OP-1 Portable Synthesizer

Musicians beware! The OP-1 is a synthesizer that some may love and others may dismiss as a mere overpriced toy.

For myself, Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 has been an indispensable addition to my synth arsenal: partly because it produces sounds I can’t find elsewhere and partly because it’s so incredibly easy (and yes, even fun) to use. (See video below.)

The color-base interface took me by surprise! There’s practically no learning curve for adjusting the eight separate sound engines (and effects) — the machine is highly visual in this regard. In fact I love handing my OP-1 to non-musicians and watching them as they almost instantly begin “programming” a sound. For a performer, this kind of ease-of-use is power: to effortlessly turn a few knobs and get to the sound one is after. No fiddling around. In this regard, the OP-1 is a musician’s instrument.

The portability is a nice plus. I can throw it into a backpack, take it anywhere, sketch out an idea for a song anywhere (using it’s built-in “four-track recorder” which operates much like a reel-to-reel tape). They advertise the batteries to last 16 hours… I haven’t tested that, but I have no frustrations in that regard.

More coolness about the OP-1:

* It has four intelligently designed sequencers that I absolutely love and continually use.

* Teenage Engineering occasionally releases new system updates with added functionality (new synth engines, new drum machines, etc…) And new new accessories, such as pitch bending knob and crank wheels for added functionality.

* It features both a built-in microphone and a built in FM-radio for sampling.

Is there anything bad about the OP-1? Yeah, its price. $849 is a lot to spend on any hardware synth where software synths are beginning to cost less and less.

I do wish the keyboard was more substantial. The Korg NanoKey midi controller is just a little larger and it has a nice resistance (and is velocity sensitive), whereas the keyboard on the OP-1 feels a bit cheap.

Is is a toy? I don’t believe so. I just produced a movie soundtrack and I often used the OP-1 for sounds I couldn’t achieve with any other synth. As an electronic musician, I now depend on it. It may not be for everyone, but it’s a great machine for use in the studio and, because of its small size and ease of use, it’s probably an even better instrument for use on stage.

The interface of the OP-1 is entirely color-based and very intuitive. For
example: the knob changes the blue number on the screen, the white knob
changes the white number. The above video (about one of the
sequencers) demonstrates this.

-- Robyn Miller  

Portable Synthesizer

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Teenage Engineering

Homemade Musical Instrument Guides

Here are three great guides for making your own musical instruments. Advantages of making your own: 1) Personalized, 2) Cheaper, 3) Types no one else sells, 4) Satisfaction of making.

There is not much overlap of instruments featured between these three books.

The coolest of the three guides is Making Gourd Musical Instruments. It has very explicit step-by-step instructions for making 60 instruments using lightweight gourds as the sound amplifiers. Gourds enable wind, string and percussion instruments — so you could make an entire orchestra. This book has the most variety of musical options and great examples of world-wide traditional instruments for inspiration. If you can get only one of these three books, this should be it.

Making Musical Instruments by Hand
Jay Javighurst
1998, 108 pages
$9+, used
Available from Amazon

Sound Designs
John Scoville, Reinhold Banek
1995, 224 pages
$8+, used
Available from Amazon

-- KK  

Making Gourd Musical Instruments
Ginger Summit, Jim Widess
2007, 144 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Sample excerpts:

>From Making Gourd Musical Instruments


Cut keys (lamella) from an old leaf rake.


Position the keys in the bridge and tighten the screws. If you need to adjust the length of a key slightly, loosen the screw, then readjust it.


Completed kalimba.



Drill the peg holes precisely at the marks.



As you tighten the lacing, make sure each loop is brought around its peg and that the bead is next to the peg. Later on, the peg may be pushed up on the lacing to further tighten the head if needed.

>From Making Musical Instruments by Hand

Tip: Stretching Thicker Skins

Thicker skins may require more pressure to tighten before stapling. Use a pair of locking pliers with a thin rope attached through the handle. Make a loop at the bottom so you can step onto it. Apply tension firmly with your foot, without tearing the skin, and with the staple gun held vertically upside down, fire the staple. Then follow the stapling instructions in step 9.




