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Teenage Engineering’s new K.O. II sampler is sort of a grown-up model of its Pocket Operator sequence, crossed with a Seventies/80s-era calculator. It’s getting musicians so excited that it bought out in days, and it provides options which are totally distinctive on the planet of {hardware} samplers. However possibly much more fascinating than the system itself is the way in which it was designed and constructed. 

As an alternative of making one other synth out of customized components, Swedish musical instrument maker Teenage Engineering grabbed packing containers and packing containers of off-the-shelf components, after which labored out how they may construct a brand new sampler. After which they designed a manufacturing unit to do it.

“One challenge was to construct a manufacturing line from scratch, all in home. And the opposite aspect was to construct a synth,” TE founder and head of {hardware} David Eriksson instructed iFixit over Zoom. “And we did it in parallel, similar group.”

It’s a Knockout

Teenage Engineering, or TE, is thought for quirky designs which are directly completely on the market and nothing like anything out there but additionally exquisitely practical. TE companions with different corporations, like IKEA (to make audio system), or the software program firm Panic (to make its PlayDate games console), however it’s best recognized for its musical devices, which regularly grow to be extensions of their customers. If the designs click on with you, then you’ll fall for them, arduous. 

The corporate typically will get in comparison with Apple, when it comes to its opinionated, focus-group-free merchandise, and its love of designing and constructing customized components with uncommon supplies. For instance, the OP-1 Discipline synth and sampler has the match and end of an iPhone Professional, and its cute-but highly effective OP-Z sequencer makes use of magnetic hall-effect knobs on bearings for its controls, and mixes glass fiber into its injection-molded case. The corporate doesn’t publish its personal restore guides, however it does promote spare components for the OP-1 and OP-Z by iFixit’s retailer and links to our repair guides from its web site.

However throughout the pandemic, TE was confronted, like everyone else, with lengthy ready instances and persistent components shortages. “It was so arduous,” says David. “The lead time for components was like one and a half to 2 years.”

The group as a substitute tried to supply off-the-shelf components, in large enough numbers to maintain a manufacturing line operating. And as soon as that they had these components in hand, they set about seeing what they may make.

The result’s the EP-133 sampler, or Ok.O. II, named in homage to TE’s PO-33 K.O! Pocket Operator. It’s larger than you would possibly suppose from the photographs, makes use of a neat, Recreation-&-Watch-style segmented LED show, and proves that you just don’t want plenty of customized components to make one thing distinctive. These quantity buttons, for instance, are used for sampling, but additionally for playback, and whereas they’ve commonplace mechanical mechanisms, the group put a stress sensor underneath the decrease edge of every, making the keys velocity delicate for extra expressive enjoying.

Utilizing off-the-shelf components can also be excellent news for repairability. In principle, the top person also can get entry to those self same components, and so as to present spares, the producer simply has to order extras and make them that can be purchased. 

However the EP-133 is simply half the story. “We most likely spent far more hours on the manufacturing line than the precise improvement of the unit,” says David. 

The KOII sampler being assembled

Manufacturing unit

Having a manufacturing line near residence was vital. Earlier than deciding on a facility in Barcelona, TE checked out 14 factories round Europe, together with Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, France, Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic. 

“Some had very nice web sites and shows however once you went there, it was simply so messy, dusty, no clear rooms, and, you understand, paper-based warehouse programs,” says David. 

And paper wouldn’t reduce it. TE’s manufacturing line is critically related. It makes use of “AI cameras” over numerous stations to detect issues with meeting as they occur. If something doesn’t look proper, an alarm alerts TE instantly to allow them to appropriate the error, at that second.

Teenage Engineering truly has two variations of its manufacturing line. One within the Barcelona manufacturing unit, and one in its workplace in Stockholm. The Stockholm one doesn’t manufacture something. It’s there so the group can design and take a look at updates to the manufacturing course of, each {hardware} and software program, earlier than importing that software program to the manufacturing unit.

