Pocket Operators — they are tiny, they look like calculators, but what are they?
Pocket Operators are portable synthesizers, developed by Teenage Engineering, which offer a way for musicians to create music everywhere and anywhere.
Although Pocket Operators seem bare bones, they have a multitude of revolutionary features which makes them powerful, portable tools.
To start, all Pocket Operators come with a minimum of 16 sounds that can be played in-real time or programmed using the built-in sequencer. Typically, a sound that has melodic value can be played in 16 different pitches, while percussive sounds can be played in one way. These sounds also have two parameters which can be manipulated during playback, giving users an opportunity to add complexity and depth to their songs. Sounds can also be altered using punch-in effects that change how the sounds are played.
The Pocket Operator’s built-in sequencer records the user’s input and plays them back. After the musician selects a tempo and where sounds will play, the sequencer will play the pattern exactly how it was told. Each pattern represents a bar of music and users can program up to 16 patterns using the sequencer.
Each type of Pocket Operator also comes with its own gimmick or special feature. The PO-16 Factory has a ‘Key’ button that makes the synth play in different styles including arpeggios and transpositions. The PO-20 Arcade has a ‘Chord’ button which causes the Pocket Operator to play selected chords beneath the music. Pocket Operators from the 30 series have a ‘Record’ button which is used for recording sampling external sounds.
Currently, there are twelve Pocket Operators, all of which offer different sounds and features.
The original trio, known as the 10 series, is Teenage Engineering’s first series of Pocket Operators. Products from the 10 series include the PO-12 Rhythm, a drum machine, the PO-14 Sub, a bass synthesizer, and the PO-14 Factory, a lead synthesizer.
Pocket Operators from the second trio (the 20 series) are like ones from the original trio but have a more specialized purpose. They include the PO-20 Arcade, an arcade-themed Pocket Operator, PO-24 Office, an office-themed drum machine, and the PO-28 Robot, a lead synth designed for live performance.
The third trio (the 30 series) is advanced compared to the first two series. These Pocket Operators have the ability record and store sounds and manipulate them using the built-in samplers. Pocket Operators from the 30 series include the PO-31 Tonic, a drum synthesizer, the PO-33 K.O!, a general sampler, and the PO-35 Speak, a voice synthesizer.
The remaining three Pocket Operators are limited-edition collaborations with different franchises and companies. The first collaboration was with Rick and Morty, an animated sitcom. Titled PO-137, the Rick and Morty-themed Pocket Operator featured well-known and commonly heard sounds from the TV show. The PO-137 is now discontinued and is not being sold by Teenage Engineering. Their most recent collaboration is with CAPCOM, a video game publisher. Together, they created the PO-133 and PO-128, which features sounds from the games Street Fighter and Mega Man, respectively.
Since Pocket Operators have an input and an output jack, they can also be daisy-chained together. This method of combining different Pocket Operators is beneficial for creating a well-rounded track as every type of Pocket Operator excels at a single task, not multiple. For example, a musician might chain together a PO-24 Office for percussion, a PO-14 Sub for bass, a PO-28 for the lead, a PO-20 Arcade for the chords, and a PO-33 K.O! for sound effects. As these devices can be mixed and matched to one’s liking, the possibilities are infinite.
Should you get a Pocket Operator?
First, Pocket Operators are not cheap. Despite their size and fragility, they start at $59 USD, going up to $89 USD for the more advanced products. They are also pretty niche — even amongst musicians. However, they are great portable devices that combine many useful and sought-after features in a small package. If you are interested in creating electronic songs on the fly, looking for ways to mix up your music, or need a portable synthesizer/sequencer for live performance, the Pocket Operator offers a variety of functions and is a very good place to start.
Written by Harper Kim