I’ve had the pre-order OP-Z for over a week and, now that we’ve had time to use it at length, it’s ready to be reviewed. Does the long wait for the OP-Z live up to the ‘dream machine’ hype?
Like many others that will end up using the OP-Z, I would consider myself more of a ‘prosumer’. I’ve spent most of my early years writing, playing, and recording music. Despite having played in a band for many years and many live shows later, the thing that really gets me going is composition.
I’ve had the OP-1 for a little over a year and have used it mostly as a sketchpad for writing short melodies without the pressure of finishing anything (an important feature!). The portability and all-in-one nature has allowed me to expand where I can make music. Where before I would either need to have my laptop setup or my guitar, now I can stick the OP-1 in my backpack and that’s it.
The experience has really brought me around to the whole DAW-less jamming. While sometimes I care about perfection and audio quality (mostly while recording for reals), most of the time I don’t. I gladly will take the less powerful, but more self contained and distraction free OP-1.
As evidenced by this site even existing, the OP-Z has struck a chord (pun intended!) with me. The appeal comes from a single important truth for me. I don’t have endless hours to sit around and write music anymore. For many reasons it’s not the highest priority, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. I still love writing, but now it needs to be immediate, frictionless, and forgiving.
Portability -> Discovery
People don’t tend to understand my desire for tiny things that are super functional. Every subtraction in size and weight proportionately decreases my friction to using it. I carry this thing with me everywhere. I even let it play in my pocket while I went down to the store, pressing some buttons on the performance track. Along the way I made some interesting discoveries and when I got home, I had a very interesting direction to take a few patterns. The combination of the OP-Z portability and thoughtful design opened up some new creative pathways for me.
Sequencing -> Creativity
The OP-Z is very different than the OP-1 in it’s singular focus on sequencing. As someone who spends a lot of time writing code, it feels a lot like programming where I’m playing with data, patterns, rather than notes. Building on what I said about portability, the beauty of sequencing is the ability to make quick changes and get feedback in a tight loop. There’s no fear of messing up or capturing a better performance take. In fact, you can program in the performance via the master, fx, and performance tracks. I can dive right in with minimal fuss. Lowering the barriers for creativity is noticeable especially compared to the OP-1 where I would fret about making a mistake overdubbing.
The sound engines support the streamlined nature of a hyper portable sequencer. Dialing a good sound for a wide range of genres is fast, but deep enough to sculpt sounds. The dedicated high/low pass filters on each track, fx sends, and LFO are pretty much all I need. Not to mention that global reverb/chorus thing that widens sounds across the stereo field which is just amazing to combat the sterileness of a bunch of mono electronic sounds. Will I long for the sounds of some other expensive synth, of course! But given the choice I’d rather have the OP-Z. It’s better than good enough and I don’t get as distracted finding the sweet spot of some of the more lo-fi ish sounds of the OP-1.
The bad parts
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the numerous sharp edges (another pun intended!), bugs, and shortcomings.
For those who have been following along with Teenage Engineering for the last 3 years about the OP-Z, you’ll be dissapointed that the battery life is only 6 hours (although reports out there are more like 3-4) compared to the 16 touted pre launch. The website has only recently been updated and it feels like a punch in the gut. Portability and battery life go hand in hand. No I do not want to take a battery pack out with me all the time, that defeats the purpose.
Midi host capabilities
In our early tests, the OP-Z acting as a midi host is buggy and barely works at syncing the OP-1. Hitting the stop button twice crashes forcing a power cycle. I even had all my patterns get erased somewhere during my fiddling. I expect this to improve and early Instagram video showing off connectivity shows there’s a lot to be excited about.
Unity 3D integration
You can get a feel for what’s to come and it’s pretty compelling, but it feels a little underbaked at the moment. I’ve also noticed that it’s really good at heating up my iPhone (and probably crushing the battery). Even as an engineer, I couldn’t really follow where to begin in creating my own Unity scenes. I’d love to dig in, but they need to spend some more time on the developer experience.
The unit is sharp. Like uncomfortably sharp in the hand. The corners are really pointy and I feel bad for the pvc case. Speaking of the pvc case, it’s really not too bad at it’s intended purpose, but as a case for those faithful pre-order customers and a $600 instrument it feels like it should be more. The volume knob feels good, but sticking out is bound to make people feel like the unit is more fragile than it is. After going so far with the encoders (which are… simply amazing!), why let the volume stick out like that.
Ultimately the way to earn a place in my toolkit is to be unreasably useful. The OP-Z quickly established a seat at the table by helping me crank out patterns I feel pretty good about and iterate on for hours with a sound that’s fun if not good. For all the dissapointments, I think we’re still coming out ahead. No one by Teenage Engineering would even make an attempt at something like this. And for that, this is one radical piece of gear I’ll treasure.