This article will look at the nine best pocket synthesizers of 2023 or the top pocket operators by Teenage Engineering.
How Do Pocket Synths Work?
Pocket synths are compact synthesizers that operate on a battery or cells and are small enough to fit into your pocket. These are not your classic synths, sequencers, samplers, or drum machines, with a huge keyboard or a bunch of velocity-sensitive pads.
These functions are packed into a small calculator-like machine, with a 5 x 5 buttons matrix comprising a 4 x4 step sequencer. They are also called pocket operators, an out-of-the-box new class of instruments that change how we perceive music composition and production.
Teenage Engineering is a company that has created a range of pocket operators for different purposes, and they are priced at a very reasonable range. Apart from being innovative, these synths are also fun, playful, and easy to use.
How To Use Pocket Synths?
These are battery-operated ultraportable devices engineered to be used anytime and anywhere. Teenage Engineering has a collection of these synths, each of which could be used individually or with other units.
In terms of design, they commonly have 23 buttons, two knobs: A & B, one LCD screen, and 80s-style video game animations. In addition, some have an in-built mic and a recording facility, and some can exchange information with an external software plugin or a standalone virtual instrument.
Out of the 23 buttons, 16 are of the step sequencer, such that the sequencer lies at the bottom left as a 4×4 matrix numbered from 1-16. The sound button pressed with another button tells which sound is on that step of the sequencer, the pattern button tells which pattern is on that step, and the BPM button, along with knob B, is used to set the project’s tempo.
You can also add effects with the FX button, monitor the play button, record with the rec button, and change samples over with the write button. Now that we know how it works let’s look at the nine best pocket operator synths of 2023.
Top 9 Pocket Operator Synths 2023 (Best Rated)
1. Teenage Engineering PO-33 K.O.
PO-33 K.O. by Teenage Engineering is a micro sampler with an in-built microphone.
It features two synth engines: melodic and drums, each of which can record up to 40 seconds of samples using a line input or the in-built microphone. Samples can be sliced, trimmed, filtered, and copied & pasted such that they can be played live or programmed manually. In addition, the sixteen buttons can also save patterns into them.
- Sampler engines
The melodic sampler transposes in the harmonic minor scale, and the drum sampler slices into sixteen automatic slice features. Samples can’t be copied-pasted between the sample engine. Recording on it is as simple as pressing any of the 16 buttons and the recording button together, such that it records until the button is released. Further, you can also play or monitor a sound or the pattern or write over it.
There are fifteen built-in effects that you can use on your sounds: tone: pitch, and volume; FILTER: high-/low-pass filter and resonance; and TRIM: the start point and length of the sound.
- Tempo Switches
You can set the tempo to either Hip-hop[80 BPM], Disco [120 BPM], or Techno[140 BPM]. The tempo setting may seem limiting and oversimplified, but it’s adjustable, as there are two switches, A and B, one which of (B) can be turned between 60 and 240 BPM to fine-tune the tempo.
- Data Communication
You can transmit (copy, backup, paste, and restore) data between two synth devices or a hard disk. On top of that, you can also sync multiple units together, such that one unit becomes the master, and the other is set to sync with the master to a click track. There are five sync modes that you can choose from.
It’s a versatile bite-size performance sampler with good performance effects. Parameter automation, device syncing, and data storage and transmission are huge pros. Lastly, Teenage Engineering put a 16-step sequencer and recording mic into this small device, which is also affordable, for which they deserve a hats-off.
The device has a fixed scale for melodic samples, which is extremely limiting. Moreover, the sound is lo-fi, and some samples sound too 8-bit. Hence its use is finite and restricted.
2. Teenage Engineering PO-20 arcade
The P.O. 20 Arcade by Teenage Engineering is a compact synthesizer, sampler, and sequencer.
It has an interesting 8-bit video game aesthetic that immediately makes it fun and inspiring. It also features parameter locks, chord control, and punch-in effects tightly packed into this pocket-sized device.
- Sound Selection
You can apply Chords, patterns, and effects to the device’s sixteen buttons. The sixteen sounds included are: bass, bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, tom, blip, hard sync, noise fx, arpeggio, melodic arp, falling arp, octave arp, lead, vibrato, portamento, and echo.
