenes and interactive imagery. They make morphing sounds, editing fx and recording ideas really fun & simple. It often encourages you to listen to what you’re doing rather than worry about the exact parameter you’re tweaking. You will find yourself creating something that you didn’t expect!

The Synthesis Engines

The OP-1 comes loaded with 10 versatile synth engines accessed via the blue waveform key. It features some familiar synth architectures such as Digital, FM, analogue and physical string modelling (as well as some more unusual ones). The parameter controls of each engine link to the 4 coloured encoders, which in turn affect the user unique user interface. You often find that the colour on the encoder relates to the colours of a parameter on screen. 

One particularly useful feature we’ve found is the OP-1’s modular workflow. The Synth Engine, Envelope, FX and LFO are separable from each other. This allows you to hot-swap the core synth sounds whilst maintaining the other aspects of the sound such as envelope shape and modulators. 

Here’s a quick rundown of each engine from OP-1’s manual:

  • FM – frequency modulation synthesis made easy. this is the type of engine that is found in the classic DX7 synthesizer.
  • cluster – up to six oscillators chained in a cluster.
  • dr wave – raw 8-bit style engine.
  • digital – pure digital raw engine.
  • string – physical modeling of a string instrument.
  • pulse – square wave engine.
  • phase – phase distortion type engine.
  • dsynth – dual oscillator.
  • voltage – multi oscillator electric synthesis.

In addition to the engines listed in the manual, there is also a noise synth called ‘DNA’. This engine was added in an OS update, and uses unique information from your OP-1 to generate sound. According to Teenage Engineering’s blog post following the update, DNA is ‘based on the Analog Devices 64-bit Blackfin processor ID, and is completely unique to every single OP-1 unit.’

The Sampler

As well as the synthesis engines of the OP-1, there is also a sample engine which provides instant access to audio capture and processing. Whether from your current surroundings, another audio device or even the airwaves, the OP-1 allows you to grab any sample you want. In either Synth or Drum Mode, simply press the Mic/Input key and you’re ready to go.

Capturing new sounds can be done in 4 ways: 

  • Built-in Microphone - Great for instantaneous capture whenever inspiration strikes.

  • Line Input - The best way to capture audio from other devices in in more detail (via 3.5mm stereo jack).

  • FM Radio - Yes, there’s a built in FM radio receiver! Tune in to capture and/or listen (best used with the antenna accessory).

  • Resampling - Reuse and recycle your own creations on the OP-1 to create more complex layered sounds.

Once you’ve captured your samples with the OP-1, you can edit them within the drum sampler or the synth sampler. There are key differences between the two which make them better at different tasks. 

  • The synth sampler allows you to capture up to 6 seconds of audio. It is located within the list of synth engines, accessed by pressing the blue key. An easy way to know you're in this sample mode - the waveform displays in blue. Once your sample is recorded, you can set volume, start point, end point, loop point using the mapped encoders. In this mode, the sample's pitch is stretched across the keyboard so you can play it melodically,

  • The drum sampler extends sampling time to 12 seconds. This gives the ability to capture longer rhythmic phrases or a series of one-shot samples. To access this mode, press the green drum mode key instead. The waveform will display in green.The entire clip of audio is automatically chopped across each keys. Each section or slice of audio can be refined and tuned using the encoders.

The Sequencers

Sequencers are very useful tools for programming melodies and rhythms on electronic instruments. The OP-1 hosts an array of sequencing engines which offer a mixture of approaches to sequencing. Each one processes note information differently and is bound to give you some pretty interesting results. When in Synthesis or Drum Mode, press the sequencer key located on the far right to switch it on. 

Below is a list of each sequencer modes that we experimented with:

  • Arpeggio - An arpeggiator that uses utilises different parameters to change up the outputted note sequence. Great for breaking up a chord sequence into melodies.
  • Endless - A classic step sequencer that allows you input up to 128 steps. Playback direction, speed and trigger patterns can all be used to vary the outgoing phrase.
  • Finger - A step sequencer with pattern variations attached to each note key. When two keys are pressed at the same time, the two sequences will interact using a selected rule. A useful example would be assigning your beat to one key and drum fills to the others so they play in sequence.
  • Pattern - This mode will look familiar to those of you who use grid based sequencing. Just like the piano/drum roll in your DAW, X axis time is and Y axis is pitch. You can change direction of playback, sequence length and position of the sequence loop. 
  • Sketch - Draw your patterns using the encoders like an ‘Etch-a-sketch’. If you don’t like your sequence, simply shake the OP-1 to erase and start again! This one is great for sound design, and can get messy very quickly.
  • Tombola - A chance-based sequencer and one of our favourites (see gif above). Notes drop as blue balls into the spinning tombola. As they bounce off the white walls, the note you pressed to create the ball is triggered. Set the spin speed, gravity, mass and wall orientation to affect the outputted results.

Tape Mode

So - now that you have created sounds, beats and patterns, you’ll need somewhere to record and arrange them. With this in mind, Teenage Engineering have built ‘Tape Mode’ into the OP-1. It behaves like an analogue 4-track tape recorder, but exists in for the digital realm. Perhaps a nod to analogue tape machines that championed home recording before the advent of digital audio.

The workflow of ‘Tape Mode’ leads you to believe Teenage Engineering might have actually managed to squeeze a real tape machine inside the OP-1.

