After years of speculation, teasers and delays, the world has finally been introduced to Teenage Engineering‘s latest wonder device, the OP-Z.
The Swedish company’s OP-1, has already gone down as both a synth and design classic, and was a genuinely revolutionary product on its release, packing incredible power into a tiny case – with a focus on fun, portability, and also productivity.
Undoubtedly the Apple of the synth world, Teenage Engineering focusses mainly on making expensive products (the Pocket Operators being a notable exception), which are fun to play with, and so desirable that no true synth-head can leave the house without them.
In the OP-1, it’s clear that OP-Z had quite an act to follow. First impressions were troubling for many – it was smaller, had no screen, and wasn’t much cheaper than it’s bigger brother.
Fortunately we are pleased to report that this new device will certainly not let anybody down, even if the corners still need rounding off a little.
How is it different to the OP-1?
Part of the OP-1’s charm was how intuitive and easy it was to use.
It may look like a toy, but unless you’ve been scouring YouTube videos or frantically leafing through the manual or online discussions in advance, chances are you’ll feel a little stuck when you first get your hands on an OP-Z.
Give it 20 minutes, and a run through the quick-start guide, and the true potential of this device will slowly start to dawn on you, however. The lack of screen is a controversial choice, but it’s clear that Teenage Engineering have put a lot of thought into the LED interface, which is consistent and informative.
You’ll quickly remember that different colours indicate that you can edit different parameters – as an example press shift until the LEDs turn yellow and you’ll know you’re on the mixer section for your synth, where the dial in effects and level controls live. The device also makes clever use of the numbers on the black keys of the piano, and these often flash out numerical information – such as the project’s tempo.
Of course, if you’re part of the Apple eco-system, you can make life a little easier for yourself by using the bluetooth connection to effortlessly hook up to a screen. The app is great, and has lots more information, but I found I started to use it less and less as I got to know the device, with the LEDs offering more than enough feedback for most cases.
While we’re on the app, there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of potential here. The OP-Z is capable of controlling scenes created in Unity software, meaning you can – in theory – control your entire live set from this tiny device, and sequence unique visuals on the go. The potential here is mouthwatering, but I think we are some way from this being particularly useful at present.
I tried to make my own scene and the process is not particularly user friendly unless you have some existing knowledge of Unity, or are willing to invest some serious time into learning a new skill. Hopefully we’ll see the opportunity to add more scenes to the device from more experienced designers soon.
How does it sound?
The built in synth engines sound good, if not particularly versatile. I’d say the OP-1’s built-in synths have a little more flexibility, and it’s easier to understand how you are effecting them thanks to the screen. Again we need to remember that this is a product at the beginning of its life, however, and it sounds as though Teenage Engineering have big plans for expanding it in the future.
Indeed, the OP-1 is now a different beast to what it was when it was first released, with countless updates and improvements made to it over the years, adding new sounds and effects.
It’s relatively straightforward to add your own short samples (although the built in memory of 32mb seems strangely small) and the included content has plenty of variety to get you going, including sounds from everyone’s favourite bearded musical YouTuber Cuckoo!
First impressions of making music on an OP-Z
The beauty of the OP-Z is the many ways you can use it to make and manipulate your music. Fun workflows revolve around around creating interesting patterns, which you can then edit on the fly, using punch in effects to create glitchy beats. The Master track then allows you to take a simple one bar pattern, and program in transpositions, to instantly create elaborate cord progressions that sound completely natural. It even analyses the notes being played to help you transpose within a key.
The device is certainly geared towards live performance at the moment, not least because of its portability – but also because of its usefulness as something of a musical Swiss army knife.
The lack of a function for exporting tracks is currently holding back its potential in the studio, although muting tracks to record the audio output is easy enough, if a little time consuming.
In pre-release marketing, Teenage Engineering proudly declared that the OP-Z would last for four flights across the Atlantic Ocean on a single charge. Unfortunately on release that proved to be wildly optimistic, with the battery lasting for a much more modest four or five hours.
While not the end of the world, it was a little annoying that there was such a huge difference between what was forecast and what was actually the case.
In reality, it’s easy to throw in a small USB charger if you genuinely need longer battery life, and the device charges very quickly once you find a socket. Teenage Engineering have also already released a firmware update that has improved battery life by 10-15%, so hopefully the improvements can continue in that department as well.
There’s no avoiding it, this is an expensive product from a company that specialises in luxury items that make music fun again.
It’s hard to separate size from value in the synth world, and the OP-Z oozes joyfulness in the same way its older brother did. Its detractors will inevitably call it a toy, but anyone who’s played with it will tell you that those people are simply missing out on the party.
It certainly has toy like quality – with a pick up and play appeal, a simple colourful appearance, and fun graphics – but make no mistake, this is an incredibly deep sequencer. Step components allow you to break out of the linear patterns, to create music that evolves and surprises.
For what it does, the price is certainly not unreasonable, and there is simply nothing else like it out there – apart from perhaps the OP-1.
Another consideration when deciding whether to purchase should be how well the OP-1 has held its value.
Demand has only gone up for that item, and speaking from personal experience, I had four fantastic years of fun with the OP-1 before making the tough to sell it on at a profit of £200 from what I paid all those years ago.
As it stands, the OP-Z is a powerful sequencer, great fun and one ultra portable music making device.
It’s extremely playable, and every time you pick it up you’ll find yourself inspired to create something new.
The integration with the mobile app, which is iOS only, is well thought out and useful, and the LED interface on the device itself eventually renders the app unnecessary in most situations, which is a triumph for the thought and consideration behind its design.
There is no escaping the fact that the OP-Z is a work in progress, however, and the device in its current state is a long way from finished. Certain features like the inability to get patterns into your DAW quickly and easily are limiting, and it feels as though the device was perhaps rushed out to meet a deadline before being completely finished.
Past experience suggests that we can trust Teenage Engineering to keep rolling out the improvements, however, and that the OP-Z – which is already great – will live up to its full potential soon.