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Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operator series goes modular (factmag.com)
61 points by neom 34 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments

Love it. Their ongoing IKEA collaboration is definitely rubbing off. (downside: you pretty much get one shot folding the sheet metal the right way). Flat packed DIY build is great. Compatible with Eurorack, and the OP-Z is getting a CV/gate module.

Now that Teenage has 2 products out there that are designed with modular expansion in mind, it will be exciting to see how they update them over the years.

What IKEA is good at is continuously decreasing the work involved, error rate, quality issues etc. I can see no practical purpose to folding the metal yourself in this case, other than to make it feel more special than it is.

I produce a some what similar Eurorack module. Ours is electrically more complicated, but mechanically much simpler.

The final assembly is the most labor intensive part of our process. When we get an order from one of our retailers for 10+ products, it takes us a full day just to build/test/pack, because of this.

By selling these as "Ikea style" I promise they're able to massively reduce the cost for consumers by outsourcing their assembly.

Unlikely for a number of reasons. For one Stockholm (and Sweden) is very expensive and their products already show more advanced manufacturing techniques. This suggests some sort of contract manufacturing. Their products are also already expensive themselves so it would really make sense to spend a lot of resources designing something to save on shipping or manufacturing. For IKEA it does because they have very large volume and small margins.

I think the practical idea is "flat pack" - smaller package for shipping. Of course, TE doing flat pack without an economy of scale is less about spatial efficiency and more about allowing their customers to build something themselves in order to feel a closer connection to the object (that's perfectly ok)

It's also more fun. If someone wants an already assembled modular there are 2000 other options.

Sure, but why not actually have something that you need to assemble for a good reason? Like some eurorack cases go for ~300€ and those are just a PCB, some wood and a metal rail. You make that modular in a flat pack for 30€ instead with the need for assembly and I am not complaining.

Flat pack / DIY assembly does not magically lead to 10x reduction in the cost of an item.

Also, deciding to do DIY assembly changes how you think about / plan the design + manufacturing of the object, because you aren't training a workforce to assemble specialized parts, but now need a system that most people could pick up and assemble without any major mistakes. It's more design and thinnking, not less.

I've been wanting to buy a new analog synthesizer for a few years now, but i almost always balk at the price of these things. I can afford these things, but they never feel like a sound financial choice.

Personally, I blame the Raspberry Pi. Having played with a quad-core, 1GHz device with a GPU and wifi chip that retails for ~$30, i just can't see myself dropping $300 - $500 on an underpowered analog synthesizer...i've mostly just moved to digital synthesis now, which is quite enriching and fun. if anyone's in the same boat as me, I'd highly recommend nanoloop, which is quite fun to make music with on your phone: https://nanoloop.com/

I get that the analog synthesizers have a great musical feel and history to them, but i just don't think they provide that much more utility or flexibility than 10-100x cheaper digital instruments.

It's all fake of course. It probably costs <$50 to produce, most likely in China. It isn't custom by any means. It is modular, but seemingly it wouldn't make a lot of sense since that isn't what you are paying for. Doesn't matter much. A lot of hobbies are a status thing. Most people aren't going to actually make something out of it. An unused computer program doesn't say much. So you want the "custom" gear to compensate. I guess there is nothing wrong with that as such. It is still fake though.

That’s stupid. Boutique musical gear is expensive because somebody spent a lot of time designing it and needs to make a living. As far as sound quality, there are a lot of fm sounds that are not possible to produce on a computer since it lacks the resolution.

If it is so stupid, explain this to me.

1. Who actually needs boutique gear? I am not saying it isn't fun. I am not saying that it can't be a hobby in itself nor am I saying some tiny percentage of the music industry might need it. But in pretty much all the interviews I have read with successful musician they use something horribly mundane for most of their career, because it isn't about the gear. So does the weekend warrior need boutique stuff?

2. Is teenage engineering actually boutique? I don't know that much about music gear, but I do know a fair bit about electronics and it certainly doesn't look in anyway custom to me. You might think that it is because e.g. they use bare PCBs. But that would be a faulty assumption. So what is expensive part here?

1. What does that have to do with the question at hand? Boutique gear is expensive because not many people buy it. As you were saying, the cost is not in the production, but in the development and tooling setup for a given product. Whether or not someone "really needs" it is a different question. I will say that most all modular analog fm synthesis gear is expensive, and it can produce sounds that are not possible in software (or not possible on current CPUs without setting a really high latency). You may not find examples of extreme fm synthesis enjoyable but they are a key part of some genres of music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q26LR5SJ2jU&t=1793s

2. Teenage engineering seems to have moved down the boutique scale a bit by attempting to make a more affordably priced unit that will be sold more widely. Good marketing is probably a key component of this strategy since they will need to hit a certain volume to break even.

