Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator PO 33 - a test by Omsk Infromation
The PO-33 “K.O!” Micro Sampler is one of the newest additions to Teenage Engineering’s ever-growing line of “Pocket Operators”, a series of tiny, bareboard electronic instruments. Teenage Engineering has found a design that works, and now they’re productizing it in many flavors.
In attempting to review such a product, I will actually be doing the review in two parts, Technical and Practical, because I have quite different things to say for these two categories.
The Pocket Operators appear to be an exercise in cost-reduction and, in that respect, they are amazing to behold. The economy of the design and production can be seen everywhere, but none of it conveys any sign of “cheapness” which we normally associate with products that have been squeezed by the cost-vice so often applied by companies as a way to increase revenue or lower the barrier of entry for greater market opportunity.
The cleverness of their approaches to the product can already be seen as soon as you receive the packaged product: The Pocket Operator itself is what gives the package structure and allows it to be hung on a hook wall as so often seen at stores—the packaging is merely a wrapper around the device which, thanks to the two knob shafts protruding through the front of the package, can’t actually be removed. And I have to admit that it actually pisses me off that I have to damage/destroy the pretty packaging in order to use the device. While there is a nicely perforated tear-off strip on the left side of the package for easy opening, you’ll never get it back again once it’s been ripped off. It’s therefore very easy to discern an unused Pocket Operator from a new one, but don’t expect to keep the packaging in hopes that it will increase future resale value or protect it during storage.
When you do open the packaging, the only other thing included in there in addition to the Pocket Operator itself are three folded instruction sheets, each being for a particular language. Furthermore, there are instructions on the inside of the package itself, plus a few more on the back of the Pocket Operator in case you need to remember a few critical operations but don’t have the instructions handy. The instructions themselves are primarily graphic with simple text and icons. You get the basics with no details.
Now that the Pocket Operator is out of the packaging, and it can be seen that this is actually just a printed circuit board with parts mounted directly onto it—there is no housing at all (though Teenage Engineering is happy to sell you a housing as an add-on). In the case of the Pocket Operator, the housing is entirely aesthetic in that it makes the device look a bit more “finished”. But in terms of robustness, even the bare PCB is already quite strong and secure. The only things you have to be mindful of are the two knobs, but they’re fortunately not too long and, so far, appear to be mounted quite well to the PCB.
Every Pocket Operator uses the same basic design: There are 25 control elements arranged in a 5x5 matrix consisting of 23 pushbuttons and 2 knobs. Some of the buttons also have small red LEDs above them. There are 1/8” audio input and output jacks and, with the introduction of the new “metal series” of which the PO-33 is a member, a surface-mounted microphone at the top-right corner. There’s also a LCD display, customized for each member of the Pocket Operator line, which provides a small amount of user feedback and serves to protect the processor and speaker that are mounted underneath. On the back of the device is where you insert two AAA batteries, the only way of powering the Pocket Operators. Even the AAA battery holder is evidence of the cost-saving design as it’s not an off-the-shelf plastic holder but one that is crafted directly into the PCB by mounting a few metal contacts for the batteries and a type of “wire cage” to hold the batteries. The same kind of wire also serves as a fold-out stand for the device so that it can be propped up at an angle on a table. The top of the PCB is shaped like a hangar which can be broken away (as it doesn’t actually serve any purpose in the usage of the device) and, like old-school cassette tapes, there’s a breakaway tab for write-protecting the memory contents of the device. All clever use of the same single PCB.
At the price you pay for the Pocket Operator, you technically get a lot. Sturdy build, handy form-factor, and quality features.
While the PO-33 is a feat of genius in its design, how practical is it as an actual instrument for creating music? That question can be answered in two ways, depending on what you’re hoping to achieve with the device.
If you dream of making music entirely with devices from the Pocket Operator line, then the PO-33 can be pretty important as it provides traditional sampling capability to the product line, and sampling is a musical technique that is quite common in electronic music. Being able to throw in samples of instruments, voices, machines, animals, or anything else that stimulates audible frequencies in the air, can lead to interesting results in music. And being cut from the same cloth as the rest of the Pocket Operators, the PO-33 integrates perfectly into a setup of multiple Pocket Operators daisy-chained and synced together. And, unlike the Korg Volca instruments, a single connection between Pocket Operators provides both audio and sync so that the final audio output is a sum of all the Pocket Operators chained to it—no need for an additional mixer. This makes setting up a collection of Pocket Operators a snap and ensures that all levels of the instruments stay set relative to each other. Just connect, play, and record your results somewhere.
