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 Pocket Operator Modular 400 - Teenage Engineering

Pocket Operator Modular 400 - Teenage Engineering

by Ellison Wolf

Teenage Engineering have always felt a little bit more Danish Modern Showroom than Synth Showroom. This is nothing to be ashamed of, their design aesthetic is tops, and nowhere is it perhaps more evident than with their Pocket Operator Modular 400 [AKA the POM-400], their glaring all-yellow, all-analog, DIY-ish, modular-ish tabletop synth. With some improvements being made since it first hit stylish living room coffee tables everywhere, and with a new lower price of $449, I was excited to have the opportunity to dig deeper on the POM-400.
First, I call it “DIY-ish” because, though there’s no soldering involved, you need to assemble it like you would an IKEA product. If you’re handy at all you’ll have no problem getting it up, though take heed of the few references made by TE to the builder of, “Think twice, bend once,” thereby giving a bit of warning to the part of the building process that consists of folding metal tabs to fit into slots. Anyone familiar with metal fatigue will understand that bending some metals the wrong way and trying to bend them back equals broken metal. So, you know…definitely think twice—thrice, if necessary—and bend once. Trust me on this one. :[
Second, I call the POM-400 modular-ish because even though it’s made up of sixteen modules, they only fit together in their case in one way, and since they aren’t interchangeable they’re not technically “modular” if used in the whole system, but can be if you purchase them separately, which was recently made available.
The sixteen modules the POM-400 sports are three VCOs [square, saw, and sine], two VCAs, two envelopes, a noise module, a random voltage generator, one LFO [with four outputs], a 24/dB per octave low pass filter, a three-channel mixer, a built-in speaker, a 16-step sequencer, and a power module. It doesn’t come with a power adapter [sold separately $17] and can be powered with 8-AA batteries, just in case you want to do a little hipster busking on the nearest subway platform.
No matter where you park it, the POM- 400 is a lovely and evocative piece to look at with its yellow powder coated aluminum frame, spacious layout [except for the sequencer, which we’ll talk about later] and idiosyncratic knobs [again, later]. It’s smaller than I would have thought from the photos I’d seen online, but I rather like the size and scale of it; it’s easy to find a place for it in whatever locale you’re in, and since there’s a handle on the back for easy transport, when you get kicked out of the eastbound platform, you can just scoop it up and go across to the westbound platform. The build is not exceptionally robust, but it’s fine. It’s not built like a tank, and it moves sometimes when you patch it, but it also weighs only three pounds nine ounces [unpatched, with batteries] and stands nearly upright, so a little movement is to be expected—and accepted—and with rubber feet on the bottom of the unit helping to stabilize it a so it doesn’t slip around.
While there aren’t as many modulation opportunities as on a typical modern Eurorack system of similar size/modules—it’s more reminiscent of a 70s analog modular in terms of features—there’s plenty of sound exploration—and fun—to be had. With three oscillators available you can get some great AM and FM going, and the two envelopes and VCAs offer plenty of shaping and tweaking possibilities. The random and noise modules are totally usable—more valuable than their simplicity belies—and add to the sonic manipulation and palette available. While I imagine that the speaker isn’t as hifi as their $600+ OB-4 Portable Bluetooth Speaker & FM Radio—which I have yet to try out—I do like having it onboard, and it sounds pretty good even though I wish it could get a little louder. Still, it’s nice not to have to hook the POM-400 up to an external speaker/ amp, though when you do, the 400 really shows itself, and it sounds quite nice, though I wouldn’t say that it has a super unique sonic personality.
The filter is pretty standard, but with two inputs for modulation over the frequency and resonance I was able to get some cool and nasty sounds out of it, though it wasn’t always easy to dial in sounds due to the knobs and the limited ranges of some of the knobs; they’re easily the most frustrating aspect to the POM-400. They’re small, toy-ish, imprecise, and don’t look all that great. There are two different types of knobs, with one being slightly more tolerable than the other, and both left me feeling underwhelmed. Due to their nature, it’s really hard to dial in precise sounds. Again, this is also because some parameter’s knobs have really small usable ranges—and for serious synthesists they’re probably just a source of frustration and potentially a deal breaker.
Next to my frustration with the knobs, I found the sequencer to be—while not necessarily disappointing—a bit enigmatic, and again, imprecise. And if you get claustrophobic in tight spaces you might be scared off because the knobs on the sequencer are so close together that if you have anything larger than medium sized fingers you’re going to feel panicky and be looking for a paper bag to breathe into. Along with that though, it’s the imprecision that is a real drag here, as each step is unquantised, finicky to adjust, and therefore makes it very hard to come up with anything melodically precise or musically coherent. On top of that there’s only one LED, which blinks each time the sequence is at the first step—so you usually have no idea where in a sequence you are. To enjoy the sequencer you really have to come to terms with its “quirks," its character, and be able to get past the knobs. I imagine it’s a sort of love it or hate it type of relationship for most people with the sequencer, and certainly that was the case with me, alternating between the two intense emotions; loving its fun idiosyncracies and mystery [where am I? Kinda fun…], and hating the annoying ones when the knobs rubbed my fingers raw or I got frustrated with being lost in a sequence. You really need to be able to let go a bit in order to have fun with it, and knowing what the sequencer on the 400 can and can’t do well is just part of the game. Forgetting the knobs for a moment, it is actually a pretty well-featured and thought out sequencer with three outputs for sequencing all three oscillators [albeit it only with the same sequence] at once, a CV in to control the sequence direction, a reset input, inputs to reset at the first, second, fourth, or eighth step, a tempo control, and two clock outputs there is plenty on offer. One thing to note: if you turn any of the steps fully CW, the sequencer resets to the first step, something I didn’t realize until I went through the manual for the nth time where this is briefly mentioned. Because of this I had the hardest time figuring out the sequencer’s odd behavior during my initial experimentation.