1. I don't really think it is a different question. I am just saying that a lot of the revere for "boutique" gear isn't in its utility. (which is related to what the OP was saying). I don't deny there are use cases just that it doesn't necessarily match its reputation or price. You are the one saying it has to cost a certain amount, that isn't usually my experience. I would be interested in that case actually being made though, but I hasn't seen one here so far.

2. My intention wasn't really to argue against teenage engineering. I think they are doing good products in general and that people like them a lot. I just don't think they should sell it as ~DIY when it really isn't. Teenage engineering is specifically a sort of "design studio". It isn't that they suddenly needed marketing, they are founded by at least one marketeer from the beginning. They do seem to have the right idea in mind overall, but I don't think this is the correct way to do it.

I'd guess that the design is the most expensive part of building these products. Their marketing for this product is arguably better than Apple. The design for the actual product is unparalleled. The electronics and software development, years spent on prototyping iterations, and overall refinement is expensive in terms of highly skilled labor.

That is what I am saying though. If you spend a ton of money and time on marketing and product development don't have people essentially pretend to be building it. Or say that it is modular when the case seemingly only supports your modules.

TE have a staff of less than 50. They do everything themselves (outside of fab) end to end. They are trying to build a new way of making music, like lego, more accessible for more people, they are a startup, building a platform. Chill.

Don't worry I wouldn't be writing if I didn't find it interesting. I do think it is a pretty important issue. Can countries like Sweden actually produce companies that do the things you say they do these days? I, just as you, would of course like to see that.

What I am trying to establish is whether that is actually true. No one here has actually said, as far as I can tell, that I am wrong for a specific reason. Not that this indicate that I would be right.

About a decade ago everyone in Sweden was talking about the fashion scene, as in brands and designer, making it in the world. To which the head of H&M responded that most brands didn't even have the revenue of one of their stores. Heard of any large Swedish fashion brands lately? (I am sure they exist, just nowhere near expectations).

There is whole world out there not pretending. I hate to see something, or someplace, I know lose because they were.

There are like 11 people in Sweden, so they need about 6 teenage engineersingingings to be ok for a bit. Just like there are 11 people in Canada and it's mandated by law, tax dollars are contributed, to pumping out a 1 Justin Bieber a year. These industries in small developed nations are fine and awesome, and maybe TE will be the Ikea of Lego of Music. Surly this is getting into a very very different conversation than if TE are boutique or make good tools, no?

It is a tangent for sure, but I would say a very different conversation as we are discussing wheter it is hype or not.

When countries like Sweden produce international successes it is because substance matters. That is the absolute essence of why that happens. When Markus Persson created Minecraft he did so after a career in the games industry, which goes back to even the demo scene of the 80s(?). He of course had a lot of personal qualities as well, but he didn't come out of nowhere. No one does. A very similar scenario is behind other successes like Spotify, Klarna or even Skype. You can look at e.g. Switzerland for a country that doesn't produce these type of success.

So whether they create something of substance is entire essential for whether they succeed or not to create something bigger. Maybe marketing is that substance, but I doubt it. Most likely they will go along for a few years, maybe sell for a low but respectable amount and that will be it.

And yes, this is all "in my opinion".

Your opinions are welcomed, just make sure they are very clearly presented and heavily couched as such. As to if it's hype or not, well everything is hype until it's not, so time will tell, but KPIs on TE look good! :)

While there's certainly mark-ups, the most popular modules are made by their manufacturers rather than outsourced to China. Doepfer in Germany, Make Noise in the US, Intellijel in Canada, ALM in the UK, Mutable Instruments is outsourced but only to another part of France. Long lead times on certain modules are par for the course when they're being made by one person. Of course, when it's one person making everything, the total output of stock is going to be low, and thus the economy of scale that something like a Raspberry Pi is able to take advantage of is reduced, especially with moving parts like potentiometers, which can cost more per unit than a micro-controller.

There are people making modules for dirt cheap with razor thin margins, mostly as a side job, and there's always the DIY route if you want to save a few pennies.

That is certainly good to hear. Though I would argue that it is those manufacturers who deserve a lot of the credit. I don't want to be a buzzkill. I just hate when people get to to have their cake and eat it too.

All these words like "boutique", "indie", "hacker", "custom" or whatever you want to call it has meaning. Their positive connotation is based on some sort of substance. That there is something unique going on. Whether that is independence, a scene or something else. And Stockholm is truly awful for that these days.

