I’ve always accepted that I’d never understand or afford a modular synthesizer. I had trouble processing the gigantic black boxes of knobs and lights connected by spider-webs of electrical wires as musical instruments. Modular synths like the analog behemoth Tonto had far more horsepower than I’d ever be able to take advantage of. They needed to be reserved for geniuses like Stevie Wonder, Brian Eno or the doomed anti-hero of Phantom of The Paradise
And while I didn’t understand how the stacks of oscillators and sequencers comprising modular synthesizers worked, I could tell they didn’t come cheap.
But now that’s all changed with Teenage Engineering’s new Pocket Operator Modular Series. Teenage Engineering caught the world’s attention with their line of pocket-sized instruments and their high-powered, minimalist design OP-1 keyboard. This month, the Swedish geniuses made modular synthesizers more affordable, easier to play and portable than anyone’s ever thought possible.
With prices starting at $150 and ending at the still affordable $499, Teenage Engineering is touting their new portable modular series as a “poor man’s modular.”
The three modular synths, the 16, the 170 and the 400, come in three different colors, sizes and price points.
The 16 is a 16-key keyboard with a built-in programmable sequencer that runs on four AA batteries and retails for $149.
The more expensive 170 is a monophonic analog synthesizer with built-in keyboard, programmable sequencer, speaker box and battery pack and retails for $349.
The $499 400 modular synthesizer boasts a warm natural analog sound and includes a carrying handle on the back, a 1-16 step sequencer, eight patch cables, three oscillators and more.
The modular components come in flat pack kits, ready to bend, build and assemble from scratch. Bend isn’t referring to pitch. Teenage Engineering made the components with pre-configured chassis out of aluminum sheet metal so thin and bendable that it feels nearly disposable.
It doesn’t entail hours of stringing wires from component to component in search of desired sounds. Teenage Engineering designed the modular series to be instantly rewarding, so players can make sounds soon after taking the systems out of their boxes.
The system’s flexibility means players can stumble on basic configurations of sounds and easily intuit how to use and how to think about a modular synthesizer. When they’re ready to grow their system, they can move the modules to an open frame chassis and can add more modules or modify their configuration. That’s not to say TE is throwing players in the deep end and expecting them to sink or swim without instruction: all kits come with 70 page build manuals.