- Chord & effects selection
You can add minor chords like Dm, Em, and Am, major chords like C, D, E, F, G, G#, A, and B, and an Esus chord. Lastly, you can select sixteen different effects, including solo chords. Lead, solo drums, bass, lowpass sweep, highpass filter & sweep, fill-in, retrigger, glitch, blinds, and rising arpeggios at different speeds and combinations.
- Smooth Beat-making
The company has made some improvements to the chiptune sound of the device, and overall it’s a decent beat-making tool for its size and price, with its 128 chords & pattern chaining, sounds, and punch-in effects.
Apart from the cool interface and simple workflow, a pro for the device is that it’s battery-operated. Another pro is that you can set a clock and alarm on it. Further, you can sync multiple units, chain patterns, do live recording, set the tempo, add live effects, and play drones in real-time.
It may come across as a toy to some people, and it is badly documented in the manual and even on video tutorials & reviews on the internet, which may leave you unsure of what the device exactly does. In addition, some customers on the internet have complained that it sounds soft, so the output volume seems like an issue.
3. Teenage Engineering PO-133 Street Fighter
The PO-133 street fighter is a pocket-sized synthesizer with up to 40 seconds of sample memory and a built-in microphone.
With two knobs, 16 sequencer buttons, one pattern button, one button for sound, and others for recording, adding effects, playing, and writing over the existing data controllers, the device is streamlined and well laid out. Like the PO-33, PO-133 also has both melodic and drum sound engines.
You can add sixteen effects to the sounds, including loop 16, loop 12, loop short, loop shorter, a couple of unison effects, octave shifting effects, stutter effects, and scratch, quantize, retrigger, and reverse effects.
- Auto Power off
The unit automatically switches off when no buttons or knobs are touched for a while. That saves battery when you’re not using the device. You can also check the battery status by pressing a couple of buttons together.
- Synth Engine
You can set the tempo, add effects, add swing, record live, lock two parameters together on the same knob, tweak sounds, select patterns, sequence them, manage sound/sample data, and do a lot more with this small synthesizer. Playing patterns among the melodic and drum engines is extremely fun.
- Nostalgia factor
The super Nintendo game’s nostalgic sounds are unique to the PO-133. In addition, the red interface and the cool video game Tekken-like animations in the interface make the device more fun and great for authentic 8-bit, lofi, combat, crowd, and chiptune sounds.
You can combine the P.O. with an external instrument like the OP-1, so the device can control the P.O. and do much more with its sounds. For example, you can create interesting and authentic patterns and songs to increase the overall sound quality & punch.
The ability to transfer, back up, restore, and transmit data to different units and storage devices is a huge pro. In addition, the factory reset allows you to start from scratch in case you do something undesirable by mistake. Lastly, it’s fun, inspiring, portable, and experimental and is great for 8-bit sounds.
The 40 seconds sample memory, eight drum slots, and the step multiplier are some features worth acknowledging.
The 8-bit video game sounds are niche specific, which makes the device non-versatile. You can also sample the same sounds in the PO-133 in the KO-33, a cheaper device.
4. Teenage Engineering PO-14 sub
The PO-14 sub is a unique pocked-sized synth that features heavy bass tones.
The PO-14 has a special interface, which differs from all other P.O. units, and it has 31 different sounds/samples, sixteen different effects, sixteen different bass-oriented playing styles, sixteen pattern chaining, and an auto-power-off option.
- Sonic Power
Sounds 1-15 feature assorted bass synthesis ranging from F.M., phase distortion, and wavetable to physically modeled string, whereas the sixteenth button has a micro drum machine with 16 sampled sounds, in write mode, set sound by holding any step and turning knob.
The bass tones are thumpy and cool with a deep sub-bass texture, and the drum sounds are also pretty cool for the aesthetic it’s going for. It’s essentially a bass synth capable of sounds of various genres and styles.
You can create patterns with different bass & drum sounds, add various effects to the sounds, create patterns of those effects, and even combine those effects.
