Review: The OP-Z music & visual sequencer with iOS display is insanely powerful, but is it worth the price?

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This week we are entering the wild world of Teenage Engineering’s OP-Z. The tiny little portable gadget is essentially its own music making platform with built-in instruments. However, it is also capable of sequencing photos, unity 3D video, lighting rigs and more. Along with its beautiful hardware design, OP-Z uses your iOS devices as a display (among other things) and plays nice with your Mac too. Head below for a closer look.

Luxury Book iPhone 7 Plus Case

OP-Z music/photo/lighting sequencer:

Much like the OP-1 before it, OP-Z continues with TE’s focus on quirky, but powerful little standalone music making devices. While at a quick glance this thing might look like an expensive toy, it is certainly capable of pushing out some serious audio. It includes a host of built-in virtual instruments and samplers as well as the ability to add your own sounds to the mix. All of which can be sequenced using some amazing Pocket Operator style punch-in effects, extremely versatile pattern settings and more. But that’s only if you can manage to crack the LED-based hieroglyphics and be willing to go head first down the secondary function spiral.

This thing works as a portable standalone device or paired via Bluetooth with an iPhone or iPad. The iOS OP-Z app provides the system’s display as well as a series of sound editors, project management tools, photo/3D video hubs, MIDI configurations and more. It will certainly make the learning curve a little less steep, but a certain level of hardware mastery is still required here. While I recommend using the app, especially when you’re first getting going, it is entirely possible to do just about everything right from the machine sans-iPad.

Main Feature Set:

  • 6 hour battery life
  • 1 year stand-by time
  • Bluetooth 5.0 LE
  • 160 user programmable patterns
  • Pattern chaining
  • 16 synthesis, sampler and control tracks.
  • 2 octave musical keyboard
  • 51 mechanical keys in total
  • Pressure sensitive pitch bend
  • 4 x multi purpose color coded encoders

As a quick side note, this piece will be mainly focused on the user experience and whether or not it is worth the price of entry for various users. The sheer depth of the machine warrants hours of tutorials. The Step Components alone could take up an entire (and extremely lengthy) post. But enough with the formalities, let’s dive in.

OP-Z encoders

OP-Z Build Quality:

Once again TE has impressed with me with the physical build. The exterior of the machine looks like a robust alien plastic. It feels like paper to the touch and I love it (IXEF 1022 PARA + 50% glass fiber mixture during injection moulding.). The tiny round buttons are well, small. Smaller than I would like sure, but they feel super sturdy and likely to handle years of rhythmic clicks. The completely flush rotary encoder discs along the top – used for various contextual functions – are wonderfully smooth feeling. However, I think I would have appreciated a little bit more resistance on them. At times, I was accidentally changing settings without meaning too just by rubbing my arm over the machine.

That small yellow tab hanging off the left of the instrument is the combination power/master volume control that is just waiting to get snapped off at your next club gig. Having said that, it is actually a little bit more robust feeling than I was initially anticipating. It looks pretty, but I can’t help but think Teenage Engineering went for form over function on this one.

OP-Z instruments

Built-in Sounds:

The OP-Z comes packed with 9+ different drum sampler instruments and built-in synths. It’s not the most versatile bunch, but if you’re looking for traditional synth and drum machine sounds, you’re covered. There is some interesting stuff on the sampler tracks that aren’t drums – like weird one shot hits and vocal clips – but nothing mind blowing. The actual sampler instrument/synth engines are somewhat basic as well. You only really get a few controls for shaping the sounds, a high/low pass filter, ADSR and a single LFO (per track). While you can get some cool stuff out of this thing, don’t expect a full synth panel of controls for each of the 8 instrument tracks.

Having said all that, OP-Z plays nice with OP-1 so you can bring sounds over and there are ways to add your own drums and samples on to the machine with relative ease. We are also talking about Teenage Engineering here so it is very likely we see this content get expanded in some way in the future.

The basic set of sound sources and tools can be a little bit misleading however. When you factor in the insane sequencer-based effects you can achieve with the Step Components and Control tracks, things can get pretty wild to say the least. Lets just say I’m really not having a problem coming up with personalized sounds.

OP-Z's wild Step Components

OP-Z Sequencing:

I would argue that most of the machine’s power comes from its down right amazing sequencing. For starters, it’s your usual affair – pick a sound, click some notes in to some of the 16 steps (completely scalable) and boom, there’s your pattern. However, with a series of Step Components that can be applied on a track-by-track or full song basis, things get very interesting. Essentially there a load of effects and trigger conditions that can be set for each step in your patterns. That include everything from filter sweeps and some wild randomization possibilities right to glitchy madness.  All of which can be sequenced on top of your basic parts to create everything from interesting alternate patterns to evolving ambiance and well, a whole lot more.

Achieving these particular kinds of results in say Logic will certainly require some serious ingenuity. Otherwise you would have to rely on buffer and splicing plug-ins like Looperator or something. The immediacy of being able to sequence these Step Components in a sort of Fruity Loops-like pattern maker is fantastic. Those sometimes insanely complicated glitch-style effects all of a sudden become musical in their implementation by way of being able to perform them just like a typical bass line or melody.

The possibilities are near endless here. Whether you’re just creating interesting nuances in your next pop song, the backing track for the next Thom Yorke solo album, or DJing a minimalist electro rave, OP-Z can handle it. And handle it well.   

