Pocket synthesizers aren’t anything new. In 2013, Open Music Labs gave away a cassette-sized synthesizer called the Mixtape Alpha at SXSW, then sold it at $42 a pop. But it’s rare that a pocket synth looks like something even non-musicians would want to play around with.
The Pocket Operator line of pocket synths is different. These three calculator-sized music makers are designed to emulate the retro-style gaming goodness of the Game & Watch handhelds Nintendo sold from 1980 to 1991. Although the Pocket Operators are mostly just simple circuit boards, without any real casing to speak of, the gaming inspiration still manages to shine through thanks to a low-powered, monochrome LED display. Just like the Nintendo handhelds, the Pocket Operator synths allow you to “play” a simple game just by tapping in music. There are three games to choose from, each themed around the codename of the synth you’re using: a sewing game (Rhythm), a construction game (Factory) and a submarine game (Sub).
Swedish audio house Teenage Engineering designed the line of Pocket Operators, and is best known for the beautiful, OP-1 synth which put just as much of a premium on its industrial design as it did features and sound quality. But unlike its pricey $800 OP-1 synth, the Pocket Operators are cheap enough for anyone to afford. At $60 apiece, there are three different models to choose from: the PO-12 “Rhythm” drum machine, the PO-14 “Sub” bass synth, and the PO-16 “Factory” melody unit. All three feature 16-step sequencing and a selection of 16 sounds to choose from, as well as 16 additional effects.
And while the Pocket Operator might look simple and might not be technologically impressive by 2015 standards, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a powerful music making tool. Keep in mind, feature for feature, these three Pocket Operators are about as advanced as the technology that the earliest pioneers of electronic music were working with in the 1970s. If Giorgio Moroder could start his career on something like this, so can you.
You can buy a Pocket Operator here.