The Sockdolager

Disk Horse Logo

The Perfect Thing

I have a few vices. I sleep in. I buy drug store candy and eat it, in volume, at my desk. I put too much cream and sugar in my coffee. I enjoy dirty comic books.

But by far my most long-standing and financially deleterious vice is my love of gadgets. This is the context in which, in 2012, I acquired a Teenage Engineering OP-1 portable synthesizer. And “love” is an apt term, because for me the arc of my relationship with a gadget is like a romance.

First there is the crush. I notice the object, and I like the way it looks. I daydream about the things we could do together: the projects we could undertake, the look of it on my desk or in my hands, the happiness and fulfillment it would bring to my life. I doodle its name in my notebook as I read reviews and impressions.

After weeks or months, usually, the longing becomes too much. I begin to squint at my bank account and my budget. I consider when I might have the cash, or what budgetary category I might ransack to consummate my crush. And then the day will come—often on semi-impulse—when the card digits will be transmitted and my checking account’s balance will drop precipitously and my crush will be mine to take home.

Then comes the hedonistic luxury of early infatuation. I will admire the object’s lines, its construction, the space it occupies. I may photograph it. Eventually I will use it for its intended purpose.

This is where the romance’s trajectory becomes uncertain. Most loves start with heady infatuation, but most loves, too, eventually fade. These romances with the inanimate nearly always end, for me, with some form of estrangement. Some veer into dissatisfaction. Others bog down in mere boredom. A few go sufficiently awry to put me off the idea of love entirely.

But what keeps us coming back to romance’s dangerous story is that sometimes you fall in love and marry for life.

Teenage Engineering, as an entity, is an interesting amalgam of an industrial design consultancy and a consumer electronics startup. Industrial design firms generally make things for other companies—prototypes, custom installations, and sometimes whole products. They’re invisible to most consumers, but their work is everywhere. Companies like Ideo don’t make stuff to sell directly to the hoi polloi. Charles and Ray Eames didn’t sell their eponymous chair; Herman Miller did. And indeed, in between its consumer-facing products, TE has collaborated with a variety of entities, creating things like museum exhibits, robotic smart speakers, extremely weird home audio sustems, and even a video game console.

It’s good work if you can get it. Industrial design firms get to do all the fun, interesting labor of designing and building things without the thankless, messy drudgery of selling those things to individual humans. Humans are cranky, ungrateful, and unsolvable. They have opinions about your product that do not take into account the difficult work that went into that product’s creation. They have positions on its price and its utility and its aesthetics. They have needs. They have demands. And when they buy your product, you are on the hook for meeting those demands.

Nevertheless, Teenage Engineering decided to take on the almost inconceivably difficult task of designing and manufacturing at large scale a complicated piece of technology that they would offer for sale directly to consumers under their own name.

The OP-1 is weird. To begin with, if you’re not a synthesizer nerd and don’t twig to the piano-key arrangement of buttons, it’s not necessarily clear at a glance what it actually is. It’s about as big as a laptop’s keyboard. It is a coolly neutral gray. It has a display about the size of six postage stamps that is black when powered down, and which displays playful but often inscrutable graphics when the device is on. It has four knobs that are labeled only implicitly by the differing colors of their small caps. The rest of its surface is covered with utilitarian mechanical buttons, which aside from the piano keys are labeled with symbols that are at once opaque and evocative. Its aura is one of a mysterious specificity, as though it’s a crucial tool for a fascinating job you never knew existed.1

It barely resembles similar instruments in its category and genre, and those instruments are designed the way they are for good reasons.

It is also expensive. At its launch, it carried a retail price of $850. Now, in stark defiance of the usual arc of electronic devices, it is more expensive, and retails for a cool $1299. My own personal trip to the gadget store in 2012 set me back north of nine hundred bucks after taxes.

Let’s assume that you already own a laptop, and you want to make electronic music. What can you get for a thousand dollars?

A nice USB MIDI keyboard will cost you less than two hundred bucks, and will have more keys than the OP-1. Velocity sensitivity—a standard feature on even the cheapest models—makes those keys more expressive than the OP-1’s, which can only transmit “down” and “up.” If you have a Mac, you can buy a copy of Logic Pro for $300. It comes with dozens of software instruments (the OP-1 has ten), thousands of samples and presets in its library (the OP-1 has maybe a hundred total) and a allows a functionally unlimited number of tracks for your compositions (on the OP-1, you get four).

And you’ve still got five hundred bucks to spend on something else. You could buy a decent audio interface like a Scarlett 4i4 and a classic workhorse microphone like a Shure SM58 and be ready to record anything from a Fender Jazzmaster to a Stradivarius to Beyoncé.