>From Sound Designs

Dimple Gongs

Simply, mark the center point on each plate or disc. Place it on the end of a fairly wide piece of soft wood, say 4 by 4 inches. Put the round end of a ball-peen hammer on the center mark and smite it hard several times with a small sledge or heavy hammer.



The resulting dimple gives the plate not only a distinct pitch, but its name as well. Though if you look at it from the other side, it becomes a pimple gong. We found by experimenting that generally the smaller the dimple the lower the pitch would be, so tune yours accordingly.



Tube Drums



The Soundscape

The sound of modern life has a 60 hertz hum in the background because that’s the frequency of electricity (in North America). Add to that all the other vibrations of technological artifacts and all the sounds made by nature and you get the soundscape of the world. I learned to hear this sonic environment from this master observer. He gave me ears. Once heard these vibrations can be tuned, altered, muffled, amplified.

-- KK  

The Soundscape
R. Murray Schafer
1993, 320 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

The Flat Line in Sound

The Industrial Revolution introduced another effect into the soundscape: the flat line.

A few years ago, while listening to the stonemasons’ hammers on the Takht-e-Jamshid in Teheran, I suddenly realized that in all earlier societies the majority of sounds were discrete and interrupted, while today a large portion — perhaps the majority — are continuous. This new sound phenomenon, introduced by the Industrial Revolution and greatly extended by the Electric Revolution, today subjects us to permanent keynotes and swaths of broad-band noise, possessing little personality or sense of progression.




The best way to comprehend what I mean by acoustic design is to regard the soundscape of the world as a huge musical composition, unfolding around us ceaselessly. We are simultaneously its audience, its performers and its composers. Which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply?


Another continuous rhythm is that of breathing, which also varies in tempo with exercise and relaxation. Normal breathing is said to vary between 12 and 20 cycles per minute, that is, 3 to 5 seconds per cycle. But breathing may be slowed down during relaxation or sleep to cycles lasting 6 to 8 seconds. Part of the sense of well-being we feel at the seashore undoubtedly has to do with the fact that the relaxed breathing pattern shows surprising correspondence with the rhythms of the breakers, which, while never regular, often produce an average cycle of 8 seconds.


Another biological tempo which relates significantly to the acoustic environment is that of the resolving power of the sense receptors. In humans this hovers around 16 to 20 cycles per second. It is in this frequency range that a series of discrete images or sounds will fuse together to give an impression of continuous flow. Film employs 24 frames per second in order to avoid flicker. As far as aural perception is concerned, a rapid rhythmic vibration will gradually assume an identifiable pitch at about 20 cycles per second. Thus, as the tempo of human activities increases, the rhythms of foot and hand are mechanized, first into the rough, “grainy” concatenation of the Industrial Revolution’s first tools, and finally into the smooth pitch contours of modem electronics. The resolving power of the senses makes it possible to turn some of the nervous agitation of the soundscape into drones which, being less turbulent to the ears, tend to have a pacifying quality.


In Turkish cars, horns are tuned to the interval of a major or minor second. While in some cultures this is considered an exceedingly dissonant diad, there are examples in the Balkans, for instance from certain regions of western Bulgaria, of folk singing in which two voices sing together in major or minor seconds, the singers considering this a consonant interval.

iLuv Earphones

I’m writing a review about that goes against the spirit of Cool Tools in a way. While I love these headphones, the price is very reasonable, they aren’t necessarily “the best” of their kind. What I really want to evangelize is the idea of the flat headphone cable.

I love earbuds. I hate dealing with tangled cords. I would stuff my headphones in my bag, and they would come out in a Gordian knot. All the solutions proffered seemed just as labor intensive as untangling them afterwards, involved wrapping them so tightly I couldn’t help but think it was going to damage the wire or give it a memory (so it would revenge-tangle itself when I turned my head for a moment), or both.

