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Sonic Boom

Innovation 2015-05-06 Henrik Emilson Magnus Liam Karlsson

Inspiration. They might not be teenagers anymore, but the spirit of youth is embedded in the backbone of the Swedish company Teenage Engineering. The company’s first product, a synthesizer, is a result of the group’s philosophy and playfulness.

​Apple, Microsoft, Harley-Davidson, Disney and Google all had their beginnings in a garage. It’s both symbolic and logical then that the young Swedish company Teenage Engineering occupies a garage. This garage is in the trendy Södermalm district of Stockholm, and it still fulfils its original function: Behind the inconspicuous door you’ll find the company’s four Twizy electric cars and founder Jesper Kouthoofd’s white Lamborghini. Behind the cars sit the company’s 25-
member staff, consisting of programmers and electrical and mechanical engineers. Further into the garage, behind several 1980s arcade games, there’s a sound studio and the machine park with a laser cutter, 3D printers and CNC machines.
“When we started in 2007, we had a dream of being close to the machines,” says Kouthoofd. “When you get an idea, it shouldn’t take too long before you can test it, because during that time you might start doubting – not believing in your idea. For us, this is a way not lose those ideas. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of milling a little box to get a feel for the proportions in your hands.”
After a career as an art director in advertising and both founding and leaving the international fashion house Acne Studios, Kouthoofd freelanced as a film director of commercials. He shared the garage with a group of programmers and electrical engineers, and soon the odd combination of professionals started to take on assignments. They took their name Teenage Engineering from an early prototype that they never launched, but it fits the company and its philosophy well.
“The teenage spirit is sometimes about doing things without having any knowledge of how to do them,” he says. “You just do it. That’s often how we go about things. If there’s something we don’t know, say electronics, we learn; we don’t let it stop us. It’s about having more will than knowledge, which is a more rock ’n’ roll way of solving things.”


The company’s first product, the OP-1 synthesizer, was financed and produced by the Teenage Engineering team in the garage. The company didn’t have the funds to hire someone to help with CAD, so the crew taught themselves the program and how a CNC machine works.
“The old process where a creative department brings the drawings to the machine operator feels outdated,” says Kouthoofd. “It should be the creator operating the machine!”
Having a strong interest in music and a lot of hours spent in their youth with synthesizers and four-channel tape recorders made Teenage Engineering’s first product not only an easy choice, but one that went hand in hand with the company’s philosophy about being an engineer.
“We don’t want a person just to be a mechanical engineer,” says Kouthoofd. “We want them to be interested in their own day and age. Often a product is invented in relation to the current times. That’s when it achieves a greater effect and really can influence.”
The staff saw how musicians were moving from instruments to laptops. The process left behind not only the physical controls and buttons of the mixer boards and instruments, but also the limits of the old equipment.
“In a computer you get 99 tracks to play with,” Kouthoofd says. “All those possibilities can be inhibiting for creativity. It’s just too much to choose from. All creativity flourishes with limitations, and we adapted the OP-1 according to that philosophy.”

The synthesizer, with its four-track recording feature, has sold well. Owners include big names such as Jean-Michel Jarre, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Alicia Keys, almost everyone in hip hop and “half of Apple’s design team of 16 persons”. Still, the synthesizer market is relatively small. This is something Teenage
Engineering wants to change, gaining inspiration from Nintendo, which managed to kick-start the dying game console market with Wii and Wii Fit and the popular Brain Games, creating in the process a whole new group of users.
“Our slogan is ‘Grow the synthesizer population!’,” says Kouthoofd. “It’s a small market today, but if we can get more people to become interested then we’ll have an advantage over the competition.” He explains that one of the ways forward for the company is a synthesizer for 59 US dollars (50 euros) that comes in three parts and fits in your jacket pocket.
The Teenage gang – the average age of the staff is actually 35 – states that for young engineers and entrepreneurs, there is no better time than right now.
“You have the perfect conditions: crowd funding, cheap machines and software and global trade over the Web,” says Kouthoofd. “Just go for it.” 

 

 

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