Testing can also be automated, though that doesn’t all the time go to plan. For instance, the audio system are examined by enjoying a frequency sweep that’s recorded and analyzed to ensure it sounds proper. As soon as, in the course of the evening, the manufacturing unit known as TE to report that every one the audio system have been failing their sound take a look at. The system uploads these checks, and when the group again in Sweden listened, “it seemed like a helicopter was within the background on all of the sweeps.” 

The offender? Someone had put an computerized, rotary screw-sorting machine on the identical desk because the take a look at system.

Teenage Engineering has extra expertise than most at manufacturing, and companions with different corporations in addition to making their very own stuff. However this human-based glitch exhibits that irrespective of how skilled you’re, even the best-thought-out plans hardly ever survive contact with the true world…

Fadergate

The launch of the Ok.O. II was a dream. It dropped with no pre-announcements, no YouTube synthfluencer movies, and—amazingly—no leaks, and was an instantaneous hit. Even usually-skeptical social media and digital musicians’ forums loved it, particularly at such a superb worth (it’s $350). However then, when folks bought them of their fingers, there have been two sometimes-recurring issues out of the field. 

One was that the audio system didn’t work. Individuals assembling this half ought to be carrying gloves, however as you may think about, that doesn’t all the time occur. The end result was contaminated connections. These can simply be mounted by opening up the case and cleansing the contacts, however David says that there’s now a digicam on that meeting line part to ensure it doesn’t occur once more. 

The opposite downside was the fader (one of many few customized components), which is used to manage results, and all types of different parameters. It, too, was arriving DOA. Consumer boards shortly recognized the trigger. Marks on the within of the field confirmed that it had been urgent down on the fader, and opening up the Ok.O. II confirmed that {the electrical} contacts inside have been bent. One other simple repair, however nonetheless. 

The issue right here, says David, is that the models are packaged in skinny show packing containers, not delivery packing containers. In line with tales on boards, retailers have shipped them both unfastened inside different packing containers, or bare. TE has already redesigned this packaging to assist the fader survive1-meter drops. Within the meantime, David himself took to the Elektronauts forum, run by fellow Swedish digital musical instrument firm Elektron, to assist out customers struggling these issues, though at that stage the group had already labored out that they simply wanted to wash the speaker contacts or bend the broken pins again into place to restore the fader.

This degree of communication is uncommon within the gadget business, and David truly introduced up the fader issues earlier than I may ask him about it. If something, he appeared extra upset by it than a lot of the customers.

Repairability

Whereas not designed particularly for repairability, the EP-133 is nonetheless simple to work on. It’s put along with screws (tons of screws, says David), with no pull-tabs or glued-in components. It additionally makes use of AAA batteries as a substitute of built-in lithium-ion batteries. 

“Triple-As will work 10 or 20 years from now,” says David. “I imply, these batteries will exist, I’m positive. Whereas the lithium battery received’t.”

The unit itself can also be designed for longevity. All these screws put in by a screw robotic on the manufacturing unit) make for a extra inflexible case, and a few often weak factors are bolstered. The little coloured plastic rectangles that encompass the inputs and outputs on the highest edge usually are not simply there to look good. Effectively, they’re, however additionally they clamp across the jack sockets. The sockets are floor mounted, and these clamps assist stop them from snapping off the board with routing put on and tear.

The opposite aspect of designing issues to final is the software program, and TE has a superb file in that division. The unique OP-1 synth has acquired common and vital updates all through its life, together with the addition of audio-over-USB (sure, by way of a software program replace) after ten years.

David additionally tells me that if and when spare components for the EP-133 are made out there, they are going to be made out there to prospects by the iFixit retailer.

It’s simple to check out a gadget and see solely the top product, however the modern exterior conceals a a lot messier design course of. Designing for restore and longevity takes critical planning from engineers and executives, and it requires an ongoing dedication to iterating when unexpected points throw a wrench within the works. On the finish of all of it, although, the ensuing product could be as lovely and practical as it’s repairable.

All photographs courtesy of Teenage Engineering.



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