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Pocket Operator Album

Hey, I’m recording another album. You may know I recorded three albums as part of the RPM Challenge back between 2008 and 2011, and before that I did other recording, playing, performing, and touring. So this isn’t totally new…

What is new is that I am recording all the “songs” using only Pocket Operators. Those tiny little synths that make bleeps and bloops. I started acquiring a collection of them in the summer of 2021 and at this point I’ve got four of them, and I use three or four in song. Also, all of these songs are short! Nearly all of them are under one minute in length.

I should point out that I am far from the first person to produce a Pocket Operator album. Others have done it, though that really wasn’t the inspiration for this. Basically, someone asked for it! Splorp is (partly) to blame. Yeah, seriously.

Anyway, head on over to peteprodoehl.bandcamp.com/album/po-sounds and grab it if you want it. It’s a “name your price” thing, so it can be free. If you pay for it I’ll probably just use the money to buy more Pocket Operators. Oh, I also plan to keep going, so more songs will be added over time.

Oh, if you prefer these songs with some (uhhh) visuals, you can check out the YouTube Playlist which has some older material not included on the album. (The album versions pull the audio from the video and just do a quick cleanup to make sure the levels are good, but otherwise there is no editing.)

Too lazy to click those links? Just use the player below. If you want to use these songs for anything let me know. There’s a 99% chance I’d be cool with it. If you want me to record something else for you, get in touch with me and we can discuss it.

(Note: This is not a physical album and I’m sure it will not be one in the future. The photo at the top is just a silly graphic I made.)

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Pocket Operator Programming Chart

I’ve been doing these Pocket Operator Jams for a while now and I noticed that the more complex ones (with multiple Pocket Operators) require some notes when programming the sequences. I was hastily jotting down notes but then I came up with this Pocket Operator Programming Chart. (You can download a PDF of it!)

Pocket Operator Programming Chart

The way it works is simple. You can keep track of each PO by number (or name) and then create the sequence, writing the pattern numbers. You can just leave it blank when you want a PO to drop out (or write in a blank pattern number). I’m still experimenting with this stuff but it’s definitely come in handy. I’ve said it before, programming music sequencers is a little like programming computers, but more fun.

The paper is super-handy to look at and follow along with while you set the sequence for each PO. I tend to read the chart, count out loud, and press the appropriate buttons. Works for me.

This 16 step chart works for most of my jams since it keeps things under a minute at 80 bpm. Since the PO-12 and PO-16 can only chain up to 16 patterns, this works out well.

Here’s some examples of using the chart.

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Triple Trouble (à la Beastie Boys)

In case you didn’t know this, I’m a huge fan of The Beastie Boys and while listening to the song Triple Trouble from their album To the 5 Boroughs I heard this line:

I got kicks on the one, seven and eleven, snares on the five and thirteen

So I programmed it into the Behringer RD-6 Analog Drum Machine and… it sounded pretty good! Of course the RD-6 is based on the Roland TR-606 which isn’t quite the machine that the Roland TR-808 was. I mean, the 808 is famous for many reasons. (By the way, the “TR” stands for “Transistor Rhythm”.)

Hey, I’ve been in bands and heard a lot of music, and yeah, it’s pretty recognizable rhythm. After I posted the video a friend of mine said “Now do it on the Pocket Operator” so I did that, but I incorporated three Pocket Operators, which seemed appropriate. Here it is.

Want more drum patterns? Check out 808.pixll.de

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Syncing a Behringer RD-6 to a Pocket Operator via a Pi Pico

The full title of this should be Syncing a Behringer RD-6 Analog Drum Machine to a Pocket Operator PO-14 Sub with a Raspberry Pi Pico Microcontroller. That’s a bit long, but it’s also descriptive. The RD-6 can be synced via MIDI, but the Pocket Operators do not do MIDI. The RD-6 does have an analog sync in which will trigger at over 2.5 volts, but the Pocket Operators output about 1 volt when they sync with each other.

