It’s often hard to tell whether Teenage Engineering is being serious when it releases a new product. $1,599 desk tables? A choir of eight wooden singing dolls at $220 each? It’s a tough sell. But when its Pocket Operators are among the most affordable synths and samplers on the market, the OP-1 is a bona fide modern classic, and the OP-Z is treasured enough for a person to get it inked on their arm, you can’t help but pay attention whenever something new arrives.
So when the EP-133 K.O.II dropped in November 2023, all eyes were back on Teenage Engineering.
Yes, it looks like a LEGO calculator. Yes, some buyers are reporting genuine fader quality issues, causing ‘Fadergate’ to become a recurring term on Reddit. But, yes, it is a $299 sampler that you can’t help but be tempted by — and that TE is taking very seriously.
“It was a bit overwhelming — we knew it would be popular, but that popular? I think we had different opinions,” says David Eriksson, co-founder and head of hardware at Teenage Engineering, of the reaction to the K.O.II. He’s speaking to us from Sweden, where TE is based, alongside corporate giants Spotify and IKEA.
“We’re not at all market-driven,” Eriksson continues. “I mean, most big companies on this planet are; they try to predict what might sell well. I think we’re probably the opposite.”
So how did Teenage Engineering decide to create the K.O.II?
“[A new product] could be something we feel is needed in our studios. This machine is different to what we usually do. We have the Pocket Operators, that are kind of in the same kind of genre — one machine that does one thing really well — but we’ve never done a kind of classic sampler that’s tuned for performing or improvising.”
Inspired by old-school samplers such as the Akai MPC 3000 and E-Mu SP-1200, the EP-133 K.O.II is playful and portable, but certainly has limitations. The 64MB memory, 20 seconds of sample time, and 12-voice polyphony are practically laughable compared to what is capable of our laptops, phones and more expensive samplers. But, as Ricky Tinez quickly realised, such limitations and quirks can prove more creative than they seem.
“[The K.O.II] quickly became, to me, like the number one recommendation to anybody who’s trying to make beats,” says Tinez, a producer, content creator, and Elektron brand manager. Speaking to us from California, Tinez is surrounded by much less gear than you’ll see in the three videos showcasing the K.O.II, but is still palpably enthused to talk studio tech.
He experienced some bugs and hurdles in his videos of the EP-133 K.O.II but seems to have since come to terms with the oddities of Teenage Engineering’s new sampler. He’s now more focused on what it does have.
“It’s battery powered, it has a speaker, it samples any sound you want, it has a built-in microphone so you can sample sounds directly there, it plays your samples chromatically, it has drum groups, it has mute groups, it has sample editing, MIDI in/MIDI out, MIDI sequence sequencing, and it’s 300 fucking dollars! That is insanity,” he chuckles.
Still, Eriksson and his team always wanted to keep the K.O.II limited, just like its predecessor, the PO-133 K.O.
“People are still buying a lot of vintage gear for insane money,” he says. “A [Roland] TR-909 today…it’s nuts how much you have to pay for it. And why? It’s because people like that it’s very limited and it has its own sound.
“That was the idea, with both the Pocket Operators and the K.O.II, to make something that has a vibe to it — both how you use it and how it sounds. Of course, it’s sample-based so how it sounds is [up to you], but the way you apply effects and how the signal chain is built up, it still gives it a bit of character.”
Upon first interacting with the K.O.II, you sort of want to just smash the buttons and see what happens. Thankfully, that can be pretty rewarding. It’s preloaded with 300 sounds and has 12 punch-in master effects (that make the backlit screen go wild), so you can start using those calculator-style buttons to quickly lay down a beat. And, of course, you’ve got the microphone to record whatever you want. It really does have character.
“That’s something I really like about the K.O.II,” says Tinez. “You just press sample and you hold the pad, and you’re sampling. There’s no like, ‘Oh, go to this menu, turn this on, blah, blah, blah’, it’s so simple. I’m at a point right now, where I’m like, if [an instrument] slows me down, and it’s not fun to use, it’s just going in the closet. And I don’t care what the price point is. It could be a $50 sampler or a $2,000. Sampler — if it’s fast, it’s fast, and I’m gonna keep it. And if it’s slow, it’s gone. ”
But let’s address the elephant in the room. The K.O.II’s build quality has been rightly criticised by plenty of customers online. Fadergate isn’t a myth — some models have arrived defective, with the sampler’s sole slider being unresponsive. But there are also reports of the speaker not working, the unit not booting up properly, and bugs deleting entire patterns (you can see this happening to Tinez in his video on stretching samples on the K.O.II).
