MachinePix Weekly #18: David Möllerstedt, co-founder of Teenage Engineering

David Möllerstedt talks about his passion for programming, music, and gaming—and how it helped him found Teenage Engineering 👾🎶 This week's most popular post was... a hotdog wobbler? 🌭

This week I sit down with David Möllerstedt, a co-founder of beloved audio company Teenage Engineering. I did my best not to fanboy too hard, and David was a very patient guest 😅

The most popular post last week was a hot dog wobbler, showing me once again that appeal is not correlated to complexity at all. As always, the entire week’s breakdown is below the interview.

I’m always looking for interesting people to interview, have anyone in mind?

Kane


Interview with David Möllerstedt

You have a long career in audio, both at EA Dice and teenage engineering - what brought you to the industry in the first place?

It started with my mother’s textile studio, which was next door to a music studio. When I was really young I thought “oh cool, a music studio!” I got internships doing some work there, probably because they wanted to maintain a good relationship with my mother.

In 1984 or something I got a computer, a ZX Spectrum. In Europe, the Commodore 64 was the main gaming computer, so there weren’t as many games for the Spectrum. I started to program to make my own games and experiment. I think if I had the C64 I would have just played games.

You’re a computer scientist by background right?

I recorded music for many years but studied computer science. When I was about to do my Master’s thesis I saw a really weird looking poster for a company that was hiring. They had musical instruments on the poster but they didn't say what they were doing. The company was Elektron, and I ended up working there.

I was supposed to do a Master’s thesis, but someone formatted the hard drive my thesis was on and I was like “fuck” — so I ended up going back to doing music, where I ended up working for Dice which was just starting to get acquired by EA. A singer in a band I produced, Robot, was running audio for Dice and recruited me there. He actually hired me as his manager because they didn’t have anyone leading the group. I was the bridge between the programmers and the sound designers.

You left what sounds like a pretty awesome job at EA Dice. What was the original inspiration for teenage engineering that compelled you to leave?

I was at EA Dice for 5 years, it was a really cool place and we did a lot of cool stuff. I think I left partly because we were working with war—we did Battlefield—guns, weapons, explosions, and it became more and more contemporary, more and more real. It wasn’t as much a cartoon or anything like that. It started to resemble what we saw on TV too much.

In parallel, this opportunity happened where all of us that ended up founding teenage engineering wanted to do something more—that group existed already. When I was at Elektron, Jesper, the head of design for teenage engineering, did all the design, and the other founders David and Jens were working together.

We had wanted to do something like this for a long time. It was one of those things where you could feel the time was right for everyone. It was 2008, and suddenly the whole cellphone thing had happened. There were screens and batteries and low powered CPUs. It felt like the time. The sheer amount of money and innovation on cell phones, to be able to tap into that, it was really good. Actually in some ways it was easier back then. The industry is bigger now, but more closed. Now the big companies want to claim all the components, integrate them.

What are some of your favorite stories you’re allowed to share?

One story, not from the OP-1 days, but from the OD-11 days. Around NAMM, we used to go to California. When the OD-11 was in the prototype phase, we went to Apple and met with a large chunk of their industrial design team. I really wanted to show them and play music and use Airplay and all that. 

A post shared by teenage engineering (@teenageengineering)

We were in this small secret room with a bunch of Apple people, we also had our prototype Ortho bluetooth controller. They were all asking to play with it and touch it. It was magnetic and could stick fridges or white boards, so we showed them that.

The prototype, when we stuck it on the wall, it fell apart. In the process of falling apart, it kept sending volume up commands to the OD-11. So the controller was in pieces, the speaker volume was at max, we were trapped in this small room. Someone had to dive for the power cable. At least we got to test it at full volume.

How did the Apple team react?

They were very cool with it. They’ve been doing this stuff for decades, they’ve probably been through situations like this before. Actually everyone was smiling—and thinking “oh good, we can look inside now.”

I love some of the collaborations you’ve done, including the most recent Streetfighter Pocket Operator. How do these collaborations come about?

In terms of the projects that happen, that’s partially my responsibility. We get a lot of requests from everywhere and I have to say “no” quite a bit. A lot of times we’re already mutual fans of each other. For Rick and Morty, Justin came and visited us and we were both like “wow!” and we both wanted to make something together. That obviously helps when you need to negotiate a license, when you have people on both sides pushing for it.

A post shared by teenage engineering (@teenageengineering)

Same thing with Capcom, I reached out to Tomoya, he works on the audio team there. This was a while ago, but we were both interested in making it happen. The collaboration also has to appeal to someone like you: you have to know and love the logo, and it should be fun and make sense. Capcom makes a lot of sense.

