The $60 Gadget That’s Changing Electronic Music
Derrick Estrada, an electronic musician who performs under the stage name Baseck, had just showered and was nursing a cup of yerba mate in the back room of the Los Angeles home that a musician friend dubbed the “synth flophouse.” It was 10 a.m. on a recent Thursday; very early, he explained, for a house full of musicians.
Estrada had promised a demonstration of a remarkable new instrument, one that had changed the whole way he made music. Two walls of the room were dedicated to racks of synthesizers — row after row of buttons and knobs and unwieldy wiring, a veritable museum of advanced technology spanning decades and costing thousands of dollars. Estrada ignored all of it. Instead, he plucked a small device from the spot where it was hanging from a hook. It looked like the exploded innards of a calculator, with a splat of knobs and buttons. There was no keyboard. Estrada plugged it into a set of speakers, held it in both hands and hunched over it slightly, as if handling a phone while texting, and began to play.
He punched the buttons, and a rapid-fire sequence of clicks began to repeat. Then he twisted one of the knobs, and the clicks deepened into a more hollow sound, like that of a kick drum. More button punches, more knob twists, more sounds: a spacey high-hat, a background static roar, a tonal burst that altered slightly and quickly became a repeated phrase. Suddenly there was more than a beat; there was a little song.
And just as suddenly — more punches, more twists — the sounds changed, and the song evolved. This went on for about 10 minutes, with Estrada nodding slightly, in a concentrated semi-trance over the device, coaxing out new sounds every few seconds. This was all in real time, and it sounded fantastic — ready for radio.
Estrada was playing a Pocket Operator, a device released four years ago by a Swedish company called Teenage Engineering. To date, the company has made nine different models of the same basic design, and it has sold more than 350,000 of them worldwide, making the Pocket Operator one of the most popular synthesizers in history. The Korg M1 — famous for producing the sound of Seinfeld’s slap bass and Madonna’s “Vogue,” and one of the best-selling and most influential synths of all time — is estimated to have sold 100,000 fewer units over nearly twice as much time. The “portable” version of one of the Pocket Operator’s earliest forebears — the telharmonium, constructed more than a hundred years ago — cost more than $5 million to build in today’s dollars, weighed 200 tons and required a team of specialists to achieve peak performance. A Pocket Operator costs about $60 and fits in the palm of your hand.
Because it is mass-produced, cheap and easy to use, the Pocket Operator is closer to an acoustic guitar or a harmonica than it is to the telharmonium — a new kind of instrument for popular music, with new kinds of possibilities. Just as folk and rock musicians took the humble guitar and harmonica onstage and played music that was exciting and modern for thousands of people, electronic musicians can now do the same.
After he finished playing, Estrada told a story that illustrated the kind of range the device had. He recently traveled to Tokyo for a synth festival with his kit of bulky synths, but when he plugged them into the big sound systems in some venues, they sounded muddier than he might have liked. One night, nearing the end of a set, he thought, What the hell? He plugged in his Pocket Operator.
“The sound just, like, punched through,” he said. “People poured onto the dance floor. Afterward, everyone was like: What was going on at the end? It was the Pocket Operator.”
The four founders of Teenage Engineering started the company in 2007, with a more traditional keyboard synthesizer, the highly regarded OP-1. But they quickly became involved in a wide variety of modish design-oriented projects. They updated and reintroduced a ’70s-era speaker designed by another Swedish engineer, Stig Carlsson. They also did some outside work — for Ikea, it was a cardboard camera and forthcoming Bluetooth speakers; for the Chinese search-engine giant Baidu, a colorful smart speaker. The Pocket Operator was more of a lark. A friend at a clothing company called Cheap Monday told them the company had some extra cash on hand, because it had been bought by the fast-fashion giant H&M. Maybe Teenage Engineering could develop something for Cheap Monday to sell? The first three Pocket Operator models worked as drum, bass or “lead” sequencers, and they could all be synced up to play together as — in the promotional language of Teenage Engineering — a “pocket band.” Later models introduced new sounds (“noise percussion”) and capabilities (sampling).
Nearly all of Teenage Engineering’s 45 employees are in fact engineers (audio, computer, mechanical), and the style of the company’s products — playful, a little rebellious, definitely strange — does indeed evoke the slouchy insouciance of teenagers, but it draws as well from an even more youthful gestalt. “Everything must be simple, primary colors and shapes,” says Jesper Kouthoofd, the company’s chief executive and one of its founders. “If we cannot draw it quickly on a pad of paper, it is too complicated.”
