Referring to the Teenage Engineering OP-1 as a synthesizer hardly begins to describe the depth of this award-winning creativity tool. Yes, it includes several synthesizers, two samplers, multiple sequencers, a controller, and a recorder. And yes, it’s extremely portable and connects seamlessly to your computer or mobile device.
But what really sets the OP-1 apart is its unique, innovative design. From its state-of-the-art display and iconic graphics, to some of its quirkier features and even limitations. It has been designed to get your creative juices flowing and your ideas down, without the overhead and hassle of a full-blown digital audio workstation getting in your way.
In fact, Teenage Engineering claims these limitations were purposely built into the OP-1 in order to stimulate the creativity of the user.
But, what is it that makes the OP-1 so special? Let’s find out in our in-depth Teenage Engineering OP-1 Portable Synthesizer review.
1 Physical Design
The OP-1 is very lightweight and portable. It’s about the size of a small computer keyboard, 13 x 5-3/16 x 1-3/8 inches (330 x 135 x 35 mm), and weighs about 1 pound (454 gr). Analog Cases makes a waterproof case that’s custom-designed for the OP-1. It’s powered by a single rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which is included. So it’s as portable as a notebook.
The various controls are very logically laid out and color-coded, so you can get up to speed in a short time. On the top face, the center is dominated by a piano-style keyboard with 24 mini keys. Unfortunately, they’re not velocity sensitive.
Ten octave range…
In the lower left corner are several dedicated keys to control the tape transport and editing. Also, a pair of arrow keys provide octave transposition of the keyboard up to four octaves up or down, for a total range of ten octaves. And a Shift key lets most of the OP-1 keys perform a second function.
A small speaker and volume control are positioned in the upper left. This allows you to use the OP-1 without having to plug it into an amp. Another key turns on the built-in metronome.
Above the keyboard are the four “mode” keys labeled 1 – 4 (synthesizer, drum, tape, and mixer). As well as a row of eight buttons to select specific sounds. And on the far right are more keys that control the microphone/line input, album creation, and sequencer.
At the top is the graphic display, with four large knobs. These act as macro controllers, assuming different functions for each synth engine. And on the far right are the built-in microphone, and the VU and battery LEDs.
Plenty of input and output options!
On the right side panel, you find the OP-1’s power switch, and three input and output ports. And you can safely turn the OP-1 off at any time without worrying about lost data because your data is always saved automatically as you work.
A USB port lets you charge the internal battery and transfer files. It also acts as a MIDI port. A standard USB to mini USB cable is included with the OP-1.
There’s also a microphone/line input and a headphone/line output. Both use 3.5 mm mini jacks. On the bottom of the unit are symbols and Braille text showing the layout of the side panel.
2 The Display Screen
A special OP-1 feature is its 320 x 160-pixel AMOLED display, which gives the user a hi-res graphical representation of the current operation.
AMOLED stands for “active-matrix organic light-emitting diode.” It’s a special kind of display technology that uses organic compounds that are made luminescent by electricity. AMOLED displays have much higher refresh rates, with a response time often less than one millisecond.
They also consume significantly less battery power. This is an important factor in giving the OP-1 a 16-hour battery life, and two years of standby time. And because black pixels turn completely off, an AMOLED display has much higher contrast.
Fun use of symbols…
The OP-1 makes creative use of this hi-res display. Although some of the graphics, such as the ADSR envelope, use fairly traditional symbols, others are more literal or unconventional. For example, the Punch low-frequency booster uses an illustration of a boxer (because it “punches up” your mix).
3 Sound Synthesis
The OP-1 includes a mono-timbral synthesizer with six voices and twelve different synthesis engines. These are Cluster, D-box, D-synth, Digital, Dr. Wave, Drum Sampler, FM, Phase, Pulse, String, Synth Sampler, and Voltage. Each is represented using a different graphic on the display screen. The OP-1’s four main knobs act as macro controllers, with different functions for each engine.
Cluster produces a sound that emulates the Roland JP-8000’s “supersaw” of six detuned sawtooth oscillators. D-box is a drum synthesizer. D-synth provides a dual oscillator synthesizer with multiple envelopes. Digital offers “true digital synthesis” with ring modulation and other waveshaping functions.
Dr. Wave is a frequency domain synthesizer, manipulating a sound’s frequency spectrum over time. FM is a four-operator FM synth engine. Phase provides two pulse waves that can be modulated and distorted. String is a Karplus Strong modeling string synthesizer. And Voltage is a multi-oscillator synthesizer.
And there’s sampling, too. OP-1 gives you two samplers, Synth Sampler and Drum Sampler. Both work with the onboard microphone or FM radio, the audio input, or even the OP-1’s own output. Synth Sampler creates voices that you can play on the keyboard, while Drum Sampler lets you build a custom drum kit.
This is where the real creativity happens. In the OP-1 world, a “sequencer” is any tool that helps you compose notes and patterns, putting them into a tangible format so they can be edited and recorded. You actually get five unique sequencers, to match the creative workflow that suits you best. They can all be active at once, but only one can play back at a time.
Endless is a traditional step sequencer, where you enter notes one at a time by playing them on the keyboard. A sequence can comprise up to 128 notes of different durations. Playback options are forward, reverse or random, and swing can be added.