Flat cables don’t “feel the need” to twist, and so drop them in the bottom of your backpack, pull them out and they’re ready to go.

I simultaneously bought MEElectronics flat cable earbuds and the iLuv on Amazon. I didn’t like the former as much; weird static-y shocks when I walked on my treadmill; the latter have the remote to pause/play/skip ahead, turn volume up and down and take calls w/integral mic.

I’ve noticed flat cables featured on SkullCandy and other brands; I’m sure an audiophile can buy $300 noise-canceling flat cable headphones. The main point for me is that the no-tangle principal worked great, look for it, then figure out what else you need and go from there.

-- Taylor Bryant  

Available from Amazon

Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones

I’m a test engineer for large tape libraries in a noisy lab. (It’s one of the best jobs in the world — making robots crash into each other at high speeds may not be the sine qua non of computer manufacture, but it’s just plain fun.)

Between the HVAC, the server farm, and the bot wars, it’s noisy. Needless to say, this affects my hearing — so much that my wife thinks my favorite phrase is “Would you say that again, honey?” After many false starts, I finally found a set of noise cancelling headphones that I can wear all day without making my ears sore, and are durable enough to last two years (so far).

With 20 test engineers in the lab using these, the bar is set pretty high. Collectively, my group has bought a lot of hearing protection, and these are the only ones that are durable, effective, and comfortable. The old adage “cheap, comfortable, effective – pick any two” applies here — Bose QuietComfort’s cost $300, but cheaper ones just don’t cut the mustard.

The signal processing in QC15s is excellent, but cheaper models come close. The real secret sauce is the comfort engineering – nobody else comes close to Bose. They are suitable for enjoying music, but that’s a secondary benefit. You can wear them for a full day, and your ears aren’t sore — that’s key.

If your employer won’t pay for these, buy them anyway. You’re worth it.

-- Robert Hastings  

Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones

Available from Amazon

How to Build a Guitar: the String Stick Box Method

I’ve been making cigar box guitars for about five years, and this is the DVD that taught me what I needed to get started. Bill Jehle is a traditional guitar maker, and he made this video as a way to introduce people to the art of making more complex stringed instruments. His delivery is calm and orderly, and free of hype.

The video helped me over the hurdle of installing frets, which I had previously assumed was a monumentally difficult thing to do. I also learned about neck profiling and how to make the headstock. When I built my first guitar, it had plenty of problems, but it would have been much worse had I built it without the knowledge I’d picked up from viewing the video.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

How to Build a Guitar: the String Stick Box Method DVD

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:







LinkeSOFT SongBook

If you like to sing songs and play along on your guitar, banjo, ukulele, etc. at a campfire, bar, church, etc., the tablet revolution has been a boon. No more binders to carry around! Instant access to lyrics and chords for approximately 1 bazillion songs!

The downside, though, is that the quality of the song transcriptions you find online are of widely varying quality. Additionally, the web pages that contain the transcriptions are chock full-o-ads, and as a rule, the best campfires are found where the internet access is the worst.

The answer to these problems is to curate your own collection of song transcriptions. The best tool I’ve found to do this is LinkSOFT’s cross platform SongBook.

SongBook allows you create and manage files for songs in the simple, plain text based ChordPro file format. It is easy to start with the transcription of a song from one of the online archives, and then correct / customize it within SongBook. Once the song is set up, it is easy to do things like change keys and display chord fingering.

SongBook has versions for both desktop and mobile platforms, and the mobile versions support DropBox for syncing. This makes it easy to utilize the strengths of each. I use the desktop version to create and edit song files, and the mobile versions for performances. That said, if I need to edit a song on the go, those edits get automatically synced thanks to the magic of DropBox.

The app does cost a few bucks. However, I have found it to be a good value. There are new functions being added regularly, and when I have had (rather minor) problems, the developer has been very responsive.