A post shared by teenage engineering (@teenageengineering)

I’m sure you won’t tell me but I have to ask, what’s the next collaboration?

You can ask, and I think I can answer - there isn’t an obvious next collaboration that’s decided yet, so yea. We’re open for suggestions!

Seamus Blackley, my last guest and “father of the Xbox,” wanted to pass along that he loves your products and the boards are beautifully designed. There’s a lot of intentionality behind your design philosophy, can you share a bit about that? What are some guiding principles?

I’m not on the design team, but I know they don’t want to add design features that have no functionality. A lot of time when you talk about design, you add things for the sake of design. We don’t work like that. But that means you’re stuck working with what has to be there. As a consequence of that, you end up designing a lot of core components, and the PCB is an integral part of the product.

A post shared by teenage engineering (@teenageengineering)

If you write code, you probably want it to look nice, even if no one will see it and it gets compiled. But there should be a poetic license, an intentional thought. Sometimes it gets optimized and gets weird, but there should be a reason. We try to be conscientious about all the details, even the ones no one sees. It helps us improve the product in different subtle ways.

It’s not just me on the team that comes from a gaming background.  Our work feels a bit like developing a gaming console. It's a fixed, limited set of hardware that we really try to optimize. It’s an interesting challenge.

Do you still play games?

When I quit Dice, I sold everything game related except what I was working on. I didn’t want to play games unless I was being paid to play games. It had very much become work for me. Now I’m a little bit tempted from time to time. In a way it’s a little bit sad, I’d loved games for a long time. But work kind of destroyed it. Firewatch was an exemption. I loved it.

You know, it’s not the same with music. I’d worked with music for a long time but I still enjoy playing music. I don’t know why. We have a band! Teenage Engineering Sound System. To test our products, we play live shows with our prototypes. Obviously not as much this year. It was really scary but really fun. Instead of using a user feedback service for products, we rely on our team and experience.

What is your favorite or proudest product you’ve shipped?

I have to say the OP-1, because we did that with 5 people. Everything, including product, production, website, sales—I did a large part of what’s in there. I spent many hours with it. I still think it feels surprisingly fresh.

But I also really like the OB-4, the bluetooth speaker we just released. Not just because of the novelty. Some of the audio development I was involved in was done many years ago, I really like the way it sounds in relation to the way it looks. The sound you get out of this compact, very thin box.

Any side projects you’re working on right now?

I’m quite involved in a side project. I’m not sure how much I can say right now, it’s not an audio product per se, but it has a very distinct sound.

When can you talk about it?

Hopefully next spring. On the personal side, I have a son that is soon two years old, so that’s a side project for me and my wife.

What are you reading these days?

I would like to have a better answer to that, for this year it’s just been a lot of news. Other than that, a lot of recipes. Recipes are both the right size for me but an important part of life. Some datasheets, perhaps too many legal documents these days. Unfortunately between teenage engineering and a two year old, no proper books.

What’s your favorite simple (or not so simple) tool or hack that you think is under-appreciated?

I think these things probably happen by chance, and you pick up some of the good pieces. When we did the OP-1, I used Bootcamp because the development environment was in Windows. It took a while to go into coding and then back into Mac. That also meant I was completely shut off from work email and other things. But that turned out to be really productive!

If it was important people would call you. But I was also working in a garage without cell reception. So it was really productive. I don’t have a chance to work like that now, but I still don’t install work email on my phone. It lets me have dedicated tools. I’m not sure if it’s backwards looking or artistic, but at least it’s something anyone can try.


The Week in Review

Carbon nanotubes feel like one of those technologies that’s constantly a decade away, but it’s great to see that people are grinding away at it. I just want a space elevator.


This week’s most popular post. I hope the “i” in Wobble Dog 9003i stands for “Improved”. This feels like the spiritual sibling to the tentacle-with-a-knife.


An eagle-eyed follower on LinkedIn mentioned that this is a dummy round, since the lifting ring is still visible at the tip of the shell. The lifting ring is replaced with a fuze before firing in live shells. Bonus: check out those shockwaves.


As scary as this looks, it’s actually an automated version of the CHIO, an existing product that helps people with limited dexterity replace their contacts.


Postscript

My friend Kareem just acquired a retro German car made for the Japanese market (BMW E30 wagon, for you nerds). All the labels are in German and Japanese, making documentation its own little adventure.

If you enjoyed this newsletter, forward it to friends (or interesting enemies). I am always looking to connect with interesting people and learn about interesting machines—reach out!

—Kane