MPC Forums OP-1 Question…

Over at MPC Forums Danoc was asking a bit about the OP-1… here’s my response.

It’s the Teenage Engineering OP-1. It has taken on the status of being an overpriced (released in 2011’ish at about $799 USD, today sells new for $1299 USD which was the latest price hike in 2019) piece of hipster music production hardware. It’s an interesting piece of gear, but isn’t exactly user friendly… if you want to push yourself to think outside of the box, it has that in spades, but for me it is not a serious piece of music gear in today’s space.

Under the hood, it’s got about 12-15 (I forget) Synths, 2 Drums, I want to say about 10’ish FX, and about 10’ish different sequencers. The mentality for all of these is to (mostly) focus on four parameters (sometimes up to 8 through the shift key) to control. So it’s got a design aesthetic of keeping things mostly simple, and obfuscating what the controls are really doing. While you’ve got subtractive, fm, resonator, etc… synthesis… you don’t always have a direct correlation for one knob doing a straight LP/BP/HP filter or whatever it is… this forces you to use your ears more to actually hear what is happening.

It’s also got a synth sampler which can record up to six seconds of audio that you can pitch up and down, and a drum sampler which can record up to twelve seconds of audio. I suspect a lot of the folks looking to produce “LoFi” tracks gravitate towards this limitation right here, because it absolutely forces you to do more with less as it were. You can definitely use the drum sampler for chopping up beats, but you’re kind of fighting with the auto chopping algorithm… 

Personally, I find the magic of it in the four track tape emulator, and how it handles looping. For me this is the biggest strength, because it definitely forces you to think about laying down audio in real time, versus sequencing content at your own leisure. Unfortunately this also becomes a huge weakness because if you want to make a full track on this thing, you’re stuck trying to work within the intricacies of the tape simulation to chop, lift, and drop tape segments. I tell people that this is fun until it is not. Sure you get happy accidents, but it’s still fairly easy to get clicks (you can hear a few in the track I posted).  

This leads most people to a workflow of using the OP-1 to it’s advantage, and then moving to a DAW. Especially since… and I laugh at this… you can effectively only work on one project at a time. You can definitely use each of the four six minute tracks independently, or dump different songs at different time segments, but this is where (like four track tape decks) you can quickly feel like the device is actively working against you if you’re not working with it.

All that said though, it is great for getting ideas down, and it functions super well as a small device you can toss in your backpack. It has a built in microphone and radio… so you can quickly sample sounds into it from those sources, it’s got a 1/8” input and output jack… so with the right cables you can also hook just about any audio you want into it.  

Where I am on the fence is actually mostly in the Midi implementation. It’s got a USB jack, and it can work as a class compliant midi device. There are templates to use it to control Ableton and Reason as well, so you can use the transport controls pretty well, and even map CC around. However, if you’re looking to clock lock to another device, you’re really going to need to either have a USB host device that will support it, or… have a USB host device that can then perform your midi out/sync duties.

What else? Well the keys are not velocity sensitive, so it becomes a bit awkward to program in high hat rolls for example with various velocity. There are a bunch of ways to do this, but what I usually end up doing is setting the record volume on the loud hats higher, and record that to tape… then set the record volume lower on the quieter hats and record that to tape. If it sounds fiddly, it absolutely is… and if you mess it up and have forgotten to save off an A/B copy of your tape can quickly lead to “well I have to do that again” moments. However this is mostly just an issue of layering. You *can* get one layer of undo by lifting a section of tape and then dropping it back down before you record… but you have to remember to do this.

Any way… I personally like the device for what it is… but the price tag for what it is… well it is crazy. Sure it is a boutique synth… but TE is a design company first. You’re paying more for it because of how it was designed and all the weird intricacies, and not really because it is a technical powerhouse. Heck the CPU and screen are straight up from old cellphone technology from the 2000’s.

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