OP-1 review

Sat Dec 31 2022E.W.Ayers

Last Christmas in a drunken stupor I bid on Ebay for a second-hand, battered OP-1 by Teenage Engineering (TE). It's a pocket synth/arranger that you can sketch songs on. I've written some thoughts on it, they aren't going to make much sense if you haven't used the device. I might write a 'design lessons learnt from the OP-1' post which doesn't need this.

The main takeaway: it's a toy for hipsters. You can get PC / tablet apps that do everything this can do ... and yet. Something about having a dedicated interface with tactile buttons and twiddly knobs makes me more likely to play with it. This is because I spend all of my time using a PC, tablet and phone. I don't want to spend more time prodding around a load of menus and clicking things. Clicking is too slow, prodding relies you to do hand-eye work to find the button. If I learned all of the KB shortcuts for Bitwig I could replicate this, but it still amounts to holding the command key a lot.

Some apps, games and objects are so beautifully designed that I can't help but think about them. The most recent example I can think of is a game called The Witness. A lot of the value I derive from OP-1 is in exploring the design decisions that they made.

The main thing OP-1 has given me is given me new ways to think about design. OP-1 has a design philosophy that sets it apart from other music tools:

As well as this, the hardware is solid and beautiful. It is minimalist in its own way without looking like an Apple product. The software is so clean and playful. Every module and mechanic has a unique and interesting UX represented with a cool, whimsical visualisation. The parameters all have cryptic names like 'power' and 'telephomatic' or are nameless and modify the visualisation in some way. The DSP of each module is a cute twist on the usual implementation of these things: the Nitro filter has a follower-modulation feature; The random note generator is a spinning tombola; one of the pattern sequencers is a pair of monkeys that can chain patterns together.

The synths and effects (mostly) sound great straight out of the box. In contrast, most DAW synths have lots of knobs and features and it can be quite difficult to get something sounding good without knowing what you are doing (even if you do, it still requires lots of time that could be spent playing).

And yet, the main thing I daydream about when using the OP-1 is being able to code my own modules with the same design philosophy, but you can't because it is locked down.

1. Wishlist

Here are the main daydreams I have about the OP-1.

1.1. Workflow

1.2. Limitations of existing modules

1.3. Modules that I wish existed

Basically, OP-1 should be jam-packed full of modules and extras. There are so many cool players, effects and synths in desktop DAWs. Just copy them!

2. References

2.1. Alternatives to the OP-1

In no particular order.

2.2. Modding the OP-1

I was so desperate to write my own OP-1 modules I researched modding the OP-1. It was a dead end without investing some serious time into reverse-engineering for weird CPU so I gave up. Here are the links that were most helpful. Also note that decompiling and publishing the firmware source isd illegal.