-- Clark Case  

LinkeSOFT SongBook
$6 – $19, depending on operating system

KRK ROKIT 6 Studio Monitors

I’ve been a recording engineer for a long time. I’ve used Yamaha NS-10s for many years and Meyer HD-1s in many studios (which were the first pro self-powered monitors). For my home studio I use the ROKIT 6 Studio Monitors. They are excellent, transparent, self-powered monitors and they give me a sense of pro sound in my home studio. I do all my recording and mixing “in the box” [doing all the sound mixing on a computer, as opposed to "out of the box" -- using a mixing board and traditional equipment] and these monitors allow me to create mixes that often sound superior to mixes done in “real” studios.

-- Greg Remillard  

KRK RP6G2 Rokit G2 6-inch Powered Studio Monitor

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by KRK Systems

Enhanced Bass Hi-Fi Noise-Isolating Earphones

For over 10 years, I have been listening to music with the Westone UM1 In-Ear Monitor, which I originally discovered via Cool Tools way back in 2003. They are wonderful noise-isolating earbuds, but they have a downside — I have to repurchase them every couple of years because the little plastic earbud stem snaps off, and at $100 a pop, this has become a deal-breaker. So after another pair snapped a couple weeks ago, I decided to explore alternatives.

In my experience, earphones are kind of like sunglasses; it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of money on them, because they are highly likely to get lost or broken. If I were planning to wear earphones exclusively in my apartment, I might look into purchasing a premium over-the-ear pair, but most of the time I wear them while I am commuting on public transit, jogging, or at the gym — all activities which carry a high potential for impact. They routinely get tugged out or jammed into a pants pocket or bag.

I’ve ordered numerous audio cables from Monoprice over the years with great results, so after reading a few positive reviews online, I decided to give their Enhanced Bass Hi-Fi Noise Isolating Earphones a try. They were cheap (<$8), so it wasn't a big risk. Also, it seems to me that the largest determining factor in headphone sound quality is noise isolation, so I decided to upgrade the stock tips with Comply T-400 Isolation Earphone Tips ($15 Amazon). I’ve been listening to music through this setup for a couple weeks, and although the Monoprice earbuds don’t sound as good as the Westones — the treble can be a little harsh at times — the sound quality is probably 80%. Also, the Comply tips provide a tight, comfortable fit when I’m active. A tip: the cables are wrapped in some sort of fabric which makes them a little rigid, so they can spring out from behind your ears. To solve this problem, I positioned the cables and then tied a knot under my chin, which keeps them in place.

I also purchased a pair of the Monoprice over-the-ear DJ-style headphones ($32 Amazon, $23 Monoprice). These have become my go-to pair; I’ve been wearing them every morning during my SF Muni commute. The consensus of the reviewers on the Monoprice site suggests that the DJ-style headphones are more durable than the lightweight model, and although I wasn’t able to directly compare the two, I will say that they are solidly constructed and the sound quality is great – a deep, rich bass. I’m sure they aren’t on par with a pair of premium over-the-ear headphones, but at 1/10 the price, they are close enough for me.

-- Jason Sellers  

Enhanced Bass Hi-Fi Noise-Isolating Earphones
$8 at Monoprice

Available from Amazon

Bose SoundLink

I’m a roadie who gets to visit “home” on the weekends. My fairly new Bose SoundLink, though, let’s me turn any hotel room into a thoroughly music-infused space. That helps a lot…

This thing has both Bluetooth and a 3.5mm stereo jack on the back. It’s pretty small, has a good battery and a wall-wart transformer (the package I got from Costco also has a cigarette-lighter cord).

It’s not a lightweight little thing and it really packs a punch. It’s really easy to have it (way) too loud in a hotel room. Try that, Jambox.

I plug in my Sansa Clip. Or I play stuff off my phone. Or it plays audio from my tablet, or “replaces” the crappy speakers on my laptop. The sound is surprisingly good at every volume level, and as I said, it can get really loud if you want it to be.

And it’s no trick to operate, it’s very easy to set up.

(Now if I can just find a player that takes microSDXC cards and had Bluetooth too!)

For me, this SoundLink replaces something major from home that I’ve been missing.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II

Available from Amazon