RE­VIEW: Teenage En­gi­neer­ing OP-Z

Synth, drum ma­chine, sound man­gler and vis­ual se­quencer – Si Truss asks if there’s any­thing the OP-Z can’t do

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

Does the spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to the OP-1 live up to its pre­de­ces­sor’s cult clas­sic sta­tus?

Teenage En­gi­neer first showed us the OP-Z al­most two years ago and we’ve had a steady stream of demos, up­dates and teasers since then. To be com­pletely hon­est though, un­til very re­cently – ie the day our re­view unit ar­rived – I would have strug­gled to an­swer had some­body asked me to ex­plain what the OP-Z ac­tu­ally is.

It doesn’t help that the hard­ware it­self gives very few clues as to its func­tion. Its sleek, min­i­mal form is adorned with but­tons and ro­taries la­belled with of­ten rather cryp­tic icons. Were you to hand some­one an OP-Z without con­text, it’s likely they wouldn’t know whether they’re sup­posed to use it to make mu­sic, turn on the TV or try to make a phone call. Which all begs the ques­tion, what ac­tu­ally is the OP-Z? A synth? A sam­pler? An au­dio-vis­ual se­quencer? The an­swer is, to some ex­tent at least, all of the above.

At its core the OP-Z has a 16-track, 16-step se­quencer. Of those tracks, eight gen­er­ate au­dio while the other eight are used for ef­fect ma­nip­u­la­tion and ex­ter­nal con­trol. The au­dio tracks are di­vided into two groups, with the first four set up as sam­ple-based drum tracks and the lat­ter as melodic in­stru­ments that can each make use of a va­ri­ety of syn­the­sis en­gines.

Ev­ery au­dio track has two ad­justable sound-spe­cific pa­ram­e­ters, along with a res­o­nant low/high-pass fil­ter, four-stage amp en­ve­lope, a mul­ti­mode LFO, two ef­fect sends, and pan and level con­trols. Drum tracks can each load a sound pack con­tain­ing up to 24 sam­ples. Each drum track is two-note poly­phonic, so two sounds can be se­quenced on each step, al­beit shar­ing pa­ram­e­ter val­ues. For all four drum tracks, the two pa­ram­e­ter con­trols ad­just pitch and play­back di­rec­tion.

The synth channels can each load one of nine sound en­gines, in­clud­ing a fil­tered saw sound, dig­i­tal string syn­the­sis, a synth pi­ano, sub-heavy bass and PCM sam­ple player (some of these will be fa­mil­iar to users of the OP-1). The tonal qual­ity is fairly dig­i­tal sound­ing, but that shouldn’t

be taken as deroga­tory. They bring to mind ’90s-style house or clas­sic elec­tro, and paired with the fil­ter and ef­fects, each en­gine sounds great. For each en­gine, the two pa­ram­e­ter con­trols al­ter a dif­fer­ent as­pect of the os­cil­la­tor setup, and while they’re not par­tic­u­larly deep sound de­sign tools, cou­pled with the fil­ter, en­ve­lope and LFO there’s enough sound shap­ing on of­fer to keep the OP-Z feel­ing lim­ited.

Of the re­main­ing tracks, the first two are send ef­fect slots, each with a choice of four dig­i­tal pro­ces­sors (crush, over­drive, de­lay and re­verb). The next track is a tape-style ef­fect, which uses an al­ways-ac­tive record­ing buf­fer to let users grab chunks of the master out­put and play them back sped-up, slowed down or looped. Next is a master sec­tion: here the out­put of all the melodic tracks can be trans­posed, to cre­ate mo­men­tary key changes or longer se­quenced melodic pro­gres­sions. This track can also be used to ap­ply master cho­rus, over­drive and fil­ter ef­fects.

Next is a per­for­mance track, which makes use of the OP-Z’s punch-in ef­fects. These are largely beat-sync’d ef­fects, which in­clude loop­ers, beat rolls, fil­ter sweeps, pitch ramps and ran­domi­sa­tion ef­fects. The punch-in ef­fects can be ap­plied to any au­dio track in­di­vid­u­ally, or to mul­ti­ple tracks in the per­for­mance mode. One par­tic­u­larly handy per­for­mance fea­ture is the abil­ity to ap­ply ef­fects to the drum and melodic sec­tions sep­a­rately.

The fi­nal three tracks com­prise the vis­ual and light­ing se­quencers [see box­out] and a slightly mys­te­ri­ous Mod­ule track. This will be used to in­ter­act with forth­com­ing, yet to be re­vealed ex­pan­sion mod­ules. For the time be­ing, it also han­dles MIDI setup for the de­vice.

Like much of the OP-Z’s de­sign, the se­quenc­ing work­flow is ef­fec­tively a scaled-up ver­sion of that of the Pocket Op­er­a­tor range. As there, we get 16 push but­tons – run­ning across the length of the hard­ware – used to se­quence hits or notes. There’s also a two-oc­tave but­ton key­board, which can be used for live record­ing melodies and pat­terns.

There’s more depth to the se­quencer than ini­tially meets the eye though. Along with notes and sam­ple hits, all sound pa­ram­e­ters and ef­fects can be au­to­mated on a step-by-step ba­sis. Be­cause the send, master and per­for­mance sec­tions ap­pear on their own channels, these can all be se­quenced too. The ve­loc­ity and tim­ing of each note can be ad­justed, and each track has a menu for ad­just­ing note length, live record­ing quan­ti­sa­tion and por­ta­mento. Drum hits can be as­signed a se­lec­tion of

re-trig­ger styles, while each melodic track can be set to play in mono­phonic, poly or legato modes.

