pom-400 and pom-16

Music equipment
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Build quality 10
Implemented technology 8
Ease-of-use 10
Price/performance ratio 7
  • Warm sounding, pure analog oscillators
  • Self-oscillating high-pass filter
  • Battery or wall powered
  • Great instructions and easy assembly process
  • Huge amount of sequencing power (POM-16)
  • Somewhat fiddy oscilator tuning
  • Underwhelming built-in sequencer. (POM-400)
  • Membrane keyboard could feel a bit nicer (POM-16)
  • Some steps during assembly feel a bit fiddly

The Pocket Operator Modular is the first foray into the analog domain for teenage engineering, and it's a brilliant show of their design and craftsmanship with just a few tiny drawbacks here and there.

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teenage engineering is one of those companies that always jump into the market with an original take on a concept. Their OP-1 and OP-Z synthesisers (well, more than just synthesisers, but that’s off-topic here) have created a huge splash and are still considered the finest examples of portable digital instruments. They are also known for their creative approach to problem solving and uniquely classy designs – something which we’ll see a lot of in this review as well.

Their latest entry in the studio equipment field is the Pocket Operator Modular series of synths (consisting of the POM-400 and POM-170 synths, as well as the POM-16 sequencer). While these bear a similar name to the earlier Pocket Operators – tiny digital instruments capable of a wide variety of sounds, these new synths are fully analog – making them a first for the company. They are also modular, consisting of a series of separate synth modules that can be assembled into a preconfigured chassis or converted into standard eurorack units. Possibly the most unique part of these models, though, is the DIY aspect of assembling them – as they ship in pieces, with LEGO-style assembly manuals.

teenage engineering has generously sent us the POM-400 and POM-16 in for review. These units came in gorgeous (eco-friendly!) cardboard boxes, with pull-tabs for opening – akin to a cereal box. Here we already see Teenage’s attention to detail, with easter eggs and flavour text appearing in every nook and cranny of the packaging. Opening the POM-400 box further, there was another barrage of pull-tab boxes, containing all the modules, the PSU, the metal chassis, the power distro board and the tools required for assembly. Again, endearing details were sprinkled in (notable one – the chassis box had a little “colour peep door” for checking the metal’s colour before assembly – how adorable is that!) – and while such attention to detail might seem minor, it really makes the experience that more welcoming. The POM-16 box more simplistic inside, but still presented all the parts neatly and appealingly.

POM-400 assembly & overview
The POM-400’s building process starts with bending the metal sheets into shape. While these are made of quality metal that’s powder-coated a lovely matte yellow, this is the most finicky step, since over-bending can cause structural weakness along the perforated bend lines – and there’s quite a lot of bends to be done! Bending also causes paint to chip along the edges – so going slow here is key to a nice-looking final product. After a few origami-like steps we had the base of the chassis done – one sheet down and three more to go! Turns out that the first sheet was the most challenging one to bend really, with the rest requiring a handful of minor steps to get into proper shape. Using the little included torx screwdriver we quickly got the backbone of the instrument assembled.

The fourth plate is the front-panel and its assembly differs a bit. While there’s only two bends required, both of them are rather tricky to get right and require some fiddling. After getting the metal into the proper “U” shape, we had to mount all the modules. This was a long process, but it was surprisingly fun. Over a hundred screws hold these in place, but the addictive “screw-standoff-position-mount” procedure, along with high quality standoffs and screws made the hour-and-a-half long task a breeze. Apparently, the original revision used self-tapping instead of pre-threaded stand-offs, which made the task tedious. Glad to say that the newer revisions, like the one we have here, have completely mitigated this issue. There was something immensely satisfying about seeing a synth take shape before our very eyes.

Finally, all that was left was routing the cables to the power distro module located near the top of the plate and closing it all up with several more torx screws. While it was a tight fit, it all satisfyingly snapped together and finally, after a good two hours and a fresh set of batteries, we had the synth ready to go!

Now would be a good time to go over the modules! Labelled 1 to 12, these include quite a range of various sound source and processing option. The first three are the oscillators – square, saw and sine. The square offers PWM inputs while the other two offer FM inputs. The three outputs on each allow for some interesting modulation to happen. The sine oscillator has a clean, traditional sound, while the saw has a wonderful “bite” to it. The square oscillator has a girthy, punchy presence, and together with PWM it can make real roars happen. The PWM knob also extends way past the cut-off zone, which might seem like a flaw at first, but we’re sure it’s by design, as it allows for interesting gating effects to be performed. It’s also rich in harmonics, playing especially nicely with the next module – the low pass filter. While the filter is only a low-pass one, offering no other filtering options, it’s capable of self-oscillation (essentially making the overtones louder than the fundamental). This characteristic allows for some truly unique sounds and timbres and excellent vowel generation.
Next on the list are two envelopes and VCAs. Both of these are pretty basic – the envelopes offering a classic ADSR setup, and the VCAs allowing for some interesting gating when used with the oscillators and lovely sound-shaping when used with the envelope. After these we stumble upon the mixer – a 3-in-1-out module with separate input and output volume controls. We’d have loved to see two outputs, or perhaps an additional input here (or simply, two mixer modules) for some added flexibility, but for most patches, it’s more than enough (and Y-cables are also always an option).