The founders are based in Stockholm, and when I went to visit them last summer, they were working in an open office that spread across the second floor of a long, low industrial building, just across a small channel from Sodermalm, a neighborhood that’s often called Hipster Island. The office retained an aura of mechanical tinkering. Laser cutters sat beside 3-D printers on desks designed by Kouthoofd, made of plywood coated with a thin rough plastic and lined with aluminum punctured by holes; these made it easy to modify them with all manner of attachments, like monitors and steel rods and work carts filled with soldering irons. (The company recently moved to a similar office around the corner.) All around were the remnants of electronic devices — usually chunky, always single purpose, mostly decades old. On the corner of one such desk sat a cartoonishly large calculator. It belonged to David Mollerstedt, another of the company’s founders.
“I got this in China,” Mollerstedt said. “It cost like $5. It can make music! Hang on.” He picked it up and began pounding away at the large plastic buttons for a moment, then paused. It was silent. Mollerstedt pounded some more. Finally, a song began, and the buttons were able to generate sounds, so that he could play along. The sounds weren’t pretty, but Mollerstedt appeared delighted. The calculator, he said, was a source of inspiration. “How can we make a machine do something that you didn’t expect?” he said.
Sitting on a nearby desk was the new Teenage Engineering catalog, which featured diagrams of the company’s products, including the OP-1, which is frequently used by musicians as varied as the composer Hans Zimmer and the singer-songwriter Grimes. The founders dreamed up the OP-1 in 1999, when they were just friends, envisioning a Swiss Army knife-like instrument that was small enough to easily carry around and powerful enough to create fairly complex music. But in 1999, the parts necessary to cobble together even a prototype weren’t available; the computer chips weren’t powerful enough, and the batteries couldn’t hold a charge for long enough. What happened in the decade between their idea and being able to build it was simple: The iPhone arrived, and with it a significant manufacturing shift toward hand-held computers and the component parts they were after.
Kouthoofd has very round, icy blue eyes and dresses almost exclusively in black jeans and black T-shirts. (Before Teenage Engineering, he was a founder of the clothing brand Acne.) He invited me over to his desk, and as we sat down, he pointed to an object between us. His desk was cluttered, full of oddly shaped items, bits of folded cardboard and a line of antique telegraph keys. The object he was pointing to was about the size and shape of a pack of cigarettes, with a circle in the middle. He leaned over, pushing it closer to me, and then ran his hand over the circle, spinning it, before leaning back and declaring, cryptically, “I was thinking someone like you would like something like this.” He gestured for me to touch the object.
I leaned forward and lightly tapped the circle, stopping it from spinning.
“See?” Kouthoofd said, as if I had revealed the object’s purpose. I looked up at him, baffled.
Kouthoofd explained: “It’s, like, a tape recorder? But it spins?” His statements often came out like questions, particularly if he was speaking about one of his company’s products, as if everything were forever a prototype.
“Say we are having an interview,” he went on, as if we were not having an interview, “and I want to say something off the record, I can just hold it,” and he leaned forward again, lightly landing his finger on the disk. “It’s, like, an interaction, a nice interaction between us.” It was this interaction between humans and machines that most interested Kouthoofd, the tactile nature of it but also something more basic. To explain, he picked up another object from his desk and handed it to me. It was round like a hockey puck and heavy, and when you set it on a surface, it could spin.
“It’s a knob,” Kouthoofd said. “A very good knob. Also, a remote. And look!” He reached into his pocket and brought out a plastic snuff box and placed it next to the knob. They were the same size, which seemed to delight him.
This type of snuff was very popular in Sweden, Kouthoofd explained. After he saw these round boxes everywhere, their ubiquity had made him consider: What about turning that shape into a universal remote? The knob controlled the volume and tracks on a speaker Teenage Engineering made, but soon it would control many other things the company was in the process of making: a turntable, a tape deck, a light and a smoke machine.
He had been thinking about this knob quite a bit lately, he explained, because of a book he was reading, “The Myth of the Machine,” by Lewis Mumford. The myth of the machine is that we are its masters; in reality, Mumford argues, we eventually become a “trivial accessory to the machine,” following its logic and not our own. Mumford — a historian, philosopher, urban planner and the architectural critic at The New Yorker from the 1930s through the 1960s — defines technology broadly. A computer is technology. And so is money. And so are certain organizations, like corporations, that are mindlessly in tech’s thrall. Mumford calls these organizations “megamachines.” Technology, on its own, isn’t a problem. But the megamachine is. The megamachine is “the organized cult of machinery” and “a monster that can transform man into a passive, purposeless animal.”
Kouthoofd described “The Myth of the Machine” as a Marxist book, just as he describes himself as a Marxist (while acknowledging that his ownership of multiple Lamborghinis over the years might complicate this claim). His broad reading on Mumford was that most modern technology was simply a waste of time.