- Effects Range
The sixteen in-built effects in the device are low sample rate, distortion, bit crush, delay, lowpass & highpass filters & sweeps, stutter effects, feedback, parameter LFO, octave shifts, note shifts, and vibrato effect.
The aesthetic and the bass specialization are a couple of pros of the device. Besides that, it’s compatible to connect with other P.O. units and can also be used as a sound design tool. In addition, the patterns you can sequence on the machine can be groovy and interesting.
It’s not the right device if you’re looking for something versatile and sturdy, as it has a fragile build. With its sound and sonic capability, it’s a shame that it does not have more connectivity.
5. Teenage Engineering PO-16 factory
The PO-16 is specialized for lead sounds and melodies.
It has multiple playing styles, parameter locks, multiple synth engines, fifteen sounds, a micro drum machine, sixteen pattern-chaining, sixteen arpeggios & chords-based playing styles, and sixteen punch-in effects. Further, the stock patterns & sequences are cool and sound great.
It has drum sounds as well as melodic sounds. However, the synth sounds, drum effects, and stock patterns stand out. Creating a beat on the device is easy and efficient, as you can easily set the tempo and efficiently sequence the patterns.
You can shift the pitch and octaves in real-time, add wobble effects, and various distortion & overdrive effects to further emphasize the 8-bit sonics. You can also use stutter, feedback, LFO, and filter effects to sculpt your sound better.
It has a CV, MIDI, and P.O. sync output option, and you can do polyrhythmic sequencing and save your patterns as presets. Lastly, for its size, it’s quite powerful, and of course, the portability is a huge pro.
It’s priced high for its functionality and as a toy musical synthesizer and is especially pricy for a DIY kit. In addition, the touch keyboard doesn’t feel as good. Lastly, lead sounds in a song are supposed to be punchy, and upfront, which the device cannot produce, given it operates on batteries and has a limiting synth circuitry & architecture.
6. Teenage Engineering PO-35
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PO-35 is a vocal synthesizer and sequencer with a built-in microphone.
You can record voice and do 8-voice character sampling on the pocket operator. It also has an extended 120 seconds sample memory, eight expansive vocal-based effects, transpose and scale change options, and replaceable drum sounds.
You can apply the eight-voice effects: the autotune effect, retro, noise, robot, fifth, vocoder, and synth. Other effects on the button 9-16 are stutter sweep, trance gate, half rate, 16 bar build up, 6/8 quantize, retrigger pattern, and reverse.
- Recording Engine
You can record 8-second audio into each of the sixteen sequencer buttons (1-15). You can also connect an external device via the line input and record through that. Further, you can select, play, sequence, and write a pattern. In addition, you can receive a recording via line input by connecting a 3.5mm audio cable from the computer to receiving unit.
- Samples Flexibility
You can replace the drum samples on the PO-35 speak using a microtonic standalone version or the VST/AU plugin version in any daw you choose. In addition, you have the flexibility to tweak a sound in the plugin, such that knob A on PO-35 speak represents pitch, and knob B represents morph.
PO-35 is a unique and portable vocal processing and effects device. Its interface, built-in microphone, data transfer, drum replacement, and vocal effects are its pros.
The microphone within the device is not of great quality, and the autotune is not very accurate for pitch correction. Hence, you cannot trust the device fully for those purposes.
7. Teenage Engineering PO-12 rhythm
The P.O. 12 is a compact & portable 16-sound drum machine and sequencer.
The overall design and workflow of the P.O. 12 are like any other pocket operator, with two knobs, one screen, sixteen buttons for the sequencer, etc. The special thing about it is the use of real synthesized drum sounds, sampled drum sounds, sixteen punch-in effects, and a step multiplier.
What’s great about P.O. 12 is that you can record effect automation by turning them off. Then, by using effect sequencing, you can record these effect sequences in the device and do some basic sound shaping.
- Chops and Rolls
Let’s say you want to create the hi-hat or snare rolls you hear in trap and drill beats/songs. The unit allows you to create those by chopping the BPM in divisions 2, 4, and 16 by clicking on the BPM and the step on which you want to create the roll.
- Pattern switches
You can change the patterns and switch them up in real time. You can also mix and match all sixteen patterns so they play one after another in any order you want. For example, you can play patterns 2, 5, 7, and 11, so each pattern plays in one bar for four bars.
Flexibility in automation, sequencing, and pattern creation is great in P.O. 12. The samples in the synth are more high-quality than the rest of the other P.O.s. Its aesthetic of an 80s maths calculator with a functionality of a cross between a synth, sequencer, and drum sampler is what makes the synth unique.
That is good for fun and play, but for serious drum sequencing and performance, one may ask why not do it on a laptop instead. Of course, there are also phone apps with better functionalities of sequencing and sampling. Hobbyists and P.O. enthusiasts will argue against that, but the question still exists.
8. Teenage Engineering PO-28 robot
PO-28 robot is an eight-bit synthesizer for making live sequencing melodies and leads.
Alongside 15 sounds, a micro drum, a combination of live features and sequencer, 128 pattern chaining, and a step multiplier, the PO-28 robot also has controllers for glide and auto vibrato for adding more expression to your playing.
- Glide feature
You can add a falling or rising chromatic scale effect for creating transitions, risers, and synths with glide texture. In addition, you can lock any parameter, fine-tune it, and apply the glide effect to it.
- Step multiplier
Using the step multiplier, you can trigger a sample twice or two, three, four, six, or eight times on the same step.
Playing it with other P.O. units is fun. The flexibility in changing the tempo and sequencing patterns, along with the new glide feature, remains intact.
There’s nothing much special or different about the PO-28, as it is like any other P.O. It doesn’t stand out much, with any special quality.
9. Teenage Engineering PO-32 tonic
PO-32 tonic by Teenage engineering is a small drum machine that can be integrated with standalone plugin software.
Microtonic is a plugin available in VST and A.U. versions, on which you can tweak and create a sound, then transfer it to the PO-32 tonic via its microphone cable. Alongside having the basic functionalities of a basic P.O., the device has an accent button that can add accents to the drum sounds and allows you to clear and transfer patterns.
Microtonic is a plugin by Sonic Charge with an oscillator and a noise generator as the main sound sources. You can load up a scale on it or tune it freely, add effects and modulations to it, and sculpt the sound as per your need. Further, as mentioned above, these sounds are transferrable to the PO-32.
- Price point
With its connectivity with the microtonic, the P.O. becomes something more than a P.O. or a synth toy as its sonic capabilities expand. With that possibility, it’s one of the least expensive physical synthesizers, which is also portable and can act as a sampler and sequencer.
The built-in microphone, data transferability, sixteen effects including distortion, delay, filter effects, and more, a built-in speaker, animated LCD screen, integrated clock and alarm, and long battery life are a list of pros of the PO-32 tonic.
Microtonic is not available in AAX versions for Pro Tools users. Other than that, it’s quite limited when it comes to sound design capabilities. In addition, I wish the instrument had compatibility with some more expansive sound design software. Lastly, its availability is low and is rarely available to be bought.
Honestly, the PO-133 street fighter is the coolest and most fun synthesizer on the list, with good utility but also entertainment. These synths are innovative devices that go along with the trending 80s wave that is ongoing, both aesthetically and sonically.
Apart from that, the PO-14 sub sounds great and can be used as a dedicated synth instrument. Unfortunately, many people disregard these synths as mere toys and don’t take them seriously as real instruments. However, they offer a unique way of working and approaching music production.
You could also gift these devices to kids as they explore video games or music. For fun and entertainment, these are great, but for real music production use & live performances, I am not so sure. However, I am sure that derivative instruments with better utility, connectivity, and functionality can work.
Hope you enjoyed this article; thank you for reading it.
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Shaurya Bhatia, is an Indian Music Producer, Composer, Rapper & Performer, who goes by the stage name MC SNUB, and is also 1/2 of the Indian pop music duo, called “babyface”. A certified Audio Engineer & Music Producer, and a practicing musician & rapper for more than 6 years, Shaurya has worked on projects of various genres and has also been a teaching faculty at Spin Gurus DJ Academy.