Or you could spend your leftover $500 to get a software package called Native Instruments Komplete, which will give you dozens more software instruments and tens of thousands of pre-made sounds and samples totaling well over 100 gigabytes, and thereafter be in a position to create, using the astonishing processing power available on even a modest modern computer, essentially any kind of music—any kind of sound—you’re capable of imagining.

In that light, the OP-1 is indisputably costly, and at the announcement of the device’s retail price, it seemed to be an obviously overpriced bauble. Seeing how it is not means understanding the instrument outside the rubrics of digital electronics valuation that we’re used to applying. Even for me—an early adopter who enthusiastically dropped a grand on the thing—this took years.

It is a cliche that formal constraints are fertile soil for creativity. I admire a sonnet for how it captures a sentiment in three quatrains and a couplet while hewing to iambic pentameter. In the Kokinshu, a foundational collection of tenth century Japanese poetry, the anthologist Ki no Tsurayuki noted that the 31-syllable waka form of poetry was superior to its unfixed-length predecessors: “[Such] songs did not have a fixed number of syllables and were difficult to understand because the poets expressed themselves directly, without polish.”

This is the easy argument to make in defense of the OP-1’s limitations: that they comprise an inspiring constraint. But the argument is incomplete, because some constraints suck. It is one thing to write a sonnet; it is another to write a novel without using the letter “e”. Even when it may be technically possible to accommodate, a too-onerous constraint is simply boring: a refusal, rather than an invitation.

The OP-1 is a device with major technical limitations in almost every aspect of its construction, competing for attention in a marketplace where maximalist flexibility is a desired norm. And yet: Teenage Engineering has more or less never been able to meet the demand for the OP-1 over the seven years of its existence. The instrument’s resale value is barely less than its retail price. If you want to buy one today, right now, you might not be able to. Whatever its constraints are, they seem to be good ones.

Here I have to confess that have been overly glib in my characterization. The OP-1 is not just a musical instrument; much of its functionality falls well outside anything that would be considered standard for a synthesizer. Its built-in four-track audio recorder, microphone, and the associated mixing and export functions make it as much a feature-constrained recording system as it is a feature-constrained synthesizer. This is not a minor detail: How these two systems of functionality interact is at the heart of what makes the device special.

To understand why, we have to consider the difference between audio playback and audio synthesis—or out more plainly, the difference between playing a sound and generating it.

A synthesizer is so-called because it synthesizes—it generates, using any of a myriad of techniques, a wave shape that can be interpreted as sound. The technical approaches for synthesis are many and varied, from the comparatively simple math of basic waveforms to computationally intensive simulation of the physical properties of a string under tension as it’s bowed or plucked. Whatever synthesis method is used to produce the waveform, the resulting signal is often processed even further before becoming sound—more math is done to simulate the echoes the sound would make as it reverberates in a particular space (I.e., “reverb”), to emphasize or mute certain frequencies within the sound (“filtering” the sound), and more.

When all the stages of the calculation of the final wave shape are complete, it is finally ready to become sound, which happens when a linear electric motor (I.e., a speaker) moves back and forth, creating pressure changes in the air that correspond to the shape described by the wave.

Synthesis is complicated. It can take a lot of processing power, and the OP-1 only has so much.

Playing back recorded audio, however, is a much simpler proposition. A recorded sound is almost literally just a picture of the wave that made it. In principle, a complicated sound with many different audible instruments and tones is no more complicated to represent or play back than a simple beep. (Analogously: a beautiful panoramic photograph of a sunset is not computationally different than a high-resolution image where all the pixels are the same shade of blue.)

It’s in fact so much easier to play sound back than it is to synthesize it that the OP-1 can play back four separate recordings at once, while reserving enough computation power to be a synthesizer at the same time.

When you record with the OP-1, you are recording the audio signal rather than the notes that were played. This is a subtle but crucial distinction: it means that when the recording is played back, the device doesn’t have to do all the work of synthesis over again.

The decision to have the OP-1’s recording and arrangement functions use recorded audio rather than note data cascades throughout the experience of using the device. It allows the recording interface to use an intuitive reel-to-reel tape metaphor, which in turn, sneakily conveys the permanence of audio recording. In the OP-1’s interface, it’s not difficult to accidentally delete or overwrite a section of recorded audio, but this doesn’t feel arbitrary or the result of thoughtless design. Rather, it seems to arise from the obvious, almost tangible constraints of the tape metaphor. When you mistakenly lose or alter a section of tape—there is no undo function—it feels as silly to blame the OP-1 for it as it would to blame a saw for cutting a board to the wrong length.

But the OP-1 isn’t totally obstinate. You can, for example, quickly copy sections of tape and move them elsewhere, or use them as the sound source in the Sampler instrument. This is a shortcut, but not a cheat (inasmuch as we would understand a “cheat” to be violating the device’s user interface metaphor), since sample-based synthesis always begins with a snippet of pre-recorded audio which is then further manipulated.