“The tools that are good,” Kouthoofd said, “are like, so simple, so old. Here is what they do: They extend our capabilities. We pick up a stone, and we are stronger; we add a shaft to the stone, and suddenly we are stronger still, because we have a hammer.”
This was why he liked the knob so much. He thought that it, too, extended our capabilities.
When I was a kid playing piano, running scales, learning theory, there was this dream I would have repeatedly. The dream was about an imaginary musical instrument, a perfect instrument, because it could perfectly recreate the music I heard in my head. No need for scales. No need for theory. This isn’t an uncommon dream — there’s an entire history of inventions trying to capture and turn the electrical currents within the brain into sounds, beginning in 1929 with a theory of electroencephalography, and up to today, with a device called the encephalophone, which uses brain activity to trigger tones on a computer. But thinking, it turns out, is quite a bit different from playing, and this whole mode of instrumentation has always been fringy and highly experimental. It doesn’t make pop music, or even particularly good music.
It is an open question how exciting the music in your head might be in the first place. Recently, I was telling Nick Sylvester, a Los Angeles-based producer and a founder of the music company Godmode, about my imaginary instrument. “That’s funny,” he said. “I don’t want to hear what’s inside my head. I’m turning to this because I want to discover something new.”
He was standing over a wildly complex-seeming modular synth, which is made up of modules that can be combined in various ways with patch cords so thick and tactile they seem like toys. It bore some similarities to the Pocket Operator — the knobs and buttons and lack of keyboard — but was more complicated, expensive and cumbersome.
Sylvester described the process of playing a modular synth as moving a sound through a series of “what happens if” questions. You start with a vibration, a single electrical signal, generated by an oscillator. What happens if that sound is repeated a thousand times a second? Or moved three scales up? Or randomized slightly? And if I feed it back on itself? If I flip it? Or, or, or. If, if, if. You’re listening to the machine as you play it, and you’re creating new tones, different paths, as you play; opening up new lines of inquiry, new possibilities of sound, by turning different knobs and putting in and pulling out cords.
The way pop music is made today, Sylvester explained, it is more often about speed, not exploration. You want to catch a vibe and immediately begin building a track around that hook. His job as a producer is to arm himself with these hooks, a range of vibes, one of which might inspire an artist to quickly create a melody over it. In a previous era, a pop songwriter might have noodled around on a guitar or piano to find melodic inspiration. That still happens. It’s just that today, in our kaleidoscopic, sample-heavy pop era, it helps if the instrument can also provide sonic and rhythmic inspiration. Better still if this machine fits in your pocket and doesn’t need to be plugged in somewhere.
An iPhone can do all this and a million other things, of course, but in some ways smartphones are simply too powerful. David Eriksson, another Teenage Engineering founder, told me about a key innovation that made the Pocket Operator possible: its very simple central processor, which was also used in thermostats. Not even smart thermostats, but very dumb thermostats. “All the computers were doing was calculating temperature, which required only about a third of its processing power,” Eriksson said. The Teenage engineers decided that the simplicity, efficiency and constraints of this computer were a virtue. They could reprogram the chip and use its limited processing power to eke out as many sounds as they could while keeping the device cheap and durable, all while running for months or even years on two AA batteries.
Making something cheaper alters a tool’s potential. It makes it available to more people, and it changes the idea of the instrument, what it’s used for and who uses it. In other words: How an instrument is made — its means of production — influences the music it might be used to create. Eriksson explained that part of the problem with the synths he grew up with wasn’t simply that they were terribly expensive; they were also terribly complicated. The two things were related — the lack of limits was part of what made them desirable and what made them so pricey. The instruction booklets were voluminous: hundreds, sometimes thousands of pages. To achieve a specific sound could take hours of scrolling through menus, “punching in one parameter, then another, then another, just to find the sound you were looking for,” Eriksson said. “There were all these barriers to actually, you know, playing.”
Back at the synth flop house, Estrada’s improvised song had morphed considerably. The background static roar was now at the front of the track and had turned into a kind of melody, which he played by turning one of the two small knobs. There was a new sound, too, a hollowed-out kick drum that Estrada began lengthening, stretching the percussive backbeat until he suddenly isolated it, emptying the track of its elements before bringing them all roaring back for a few measures. Finally, he let the whole thing echo and fade out.
“Whoa,” he said after he had finished. “That was wild.” He laughed, surprised at what he’d created. “See? You can just get lost in it.”
Ryan Bradley is a writer in Los Angeles. He last wrote for the magazine about the musician Sharon Van Etten.
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