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Ready to get started making electronic music?

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The Pocket Operator is small, inexpensive and addictive

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Teenage Engineering

The buttons don’t make much sense at first. Many of them have numbers and arcane symbols instead of words, and there are a number of basic functions that require you to hit two buttons at a time. You’ll want to spend a few minutes reading the instructions or watching videos online.

Trying to cram an entire, oddly competent, drum machine into a form factor that mimics a calculator instead of a musical instrument leads to some non-intuitive design decisions.

It took me about an hour to become completely addicted.

Wait. What?

Pocket Operators are small musical devices that allow you to create 16 beat musical patterns, and then string those together into longer sequences to make songs.

They start at $49, you can sync many of them together to create more intricate sounds and songs and they work with a good amount of existing gear if you’re already making electronic music. They’re also the perfect toy for people who want to try their hand at making electronic music and are starting from zero. The Rhythm model is a drum machine. The Arcade model has classic video game sounds. The Sub model gives you bass notes and so on.

Here’s a good introduction to the Rhythm:

The Pocket Operators themselves look oddly naked with their exposed circuit boards and buttons if you don’t buy the case to go with it, and of course there are third party options if you want to really get deep into things. But all you really need to get started is a single unit and maybe a pair of headphones.

This is where the addiction kicks in. It’s hard to break these things, and the worst thing you can do is to make something that sounds dissonant. You’ll have a basic working knowledge of what to do with them in about 15 minutes. You’ll likely have at least a little something that sounds good in that first hour. After a few hours of practice and experimentation you’ll find them hard to put down.

The hardware’s limitations and idiosyncrasies become part of the charm, especially for the low price, and learning how to work within the UI and chaining systems is rewarding. If you don’t like how something sounds, you just hit two buttons to get rid of it. Each Pocket Operator is easy to connect to an external speaker or your computer if you’d like to blast your work or save it for later.

The real fun comes in when you begin to buy more than one and sync them together. It doesn’t take long before you figure out how to create longer songs and layer sounds and beats on top of each other to make something that sounds really good.

Here’s another example of someone who is much better than I am.

It’s amazing to have a piece of electronics in your pocket that doesn’t just take your attention and angers you — I’m looking at you, Twitter app — but instead allows you to zone out for a few minutes and create something. It only takes a few minutes of experimentation once you know what you’re doing to make something that sounds at least decent, and then you can come back to each song throughout the day and stretch it out or hone it.

This is my new favorite coffee break, and I have to stop myself from ordering another unit for my collection at least once a week.

You can put on your headphones, zone out and have fun just warping the sounds and experimenting with the difference effects to get something that sounds just right. It’s meditative and creative, and it fits in your pocket.

You don’t have to save anything if you don’t want to, and I delete all my work at the end of the day. The ephemeral nature of creation in this way is part of the attraction. You’re making something that sounds good for yourself, and that’s enough.