Another peculiarity with the sequencer, is that it doesn’t go any slower than 218 BPM unless you patch in an external clock source, and so I wound up patching the square wave LFO into the clock input to slow things down a bit. The strangeness continued as I realized that there’s no dedicated gate output on the sequencer as well. There are two outputs you can use as gate outs—CLOCK and PO [for synching with TE’s Pocket Operators, which operates at 1/4th the speed of the CLOCK]—and those work perfectly well for triggering the VCAs, envelopes, RANDOM, and what have you, but not having a dedicated gate out on a sequencer seemed odd.
One other oddity is that unlike most [all?] modular equipment, the patch cables that come with the 400 are stereo, though regular Euro mono cables work fine. It seems a bit strange until you realize that this is so the 400 can easily sync to Teenage Engineering’s line of Pocket Operators. I realized that since the Pocket Operators have their own internal speakers that patching the POM-400 to some of their POs could make for some pretty cool stereo/quad/5:1/ etc. sound experiments.
A few hours after typing the previous sentence and gathering up a PO-12 and PO- 33 [and watching a few Ricky Tinez videos on the 33 to get me started] my PO jam session began. I patched everything up, cleared out some space on the floor, and went to work. While the 400 interfaces with regular ol’ modular quite easily—and definitely benefits from having some extras like, you know, a slower clock, some mults, and more LFOs—its integration with the two Pocket Operators made the 400/PO configuration as unique a setup as I’ve played in a while. I still had to use stackable cables to sync everything up as there aren’t enough clocked outs, but it was to spread everything out and mess around and I only stopped when my back started hurting from sitting on the floor. Eventually I want to pick up more of the Pocket Operators and have a larger setup with it, using the 400 as the main body for a Teenage Engineering PO setup with sound coming from all angles. While I was testing everything in this configuration it made me realize something; that some of these quirks, these shortcomings and annoyances on the 400—in any/every piece of gear—are the types of things that we bitch about now but learn to appreciate through time [hopefully?], and furthermore, show off to anyone who will pay attention to us. We just call them “tricks” and showcase our knowledge of such gear, our patience with learning it so well, and take pride in ourselves for figuring out ways to divert from the shortcomings and idiosyncracies of the various pieces of equipment in order to be able to get the most out of it in our music making endeavors.
While some might think that the 400 is more style than substance, the importance of overall aesthetic and design is not misplaced here as the process of sound design and music making is just as important—and nowhere more evident than in modular—than the destination. The knobs are pretty awful, but the overall machine is pretty enjoyable, and just by sheer force of nature, by creating such a cool looking instrument with such a playable layout I think Teenage Engineering has hit a mark. Maybe not “The” mark, but a mark nonetheless. I brought it over to my neighbor’s house to see what their kids thought of it and their nine-year-old daughter Rio had a blast on it. I gave her a brief explanation of what a synthesizer is/does, showed her how to speed up the sequencer, and what knob to twist to change the tuning for an oscillator and before I knew it she had a huge smile on her face, was tweaking the knobs, and doing a twitchy little dance every time she sped up the patch. She even started patching/unpatching the different oscillators—something I didn’t demonstrate for her—to hear their differences. I also brought along the Pocket Operator PO-33 and made a beat out of her and her seven-year-old sister Kiina talking into it and they both got a kick out of that, as well.
It was pretty obvious, watching Rio patch away, that being a fun, bright yellow modular-ish synthesizer with no normalled connections, the POM-400 could be a great synthesis learning/teaching device, and with its stylized look I can envision scads of these in EU classrooms continent-wide, learning the ropes in all manner, of electronic-derived sound.
I really can't think of any other synth that commands the sort of attention the POM-400 does, and I found out firsthand how powerful the Teenage Engineering design aesthetic can be shortly after receiving it. I was giving a tour of my home to some friends who were visiting from out of town. In a room filled with vintage drums, guitars, amps, a large modular setup—a lot of equipment—it was the POM-400 that caught their attention. “What’s this?," they asked as they started turning knobs, pulling out cables, and inadvertently ruining what I thought was a pretty cool patch. Even other people I showed the POM-400 to—other friends, musicians, etc.—to see what they thought, enjoyed it, and all of them spent a decent amount of time messing around with it, even if they didn’t know exactly what they were doing. And not one of them complained or made mention of the knobs. Shows what I know.

Price: $449

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