The OP-Z music sequencer

Connectivity:

You’re basically looking at a single 1/8-inch stereo audio out with MIDI and power running over a single USB-C jack. While the audio connectivity is a little bit limiting – there doesn’t appear to be a proper way of exporting multi-track songs/ideas – the MIDI implementation is quite versatile. Each of the system’s tracks can send MIDI to your Mac and iOS setup. In other words, you can use OP-Z as the brain’s of the operation to sequence instruments on your Logic system or even other outboard gear via discreet MIDI channels. You’ll also find customizable CC messages that you can use to control the various contextual rotary disc encoder settings (filters, sound parameters, FX sends and more).

OP-Z iOS MIDI setup

With an inbound modular add-on coming soon, it will also be able to communicate with your Eurorack gear. You can expect some coverage on that side of things when it becomes available along with Teenage Engineering’s new modular rigs.

OP-Z iOS app

OP-Z iOS App:

As previously mentioned, the OP-Z itself does not have a display on it so you’ll have to rely on the iOS app for that. It’s a pretty app to look at and the, thus far, flawless pairing process will get you going. You’ll find the machine’s main interface in here along with all of your usual setting and configuration menus. The app is also where the additional Photomatic and Unity 3D modes are found.

Photomatic:

This is where you can store a series of photos you can then sequence on the machine along with your music. Each photo, either from your camera roll or elsewhere, can be sequenced in patterns much the same as the sampler and synth tracks. You can even use the OP-Z keyboard to control your iPhone’s camera shutter and then store each shot on said key for sequencing.

There are a good amount of visual effects (color changes, timing related FX, etc.) that can then be sequenced in order to create your very own music video or visualizations.

As fun as it is, it seems a little under baked to me. There doesn’t appear to be anyway to include video clips in the process which would seem to have been considerably more useful for those creating music/video projects.

For the record, I have not been able to test out the lighting rig sequencing or the 3D video effects (outside of the included demo projects). Having said that, it appears as though 3D artists will be able to load their own content on to the machine and sequence various shots much the same as it happens in Photomatic. I have been toying around with the demos though and it’s amazingly fun. I however, do not have regular access to DMX lighting rigs and do not have a buddy that makes Unity 3D animations (yet?).

The OP-Z music and visual sequencer iOS display side view

Overall Usability:

There are a million tutorials out there on all of the little intricacies of OP-Z, and you’re going to need them. The manual is, umm good, but not great. TE has included some excellent little cheat sheets in the form of physical paper overlays. But most people are going to need a hands-on video of some kind to crack this miniature LED enigma machine.

If you’re using it without an iOS device as its display then you’re going to have to become somewhat of a multi-colored LED and quick keys Jedi. For example, the rotary encoders – which have no clear end for start point – will blink green in some cases to show you that setting is now at 0 (or right in the middle). You know which contextual sound editing page your on by looking at the colored lights below the encoders. To access certain features you might have to hold one button, click another and then make your adjustment or selection. And so on. It takes a fair bit memory muscle to get it all down.

While the learning curve is real, the whole thing sort of starts to feel borderline genius once you get to know it. Especially considering how much power is packed into the machine’s tiny footprint.

OP-Z quick look at front profile

But is it all worth the price?

In the end, I would have to say this is another big win for the design firm meets synth company that is Teenage Engineering. It has always set out to create unique instruments while mostly ignoring the trends of the bigger corporations in the space. And OP-Z does just that.

Yes, I would have preferred a much deeper synth engine and proper export functionality for finishing off ideas inside of Logic (Logic Pro X workflow content is on the way). But I will be adding this to my home studio and live rigs nonetheless.

In fact, there’s something about this little machine that makes me want to create a live performance specifically using nothing but OP-Z. And much like the OP-1, there in lays the machine’s strongest selling point. Inspiration. Whether it’s the tiny form factor or happy sound palette limitations, I’m not sure, but this little gadget makes me want to get creative in a way most other comparable products do not.

There are just so many interesting features on OP-Z, the learning curve quickly transforms into musical exploration. There’s a mini touch-sensitive pitch bender button, you can turn the whole thing into a live microphone just by lifting it up to your mouth. And there’s a little Easter Egg of sorts buried under the bottom panel. After a month or more of being hands-on with the machine, I’m still bumping into new workflows, power features and new tones.

OP-1 vs. OP-Z

Due to its quantized (if you want), sequencer based song creation, I would argue that it is infinitely better suited to live (or not) electronic music than the venerable OP-1 (now shipping again!). While its sound design capabilities are certainly less detailed than OP-1, if you had to choose one or the other, I would certainly rather OP-Z’s organized, sequencer-based workflow over OP-1’s virtual tape machine any day. Considering OP-Z has a tape FX track where you can sequence those awesome tape machine stops, rolls and more, it is sort of the best of both worlds in my opinion. OP-1 will always remain part of my sound design palette, but OP-Z just seems to fall a little bit less on the overly indulgent side of things due to its more practical infrastructure.

Pricing/Availability:

If any of this sounds interesting to you, then I would argue it is definitely worth the $599 price tag. However, if there’s a part of you saying, “I can do all this inside Logic or Ableton Live without spending another nickel”, you’re mostly right and this probably isn’t for you. Although I would love to hear about how you’re managing to get something similar to the Step Components feature in the comments below. No seriously, please tell me.

OP-Z can be somewhat hard to get your hands on right now as it is sold out directly from Teenage Engineering. The small company is trying its best to keep up with demand I’m sure,  but you can lock one in at certain music dealers when more stock arrives by the looks of it. Also be sure to keep an eye on TE’s Amazon store for Prime shipping perks.

This article was originally posted on 9to5Mac

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