For the smallest modular synth you can find, look no further than the Teenage Engineering 170.
Founded in Stockholm in 2005, Teenage Engineering (TE) is best known for their small synthesizers. These include their bestselling compact OP-1 portable synthesizer, the more recent OP-Z synth and sequencer, and the Pocket Operator series. The company has also dabbled in speaker design and producing a cardboard camera in partnership with IKEA. Teenage Engineering is all about compact design.
In many cases, Pocket Operators have no labeling for their audio functions. Instead, “the format inspires a desire to press the buttons,” as the Japan Institute of Design Promotion claims. TE is now getting into analog audio with two modular synthesizer systems, the Pocket Operator Modular 400 and 170 systems. They also make the Model 16 sequencer/membrane keyboard, which comes built into the 170.
TE’s top of the range is the Model 400. It’s a tall, brightly yellow-colored tabletop design with three oscillators and many flexible options. In this review, we’ll look at the 170—the smaller, more affordable approach into TE’s world of analog. Because it’s part of the 170 that’s available separately, we’ll investigate the Model 16 sequencer, too.
Caution: Construction Zone
The first point to note about both these designs is that they require some user assembly, but no soldering. Like IKEA furniture, they arrive flat-packed with a graphic manual and tools to help in construction. If you hate the idea of doing this kind of thing, the 170 and 16 are probably not for you.
Right at the outset they require you to bend pre-scored metal panel parts into shape. You need to do it with incredible precision for the construction process to work. Construction notes in the user manual are extremely sparse. Major tasks in the process—like how to fit the keyboard’s multi-strand cable into its connector and how to fold the metal support struts of the modular system’s front panel—are simply not mentioned.
AFTER you have them built, everything becomes terribly obvious. You could build a Model 16 sequencer in about 25 minutes and the Modular 170 in about an hour. The first time, the process verges on the nightmarish. For example, the tiniest fixing screws you’ve ever seen require you to ram them through minuscule panel holes. All the while, the manual’s exhortation is ringing in your ears, “Do not over-tighten screws!” Too right—the tiny plastic stand-off posts (which hold each circuit board away from its metal panel) are astonishingly delicate and fiddly. Supplying longer screws would not have been all that costly. You’ll also need more tools than the manual implies; I had a mole grip and long-nose pliers out before the end of the evening.
I have good things to say about both the 170 and the Model 16, too, so don’t give up hope. Before we get there, I should point out that the completed construction process leaves both instruments with no side panels. You have to reach inside a nest of wires within the 170 to switch the thing on and off. Also, the 170’s battery case is held in position internally with an elastic band. All that design work on bendable paneling and specialized miniature knob caps, and not an extra screw can be spared for fixing the battery case down securely.
After you’ve done all the construction work yourself, will you feel TE has offered you a financial saving for your hard work? The Model 170 goes for $399 (£315 GB). It features nine modules: VCO, VCF, VCA, LFO, EG, sequencer/membrane keyboard, power distribution, audio output, and speaker. The Model 16 alone, which has a membrane touch keyboard instead of real keys, costs $199 (£155 GB) on Teenage Engineering’s website.
Could you put together a similar small system in a powered cabinet using modules from other manufacturers at the same price? Probably not. With many companies charging $100 or £100 for an audio oscillator alone, going along TE’s flat-pack route may certainly be economically justifiable. The larger Model 400 system, with almost twice the number of modules, is priced at only $499 (£469 GB), but stock appears to be limited at the moment. The 400 doesn’t have the immediate portability of the 170, which (once built) is about the size of a paperback book—though one with a sloping panel, if that makes sense.
Once ready to play, the Model 170 gives pretty-much immediate satisfaction. It has a built-in speaker and works off eight AA batteries installed internally, though it does have other power options. Once you’ve inserted the modules into the system’s front panel, you can’t replace any of them; it’s a fixed system. TE also supplies eight patch cables with 3.5mm plugs.
