Teenage Engineering X Prototypa

See inside Teenage Engineering - the iconic synth makers talked prototyping at Prototypa, part of Design Frontiers in Somerset House during The London Design Festival.

Thomas Howard and Lia Forslund

Prototyping dream synths

Prototyping forum Prototypa pulled off a coup by securing wizard synth-makers Teenage Engineering for one of their talks with leading industry practitioners. The event was curated and hosted by Swedish design studio Form Us With Love and brilliantly moderated by Lia Forslund.

Teenage Engineering’s Head of Mechanical Engineering, Thomas Howard, gave in-depth insights into the prototyping process of a company that was born out of a ‘CNC machine and an ambition to build a dream synth’. The Stockholm based firm now makes a range of award-winning synths and electronics, from the stunning OP-1 to the pocket sized Pocket Operators. They’re used by the likes of Imogen Heap, Matt Black from Coldcut, Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES, Deadmau5, and Depeche Mode.

Thomas Howard - pic Terry Tyldesley

“It’s an organic process”

Thomas swiftly built a picture of the maker culture that is at the heart of the design process, and talked in depth about building the new OP-Z synth, (we had a preview at NAMM), and the drive to make accessible synths.

“We have our own machine park and start every project by learning with our hands. We design something and leave it on a table for the engineers to look at; it’s an organic process. We are all super geeks, we can’t but help to build, it’s this hacker attitude. There is this impatience to keep the momentum going, everyone is soldering, painting, cutting.

In our early experiments with the OP-Z we experimented with laser points, it was a drawing device to begin with.”

He also said that one of the strengths of the development process is that it is still in flow in the final months before a product is launched.

“It should be beautiful on the inside”

Lia asked how they know that they are going in the right direction.

“Every Friday we have a jam session, we have a big sound system in the office and have started a band. It’s a good way to test new products”

That doesn’t mean they succeed in all their ambitions, or don’t have hurdles to overcome though.

“One example is the Pocket Operator - we wanted to do it for $49 and didn’t achieve that. We were banging our heads on tables for a long time trying to get something that was instant fun, with super power, and a really good price point.

We liked PCB artwork. Our methodology is it should be beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. We realised we didn’t need a housing, and it was going to be great!”

Teenage Engineering prototype - pic Terry Tyldesley

Wood, paper, 3D printing

A series of designs and prototypes were laid out on a giant table - it was a fascinating way to see the product development process, and Thomas talked us through the key stages of the OP-Z, due out early next year.

“We started with painted wood, then aluminium. There were cost and conductivity issues, aluminium is cold. We moved away and looked at semi crystalline plastics as used in motor engines.

In the end we went for plastic and glass fibre, as we wanted it to feel solid, and have a feel that is like paper.”

Teenage Engineering prototype - pic Terry Tyldesley

The design is very different from their landmark OP-1.

“The thing that defines the OP-1 is the display, you have to take tech that’s out there and hack it into something new. Very early on we said we’d do a synth without a display, and we flirted with one at some point, but had decided on the silhouette, and it doesn’t fit.

It was a challenge to the software team how to do everything with backlit keys.”

Thomas has strong views on the important of battery life, and is critical of how smart phones don’t address this enough, and cause stress for their users. He spoke of how the OP-1 is built to last for four transatlantic flights, and the OP-Z will have removable batteries.

Thomas Howard - pic Terry Tyldesley

There were some fascinating insights into process, and how that has changed and become simpler over the years. Even so there may be 15 silhouettes made of a new model.

“We work in 2D then layers of laminated paper. For years we tried prototypes on a 3D printer, but if you print on a 3D printer you can’t have a dialogue. I decided to take layers of paper and all internals have to be able to be cut out of paper, it’s good for getting instant feedback.

Now we only work with paper and Montana Gold spray cans. Looking ten years ahead I don’t think we will lose that. Being a craftsman and understanding the tools is one of the most important things you can do.”

Teenage Engineering prototype - pic Terry Tyldesley

User feedback and platform thinking

We asked Thomas about user feedback, and how responsive Teenage Engineering are to this. The answer - very.

“The OP-1 has a rolling operating system, it’s been updated 20 times. We get a lot of hand written letters from people of all ages, and many ideas from the community have come into the design, it’s platform thinking. We learn from our fan base. The best PO video is from a 7 year old Swedish kid!”

There is an ongoing dialogue with many musicians, who also get quite deeply involved in development.

“With the Pocket Operator we got a lot of friends to write their version, and had a lot of artists contact us and help build their dream machine.”

So what’s next from Teenage Engineering? “Right now we are really obsessed with robots.”

Teenage Engineering prototype - pic Terry Tyldesley