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What good design feels like

Freaks tweak these sleek synth beeps

This is a synthesizer. It is a small machine to create music. The OP-1 fits in your hands. It has many little keys, a small screen and colored knobs. It looks funny, like a toy. Price tag: 1399€. Ain't no toy.

The OP-1 was designed by a group of Swedish freaks by the name of Teenage Engineering. It launched in 2011 for 699€. The internet people raved about it. Why this hype? Let's dive in.

The object

The weight of an object conveys its value. A plastic toy is thrown around. A ceramic vase is not. The OP-1 is in the Goldilocks zone: the weight is just right - not too light and not to heavy. It was made to be carried in a backpack. It has a radio built in and a microphone to import any sound you want. So now your backpack contains an acoustic guitar, a Steinway piano or a 70s drum kit (almost). Infinite opportunities in such a tiny package god yes I'm a fanboy stop judging me.

Creative constraints

But the OP-1 is also famous for its constraints. You can't change individual notes once they've been recorded. You can only record sounds on 4 different tracks. If you're used to making music with garageband, Ableton or any other digital audio workstation (DAW), then you'll know this sucks.
Limitations force you to adapt and think differently. They make you creative.  

The interfaces

The OP1 has 40 interfaces. These interfaces have no labels, no guidelines. And they are packed with parameters. Sounds like enterprise software hell. But it's not. All graphics in the OP-1 are color-coded. The mapping of all elements then make intuitive sense: The blue knob changes blue stuff. The green knob changes green stuff, etc... all instantly. The feedback is direct.

The OP-1 wants you to experiment. With no labels or gauges, you can't make decisions by looking at a screen. So you twist crank tweak these delightful knobs until feeling yourself content.

The devil is in the details

The square keys are extruded out into circles that are the size of your fingertips. Instinctively, you want to press these buttons. Along with the round-shaped speaker, the OP-1 looks like a mashup between Dieter Ram's Braun designs and a Casio calculator.

The T-41 Braun radio on the right and the Casio VL-Tone on the left


My first instrument

I've been meaning to write music for years, and kept telling myself I needed the OP-1 to get started. Haha what a terrible self-deceptive belief.
Just got one for Christmas. No more messing around.

Something formidable happens when you want to compose music for the first time: you start hearing all other songs differently. You start noticing textures, drum kicks and baselines in songs you swore you knew perfectly... Layers upon layers of acoustic refinement that you've been oblivious to all your life. You start understanding why some people are called musical geniuses. Now couple that with some musical vocabulary and you've got yourself a new valuable life lens. You unlock the "active listening" achievement.

The OP-1 has opened my ears, it has also showed me what good design can be. If I had to take just three objects on an island, guess what I'd bring?