Over the last 5 years, Teenage Engineering has launched several models of its pocket operator series. After the release of its legendary OP-1 Teenage Engineering has continued to mark its presence on the musical instruments market.
No device has sparked so much controversy over the last couple of years. While some have criticized and others praised these retro drum machines, the odd and peculiar pocket operators have certainly modified the perception of how to make music in the contemporary era.
In an epoch where almost all synthesizers have extremely complex features and take months to master, Teenage Engineering has made the choice of facility and straightforwardness. With 2 new models (PO-33 & PO-35) released earlier this year, we decided to review the entire line of models that have been released up until now.
Table of content
Review: The different pocket operator Series
Promoted as the drum machine of the series, the PO-12 offers 16 drum sounds and a sequencer. It is the perfect option for making beats and includes parameter locks and punch-in effects. With this one, you will get real synthesized and sampled drum sounds. As with the other Pocket Operators, you get 16 punch in effects, 16 patterns for changing and a step multiplier. It is really impressive what type of powerful drum sounds this device can generate for such a small size.
You should keep in mind that PO-12 rhythm is a first generation pocket operator that can be used with more recent models such as the PO-33 K.O!, for further processing of sounds. Finally, it is not surprising that this pocket operator was named “rhythm’ considering that it can almost only be used for drum sequencing and not much else. If you want to do anything more than that you should consider another model that offers different options.
Especially dedicated at reproducing (sub) bass sounds, this pocket operator is a true brainstorming tool. Owing to its small size, you can take this portable bass synth anywhere you go. As with the other pocket operators you get a built-in speaker which lets you perform live in small environments. However, the 3.5mm TRS input and output allow it to be used with a speaker, recording interface or even to connect it to another pocket operator.
Content-wise, 15 different sounds that can be arranged into a pattern with the on-board sequencer are featured. The 16 patterns that are featured, can be chained together to create a more ambitious composition. This pocket operator is simple and offers advantages over a classical synth with a vast array of buttons and knobs.The sound quality of this deep bass line synthesizer is truly astonishing. It is said that real synthesizer engines have been used for this model. Additionally, you will get 16 punch-in effects. On this model, the animations on the screen are awesome. What we regret is the absence of flat and sharp keys and of MIDI.
Of all the models, the PO-16 Office is probably the one that specializes the most in synthesizer leads with the PO-20 arcade. This model is a lead synthesizer for key melodies. Once again, it provides the user with a sequencer that has parameter locks, play styles, and punch-in effects. On this pocket operator, the punch-in play styles include both arpeggio and chord play styles. The 16 quality sounds that are inside the PO-16 prove that it is much more than a simple synthesizer. Sound quality is emphasized by the Silicon Labs EFM32 Gecko MCU and Cirrus Logic DAC components.
Overall, it is a very powerful pocket operator that has more developed sequencer and pattern chaining than what you can find on the Korg Volcas. As its 16th instrument, it even features a (very primitive) drum machine. One of the downfalls (as on the PO- 14) is the fact that it is limited to a whole note. If the reason behind this decision was to make this pocket operator more friendly toward beginners, it is a hassle to always use the “pitch bend” to raise certain notes a half step and "trick" it into doing sharps and flats.
The PO-20 is probably one of the most complete pocket operators on the list. Like the PO-16 it mainly focuses on the reproduction of synthesizer sounds. This arcade synthesizer and sequencer also features parameter locks, chord control, and punch-in effects. Once again, there are 16 punch in effects in total (bit crush, stutter & delay). Visually, it corresponds to the exact same design as the other pocket operators. Teenage Engineering describes it as “a minimalist arcade synthesizer module that's perfect for modern tabletop synth rigs”. If its design inspires a 1980 pocket calculator, the highlights of its content are 16 nostalgia-inducing synthesized arcade-style sounds.
Unlike the other models, you can create more sophisticated arrangements with 128 chord chaining and 128 pattern chaining. In total, you will get 16 synthesized sounds, and just like with the other pocket operators, a 16-step sequencer. The originality here is that the sounds that are featured are very unique synthesized arcade sounds. Moreover, a step multiplier contributes to rapid beat-making and chip tune improvisation.