The noise and random module are total chaos-makers and allow for a wide variety of randomness (sample-and-hold based) and distortion (we managed to get some lovely grit by using the saw wave as filter control, as well as amazing windy sounds by using white noise with the filter self-oscillating).
The LFO is extremely simple, with 4 outputs, two square and two triangle, all controlled by a single rate knob. It’s bare-bones, but with frequencies extending high into the audible range, it’s a powerful tool nevertheless. The final two modules are the speaker – which is self explanatory – and the sequencer – which is a somewhat fiddly, mini version of the POM-16, minus the keyboard, CV quantisation and some other settings. We didn’t really use this sequencer much next to the standalone one, but we did manage to get some interesting sounds by using it for controlling parameters.

The POM-400 offers a very well thought out package which does have some limitations. Arguably, though, these limitations only add to the versatility and push for more sonic exploration. And there’s a lot of substance to explore here! From simple, clean, chiptune-like leads perfect for lighthearted melodies to serious basses (even from the sine oscillator) and detuned experimental noises, a lot can be accomplished with this system. The VCOs have a lovely sound, and while variable waveshape oscillators offer more control, the down-to-basics, distinct oscillators encourage heavier use of modulation and polyphonic thinking. There’s something charming about the way the system just works – it never feels like a limitation was forcibly imposed, rather, planned out to be there. The built-in speaker is already surprisingly decent, but plug in a proper audio interface on the line-out (do note that it’s all line voltage here – so headphones shouldn’t be used directly with the system) and the sound exceeds all expectations. It honestly sounds amazing – powerful yet always pleasant to listen to.

It’s clear that we love the system, but there are few things here we’d like to see changed. Firstly, the oscillators have just a tiny bit of an issue with tracking. It’s nothing that can’t be corrected with some CV tweaking, but there’s still a tiny inconsistency when using more than 4 octaves. This is well within spec, and the second revision of the system (aside from fixing the aforementioned threads and some other things) improved on it compared to the original, but just a slightly more stable oscillator would be nice. And secondly, another oscillator-related one, but the tuning knobs are just… rough. The tiniest touch to one of these will send the pitch flying off in a direction. Thankfully, we managed to fix this by 3D printing a set of LEGO-style gears that we fit over these knobs, giving a much more precise way to control the tuning (plus, they look cool).

Talking about looking good, the system is gorgeous. As usual, teenage engineering stood out with a design that breaks the black-box norm of the industry. The thing just looks good and makes you want to use it. Also worth noting, before we move onto the POM-16, is that all POM synths use the standard 3.5mm patch cable system. No micro-cables, like on many more budget options. Not only are 3.5mm cables nicer (and a lovely, silicone set is included in the box), they also ensure total compatibility with all standard eurorack modules – these synths all work on line voltage so nothing is stopping a mix-and-match from happening.

POM-16 assembly & overview
Well, our yellow synth was done, but there was something missing. It was pretty obvious really. The built-in sequencer wasn’t as full-featured as we’d have hoped, and it simply wasn’t precise enough for melodic use. Unlike the POM-170 synth, which comes with less modules but with a proper sequencer/keyboard built-in, the POM-400 omits it for some reason. It’s clear though that while the POM-16 isn’t included with the 400, it’s an integral part of the system, even being listed as the 16th module of the series (#15 being the power distro). Indeed, it allows for precise control of the oscillators, longer sequences, swing rhythms and various note effects, as well as a true MIDI output.

As with the 400, the build process was pretty interesting. There were only two plates to bend now – the top and the bottom half. After the main board was attached to the frame, there was the really tricky task of attaching the membrane keyboard’s ribbon connector to the PCB. This was extremely tricky due to the LIF connector where there should have been a ZIF one. LIF is just plain annoying, and the stress of possible ribbon cable damage was nerve-wracking. Needless to say, that was the most difficult part of the procedure. After the cable was finally in, we closed the chassis and gave the tiny sequencer some batteries. We were ready to try it out!

And the little sequencer was all but little with its feature set. Three separate tracks, with a fourth keyboard one on top, quick options for soloing tracks, chromatically quantised CV values, swing rhythms, proper MIDI out, an arpeggiator and much, much more are included here. This truly is a CV sequencer worth using on even on its own and it is ridiculously overpowered for its size. Being battery powered means it’s also portable (though all POM-series units can be powered from a wall outlet with the proper adapter – there’s no reverse polarity protection, though, so care should be taken here), a huge advantage over most other sequencers on the market. Overall, the POM-16 is a worthy addition to the POM-400, and dare we say, necessary. It adds an additional 4 sequencer tracks, for a total of 7 on the system. That’s an insane amount of sequencing power in such a compact, small modular form factor.
POM-16, like the second-gen POM-400’s sequencer offers a PO-sync output, allowing for clock syncing between POM-series analog synths and the digital Pocket Operators.

The POM series are an exciting product series from teenage engineering packing a lot of raw musical power into a tiny space. From the most melodious of lines to the gnarliest of alien sounds, POM’s analog modules deliver. The DIY aspect is a lovely opportunity to look at the guts of a synth, and certainly make the finished product feel more personal. The sleek design and amazing sound quality are a given for TE’s products by now, and the second revision only made the system better in most of very few fields it was lacking. We hope that more modules and, alongside them, an empty “pocket-rack” (that’s what TE call their proprietary module format) rack, as we’d love to see more creative module setups from the company.

More informations: https://teenage.engineering

Distributer u Srbiji: https://www.player.rs

Dušan D.
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