My weird, expensive obsession with portable music workstations

Anyone who knows me well is familiar with my rather unhealthy obsession with finding the perfect portable digital music workstation. It seems like the ultimate in creative luxury to own a small device that I can compose music on in a manner similar to how I compose on my workstation at home. Yes, I know a laptop studio can be pretty small and infinitely more capable. Yes, I know this is a pretty impractical obsession. I don’t care.

My ideal device has these features:

  • a screen, possibly a touchscreen
  • multitrack sequencing software with a piano-roll style note entry interface
  • a basic collection of synths and samples and a small suite of effects
  • buttons for navigation, note placement, etc. (this eliminates all smartphone/tablet apps. Buttons are important!)
  • a small 1-2 octave keyboard
  • is a single device that can fit comfortably in a messenger bag (bonus points if it can fit in my pocket)
  • Can be battery-operated

There is nothing revolutionary about any of these features. All the technology that’s needed has been available for at least 20 years now. Sadly, there’s just not much of a market for it. In my quest to find this mythical device, I’ve found a few things that I can share with you:

Yamaha QY-70

Yamaha QY70

You can even hold it like a Game Boy!

Released in 1997, this impressive all-in-one device is probably the most famous portable music workstation. I had to buy one used on eBay back in 2005. It has a wide array of built-in sounds and a 16-track sequencer. Despite its age, the QY-70 is pretty damn amazing even now. Unfortunately, the interface is incredibly arcane, and the low-res LCD screen can’t display much information. However, I did manage to make this silly thing with it.

Teenage Engineering OP-1


Its look is clearly inspired by influential designer Dieter Rams. He’s awesome. Look him up.

I was excited about this when it was announced. The look of the device is stunning, and they were really selling it as a premium musical indulgence, with a price tag to match. I got one, of course, hoping that despite its oddball design, I could use it as a portable DAW. Alas! I could not get over the OP-1’s quirkiness. The interface for most of its software is deliberately obtuse and impenetrable. The thinking behind it is that the forced limitations and esoteric controls will inspire creative and lateral thinking. This is fine, and it sure is fun to play with, but I can only ever seem to make abstract weirdness instead of pleasing music. I’m looking for something that will help me get things done.



This is not available yet. CyberStep Inc, a small company, has been showing this thing off for years. They finally ran a successful Kickstarter back in 2014, but since then there still is no device available. I briefly played with an early model of this at the Game Developers Conference many years ago and I was impressed. It meets every one of my requirements and could very well be the mythical device I’m looking for.

Manufacturing custom hardware without a large infrastructure already in place is tricky, though. As anyone in the game industry knows, independent companies that try to get into the hardware manufacturing business tend to end up closing their doors after their first, financially crippling, shipment. Here’s hoping CyberStep can pull through.
If I find anything else, I’ll write about it here. Have you found any cool portable music devices? Let me know on twitter (@benprunty)!
%d bloggers like this: