Pocket Operator PO-20 “Arcade” Review

Of the three new Pocket Operators released by Teenage Engineering I thought for sure that the chiptune-inspired “Arcade” would hold my interest the shortest time. Surely my ears would grow tired of 8-bit sounds, and the entire unit would feel gimmicky in no time.

How wrong I was.

Sounds

FullSizeRender 2The “Arcade” comes loaded with modulated sounds that are bound to entice anyone fond of chiptune music, or just games from the 8-bit era in general. There’s the ubiquitous beeps, bloops, blurps, laser shots, but also quite a few more musical sounds, albeit with a definitive retro game flair.  Each sound when triggered is also accompanied by the appearance of a more or less relevant pixelated shape in the display.

Several of the sounds can be easily tuned to a specific pitch (indicated by the note name in the display) which makes it a lot easier than usual to record melodies. I soon found that tuning various sounds to different notes of the current key made for instant fun when trying out various riffs and melodies. Most of the sounds also have a second parameter, often a low-pass filter, that allows for some sound shaping, and the lowest position often introduces a drastic filtering effect making it possible to tame many sounds into a more “normal” palette, thus possibly increasing the usefulness of the PO-20 beyond the world of chiptune music.

I have to admit – I love how this unit sounds! The sounds are in-your-face, recognizable, yet useful and fun to play with.  It has a strong presence, which perhaps may also be the most fitting for the format. I believe a lot of people thought this was how the first Pocket Operators were going to sound when seeing them for the first time.

In use

Functionality-wise, this PO feels the most complete of the bunch. It has the real time modulation effects that define the Pocket Operator range as instruments, but also adds a number of new, clever functions.

First off is the chords function. The Arcade comes loaded with 16 predefined chords, that can be programmed in sequence, allowing you to set up a chord progression that will effect all tonal sounds. This makes it possible to quickly create a backing track to improvise over without having to sequence several similar patterns, and the available chords have been selected to cater for a wide range of pop needs. (Yes, fans of jazz and progressive rock may be disappointed in the lack of being able to define your own chords, but for the rest of us, this is pure fun). Sequencing chords is as simple as holding down the “chord” button and punching in the buttons in the right sequence. This can be done on the fly or when the sequencer is stopped.

Secondly, parts of the beat can be dropped by toggling the top row of buttons combined with the “FX” button on or off. Very useful to, for instance, drop the bass or percussive sounds from a beat. Strangely, the sounds are not only muted from the pattern, but muted entirely, meaning that they cannot be played live over the pattern while muted.

Also, by holding the “chord” button and turning a knob simultaneously, a pad chord (aptly named “drone”) can be added to the mix. The left knob controls the volume, and the right the amount of “sidechain” effect (in practice meaning how pronounced the volume fluctuates with the beat). Again, this is surprisingly useful when building the beat!

Again, I go through several of the effects and sounds in the first look video below (produced by me and my good friend Alpaca Sound)

 

Extra Levels

The Arcade also has a few more quirky options that are new to the series as well.

One of the real-time effects comes in the form of a flourish reminding me of the old “extra life!” or “1 Up!” sounds. Really fun, but will also get really old really fast if overused.

There are six variations of drum fills (aptly illustrated by a laser gun appearing!) that can be briefly used or lasts the entire bar. The seventh is more of a “stutter” effect that lasts until switched off (see below)

The filter effects (as well as the instrument toggles and one of the stutter/fill effects) are of the on/off variety. I understand that this can be used for breakdowns and such, but coming from the other PO’s where you could insert for instance a high-pass filter effect by holding it for a full bar, I’m constantly confused by the fact that the filter stays on until toggled on the Arcade. I personally don’t like it this way, but I can see how it is supposed to be used.

Finally, there’s an automatic fade-out, that can be triggered by pressing the “FX” and “play” buttons simultaneously!

End Credits

Hands down, this is to me the most fun of the Pocket Operators to date. The sounds are perfect for this type of device, the chord functionality brings it to an entirely new level, and I find myself picking it up way more often than I thought I would. Even the display is more useful than with the other siblings (something that may actually be viewed as a departure from the original design ethos). If you need something to produce chiptune music on the go, this is the device to have!

Extremely recommended!

 

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4 Comments

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  1. the ‘current’ key? i haven’t figured out how to change it yet! please enlighten!

    • The Introvert 2016-02-21 — 19:59

      You’re right about that, the PO-20 is not that flexible when it comes to choice of key to play in, a more correct description would be “suitable notes to play in the current choice of chord progression” as you don’t really set a key or scale, but rather a chord progression. The full table of pitches and chords are available in the manual, and while restricted, still gives you some freedom. Thanks for pointing it out!

      • It’s more interesting than that. I put in a chord sequence the started adding notes while in play mode. The notes actually change to differ keys while you are programming them accordingly. Like they will change from sharp to flats. The manual lists only the different chords but no mention of how key works. It’d be cool to know what was going on.

  2. Great review. Did you get bored of the po-20 after sons months of use?

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