We’re yet to experience any issues on the loan unit we’ve received for review purposes (our review will be online later this month). Not yet, anyway. But Eriksson and his team were made quickly aware of Fadergate and assures us they have made steps to minimise future mishaps.
“We tried to predict everything that can go wrong, from production to cosmetics,” he says. “We’ve built a lot of fixtures, tools and automation to build these [instruments] and to avoid things like this from happening.
“We’re going to put up online, quite soon, a factory tour to show the machinery we designed to build the K.O.II. There are a lot of robotics that move the fader up and down and push all the keys and calibrate them, plus we have a log of everything. So we know for sure that they work when they go into the box and leave the factory. And then, of course, we could guess that you get transport damage, but not at this rate.”
“And then there were a couple of different mistakes from our side with the packaging dimensions. The size of the box is 10 inches, so some stores thought it was a 10-inch vinyl package and so shipped it without padding. But it was also our little design flaw, we didn’t have any protection, and if something hit the packaging straight on the fader, it would break. Now that’s been changed. So we have new packaging — now, we’ve been throwing it like a frisbee at work, at the walls, like over and over. And now it doesn’t break.”
A plethora of customers are still awaiting their replacement units or parts, though, which is no use to those who managed to grab a K.O.II before it sold out. The next batch is expected to be available in the next couple of months — here’s hoping new customers will be able to throw theirs like a frisbee with no issues, too.
Those who are lucky enough to have a working model right now will see a handful of software updates recently implemented by TE. This includes some bug fixes and general quality-of-life improvements, which can be applied by opening the TE browser updater and plugging the sampler into a laptop or phone, which is a neat way to handle updates.
“We have a lot of stuff planned, it’s just we were focusing on stability in the beginning and getting it rock solid,” says Eriksson. He keeps any info on the updates close to his chest, but does mention that TE hasn’t even “turned on the CPU’s crazy power-saving features” yet.
Tinez hopes for a threshold level for recording. That way, he doesn’t have to use a paperweight to hold down ‘Record’ as he plays in audio from a synth. But, from his experience at Novation and Elektron, Tinez knows that implementing new features isn’t always straightforward.
“Turning to the audience and the customer and saying, “Tell us everything you want!” just turns into this, like, Homer Simpson car where nothing makes sense,” he explains. “And then navigating it and all that stuff. Because at Elektron, we deal with that, too. If we can’t find a good way to implement [a new feature], UI-wise, we just won’t do it. Because that’s more negative than it is positive and it isn’t helping anybody.”
It’s also kind of difficult to know what you want out of a $300 sampler. You can’t expect features from the likes of an MPC Live II or a Maschine+ to be implemented — you expect a high build quality, still — but sometimes it’s better to learn an instrument as it is. So Eriksson and Tinez believe, anyway.
“I see [the K.O.II] more as an instrument,” says Eriksson. “I mean, that’s why we have fairly good MIDI implementation. I mean, we might need to work on that a little bit to make it even deeper for people with many synths and stuff. But, as I see it, it’s a perfect standalone machine to do full tracks, whether you’re into breakbeat house or more beat-oriented music.
“I mean, I’m personally like still buying vinyl and using my old Technics turntables, and it’s just looking at that old scene where you have your two faders and the crossfader, and you can still do crazy stuff with, like, two stereo tracks. And a lot of people at TE are working to build a computer-less setup in their studios. It’s not that we don’t like computers, they’re great. It’s more that we use those tools at work every day. So once you’re in the studio, trying to make music, you kind of want to get away from a desktop – I mean for mixing mastering, sure — but for just creating, [a computer] is in the way, I think. You end up just testing, you know, 14 new plugins, and then it’s bedtime.
“I’m impressed with people that can throw together a track in an hour or two. You have to be so disciplined not to get carried away with the depth you have.”
“I want the machine to play me as much as I’m playing it,” says Tinez. “So I seek those limitations a lot of the time — and the K.O.II definitely has a lot of those limitations. Because when it comes to the creative process, if you have to decide for every single thing, you’ll gain fatigue. By the time you’re done making a track, you’re exhausted. But if a lot of the decisions are kind of set in stone for you to make, you’re like, ‘cool, this is just what I’m gonna work with. And I’m gonna make it work because this is all I got’, you know?”
Almost all of TE’s products — not the Field Desk — are born to be playful. The brand isn’t trying to create the ultimate groovebox or an endlessly-capable synthesizer. It’s trying to make instruments that are genuinely fun to use. Ricky Tinez is fine with that. “It’s refreshing for a company to be like, ‘This is the product. And if you’re not vibing with it, it might not be for you. And that’s okay.’”
Learn more about the EP-133 K.O.II at teenage.engineering.
Get the latest news, reviews and tutorials to your inbox.Subscribe