Teenage Engineering has introduced some of the most interesting and downright unique products to the music production world over the past few years. The OP-1 portable synth and all its oddities, along with the company’s line of miniature Pocket-Operator instruments are anything but ordinary.
After expanding the Pocket Operator line with with the wacky Robot, Office and Arcade units, TE unveiled its most powerful calculator-sized synth to date with the PO-32 Tonic. We got our first good look at the new drum machine back at NAMM in January and since then we have had a chance to go hands on with the Tonic to see what new tricks it has up its sleeves…
For anyone who may have missed our review of the very first Pocket Operators, here’s a quick refresh: These are small standalone instruments, each themed and designed to play particular sounds like bass, drums, melodies, ridiculous robot samples and more. They have built-in sounds and a very powerful little sequencer that allows you to create patterns and then essentially punch-in effects on a step-by-step basis.
All of the sounds available to you are built-in to the machines themselves and can’t be changed or flipped out for your own. Until now.
With the PO-32, TE has now made it possible to replace the bank of 16 individual drum hits (kicks, snares, claps, hi-hats, etc.) using the Microtonic virtual instrument for Mac. Either using the built-in mic or 1/8-inch audio input/output, we can create our own sounds on Microtonic and then simply send them to the PO whenever we wish. Needless to say, this drastically enhances the usability of Tonic, effectively taking it from boutique drum machine to a very affordable and powerful sampler/sequencer. All of the sudden its not just about what we can do with the sounds we are given on a PO, but rather its versatility and potential as a sequencer/performance tool. The entire process is quite painless, as Sonic Charge has built-in a PO-32 transfer section right into the interface of Microtonic.
Fortunately, one of the most impressive features on any PO is its punch-in style effects and sequencer parameter-locks. This is clearly where this (and all of the other Pocket Operators) really shine for me.
We can very easily punch-in any one of the 16 effects available to us to any one or more of the steps in our sequence. Want some distortion and a glitchy repeat at the end of your drum pattern? Simply hold the effects (FX) button and then hit the corresponding key for the effect you want, when you want it to happen, and boom your there.
You can easily audition, erase and chain up any of the 16 effects on a pattern with a button press or two. There is some very interesting stuff in here including odd distortions, beat-repeats, granular processing, reverses, weird pitchy sweeps and more. You can see a full list of the effects above and hear them below:
You can also record the moves made with the rotary pots either in real time while holding the write button or on a step-by-step basis while in record mode. They offer a combination of effects that sound to me like pitch, filtering and even envelope settings for longer/shorter decay times. Even after you have loaded up 16 of your own sounds, these parameters can alter the tone of them even further whether you’re recording the changes as described above or just tweaking the sounds before you sequence them. This is a very intuitive way to alter a number of parameters with a simple two-knob setup. Love it.
This kind of hands-on programming for the effects etc. might be the main reason I would use something like this to program drum parts over the infinitely more powerful sequencing of Logic Pro X. And that is saying a lot for a sub $100 drum machine that runs on two AAA batteries and fits in the palm of your hand.
TE also makes it very easy to store and chain together all of the patterns you have made, along with providing other drum machine basics like BPM, swing, and accent controls.
While all of the Pocket Operators can be connected to one another, we have also figured out a way to sync them up with Logic Pro X on your Mac (or any DAW) for easy integration into your studio setup (lock the BPM of the PO t0 your Logic project). You can get a complete step-by-step walkthrough on how to do that right here. Hit us up in the comments below if you have any issues, but everything worked great for us.
TE effectively treats the device like a 4 channel drum machine. This enables us to mute and solo the various sounds in our drum patterns for performance reasons, but this is also very handy in the studio. For example, we can record the individual instruments (kick, snare, etc.) in our patterns into Logic to separate tracks for complete isolated control over each element of our beats.
Teenage Engineer’s most powerful Pocket Operator to date is also its most expensive at $89. And that isn’t going to get you a license for Microtonic, which you’ll need to reap the full benefits of the machine. Having said that, Sonic Charge’s Microtonic is a very powerful drum machine in its own right and is certainly more than worth the additional $99 it will cost you anyway.
At under $200 for the whole package – an awesome virtual drum synth you probably want on your Mac system anyway, plus TE’s ultra-portable punch-in effects and on-the-fly sequencing – its hard to complain about the value here. It is certainly more than most Pocket Operator customers are worth spending, but it’s also a lot more functionality than they are used to as well.
The PO-32 Tonic is estimated to begin shipping in the “last week of April” for $89 from the Teenage Engineering site and other retailers. Microtonic for Mac/PC is $99. The previous generation Pocket Operators go for $59 shipped.
- real synthesizer engines
- parameter locks
- step multiplier
- unlimited sounds with micro tonic vst NEW!
- built-in speaker
- built-in microphone for data transfer NEW!
- 3.5mm audio I/O
- jam sync
- animated LCD display
- folding stand
- break away lock tab NEW!
- clock + alarm clock
- battery powered (2XAAA)
- 1 month battery life
- 2 year standby time
See any interesting products/gear you would like us to review/cover? Let us know in the comments below.
The Logic Pros are: Justin Kahn and Jordan Kahn, who also front Toronto-based electronic/hip-hop group Makamachine.
Want more Logic Pros? Check out the archives here and stay tuned for a new installment each week in 2017.