I’d seen a few ideas and potential solutions online. One involved a DC boost converter, so I tried one but it didn’t work. Another involved using an overdrive guitar pedal, but I don’t have one…

What I do have are a bunch of Arduino boards of various types. I originally grabbed an Arduino Nano with the idea that I could capture the PO-14 output at 1 volt with an analog pin and then output a pulse on a digital pin as a trigger. The Arduino outputs at 5 volts though, and while I don’t mind making a voltage divider, I also had a Teensy LC on my desk, so I tested with that since it runs on 3 volts. And then, since my desk is fairly large, I grabbed a Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller which also runs on 3 volts. I used the same Arduino code on the Pico as the Teensy (thanks to the work of Earle F. Philhower, III).

This is literally all there is to the code. I added an LED which blinks when a pulse is read, and then I just connected the signal wire to the same pin as the LED (and the other to ground) and plugged those into the sync in of the RD-6.

I’m new to all this syncing of musical devices, and this may be the wrong way to do it, but it worked for me. I did try to set the RD-6 as the master device and sync the PO-14 to it, but it didn’t seem to work quite right. The voltage may be a bit too high causing erratic behavior on the Pocket Operator.

Since this works, I’ll probably stick with it unless someone tells me it’s a terrible idea or tells me a better way to do it that is cheap, easy, or involves things I already have.

Enjoy the demo video below!

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Pocket Operators

I’m kind of in love with the Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators. I first saw one a few years ago. One of the guys I worked with at the time had one on his desk and I picked it up, pressed a few buttons and was like “Meh, I don’t get it.” Honestly it seemed like a toy, and kind of difficult to use. Both are true, and false.

The Pocket Operators are serious little machines capable of producing some amazing sounds. Part synthesizer, part sequencer, with the ability to sync with each other and with other devices, they’re just a ton of fun. I’ve only been playing around for a few weeks, but I’m hooked. And yes, they do look like “tricked out calculators” as Dana describes them.

They are pretty minimal as far as the user interface, which keeps them pretty cheap. There are 23 buttons, 23 LEDs, and two potentiometers, and a little one-color LCD screen which does not light up (so using them in the dark can be a little difficult). Through these inputs and outputs you can program sequences, adjust all sorts of parameters, create and replay patterns, and tweak the hell out of it.

I grabbed the PO-12 Rhythm model (which is “drums”) last month and had so much fun with it that after a few days I grabbed a PO-14 Sub (which is “bass”) to go along with it. They all operate somewhat the same so (to a certain degree) once you learn to use one, you can use others.

At first I was a little disappointed in the PO-14 Sub, I think because the PO-12 Rhythm was so awesome, but it just took a little more time to discover the awesomeness of the Sub, which also has a mini-drum sequencer built into it. Teaming them up together is also pretty cool.

Also, these things are super-portable, run on AAA batteries that should last a year or two, and work great with headphones. I’ve got a bit of a synth setup happening in my home office, but being able to grab a Pocket Operator and going outside or sitting on the couch at 5am and just building up some beats is extremely satisfying.

While I used the term “building up some beats” I should say that this is actually programming. Back when I used to build museum exhibits one of the components I designed for an exhibit was a step sequencer that kids could “program” and then “run” to hear the results. We had educational information about how programming a sequencer was like programming a computer – basically telling a machine what to do. I think when we talk about kids (or adults!) learning programming, we often just jump into computers and careers and don’t look at the bigger picture.

If you are unaware, long ago I was in a number of bands, and not quite as long ago, I was recording music. I enjoyed both of those experiences greatly, and getting back into making music (if you can call this that) has really got me excited about creating again, and sort of got me past a creative block I’ve been stuck in. So, I’m actually willing to say making noise with these things has improved my mental health.

There are so many YouTube videos (and just a few blog posts) about Pocket Operators, so I’ll share a few favorites below. Again, these devices are awesome! I mean, I don’t know that I’ll get all of them but, what? Oh wait… did I just order another one!?!?