Easy to program…
Pattern is a classic “piano roll” type sequencer found in many DAWs and hardware synths. This one has 16 steps, and it’s ideal for building drum patterns. Tools are included to transpose or rotate a pattern and make edits during playback. The OP-1’s AMOLED screen makes this a simple process.
Tombola is a unique tool for creating chaotic sequences based on a physical model of bouncing balls. Play a few notes on the keyboard to add them to Tombola, adjust “bounciness” and “heaviness,” then “release” the notes to start the sequence. You can adjust the speed, direction, and rotation during playback.
Old- school cool…
Sketch is a free-form sequencer that lets you draw shapes by hand using the encoders (think Etch-A-Sketch).
Arpeggio is an advanced arpeggiator with multiple play and trigger modes. While you hold chord notes on the keyboard, Arpeggio plays them in a predetermined order. Notes can be transposed or shifted entirely. There are also several options for adding notes to an arpeggio during playback and imposing specific rhythmic patterns.
Finger lets you play two synchronized sequences in combination. Pressing white keys on the keyboard starts the sequences. They can be played simultaneously or one after the other, or the second sequence can play “fills.”
5 “Tape” Recording
The OP-1 provides a feature for recording your tracks the way you would with a classic tape recorder, without the hassle of dealing with physical tape. You get six minutes of four-track recording time at normal speed and 44.1 kHz, 16-bit resolution. And you can record forward or reverse.
You can even change the speed of the “tape” whenever you want, during recording or playback. The sound quality changes, just like the real thing; higher tape speed equals better recording quality.
Not limited by track count…
There may be only four tracks, but OP-1 provides unlimited overdubbing on every track. In fact, the recorder always overdubs whatever recorded material is already on a track, unless you first lift it from the tape. You can lift material from one or more tracks and drop it into the synth sampler or drum sampler.
Another tape-like feature is the ability to perform razor-blade edits. But unlike physical tape, you can remove or move portions of individual tracks, leaving the rest of your recording undisturbed.
OP-1 includes a metronome to help keep your tracks in sync. In Free mode, tempo is independent of tape speed. Sync mode lets OP-1 lock to incoming MIDI time code (MTC) messages. Beat Match mode makes the OP-1 a master clock source, sending MIDI sync messages over the USB port to lock external gear. In this mode, tape speed is linked to the metronome tempo.
7 Mixing it All Down
OP-1’s four-track mixer lets you set individual track level and panning, and a 3-band master EQ. You can also add one stereo master effect, including digital delay, Nitro resonant filter, Grid plate reverb, Spring reverb, Punch low-pass filter, and others. In addition, you get Drive, a stereo compressor.
8 Creating a Final Song
OP-1’s Album feature lets you mix down all four tracks from tape to stereo files that are saved internally. It uses the model of a traditional vinyl record with two sides. Each side can be up to six minutes long. You can transfer your finished work to a computer via the USB port.
9 Controller Mode
In Controller mode, the OP-1 becomes a MIDI controller keyboard. It integrates especially well with Ableton Live, and Propellerhead Reason (version 6.0.2 or higher) or Reason Essentials (1.0.2 or higher).
Teenage Engineering also sells several optional accessories to make your creative experience even more interesting.
This gives you a different way to physically control the Bend LFO. It’s a lever that mounts on the large orange knob. Included is a rubber band that attaches around the blue knob to provide elasticity. You can use it to bend any parameter you want, including pitch or filter cutoff.
These are LEGO-compatible shafts that you can put on any knob and then attach any LEGO part. You can even build a motor-driven programmable LFO with LEGO components. The set includes four shafts in different colors.
This sits on the blue knob and has several purposes. First, it controls the speed of the Crank LFO. It’s also supported in the Endless and Tombola sequencers. And probably most significantly, you can use it to control the tape recorder speed. You can even crank counter-clockwise to record backwards.
Finally, an external FM antenna is available to get a stronger signal when indoors or in remote areas. It has a 3.5 mm plug that connects to the audio input jack.
Teenage Engineering OP-1 Portable Synthesizer Review Pros and Cons
- The ‘Tape Recorder’ function is excellent.
- Easy to use sampling, plus a great selection of synthesis engines to explore.
- High production values. The screen, in particular, is superb.
- A superb portable production or jamming machine.
- Expensive for what it is.
- Not the best MIDI implementation.
- Needs to be connected to a computer for File operations.
More Superb Synthesizers
Teenage Engineering OP-1 Portable Synthesizer Review Conclusions
OP-1 is designed to harness your creativity, wherever inspiration may strike. It’s an end-to-end music production package that includes all the tools you need – synths, sampler, recorder – to get from first inspiration to finished product.
A lot of effort went into creating multiple, often unusual, and unexpected ways to perform a task, with the goal of stimulating your imagination in new directions. It’s also adept at handling just about every task of your production workflow. It works well as a portable MIDI controller, multitalented synthesizer, or a unique and versatile recorder.
Although the OP-1 was first introduced in 2010, Teenage Engineering appears committed to releasing regular firmware updates to add additional functionality to their core product. Indeed, they’ve also introduced a similar product, the OP-Z, which has somewhat different features but the same overall design philosophy.
Happy music making.