From the Foundation Up
An obvious beginning patch is just to send the 170’s oscillator straight to the audio output, which works fine. It’s a square-wave oscillator with variable pulse width you can modulate, so it’s pretty much all-purpose. To get smoother sounds more like triangle or sine waves, you would have to filter it a little. The oscillator has an extremely wide range almost from hypersonic to subsonic. Tuning is completely flexible and up to you.
If you modulate the oscillator with the LFO, either from a triangle or square output, then you get instant vibrato and trill effects. Because the range of modulation depth is very large and the range of LFO speeds is even more impressive, you can achieve a wide range of other effects. If you want to create metallic and ring modulator-like effects, the LFO goes well into audio frequencies.
If you modulate the filter in the same way, especially with very high resonance, then you create very vocal formant-like effects. The filter is a standard lowpass design with a good amount of resonance, but it doesn’t reach the point of oscillating. The 170 also has a single audio input, two scalable voltage control inputs, and three audio outputs.
The envelope is a simple ADSR with two outputs to go to the filter and VCA, generally. At the end of the audio chain, the VCA simply patches into the amp/speaker on the rear panel.
What sort of sounds can you make with the 170’s modules? Well, you obviously don’t have a lot of flexibility with only one oscillator, one envelope, and one LFO. The 170 lacks white noise or random options, but the very extensive ranges of the oscillator and LFO do make some unusual effects possible, like very clangy metallic bass notes, bubbly filter noises, and high-pitched theremin-like sounds.
You’re really going to want to get the sequencer working to get the most out of the 170. Considered as an effects option rather than simply a source of melody lines, it can be very effective. The sequencer runs in several ways and is capable of playing a simple pattern, adding notes to a pattern as it plays, transposing, playing arpeggios, and playing back at very high or very low speeds. Think of it as an extra modulation source, and you can create all sorts of rapidly or gradually developing textures. One thing it does with ease is to make the synth sound like the old EMS Synthi AKS of Tim Blake or Jean-Michel Jarre, rapidly when it plays looping high-pitched melodies.
Having this type of sequencer and a single audio oscillator will inevitably remind some people of the Roland Bassline. The 170 is a handy entry into the busy Bassline-clone arena, since the sound is relatively flexible and the sequencing options are extensive. They include Arabian and other scales, synchronization by MIDI or by TE’s own Pocket Operator sync protocol, and much more.
The sequencer is a four-channel design. There’s not much you can do to demonstrate that with only the single Model 170 voice at hand, though. If you’re working with other instruments at the same time, the Model 16 sequencer/membrane keyboard—either standalone or as part of the 170 system—can be a powerful source of multichannel performances.
Again the instructions for using the sequencer are cryptic. You’ll find much more detail on the company’s website than in the manual. Suffice it to say that the jacks marked Preset on the instrument have nothing to do with preset sounds. More accurately, they’re understood as CV 1, 2, and 3, as labeled on the website’s illustrations.
I can imagine turning up for a gig or noise-making session with a Model 170 system in a very small bag. A laptop case is easily sufficient. Thanks to its built-in speaker and battery power option, the instrument encourages this sort of portability. In larger instrument setups, you can place it next to your keyboard or DJ decks and maybe patch into them, either to process sounds through the 170’s filter or to use as a source of abstract sounds effects, adding a bit of ping-pong echo, of course.
As part of a larger modular system, the 170 offers you a multitrack sequencing keyboard. Such a setup gives you a good start on creating sounds readily patchable for expansion into other larger instruments and systems.
I’d be surprised if no one offers custom wooden end cheeks for both the 170 and 16. The lack of them is charmingly informal, but I’d be worried about the possibility of rodents getting inside my instruments.
Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operator Modular 170 is an exciting and rather alternative entry into the world of analog synthesis from a company that’s already made it big in digital. The cryptic nature of the construction notes and the extreme fiddliness of some components fade into the past once you start using the instrument. The upgrade path from the 170 to the larger (but still very compact and economical) Modular 400, which despite its larger size can also be battery-powered, is a very inviting one. If you have no fear of flat-pack, then these new products from Sweden may well be for you.
Price: Model 170, $399. Model 16, $199.