Taken in sum, the OP-1 operates as a distillation of the revolution that digital signal processing has enabled in music. But instead of submerging the user in the limitless possibilities modern computing power presents musicians with, it reduces them to carefully-chosen fundamentals. Here: Make a sound. Here: play a drum beat. Here: record the sound you made. Here: record another sound on top of it.

But then there are things it does that nothing else can do.

The instrument’s portability is crucial to its appeal and utility. In terms of its computing hardware, the OP-1 is a close cousin of the smartphone, and like a smartphone, it runs off of an internal battery, with the implicit assumption that the user will mostly be using it untethered to power.

With the decision to be portable comes a host of possibilities. As a corollary of the adage “the best camera is the one you have with you,” the OP-1 is an electronic instrument that above all, is meant to be present in the musical moment. Its built-in microphone lets you record any ambient sound, and you can then manipulate that recording the same way you would audio generated on the device itself.

The OP-1, moreover, is capable of recording and sampling directly from FM radio frequencies. (Most smartphones have hardware capable of receiving FM radio, but manufacturers choose for their own reasons not to enable it.)

Since the device is small enough to pick up, it includes a smartphone-style accelerometer for detecting movement, which means sounds can be made to change their character based on the OP-1’s physical orientation in space. If this seems abstruse, consider the way an electric guitar player might tilt their instrument in the course of a solo to bend a note. Even if the notion of a rock star playing a face-melting solo on a nerdy little synthesizer is a bit far-fetched, this design flourish allows the player to manipulate sounds in an intuitive and way. And it’s fun.

The OP-1 can do some version of every phase of modern electronic composition— sound design, sequencing, recording, mixing, mastering—but in each phase, it presents a carefully-constrained vocabulary. Not everything possible with modern technology is possible on it, but what is possible is meant to be immediately rewarding and expressive.

This balancing of capability with constraint appears in more subtle design choices, as well. The four color-coded knobs of the OP-1 are context-sensitive; turning the blue knob adjusts whatever the “blue” thing on the screen is. Every screen has exactly four things (synth nerds would call these “parameters”) that can be adjusted, each one corresponding to a knob.

The displays that accompany the synthesizer engines are sometimes willfully twee, displaying information in a manner that even an OP-1 partisan must admit is—at best—oblique. But the philosophy behind that obliqueness is clear: You are meant to hit a note and see what happens; to turn a knob and discover how the sound changes. You are meant, in short, to play, not only in the sense of performance, but also in the sense of a game.

My vices rarely pay off. I have drawers full of gadgets I used for six months and then abandoned. But the OP-1’s union of playfulness and utility has brought me back to it again and again, and with it I have created music that would not exist any other way.

Air travel is an emotionally fraught experience for me. I have no particular anxiety about the mechanics or danger of flying, but flights have either closely preceded or followed many of the weightiest moments in my adult life, and the sensory experience of airline travel has become closely tied with big feelings at that unavoidably limbic level. A few years ago, to ride out a particularly strong wave of air travel-amplified feelings on a red-eye flight to my ancestral home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I reached down into my backpack and pulled out my OP-1.

I started by sampling the ambient cabin noise of the aircraft. Over the next few days as the melancholy persisted, I translated its oscillations into the synthesizer: I sampled the ticking of the absurd cuckoo clock in my parents’ living room. I sampled the C key of the ancient upright piano at which I’d practiced two and a half decades earlier. I indulged in absurdly woeful sounds I created on the unit, and when it was all done, I had a complete piece of music that doubled as a diary entry; a log in melody of how it felt to exist as that person, with that history, in that moment.

This to me is the proof of the success of the OP-1’s design. Despite all the rigid constraints that design imposes, as a gestalt it constitutes an instrument of profound expressive power and flexibility. It is ready for you to use it, no matter where you are or what kind of music you want to make. The result of all of its quirks and limitations is an immediacy of use and a fitness of purpose that lends itself to instant and infinite play.

What will keep it relevant despite Moore’s Law’s grind are not its technical capabilities, but rather the timelessness of play. Fun is simply fun. It was fun to play with in 2011, it is fun to play with now, and as an instrument so thoroughly complete in itself, it will still be fun to play with in a century. Such unqualified triumphs of design are rare.

I’m confident that the OP-1 will still be in use decades from now; hobbyists will collect and maintain and repair them, perhaps even turning tidy profits in doing so. They will remain sought-after and therefore expensive.

If mine ever goes up for sale, I'll let you know.

1It reminds me in this way of pieces of equipment like the pilot’s ACARS console, the telephone lineman’s handset, and the surveyor’s delightfully-termed total station theodolite.