One of the most overlooked and underrated of the PO family, the PO-24 can be a great addition to your setup. Most people who are actually interested in buying a Pocket Operator are looking for bass synths, drum machines or lead synths. Once again, you will get punch-in effects,16 sounds & 16 punch-in effects. Step multiplier, parameter locks, and a solo control are also included.
Furthermore, this noise percussion drum machine and sequencer includes sampled vintage hardware and real synthesizer engines. Among the numerous sound samples that are included, you will find those of floppy disk drives, mouse clicks, dot matrix printers, and other noise effects that can be sequenced and programmed into some amazing rhythms and loops. If the PO-12 is a great drum machine, the sounds featured on this one are more original.
With the other devices, this one can be a great addition when it comes to adding colors, glitches, and effects. If you don’t have a drum machine yet, this one is a recommended option. Its uniques sounds will make you think outside of typical drum machine sounds and provide an unheard ambiance to your music.
Described as the live synthesizer of the list, the PO-28 provides the usual sequencer, parameter locks & punch-in effects. However, this time a unique glide control is featured. We can talk about the PO-28 Robot as the “lead instrument” among the Pocket operator lineup as it is its speciality. Nonetheless, it remains fully capable of creating other sounds. What we particularly appreciate on this pocket operator are the lo-fi lead synths that are featured. The 16 keys on the PO-28 let you obtain haunting guitar, soaring synth sounds, and bleep-bloop chiptune leads. Whilst some main complain that the sounds (16) featured here are not enough, we think that this device remains a great option for simple live play.
The sound itself with its real 8-bit synthesizer engines is emulating retro style synths. If you get 15 sounds, just as with the PO-16, you get a micro-drum sound possibility with 16 different drum sounds. Linked to what we said before, you can use some of the low synth lines for bass, the drum key for drums, and then rock out your lead with the high instruments. Therefore, you have full song capability and a lot of freedom to play with this seemingly limited device.
Constituting one of the latest addition to the series, the powerful drum and precision PO-32 synthesizer is the first of the series to offer easy import & export options. Moreover, sound possibilities are unlimited with the micro-tonic VST through data transfer. With this pocket operator, you also get real synthesizer engines, a step multiplier, and 64 pattern chaining. A microphone is included to transfer sounds. When it comes to sounds 16 fully customizable sounds, 16 punch-in effects and a 16 step sequencer are all featured in this small device.
Parameter locks and the same connectivity options as on the other pocket operators are featured. What we really like with this pocket operator is the flexibility the built-in microphone with the import and export functionalities offer. It is also important to note, that the PO-32 was the result of a successful collaboration between Teenage Engineering and Magnus Lidström of sonic charge, creator of award-winning audio plugins and the man behind the CWO effect in the OP-1.
Furthermore, the extensive sonic capabilities of the PO-32 are further underlined by a fresh selection of new punch-in fx, and the standard desktop version ofmicrotonic to shape sounds, generate new patches and pattern data and transfer this wirelessly back to the PO-32 tonic.
Extensive creative possibilities
More resistant design
Average sound quality
Buttons still feel flimsy
Another one of the recent pocket operators is the PO-33. With the recent metal series, the POs really start to move away from being super fun toys to actual cool instruments. Its sampling possibilities and functions are combined with a lot of new features that show how capable this device is.
Unlike on the other pocket operators, the LCDs are finally showing some meaningful information here. However, even though a lot of efforts have been made to make this pocket operator more functional & accessible, the sound quality still remains somewhat amateurish.
Teenage Engineering refers to this one as “micro-sampler”. This small drum device is able to host 40 seconds samples and also comes with a recording microphone which gives you a handful more options. 8 drum slots and 8 melodic sample slots are allocated. You also get the usual 16 effects and step multiplier as featured on the other pocket operators.
The last pocket operator of the recent metal series is supposed to be a vocal synthesizer and sequencer. As the other pocket operators, it features a built-in microphone for 8 different voice character sampling. The novelty is that you have 120 seconds of sample memory with this one. Moreover, you get 8 effects, the possibility to transpose and change the scale.