I am certainly not negative toward independent, or small businesses. But as you grow there will at one point be significant incentive to pretend that there is substance when there isn't. So at one point you are selling "craft beer" from you mansion, while everyone else is struggling with e.g. distribution.

On the other hand sometimes people are scrappy just for its own sake, which isn't necessarily good either. I am not necessarily against outsourcing (even though I think a middle road would be the best), just put in on the tin.

What do you mean by "fake" and "custom"? Nearly no gear is "custom" in the sense that it's custom made for a specific person (although some small manufacturers probably would do that, if you're willing to pay for it), and at least in electronic music gear it is not a common claim for it to be (and it's e.g. not mentioned in the article here, so I'm not sure why you are arguing against it being so?)

Similarly, what's "fake"? The product is what it says on the tin, is it not? I think you overestimate the "can be build cheaply" aspect for many small manufacturers too, given small volumes, need to pay for R&D, mechanical components/work, ...

What does fake usually mean? Deceptive maybe? I think a lot of what is being sold isn't substantial. It isn't supported by utility, but other things like marketing.

I think a lot of the market for these items aren't people who need it. Being e.g. modular is something of utility. These products usually requires assembly because those who made it didn't have that capability, they share parts with something else or they are customizable from the start. Not because the manufacturer decided that it was a good idea for marketing purposes.

What does custom usually mean? I guess that is a bit harder. You could probably say non generic. It is something that was made for some specific purpose or could be adapted to specific situations. Maybe they don't say it is custom, but that is most of the point with a modular synth. That you have many specific modules that could be changed. Either by making a better one or in how you combine them.

My argument is partly about the product itself. That it is using features of custom things without really being it. You get to assemble it, but not because it lets you customize anything or because it is really needed. You get modules that you can use in other product, but the product itself isn't really modular.

The other part is about the market in general. There is a paradox in luxury goods in that they can't have to much utility. Because things with utility doesn't usually have a lot, or as much, margin. This type of gear can only be expensive if it doesn't have that much utility. Otherwise someone would make it far cheaper. The utility of the product is to some extent being expensive.

And note that I am yet again not saying that there is something wrong with this as such. Not that this help since it still offends. It is just that when you are pretending that something is something that it isn't you are hurting the real thing. I think the same is true in other areas as well, as open source. Or being a hacker.

If anyone can say that they are doing these things no one has to really care about the real thing. As I said earlier Stockholm is awful for scrappy companies. Yet, people can point at a company like teenage engineering and say "look they are doing these dynamic things with utility, how bad could it be?". But in reality there garage work space was in the most expensive part of town and apparently filled with one of the founder sports cars.

So if there is anything I would want you to take away from this it is to not give up the real thing. A dynamic ecosystem were people can actually modify their tools and make new things. This is were all these movements get their reputation from. Being a catalyst of other things. Not by having people play pretend with expensive things with less utility.

Like the top comment implied, if you want to make music learn a DAW. You want to make your own synth as a hobby, do that (there are a number of great forums). If you want to have a company in Stockholm, where apartment costs as much as in SV, sell you expensive gear go with this instead.

The components are very likely made in China, but I'd guess that the pick-and-place likely happens in or near their HQ in Europe.

As someone who owns a business that has designed and sells a similar product, I'd guess their raw cost is at $125-175/ea. for the $500 product.

I highly recommend to anyone interested in synths and music to go to a local shop and try out any modular system they have on display.

It really brings a lot of creativity and playfulness to playing music.

Me playing around on my modular system: http://youtu.be/jD-2xqTkGUc

Love it, thanks for sharing. Also curious as to what I could search to find more music similar to this.

Interesting that they decided to stick with the "Pocket Operator" name despite the fact that these can fit in nobody's pockets.

Yeah, agreed. When I first read about it, I thought they were going to sell an adapter to plug the existing pocket ops into a Eurorack module.

Depends on the pockets. Parkas and khaki pants can fit them for sure -- in the full assembly photo they look tiny too.

Must be a play on Kraftwerk's line "I'm the Operator, with my Pocket Calculator"?

The individual modules (the "operators") are about the same size as the PO line products.

I guess, but they're not exactly useful when carried around individually in a pocket.

For anyone into this, you can undoubtedly enjoy playing around with https://vcvrack.com/ ;)

The (by now ancient) Caustic synth app also has a modular approach, and free desktop versions:


Thanks for suggesting this, I just downloaded VCV rack and its really cool!

I love their stuff, and wish they’d issue another batch of OP-1 synths:


That thing is seriously amazing, and (for me at least) more appealing than the OP-Z or the pocket operators - but I am intrigued by this modular approach, since I’ve long wanted to play with something like it.

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