Why I Love the Teenage Engineering OP-Z

This synthesizer is just so much fun

Key Takeaways

  • The OP-Z is a sequencer, sampler, and synthesizer, all in one pocket-sized package.
  • 'Step components' give unique control and add variety to sequences.
  • The OP-Z is insanely deep yet easy to pick up.
A model wearing roller skates and yellow skating outfit with the OP-Z tucked into the waistband of her shorts.
Teenage Engineering

Teenage Engineering’s OP-Z is a pocket-sized plastic slab and a synthesizer and sequencer more powerful than many desk-bound boxes. Also: It has no screen.

The OP-Z really is a marvel of design, a masterclass in building a modern musical instrument. It has no screen, but it’s easier and faster to use than many devices that do. Play and program by pressing combinations of its tiny buttons, and yet it is intuitive, fast, and easy—once you’ve learned the basics. It has its own personality and plenty of quirks, but the OP-Z might be the most intuitive and fluid sequencer around.

"I’d say that the OP-Z is the most intuitive sequencer I’ve ever used because... It’s closer to playing an instrument than to programming a computer."

Swedish Design

Teenage Engineering is a design company with a musical bent. The OP-Z is its second instrument. The OP-1 launched in 2011 and combined a keyboard, sampler, synthesizer, radio, and virtual four-track tape into a cute aluminum body. Its weird effects and low-fi sounds turned it into a cult hit, used by musicians from Bon Iver to Beck, Depeche Mode to Jean Michel Jarre.

The OP-1 was unavailable at the end of 2018 because the OLED screens used to make it ran out. But the OP-Z skirted this problem by using your iPhone or iPad (and later, your Android phone) as its display.

A Killer Sequencer

The OP-Z is a sequencer. That is, it plays back a sequence of notes (called steps) in the same order, over and over. These notes can be musical notes from the built-in synthesizer, or they can be sampled. There are eight separate audio tracks, four for drums (or samples) and four for synthesizers (including an arpeggiator). 

On the OP-Z, the top row of 16 buttons is to program these steps. Press one, and it lights up, which means it will sound. The two rows below, with black and “white” keys, is a stylized piano keyboard, and these do what you’d expect.

The OP-Z sequencer synthesizer.
Teenage Engineering

But the magic of the OP-Z comes from the way this all works. The keys on the left act like shift keys on a computer, changing the main buttons’ behavior. This lets you do all kinds of stuff. You can sample into the (very lo-fi) built-in microphone. Or you can add effects to whole tracks or just to a single note. The last kick drum hit in a sequence could have an echo applied, for example.

You can use the OP-Z with the companion app, which shows you what each of the buttons will do, and makes it easier to edit your samples (yes, you can record and chop up samples). But a screen is totally unnecessary. You can do everything with the buttons. It’s intimidating at first, but the design is so well thought out that you can work without thinking once you have the basics.

In fact, I’d say that the OP-Z is the most intuitive sequencer I’ve ever used because you can just think, then do. You are never distracted by a menu or screen. It’s closer to playing an instrument than to programming a computer.

And then we come to the OP-Z’s secret weapon.

Step Components

This will get a little technical, but that’s essential to explain the OP-Z’s unique abilities. Having the same sequence run repeatedly is fine for techno music, but it gets a little boring. Step components are a way to mix things up. You can add one to any step of any track, and it will change how that step behaves. To apply a step component, you hold down the step, press some buttons, and turn some knobs. 

The OP-Z with an add-on module.
Teenage Engineering

For instance, you could apply a step component to play a note louder every four bars. Or to only play it the first time around. You can change the pitch, or duration, play the note more than once, or dial in a certain amount of reverb or distortion for just one step. 

You can also do crazier stuff, like having the first three notes of a bar repeat four times before moving on and playing the rest. Or—and this one is fantastic—you can shrink a bar down to play just a few notes, over and over.

Those notes can be parts of a longer, sampled passage and can be set to randomize. This will create some crazy glitches. This all sounds very complex, and it is. But it is also easy to program as you go. In fact, the OP-Z is so easy to program that you could use it for live, improvised performances.

You can then pick up the device and wave it around, and the built-in accelerometer can affect the sound. 

More. Much More

There’s a whole lot more inside this box. It really is deep. We haven’t yet mentioned the virtual tape loop that can be “scratched,” or the ability to hook this up to MIDI instruments and use it as a master brain.

Or that you can plug in a MIDI piano keyboard and live record your performance, then mangle it with the step components. Or that it is a full-featured USB-C audio interface for any computer, including the iPad.

A model on a bicycle holding the Teenage Engineering OP-Z
Teenage Engineering

It can even automatically generate chord progressions and weird modal shifts by analyzing what you have programmed.

Like any good musical instrument, the basics of the OP-Z are easy to pick up, but once you get into it, there is seemingly no end to its depth. It does have a few downsides. Sample management is a pain, and there’s no way to sample music without holding down a record button, making it hard to play another instrument at the same time.

Also, early units suffered from manufacturing faults, but those seem to be ironed out now. I’ve owned mine since the early days, and I’ve never had a problem.

I L-O-V-E the OP-Z. Other devices do some things better, but nothing is as well-designed or as fast to use. If only it didn’t cost $600.

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