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Teenage Engineering, best known for its flagship synthesizer/sequencer the OP-1, recently unleashed a new line of tiny music makers on the world known as the Pocket Operators. The PO-12 Rhythm is a drum machine, the PO-14 Sub is a bass module and the PO-16 Factory is dedicated to melodies and lead lines. The appearance of the units may have some writing them off as toys, and considering they were partially inspired by pocket calculators and the Nintendo Game & Watch products, that may not be totally off base. But creativity and musical inspiration come from unexpected places sometimes.
Having gone hands on with the PO-16 model for over a week now, I have found it to be quite a playable little instrument, with its own interesting quirks, creative limitations, and boutique sound. Most examples of the little device in action appear to be freestyle techno jams, song re-creations or somewhat avant guard pieces that don’t seem to offer much in the way of real-life production applications. So I decided to run the new Factory model through its paces, putting it alongside some bigger name virtual/hardware instruments in the space to see how it would hold-up in a more typical Logic or GarageBand production.
Read on for more details on the PO-16, how to sync this bad boy up with your other hardware and to hear how it sits inside a mix with some big name software/hardware…
First let’s take a look at the PO-16 Factory itself. It’s essentially a mini synthesizer with a built-in 16 step sequencer, 15 preset lead sounds and a 16th slot reserved for what TE calls a micro drum kit. Sound, Pattern and BPM buttons sit alongside the 2 rotary encoders (A and B), with effects, record mode and the play buttons found along the right. Through the middle of the unit you’ll see the main 4 x 4 grid (for the purposes of the piece, we will refer to this section as the “grid”), this is where most of the action takes place including sound selection, pattern sequencing and applying effects. There are a number of secondary functions in place as you can imagine, so the basic operation requires you to hold certain keys and then make the applicable note/parameter changes.
Once you have selected a sound by holding the “sound” key and choosing a patch stored on the main 4 x 4 grid in the middle of the unit, you are ready to move into write mode to create your pattern (although you can change your sound after the fact). The patches have a sort of boutique and almost 16-bit quality to them. While many them are clearly mimicking traditional sounds (FM, subtractive, physical modeling and wavetable) found on many other preset banks in your software library, my colleague suggested that some of them give him a sort of Mega Man/Nintendo type feel. I don’t find that to be a particularly bad thing if that’s what you’re after, but I’d have to agree with him. But where this tiny noise maker shines most isn’t in its patch list, but rather how playable its sequencer and on-board effects are.
The sequencer or “pattern” mode is a basic sixteen stepper, fun to use and much more playable then some have suggested, albeit with a few interesting caveats. Once write mode is engaged (bottom right corner), you can simply tap in your sequence or pattern on the grid. Holding a note in your sequence will allow you to change the pitch with rotary encoder A (notes C3 to D5) and the length of the note with encoder B. Alternatively, you can hold the write button and play your part in real-time to create an auto-quantized pattern, as opposed to simply highlighting each of the desired steps.
Up to 16 patterns can be stored at once (Hold Pattern + Write, then hit the desired slot to store it on from the main grid). When holding the “pattern” button, you can choose to chain a series of your stored patterns together by simply tapping on them in the desired order while in play mode (1, 1, 1, 3, plays pattern 1 three times and then pattern 3 before looping back around again).
While this is, for the most part, a monotimbral instrument (one sound or patch playing at once), the micro drum track can indeed be layered on top of your main sound within a single pattern. It has its own independent 16-step sequencer and 16 sampled drum sounds. However, the effects and play styles applied to said pattern will hit the drum track as well. If you can see through the mostly arbitrary (and awesome) bird factory graphics on the display, you’ll notice a small n 1-16 appear in the upper right corner so you can tell when your editing the micro drum track.
As TE has publicly stated previously regarding the OP-1, it likes musical limitations, believes in the creativity it brings out in musicians, and didn’t shy away from that design philosophy with its much more affordable Pocket Operators. There is no way to shorten the length of the sequence itself (other than some creative/manual BPM switching), and the Pocket Operators are locked to the key of C/A Minor/D Dorian, in other words, only the white keys on your keyboard. However, it is possible to hit that special semi-tone in your life with what is arguably the best part of these little bird factory music machines, the effects.
