Let me just open by saying that this is not some weird form of advertising. I’m not sponsored or affiliated with TE in any way, just seriously in love with what the products they create and how they’ve helped me rediscover my creativity big time. This article is not meant to entice you to go out and grab an OP-Z for yourself. It is more of an explanation as to why it has become my most dearly beloved music production tool.
When I moved to Boston, my musical focus started to shift, slowly but surely, away from mostly performing to producing music. I started making more and more beats and developing a stronger voice as a producer.
However, I often felt like I was losing inspiration while working on beats and tracks because of the sheer abundance of sound choices in DAWs and the software’s inability to excite me much anymore. To put it into perspective, I have been using DAWs since I was 11 years old. For over a decade and a half, I tried out every single feature, made countless tracks and sounds, and became more and more fluent in many of the popular DAWs: Cubase, ProTools, Reason, Logic, Digital Performer. Recorded music has always been my greatest passion as it allowed me to capture a moment in time and essentially freeze it for eternity.
As I hopped from DAW to DAW and from genre to genre, I increasingly felt a lack of motivation to sit in front of my computer in order to bring my musical ideas to life. The process became less and less exciting and I was craving for some sort of hard limitation or new way of developing tracks that would kickstart my creativity again.
Once I arrived in Boston and got settled, I started discovering the thriving and exciting beat scene that exists in this city – and one of the main things that struck me is that many if not most of the producers I initially discovered were using hardware to create their tracks – not Ableton or Logic. One piece of hardware in particular immediately captured my attention: The PO-33 K.O!, the amazingly compact and inexpensive sampler made by teenage engineering.
The PO-33 couldn’t be more straightforward. Built-in mic, audio in and out with 1/8″ jacks and an array of buttons that are pretty simple to understand. It offers 40 seconds of sample memory into which you can record any audio source that then gets turned into a deliciously grungey 8-bit sample. But don’t think Nintendo Entertainment System kinda sounds – in fact, it does sound somewhat similar to some of the earliest samplers: Somewhat rough but endearingly musical – characteristics that helped the SP1200 become an absolute icon among hip hop producers.
The pocket operator was my first foray into producing music without the aid of a screen. Granted, the knockout does have a tiny LCD but it’s more of an amusing gimmick as the only useful information it displays is the current parameter value and what mode you’re in.
Immediately, I noticed how having to use my ears and logic to navigate the pocket operator’s interface made me feel much more engaged in the music-making process than I was used to. It felt like I was not only having to trust my ears more, it also made me realize new musical ideas much quicker.
However, since samples were only part of the equation for me, I was hungry for a device as intuitive as the PO-33 but could also offer some synthesis capabilities.
Enter the OP-Z
Most people who are aware of teenage engineering probably know them for being the makers of the most iconic synth of the decade: The OP-1. The Operator-1 (as it also referred to) is unique in that it brings together powerful sequencing, sampling, recording, and controller features in a tiny and portable instrument with an incredible two-day battery life.
Of course, I had been eyeing the OP-1 for years but the price always seemed a little steep for something that would be my first-ever foray into the world of portable all-in-one sequencer/synth/samplers. So, naturally, I started looking more into the OP-Z. An instrument teenage engineering debuted at the 2016 NAMM show and released to the general public in 2018. Not only was it more affordable, its amazingly simplistic design and lack of any screen immediately caught my attention when I first saw it.
While on the surface it might look like they simply made a cheaper, stripped-down version of the OP-1 without a screen, the OP-Z is an entirely different beast altogether and can do many things that were impossible to accomplish on the OP-1.
Unlike the OP-1 which is a monotimbral synth (meaning it can only play one synth engine at a time) that uses a virtual 4-track tape recorder to capture audio, the OP-Z is entirely MIDI-based and features a seriously deep sequencer that can allow for unparalleled control over your music in real-time.
Not only can it sequence music, but it can also control DMX lighting rigs and unity motion graphics running on an iOS device or Mac connected via Bluetooth LE or USB. Are you beginning to see why I was enchanted by this powerful little slab?
Taking the Plunge
After watching many reviews and unboxing videos and lusting over the OP-Z for months and months, I finally decided to take the plunge in May of this year. From the day it landed in my mailbox, I hopelessly fell in love with it.
While the learning curve for the Z is somewhat steep, having had some experience using the Pocket Operator, the basics of operating it translated almost identically which made it really easy to whip up my first beat. Immediately, I was impressed by how clear and punchy this little beast sounded, and as I dove deeper into it, I realized that this instrument made me rediscover that playful sense of creation that I experienced when I first starting messing around with DAWs at around 11 years of age.
Not having to look at a screen and not always having tens of thousands of sounds at my disposal at all times made me approach the creative process with a lot more purpose and focus than I had been able to muster in recent years and my musical output reflected that. Essentially, I came up with 2-4 beats each week, with most of them ended up becoming something I really liked. That was it. I found a workflow that works for me, consistently.
By now, you surely noticed that I mentioned how some of the OP-Z’s limitations are what made me love it so much. Maybe you’re even thinking that having a huge arsenal of sounds and capabilities at your fingertips would be much more inspiring than having a limited amount of sounds and control and, for many years I thought exactly like that. Everything with fewer features than a DAW seemed like a waste of time to me.
However, more and more often I found myself sitting in front of my screen with Logic Pro open and not being able to actually finish the track I was working on. I would get caught up browsing 1000s of presets, shuffling through my sample stash, and noodling things on my MIDI keyboard. The openness of the DAW just made me unable to focus on what matters: The track.
What the PO-33 showed me was that I’m much more creative and a lot more likely to finish what I’m working on when I have a limited set of tools to work with… Or rather that I have to make work for me. It brought a healthy dose of problem-solving into my creative process that I didn’t realize I needed.
The OP-Z has a total of 8 synth/sample tracks – 4 for drums and other percussive samples, 4 for the synth engines and melodic samples. The total polyphony lies somewhere around 32 – each of the drum tracks allowing up to two-voice polyphony. The other 6 tracks on the OP-Z are reserved for the Tape Track, Master Track, Performance Effects, Lighting, Visuals, and a track to control whichever expansion module you have installed.
This might not sound like much, but it is exactly the right amount for many types of music – especially the kind that I make. On top of that, installing the optional Oplab Module adds another MIDI connection as well as CV and Gate I/O to interface with analog synths and other sequencers. I use this module mostly to sync the Z with my Pocket Operators.
This slim package means that you’ll get intimately familiar with all of the OP-Z’s capabilities very soon, making the device incredibly fast to work with. It’s very easy to hop onto a two-hour flight with no projects on the OP-Z and come out with 3 beats once you reach your destination. The entire workflow is designed to put as few as possible barriers between you and the music you want to make, and that’s were the true revelation of this little grey slab lies for me.
Thank you, teenage engineering <3
So, after all this rambling about why this little instrument has rocked my world, I want to introduce you to my upcoming album, “voyager”. The first part of a musical journey realized entirely on the OP-Z and my Po-33 K.O. It features my favorite tracks from the first 5 months with my OP-Z alongside a few tracks made exclusively on the PO-33, and I’m beyond excited to share this music with you all. And yes, all the sounds on it came directly
The album marks an exciting shift in my creative process towards finding my own voice as a producer and I’m excited to see where this journey will take me. It would mean the world to me if you could check it out, let me know what you think, and share it with your friends!