However, if you dream of making the next dance floor filler that will top the Beatport charts, then the PO-33 isn’t really going to do much to help you ultimately reach that goal. Sure, you might come up with an interesting riff or grove on the PO-33 which you will then need to record into your DAW to include in your final production. You might come up with the hook on the PO-33, but the PO-33 will quickly be out of the equation once it’s recorded into the DAW. And, yes, you could output a steady click from your DAW to which the PO-33 could sync its own sequencer, but it would hard to find a real need for that since the sampler built into your DAW is probably much more functional than the PO-33 (and it probably records and plays back stereo samples, has much higher polyphony, etc.)
One aspect of the entire product line which I don’t fully understand is the uselessness of the custom LCD display on these devices. The PO-33—called the “K.O!”—has cartoon boxers on the front who basically stand on guard until you start the sequencer, at which point they sort of start boxing each other. It’s a lot of space spent on showing you something that ultimately has no utility or impact on the music. The actual useful information is hidden in the corners and edges of the display. The upper-right corner has a 4-digit display for showing the time, truncated parameter names (when choosing FX) and some values (like tempo). FX knob settings are mostly visualized through a type of bar graph along the bottom edge of the display. There’s also a few icons to represent Playback and Write modes, and I really would have preferred having an LED above the Write button to remind me of the write status; because the LCD is mostly full of useless information and drawings, my eyes are not accustomed to looking at it during the creation process. This has led me to edit patterns when I thought I was selecting pitches, etc.
Additionally, you must be mindful of the limited polyphony on the PO-33. Though it has 16 sound buttons where you can record samples, you cannot play them all back at once. While Teenage Engineering (maddeningly) doesn’t publish the polyphony of the device, I would have to only guess based on my own tests that it’s only about 3 or maybe 4 samples that can be played back simultaneously. After that point, other samples are noticeably cut off or missing from the groove. You can create interesting groves comprised of 16 sounds in various combinations, but don’t expect to make a groove that consists of 16 layers where each sound is a layer.
And for all the great things the PO-33 does, the limited polyphony is really a killer for me as I do tend to create music around the concept of “layers”. The PO-33 can only provide 3 layers which, for me, isn’t a whole lot (compared to a Volca Sample which can sound all of its assigned voices simultaneously). Be aware of this and really try to think if this will be a problem for you before you buy a PO-33.
But, in spite of these issues, there’s one area where the PO-33 is extremely practical: spur-of-the-moment sampling. With how quickly you can wake up the device, how you can initiate sampling with the press of only 2 buttons, and the built-in microphone, it’s my belief that this device might be the fastest, no-advance-warning sampler/recorder you can find. Have you ever struggled to unlock you phone, find the voice recording app, launch it, and then press the record button in an effort to sample something amazing, only to have the opportunity pass you by in the process of fiddling with your phone? Using the PO-33, there’s a greater chance that you’ll actually capture it, provided you keep the PO-33 somewhere where you can grab it fast (one of your pants pockets, for example, rather than buried in a bag somewhere). So if you like walking around the city looking for found sounds, the PO-33 could be an excellent tool.
In the end, it’s hard for me to make a recommendation for the PO-33 unless you have your mind set on making music with Pocket Operators only. And even if you do, I’d probably suggest that you start with one of the other Pocket Operators first, one which has more uniqueness of character. The PO-33 would then be a great add-on to “fill the gaps” that remain in your Pocket Operator collection.
Similarly, if you work with DAWs or other larger hardware systems, I’d also suggest to try a different member of the Pocket Operator line first, one where you can actually benefit from the device’s uniqueness of character. There’s not much you can do with the PO-33 that you couldn’t do with another sampler, but there are things that some of the Pocket Operators can do that software or hardware can’t do as easily or readily. For example, I would be quite interested to check out the PO-35 “Speak” to add speech synthesis to my arsenal of gear as that is something I am currently lacking in both the software and hardware domains.
But one thing seems certain: This Pocket Operator line will continue to grow. Their quality is great, their prices are outstanding, all resulting in great value for the money. I look forward to seeing and hearing what they come up with next!