The effects on the unit are split into two banks of sixteen known as Effects Styles and Play Styles. The Effects Styles consist of audio effects ranging from traditional filter sweeps, delay, and bit/sample based distortion effects, to more creative stutters, pitch runs and vibrato. The Play Styles are note based effects, some of which can transpose your notes, create arpeggios or even allow you to change your single notes into chords.
You apply or perform these effects on your pattern by holding the “style” button for Effect Styles or the oddly named “keyoo” button for Play Styles, which brings each of them up on one of the main grid buttons (1. low sample rate, 2. distortion…..8. hipass filter…etc.). While your pattern is playing back and write mode is engaged, simply push the desired effect at the desired time and you’ll be stuttering and keyooing all over the place in no time. This performance-like way of applying the effects isn’t unheard of, but I found it to be one of the highlights of the machine and allowed me to come up with parts I may not have otherwise. Now while only one “Effect Style” and one “Play Style” effect can be applied at any given time, you will find the “half note up” option handy if you’re looking to hit those hard to reach black keys or integrating PO-16 parts into an existing Logic Pro X piece like I did below.
There is no MIDI or high tech way to integrate these things into your songs, we will simply be using audio tracks inside of Logic Pro X to both record our stored patterns and bits of live performance passes with evolving parameter changes:What you’ll need:
PO-16, an audio interface (preferably with at least 2 sets of outputs), two 1/8” audio cables and your favorite recording software:
1. Using the 1/8” cables, connect the output (the jack on the right side) of your PO to an input on your audio interface (referred to as the “input chain”). Then connect the input of the PO (the left jack) to one of the additional outputs on your interface (referred to as the “output chain”).
2. Create a new audio instrument track (Alt + Command + N, will bring up the new track option in Logic) and quickly program quarter notes for one bar inside your Logic session/DAW. Use some kind of drum sound like a rimshot or sharp snare.
3. Loop this new region from bar 1 in your session until the end. In Logic, highlight your newly created region and check-off the “loop” function in the inspector window or hover over the region’s top right most edge until the contextual loop tool pops-up and drag to the right.
4. Set the output on the track’s channel strip in Logic to correspond with the physical jack on your interface from the “output chain”.
5. On the PO, hold the keyoo button and then repeatedly press the BPM button to toggle through the various sync modes. With just one PO in your set-up, you’ll want SY2. With more than one daisy chained together, set them to SY3, SY4 and SY5, respectively down the chain.
6. Now we will create a number of new audio tracks in Logic to record our patterns and live performances on. After setting a given audio track’s input path inside of Logic to the corresponding physical input we used for the “input chain”, we are ready to go. Push play on Logic and the PO, and your patterns will play back in whatever tempo your Logic session is set to.And this is what it sounds like…
In the track below you’ll hear a number of riffs, melodies, layered harmonies and more sourced from the PO-16 with some additional EQ/filtering, and compression courtesy of Waves and Logic to glue them into the mix a little bit more. Additional instrumentation in the track includes sounds created with Massive, Razor and drum sampler Battery from Native Instruments, along with Logic Pro X’s EXS 24 sampler, Xfer’s Serum wavetable synth and more. If you want to hear the PO by itself, I put together a quick audio tour of the patches and some of the effects.
Outside of not being able to send MIDI performances/notes/parameter changes from Logic to the PO-16, this is more or less how we would be recording any external instrument. It is the POs interface/playability that contributed to my existing palette, not its bank of sounds. Having said that, you’ll probably spend more than $59 to find/create similar ones anyway. Providing you’re looking for a boutique, slightly bit crushed type of sound, I think the PO-16 provides more than enough creative possibilities and can easily be integrated into existing/new song projects with just about any of your current go-to soundmakers. Even if you’re not planning on making the next big hit electronic record, it might be one of the coolest alarm clocks in the sub $60 range I can find.
The Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators are available from a wide selection of retailers including Amazon, B&H, Teenage Engineering direct and more for $59. But your best bet is Guitar Center where you’ll side step any shipping fees. You can also choose to break off the clumsy hanger and slap it inside the $39 Pro case, but personally I prefer it naked.
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