While pat­terns are lim­ited to a max­i­mum of 16 steps, there’s a tim­ing div­ing func­tion that can be used to make tracks run more slowly than the master tempo, ef­fec­tively stretch­ing the 16 steps out over a duration far longer than a sin­gle bar. Step lengths and tim­ings can be ad­justed for each track in­di­vid­u­ally, which al­lows for the cre­ation of polyrhyth­mic or evolv­ing pat­terns.

The OP-Z has one fi­nal se­quenc­ing trick up its sleeve in the form of Step Com­po­nents. These are au­to­ma­tion con­di­tions that can be ap­plied each se­quencer step, with func­tion­al­ity that sits some­where be­tween the punch-in ef­fects and Elek­tron-style ‘trig con­di­tions’. They can ap­ply re-trig­gers, beat rolls and pitch or pa­ram­e­ter sweeps, but can also be set up to trans­pose notes, ap­ply tim­ing shifts or mess with pre-pro­grammed au­to­ma­tion. It’s a deep and cre­ative sys­tem that’s a lot of fun to ex­per­i­ment with.

This ex­per­i­men­ta­tion is key to the OP-Z work­flow. As men­tioned, the OP-Z’s in­ter­face can be cryp­tic, and while it all makes log­i­cal sense once you know your way around, there’s a lot of multi-but­ton presses in­volved in mak­ing most edits. Without a screen it’s dif­fi­cult to keep track of things us­ing hard­ware alone. For­tu­nately, TE have cre­ated a free con­trol app (cur­rently iOS-only, but forth­com­ing for An­droid too). This runs via Blue­tooth, and gives full vi­su­al­i­sa­tion of the se­quencer, sound en­gines and ef­fects (us­ing some great eye­catch­ing graph­ics), and also acts as a screen for the vis­ual se­quencers. It’s re­ally nicely de­signed, and helps to clar­ify and open up the OP-Z’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties – to the ex­tent that I’d be wary of rec­om­mend­ing the OP-Z to any­one without the abil­ity to run the com­pan­ion app. Tech­ni­cally there’s noth­ing you can’t do with the hard­ware alone, and there’s some­thing to be said for re­ly­ing more on your ears than pa­ram­e­ter data, but func­tions like mak­ing LFO as­sign­ments or re­ar­rang­ing Step Com­po­nents would prove very tough without ac­cess to a screen.

The OP-Z hard­ware it­self fea­tures a recharge­able (and user-re­place­able) bat­tery, which is charged us­ing the in­cluded USB-C to USB 3 con­nec­tor. The OP-Z is quick to charge, but bat­tery life when us­ing the con­trol app is lim­ited to around 4-6 hours, which is ad­e­quate, if not ideal – were I to per­form live with this, I’d prob­a­bly keep it con­nected to a com­puter, just in case. This same USB con­nec­tion can be used for MIDI sync/con­trol. In Disk Mode, you can drag and drop sam­ple packs (in .aiff for­mat) for use with drum tracks.

My other slight bug­bear with the OP-Z is its lim­ited au­dio ex­port op­tions. You can ‘bounce’ a pat­tern to save it as au­dio to the OP-Z’s mem­ory, but these are lim­ited to a max­i­mum of a length of 10 sec­onds and a max­i­mum of five bounces. It would be nice to have more op­tions here, such as the abil­ity to bounce drum and melodic parts sep­a­rately, or whether or not master ef­fects are ap­plied. Given that au­dio out­put is lim­ited to a sin­gle 3.5mm stereo jack, it means that trans­fer­ring in­di­vid­ual parts into a DAW for fur­ther mix­ing can be a lit­tle cum­ber­some.

The fi­nal el­e­ment of the OP-Z hard­ware is a built-in mic. This sits on the end of the hard­ware and, thanks to a built-in ac­celerom­e­ter, only be­comes ac­tive when you lift the OP-Z to your mouth like a mic. The mic in­put can be pro­cessed via the send ef­fects; a cool touch, but it’s strange that it doesn’t al­low for sam­pling or record­ing. Ap­par­ently TE have rethought the OP-Z sig­nif­i­cantly over the past year, so per­haps the mic played a big­ger role in an ear­lier ver­sion of the OS? Po­ten­tially it could play more of a role via fu­ture firmware up­dates or ex­pan­sion mod­ules – it’d be great to see the vocoder en­gine from the PO-35 added.

Mi­nor bug­bears aside, there’s a lot I re­ally like about the OP-Z. It’s cre­ative and unique, and while some might be­moan the re­liance on an iOS app, I re­ally en­joy the work­flow be­tween the two de­vices. From a per­for­mance per­spec­tive, cou­pling the vis­ual and au­dio el­e­ments is re­ally in­spir­ing. The OP-Z is un­like any­thing else on the mar­ket right now. TE might have an­other cult clas­sic on their hands here.

Touch bu­ton: A touch­pad along the bot­tom is used for pitch bends and mak­ing ve­loc­ity ad­just­mentsTop bu­tons: The four but­tons along the Z’s top edge ac­cess Project, Mixer, Tempo and dis­play set­tingsRo­taries : The four flat, coloured ro­taries don’t look like much, but they’re sur­pris­ingly ef­fec­tive to useCha­sis: The sleek-look­ing, grey case has a slight mar­bling ef­fect, which looks re­ally stylish

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