I've always found the correlation between music lovers and technology enthusiasts interesting. They tend to be the same people. My friends who are really into the cool bands or newest sounds also tend to be the ones I ask about the latest gadgets. I think the gang over at Teenage Engineering have tapped into this common thread and have created some really nifty products that put a new spin on how music can be made as well as giving us some new old-fashioned ways to consume it.
I sat down with co-founder Dave Eriksson as part of our IoT Hero series and discussed the relationship between creativity and experimentation.
Hi, David. It's great to meet you. Can you do a quick intro for our blog readers?
I'm David Eriksson, co-founder of Teenage Engineering and head of hardware.
My professional background is actually coming from software development, ranging from games to server engineering and network programming. In my younger years I worked a lot with installing and servicing sound and lighting equipment for the broadcast industry while my hobbies had always been music, deejaying, and collecting synthesizers. Nowadays at TE I'm mainy responsible for our electronics platforms, future tech and everything that goes around it.
Tell me a bit about your company, Teenage Engineering.
Teenage Engineering actually started on paper back in 1999 when we (back then working together with a games startup) discussed making an FPGA-based all-in-one portable platform with a lot of connectivity (back then there were various wired standards) and audio for people wanting to experiment and develop their own bits of software. We never realized the real hardware and honestly I think it was a bit too early. During the same period we also discussed making an advanced and easy-to-use portable synth. The drawings ended up in our archives and about seven years later (2007) we decided to make it happen. So, we started Teenage Engineering.
During the first years we combined OP-1 development with running some consultancy in parallel to make a living, basically working 200 percent for some years. It was a tough period, but fun, especially since there were a lot of hardware and software we had to write from scratch. Things like our own display rendering pipeline, flash layers for dealing with audio in an efficient manner and, of course, a lot of synthesis and graphics programming.
We got really carried away, and since the OP-1 launch was a success, we just kept doing it, building the team and developing new products. Today, our focus is both the portable synthesizer range as well as wireless audio. You'll be able to see more on our website but we're very proud of the OD-11 speaker, which is a custom 2.4 & 5GHz WiFi platform developed to run a stereo pair in perfect sync while also running concurrent BLE and a STA connection to allow direct streaming from Spotify Connect and the like.
The Teenage Engineering products are really awesome. In fact, I saw RAC is using them! Can you talk about your wireless audio and synths?
Our portable synthesizers are all about creativity, making music, playing live or just having a good time! What's been really great over the last years are all the friendly people out there that contact us to tell us about their various projects. We've seen everything from sound-designs on big Hollywood movies, to the gaming industry, to a wide range of amazing artists and deejays. This injects a lot of positive energy into our organisation and me, creating a big urge to work on future products and technologies.
Then we have our wireless audio side. It's a different type of market that today is either centered around "lowest price possible" to the "all-in" products that cover every protocol and service out there making (in my opinion) the end-product confusing and complex. We wanted a real stereo system with a future-proof wireless platform that we have 100 percent control over ourselves, with a timeless design. And most importantly the sound of the OD-11's must speak for themselves. When we started that project we scouted the market for existing platforms and met a lot of people in the chip-industry, but at the time there wasn't anything that could fulfil all of our requirements. So we ended up designing our own hardware and software platform from scratch. Our system uses a 2x2 2.4GHz/5GHz WiFi + BLE to enable accessories such as our OR-1 volume remote. We integrated both Spotify Connect and Airplay to cover most common use-cases along with our own sub-sample stereo sync protocol to make the left & right speaker act as a uniform pair.
One product that has made a big impact in the synth world lately is the Pocket Operator. I understand that it uses the Silicon Labs EFM32. Why did you choose that MCU?
One of my hobbies (believe it or not) is actually to constantly browse and read through datasheets from various old and new chip makers in the industry. I remember finding those MCU's back in 2010 when they first came under the name "EnergyMicro." The tech looked impressive so I kept an eye on them. Once we decided to kick off the Pocket Operator project, the EFM32-range matched our needs really well being low-power and could run our LCD's and other I/O's. Also the fact that the development tools run on Mac OS X made the decision even easier.
How do you foresee new generations of low cost, high quality synths?
What's good with synths, or should I say musical instruments, is that it's constantly being driven by creative minds looking for new sounds, new user interfaces and form-factors. Compared with the consumer market where today smartphones have reached their limits (at least from a UX perspective), musical instruments have less rules which gives more room to experiment. Just look at the modular/eurorack scene that has exploded the last couple of years. In some way going back to the roots with pure analog controlled by CV & Gate with a nice mix of digital hybrids based on crazy ideas put to the market. My take on this is that it's all about the experience, the directness patching wires, tweaking knowbs, the tactility. Kind of a reaction on all touch interaces we use everyday to consume information. Music is about creating and I believe the physical interaction is really important.
Finally a big question: in your opinion, what does the future of IoT look like?
(Laughing) I'm still waiting and looking forward to when it happens. I might have strong opinions here but one thing that I don't believe in is the idea of moving the control of all your consumer gadgets from the real-world to a gigantic app on your smartphone. This is already happening and will be the first step in building/testing out the infrastructures. Once we get it working, hopefully with less proprietary standards than the starting field has to offer, I think the control will move back into smart objects. This gives the best of both worlds. That said, we'll have to wait a few more years until the AI-part running your "things" can read your mind. We are, of course, working on some exciting things that we think will expand the way you interact with consumer electronics in the near future.
We also had the opportunity to interview Teenage Engineering’s Oscar Ahlgren, development project manager for the Pocket Operator line. Check out both parts of the interview here:
Hi! The link between Teenage Engineering and Silicon Labs actually goes way back to their debut product, the OP-1, which creatively incorporates the Si4704 FM radio-on-a-chip.