Why are no samplers or digital recorders as easy as the OP-1 Field?

There are a zillion samplers and recorders out there, so why do almost none of them work like we want them to?

Recently, I’ve been checking out the OP-1 Field, the new update to Teenage Engineering’s stone-cold classic OP-1, a sampler, synthesizer, sequencer, and digital tape recorder, all packed into one little battery-powered box. The Field is pretty much the same device, but with way better sound quality, stereo, Bluetooth MIDI, plus a few tweaks that make it easier and nicer to use.

The Field is essentially the same as the original, and yet still, eleven years after launch, there’s no other device that’s as immediate, or as easy and fun to use.

Feature Creep

I’ve used plenty of samplers, including software plugins, or things like Ableton’s excellent Simpler device. And they’re all far too complicated. And I don’t mean that they have too many features—although they do, and it makes them even harder to use. What I mean is that the actual act of capturing a sample, then playing it back, takes far too long.

Let’s take Elektron’s Digitakt, which is regarded as one of the most accessible samplers. To record a sample, you have to enter sample mode, hit a key combo to record it, then trim it, save it, and assign it to a track on the sequencer. It’s pretty quick, but enough to take you out of the musical zone.

Compare this to the OP-1 (Field or OG). To sample on the OP-1, you toggle the audio input on (if it’s not on already), then press and hold a key on its keyboard. When you release the key, you can immediately play that sample back, spread across the keyboard. That’s it.

I searched, seemingly endlessly, for other samplers that were as simple as this, but that also had better sound quality than the original OP-1, and that recorded in stereo. Many came close, but none was ever as immediate. None that I found, anyway — please reply to this post on Twitter or Micro.blog if you have suggestions.

OP-1 Fun

Then Teenage Engineering released the OP-1 Field, which I’ll write a full review of soon. It’s just as amazingly fast and easy to use, only now it sounds like a pro-level device.

Let’s take an example of what makes it special. Say I’m playing a mono synth like Moog’s Grandmother. The Grandmother has no way to save your patches, and it can only play one note at a time. If you have an OP-1 Field handy, you can hit a key on the Grandmother and the OP-1 simultaneously, hold the OP-1’s key down to capture the fading tail of the sound, and let go. Now, with no further actions you can play the Grandmother’s sound as a chord, and you can save it as a preset. Also, you tell the OP-1 which note you’re playing in (A, C#, etc.) just by using the corresponding key to record the sample.

You can even set the OP-1’s sampler to wait until it hears a sound before it starts recording, so you can play the other instruments with both hands (shift+any key).

Tape Recorder

Then there’s the OP-1’s tape recorder, which is a digital 4-track recorder designed to work like a tape machine. Crucially it is synchronized to MIDI, and it can record internal synths and samples as you play them, or any external sounds (through mic, USB, or line inputs). It can even record itself, to bounce multiple tracks and combine them onto one track.

And again, it’s way easier than anything else. Many people, me included, would otherwise fire up Ableton or similar, and use that. But the OP-1 is still faster, easier, and more portable.

No Alternative

I’ve gone off into review territory a bit here, but my point remains that there are no samplers or digital recorders that are as fast, easy, or as accessible as the OP-1. And if you’re looking for portable devices that have all this built in, the OP-1 is on its own. It’s unique.

Why is this? Who knows? The OP-1 is simple, yes, but it is also incredibly well-designed to reach that level of simplicity. And yet while it has a simple user interface, it still manages to be a smaller, sequencer, synth, drum machine, sampler, field recorder, etc. etc. Maybe the truth is that nobody else has managed to come up with something as good.

For me, the OP-1 Field is ideal. Many folks will say that other devices or apps can do way more, but that’s missing the point. The OP-1 is fast, fun, and its deliberately scaled-down feature-set means that it does what it does way better than anything else. Yes, it’s flawed, but what isn’t? The result is an incredible combination of focus, and fun.