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Funky beats on portable synths

Jacks in the box

Apps that produce highly sophisticated music are readily available. But as Steven Poole reports, that hasn’t prevented a revival in cheap and handy synthesisers

Apps that produce highly sophisticated music are readily available. But as Steven Poole reports, that hasn’t prevented a revival in cheap and handy synthesisers

Steven Poole | December/January 2017

Music-making has become ever more virtual and portable in recent years. Professional-quality apps such as Cubasis enable you to carry around an entire studio in your iPad. The possibilities are endless. But endless possibility can be paralysing, which means there’s been a resurgence in pocket-sized musical instruments that perform a single function: drum machines and synthesisers that pump out credible sounds and will definitely not bother you with text messages.

Put simply, a synthesiser is a device that generates different sounds from scratch. The earliest modern synths emerged in the 1960s: pioneers such as Robert Moog created vast, futuristic instruments. Later, fizzy digital synths and robotic dance machines provided the sonic underlay of much 1980s pop. A studio full of intimidating synths formed the basis of the dance producer’s armoury, until computers became powerful enough to run software that emulated them.

But hardware synths never quite disappeared, and small has become the new big. Both successful dance-music producers and beat-making enthusiasts can now choose from an expanding range of tiny instruments. The Japanese music giant Korg offers the Kaossilator 2, a palm-sized synth, alongside a cult sub-$100 Monotron line of tiny keyboards, for example. But the darling of this current wave is Swedish company Teenage Engineering, with its range of six Pocket Operator instruments (€69/$78) that launched in 2015. The company, which operates out of a garage space in Stockholm, originally became known for its OP-1 synthesiser, which won a raft of design awards. But they wanted to make something more affordable. As Oscar Ahlgren, the Pocket Operator programme manager, explains: “We tried really hard to make music creation available to anyone. We wanted to make really good products that weren’t just cheap toys but still powerful and affordable: easy to distribute, easy for young kids to get to know and to learn.”

The results are desirable marvels of boutique engineering: wallet-sized circuit boards with buttons, knobs and an LCD screen. Each item in the range produces the sound of a different instrument: a drum machine, a bass synthesiser, a lead synthesiser and so on. “Instead of putting a lot of stuff into one product we wanted to give people the opportunity to say: ‘Am I a drummer or am I a bass player?’” Ahlgren says. The gadgets can be linked together to improvise an electronic band. Some producers use them to sketch out ideas, which can then be developed in the studio.

The Pocket Operators have a knowingly retro quality: their screen animations are directly inspired by Nintendo’s Game & Watch products from the 1970s, and one of the new models, the Arcade, draws on the “chiptune” genre which recreates the sound of 1980s videogames. But the sounds they pump out are fat, modern and edgy. Crucially, the scarcity of features compared with a music app is not a drawback. On a phone or tablet, Ahlgren says, “You have too many options. Instead of creating something you end up browsing through menus and presets – whereas an acoustic guitar is what it is, but still people have been creating awesome stuff with it for centuries. We really believe in hardware and holding something in your hand.” Literary theorists have long held that working within the limitations imposed by strict poetic forms, such as a sonnet, can, paradoxically, release the imagination. The same can be true of the limitations imposed by a piece of music hardware. You just need to think inside the box.

Consumers are realising that even though they can do nearly everything on a phone, the phone is not necessarily the best place to do it. Analysts once thought that Amazon’s Kindle would be rendered obsolete by large smartphones, but its e-ink screen still offers a better reading experience. The right tool for the job is not always a multi-tool, and a preference for tangible machines is not mere nostalgia. “Everything has its renaissance,” Ahlgren says, “but our idea was not to look back, but to take something that was good in the past, and try to present it in a new way.” Around 100,000 Pocket Operator sales later, it seems as though they’re on to something – portable composition reimagined, literally, with knobs on.

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