The Google Pixel Now Has One of the Best Music Sampler Apps

Pocket Operator might look goofy, but it’s an absurdly well-designed app

  • Pocket Operator is a Pixel-only music-making app from Teenage Engineering.
  • The app uses AI to rip videos into playable instruments.
  • If you don’t have a compatible Pixel phone, the Koala app is even better.
pocket operator™ for Pixel™

Teenage Enginnering

If you're going to build a music-making app into your phone, then you could do a lot worse than putting Teenage Engineering on the job.

Google's latest update for the Pixel adds Pocket Operator, a music app based on Swedish synthesizer company Teenage Engineering's hardware devices of the same name. So far, Pocket Operator is Pixel-exclusive, and while it doesn't bring the entire PO hardware experience to your phone, it brings its spirit. And while it's already way better than Teenage Engineering's lackluster iPhone, iPad, and Mac apps, it probably won't replace the hardware in your pocket.

"Not everything can be virtualized. For me, it's great fun to have an OP-1 [groove box] or OP-Z [sequencer] under my fingertips, and I know that no application, whether for a phone or a tablet, can replace the atmosphere that accompanies creating with the use of hardware," Lukasz Zelezny aka DeeJay Delta told Lifewire via email.

"Think about Roland's cult TB303 [bass synthesizer]—there have been many clones of it, and somehow people still consider the hardware legendary, and if they want to have it, they should have it in a non-virtualized version."

Pocket Pixel

Pocket Operator, or as Google is styling it, pocket operator™ for Pixel™, is pretty rad and a lot of fun. To get started, you record a video or load one in, and the app will chew through it, ingesting the video and audio into Google's TensorFlow machine-learning engine. It analyzes the footage and isolates the individual sounds, placing them onto a grid of pads. You can then use these pads to remix the audio and the video skips and repeats to keep time.

It's like a sampler and remixer for video.

"I was thinking just the other day I wish there were some 'video samplers' that worked pretty much exactly like this, [and] it's a concept I really dig," says electronic musician Nate Horn on the Elektronauts forum.

At first glance, PO for Pixel looks like a gimmick, and with the glitching video, it certainly looks annoying enough to be a proper short-lived sensation. But this is Teenage Engineering, the company behind the sublime user interfaces of the OP-1 all-in-one groove box and the incredibly usable OP-Z sequencer and sampler/drum machine, and the app has a lot of depth.

For example, you can sequence the chopped-up slices from your source material, then edit them more precisely in a dedicated section of the app. There's also a mixer and a mode that lets you chain together your sequences into a song.

The app starts as a sample slicer, as we have seen, but you can also take any of those auto-sliced sounds and play them as an instrument. The app detects the pitch of any samples you supply, then lets you play them. This kind of sampling is familiar to most people; you record a sound and then play it like a pitched instrument.

And if you have several sounds with the same or a similar original pitch, the app will cycle through them automatically. This cycling, known as a "round-robin," brings variation to your patterns and is a fairly advanced feature.

If you have used TE's products before, then you won't be surprised by how easy this is to use. And it still packs in features and tools not found even in other high-end apps.

Pixel Envy

But what if you don’t have a Pixel? Happily, there are alternatives. One of the best, available on iPhone, iPad, Android, and Mac, is Koala, another app that looks like a bit of goofy fun but has become an essential tool in many musicians’ studios. 

I was thinking just the other day I wish there were some 'video samplers' that worked pretty much exactly like this...

Koala does much of what Pocket Operator does but is even better. It’s based on Roland’s legendary SP-404 sampler but is easier to use and more powerful. It samples, auto-slices, pitches, and sequences your sounds, and has much cooler audio FX than the PO app. It can also connect to MIDI hardware controllers, or just a Bluetooth QWERTY keyboard, for some awesome pad-bashing, finger-drumming sessions.

Pocket Operator for Pixel shows how great phones can be for making music. We already know they’re powerful pocket computers, but apps like Pocket Operator and Koala take advantage of their portability, as well as their touch screens with an amazing UI design that is just impossible anywhere else. Unless you hate fun, you should probably check them out ASAP.

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