This pocket operator features a 16-Step Sequencer with 16 Patterns. Moreover, The P.O. 35 Speak is versatile, and sounds professional (unlike the more chirpy sounding first pocket operators.). If there are no detailed instructions on how to properly use it (as with the other of pocket operators), plenty of online resources exist. Whilst it is possible to replace the featured drum sounds with the microtonic software, the latter is sold separately. You should also note that the Po-35 is a two voice at a time instrument. This means that if you want more extensive polyphony, you should pair it up with another pocket operator.
Guide & Recommendation about the Pocket Operator Series
What are pocket operators?
The easiest way to define pocket operators is to describe them as minuscule drum machines that come in different versions with a great variety of sounds. Their design is striking as they are comparable to the calculators of your childhood. In fact, once you start using them you will instantly get that retro feel like when you used to hold a Gameboy between your hands.
Pocket operators are revolutionary in a way, because they offer great possibilities in a restricted package. Moreover, they will allow you to approach music in a rather unusual way. As an example, multifunctional buttons and commands or figures dancing on a screen will take you some time to completely comprehend how to appropriately use the devices.
Once you have understood how these small devices are working, you will see how much they can contribute to your productions but they will also alter your vision of how to make music. If the pocket operators have a hefty amount of possibilities and offer some very appealing features which we will discuss, they also necessitate a considerable amount of additional (and not included) accessories (i.e: protective case).
Which features do pocket operators share?
If each device has its particularities, all pocket operators come with the same design and a considerable amount of identical features. Pocket operators are 16-step sequencers with 16 patterns. They all provide parameter locks.
Furthermore, in terms of connectivity, each pocket operator has a built-in speaker and 3.5mm audio I/O. A useful jam sync feature is available and an animated LCD display will offer a pattern with moving figures and objects that are synchronized with the music you are playing.
The construction has been criticized by many for being cheap but the new PO-32, PO-33 & PO-35 feature all-metal constructions. All pocket operators come with a folding stand. One of the surprising features is a clock which allows you to use the pocket operator as an alarm clock.
Another criticism that has been expressed by many users is the fact that they are battery powered (2XAAA). However, even though this is the case, the battery life is generally decent, being 1 month for normal usage and 2 years when put in standby mode.
Overpriced and cheaply manufactured?
The controversy which has come with their introduction on the market is the fact that they are cheaply constructed and overpriced for the possibilities they offer when compared to competitors. Moreover, to have a “solid” pocket operator, you need to buy an additional case and software.
Additionally, you won’t get any MIDI options with Pocket operators. Therefore, you’ll have to stick with the built-in sequencer. For some users, the screen should offer a nice visualization of the setup and the patterns. However, here, moving objects and dancing figures don’t provide for the easiest workflow and perception of what is really going on.
Furthermore, if you look a today’s market of drum machines, Korg’s Volca’s prove to be a very ferocious competitor for the pocket operators. Indeed, for half the price, a Korg Volca Beats provides MIDI, is more durable, offers a more practical build, as well as fully editable sounds. With more considerable control over parameters, Volca also offers the advantage to be synced together for workstation type setup.
Nonetheless, Pocket Operators have their advantages and the fact that Teenage Engineering continues to introduce new versions (PO-33 & 35) on the market. Moreover, don’t be fooled by their looks, pocket operators offer great possibilities and have the quality of being good at something specific.
Overall, Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operators are great practice tools and fantastic devices for jamming sessions. However, you should keep in mind their limitations (MIDI, design etc). You shouldn’t buy one expecting that it will help you make better music.
That being said, pocket operators can be synced together and with other external instruments (like the Volca series). They make a nice addition to an already existing setup. And the specificities of some (PO- 16 for synthesizer leads & PO- 24 for percussion) enable the crafting of a glitchy and more unusual sound.
If the last models mark a clear leap forward in quality & content (PO-32, 33 & 35), the most complete unit for an aspiring musician to play with remains the PO-20 Arcade. Why is this the case? The arcade model provides at the same time great rhythm possibilities but also synthesizer content to let you create songs almost instantly on the go.