  • You have 4 tracks to use for recording, overdubbing, arranging and mixing. You can set separate recording volume and playback volume which is particularly useful to keep your mix well balanced.
  • The 'tape machine' is operated with standard transport controls. You can also change play speed and direction. We found slowing the tape useful for creating weird lofi sounds (but make sure you resample or you loose the effect when you put the tape speed back to 1:1)

  • Setting loops helps when working with phrases & ideas. To do start a loop, simply press the ‘IN’ key while tape is playing, and then press ‘OUT’ at the end of it. 

  • Cut, lift, drop and splice your ideas together to create longer arrangements. This allows you to quickly extend your ideas and add variation while keeping the original arrangement intact.

  • Tape FX keys let you mess playback in a non destructively. Reverse, Stutter and Tape stop all add live FX.

Once you are happy with your arrangement you can record to a digital vinyl record in ‘Album Mode’ (in keeping with the analogue vibe!) Album mode is accessed by pressing the ‘COM’ key. You can record to side ‘A’ or ‘B’ and preserves the mix & tape FX applied to the song.

The FX

In addition to the various sound engines, the OP-1 has a series of audio FX. These are located on key ‘3’ beneath the screen. Reverb, filters and delays all feature inside the OP-1, all with unique twists that make them unlike anything else. As with the synthesis engines, all use an intuitive visual interface and can be hot-swapped without disturbing the rest of your sound settings. Here’s a list of the FX the OP-1 has to offer:

  • Delay - A solid state delay with rich repeats. For a clean delay: set speed high against the delay size. For lofi repeats: set speed as slow as possible within the size range you’ve selected.

  • Grid - A three dimensional feedback plate with controls over size on each axis. X controls pitch, Y controls delay time and Z controls feedback.

  • Nitro - A dual resonant ‘turbo filter’. This filter follows the envelope of the sound. You can shift the frequency of the peaks, as well as their resonance to affect the sound differently. 
  • Phone - A ‘hacked telephone system’ that adds circuit bent glitches to your sound. Making adjustments to ‘baud’ and ‘tone’ changes pitch and glitch.

  • Punch - A hard hitting lowpass filter, portrayed on screen as a boxer. ‘Rounds’ determines the filter decay (along with how agitated the boxer on screen becomes!)

  • Spring - An unmistakable spring reverb with a great deal of tone shaping capabilities. Change the dampening, spring turns and mix level to get the right balance of ambient trails.

  • CWO -The CWO is a pitch shifting delay that takes the form of a cow (see image above). It produces some colourful effects ranging from flanger-type modulation to blossoming echoes

Com Mode

Like most modern electronic instruments, the OP-1 will connect directly to your computer via USB. This gives you immediate access your recorded sounds and arrangements. It can also be used as a controller for your DAW and other MIDI equipped devices. Pressing ‘Shift’ + ‘COM’ gives you access to the following options:

  • CTRL Mode: Lets you use the keys and encoders to send MIDI CC and note information to your computer. It can be used with various software, and can even be re-routed to control hardware. The OP-1 interfaces directly with Reason and can be configured to run with Ableton too. Follow this guide to set up the OP-1 with Ableton and Reason

  • Disk Mode: This is where you can access your audio from the OP-1’s storage. Any sounds you record and save exports as an '.aiff' file and is automatically allocated to corresponding folders. The 4 tracks in Tape Mode export to the folder ‘tape’, which allows you to work with them as stems. Audio recorded in Album Mode appears in the folder 'album' as a stereo audio file. Any snapshot samples you’ve saved will appear in the ‘drum’ / ‘synth’ folders.

Com Mode also features the ‘OPT’ button that lets you switch off USB charging. This is particularly useful if you are recording / monitoring the audio output while the USB is plugged in. Switching off charging will eliminate any ground loop issues you might encounter while using the OP-1 in this way. 

The Hidden Game

If you enjoy discovering easter eggs on your own, look away now!...

Hidden away in the OP-1 is an awesome little arcade game called ‘ChopLifter'. To find it - press all 4 mode keys (synth, drum, tape and mixer) at once. There is no mention of ‘ChopLifter’ in the manual, however a screen shot of it does appear on the OP-1 product page. There are no instructions on how to play either. From giving it a run through, we’ve found the following seems to work:

  • Orange Encoder: Controls power 
  • White Encoder: Controls Tilt / Direction         
  • Blue Encoder: Lowers / Raises the claw        
  • Green Encoder: Opens / Closes the claw

Try not to crash! It's honestly harder than it looks.

In Summary

The OP-1 is like no other instrument we’ve come across. Despite its size, it's capabilities as a synth, sampler and sequencer are not to be under estimated! It's portability, combined with long battery life and a colourful display make it a powerful tool for music creation wherever you go. It will never fail to help you to inspire you to create something new with its intuitive workflow and array of clever features. Nothing even comes close!

To round off our summary of the OP-1, this is what Justin Vernon of Bon Iver had to say about it:

"I honestly think it’s the most important instrument that’s come into my life since I first picked up a guitar when I was 12 years old. I’m not exaggerating at all. I never leave the house without it. I don’t travel with the guitar anymore. I travel with just my OP-1. It’s been a big deal living with this thing. I love making music with it. I love traveling with it. I like using it as a writing extension. It’s a really special technology, essentially what a guitar is to me.” - Justin Vernon, Bon Iver (via Grantland)

Where To Buy The Teenage Engineering OP-1 in the UK

For more information on the OP-1, please visit our product information page

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This new blog is presented by the team at Sound Technology Ltd, a leading distributor of musical instruments and pro audio equipment in the UK and ROI.