Unparalleled size and price point for a credit card-sized sampler!
Recenserad i USA 🇺🇸 den 23 augusti 2018
The first time I saw a demo of the Pocket Operators - a YouTube video of the PO-12 Rhythm shot in some dreary, overcast field in Scandinavia - I was blown away. I assumed what I was looking at was just a prototype (nope) and they would rehouse this fragile-looking computer chip...thing in some actual protective case for sale (nope again). But still, it sounded incredible into a powered speaker, seemed legimiately fun to tweak and program, and cost only $60!
We've reached a total of nine Pocket Operator units now (as of August 2018), and while the various models have had their ups and downs, it wasn't until I saw demos of the PO-33 K.O. Sampler that I was "blown away" by this series the way in the way that I was when I first saw that YouTube demo and was introduced to the whole concept. Until now, each Pocket Operator seemed planted in its own little niche, but the K.O. Sampler seemed almost limitless. A credit card-sized sampler that can actually sample 40 seconds of audio via on-board microphone OR 3.5mm line in? Powered by 2 AAA batteries?!? For less than $100?!!?
Of course, you can't triangulate affordability, quality, and depth of features without making some compromises, and there are important limitations you should know about the PO-33. But I find it to be that rare case with music gear where an affordable piece of hardware with notable shortcomings on paper turns out to be much more powerful and enjoyable once you actually get it in your hands.
SAMPLING ENGINE & SOUND QUALITY:
There really are quite a large number of ways to get sound onto the PO-33 and then move them around and edit them once there, so I will try to keep this short. The PO-33 is an 8-bit sampler, which basically means that it has a fraction of the digital "information" contained in a note from a 12-bit sampler or a 16-bit Compact Disc, for example. While I found it to be entirely capable of clear, detailed notes, it does reveal a gritty, raw character on many sounds, particularly when you turn it up. This may come across as "bitcrushed" or even "chiptune", depending on the type of sound involved, but this is consistent with the character of the overall Pocket Operator series. In some cases, the 8-bit audio engine creates a cool, driven effect, but I do have to admit I've struggled with it trying to sample a lot of sounds with the Line In jack - particularly bassy sounds like an 808 Bass Drum, which becomes fizzy and almost unrecognizable. Crisper or higher pitched sound better, and you can work with filter/resonance control to try and improve this further.
The face of the PO-33 has 16 numbered buttons. These represent both the 16 steps of the sequencer, as well as the 16 "banks" for sampled content. Banks 1-8 are "Melodic" samples. By selecting one of these 8 banks, you get control over 16 notes, representing two octaves of a "harmonic minor plus one" scale. (The original sample/root note is located at the "5" key, and one octave lower on the "13" key, so the scales mirror each other on the upper and lower halves, which is nice). This is a bit of a strange decision by Teenage Engineering, as many of their other melodic Pocket Operators were locked in a C Major scale, presumably so those new to music could just mash in notes and play things in key with multiple devices. More on that in the "Workarounds" section later.
Sound banks 9-16 are for "Drum" samples, but here's where it gets a little weird. The default way that "Drum" banks handle samples are to listen for transients and "slice" up 16 samples of different sounds to be laid out as buttons 1-16. So if you sampled a 3-second clip of an "Amen Break", or whatever, it would (in theory) grab different kicks, snares, and hats, and lay them out as 16 triggerable samples. That's potentially very cool, and you CAN adjust the start point and length of each slice, but it isn't a very repeatable or dependable way to set up a new kit. What you can do as an alternative is to copy and paste individual hits recorded as melodic samples into the slots of a "Drum" kit, though that takes a bit of doing.
The way that you sample is to hold down the red "record" button and then either make a noise into the microphone OR play a sound through the left side 3.5mm audio jack. The quality of the resulting 8-bit audio is a mixed bag. Some of the synth notes I tried to sample into the K.O. had a noise floor going on that made them almost unusable. At the same time, I was amazed how clear and dynamic the extremely small on-board microphone picked up noises. As an example, I banged an empty soda can on the table, figured out that the note I made with that was close to a C#, and then made a whole melodic loop out of...banging a can on a table. That's an absurd example of what you could do much more effectively with your voice or an actual instrument.
One minor annoyance is that while the sample doesn't record until it senses a certain noise level, you do have to hold down two buttons at one time, which then makes it hard to produce whatever noise you are making with your one free hand.
I won't say too much about the sequencer because if you are familiar with Pocket Operators, it is very similar to how the other units work. I also think the sequencer is the glue that holds these units together and converts them from "adorable music toy" to "surprisingly deep sub-$100 musical instrument". Although each pattern is only one bar (16 steps in 4/4 time), you can program 16 of them and then chain them to repeat in any order over 100 times. It's almost embarrassing how much more powerful the sequencer is on Pocket Operators versus some "serious" music gear costing 5 times as much. And it's full of hidden tricks, such as the ability to set up to 8 note re-triggers per step. (Start playing a sequence, program a note, and then hold the button for that step while pressing the BPM button to cycle through re-trigger options).
The effects options in the PO-33 K.O. aren't as memorable as some of the other units in this series (notably the PO-20 Arcade and especially the PO-32 Tonic), but they cover the basic needs of a sampler and get the job done. You have low- and high-pass filters and resonance control for each sample. There are 15 different effects (plus an "erase" key on "16"), though most of these are variations of stutters and loops. It's still a lot of fun for live performance, and you automate different effects and control parameters within a sequence.
LIMITATIONS & WORKAROUNDS:
In researching the PO-33, I came across a few pretty major limitations that I feared might sink the device. However, thanks to the overall depth of features, and some clever workarounds to defeat these weaknesses, I find that the K.O. Sampler overcomes them.
Probably the most major limitations is that each SAMPLE slot (of which there are 16) is monophonic, while the overall polyphony of the device is limited to four samples played per step. What this means is that if you load "Drum" Bank 9, you can't play a snare and a hi-hat from that bank on the same step. You also can't layer different pitched notes from a single "Melodic" sample on the same step to make chords. I believe the PO-33 prioritizes "Melodic" hits over "Drum" hits. However, you can play multiple "Melodic" samples from different banks at the same time, or individual drum hits from different banks, provided the total number of sounds does not exceed four. You can also copy instruments from the "Drum" banks as individual melodic samples, and the K.O. functions much more like an actual drum machine in that way.
The limitations on the scale are another annoyance, but there's an ingenious workaround I came across online that should allow you to play in any major or minor scale:
Minor scale: The note you sample becomes the root note of the scale, playable with the "13" button. The remaining notes of the Minor scale can be played in this order: 13-14-15-16-9-10-11-5
Major scale: Sample a note that is 3 half-steps or "semitones" lower than your intended root note. So, if you want a C Major scale, sample an "A" note, and then the root "C" will be on the "15" key. The remaining notes of the Major scale will be on these buttons: 15-16-9-10-11-5-6-7.
It sounds convoluted, but try it and match it up to a piano or other instrument for reference, and you'll immediately hear the notes of your scale!
I'm leaving out a ton of features, but the bottom line is that this is a very full-featured sampler that's just a lot of fun to use, and extremely affordable. By comparison, the Korg Volca Sample is nearly twice the price, holds just a bit more sample data (65 seconds vs. 40 seconds on the PO-33), and you cannot load any samples onto it without a computer data transfer. It's really the ability to sample anything, anywhere with such a small (albeit fragile) device that propels the PO-33 K.O. to new heights. Its limitations of a piece of hardware are noteworthy, but the musical possibilities with it are endless.
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