Brains, Brains, Brains! The Quest for the Perfect Hub of a Hardware Setup with Polyend Tracker
During the last few years, it seems like we have been treated to an explosion of standalone hardware sequencers: Korg SQ-64, Squarp Pyramid and Hapax, NDLR, Oxi One, MPCs, Torso T-1, Polyend Play and others. At the same time, tracker hardware has become more visible and accepted by the everyman as a viable music production approach. There are a handful floating around out there: LSDJ, NerdSeq, Dirtywave’s M8 and Polyend Tracker. I have been looking for a while now for the consummate device to bring my setup together, as I have grown tired of having to run everything through Ableton Live. Don’t get me wrong, using a DAW checks all the boxes of convenience and usability, but after a day in front of a computer screen, I want to get away from the mouse and twist some knobs. Thus begins the quest to unchain myself.
Although I had a creeping curiosity about trackers—I’ve tried Renoise and found it refreshing—the Polyend Tracker was pressed upon me due to market forces. Global chip shortages and high demand have rendered finding an available hardware sequencer almost impossible. After an extensive search, I had only two choices: Korg SQ-64 and Polyend Tracker. The two are worlds apart, with the Korg strictly sticking to sequencing (only 4 tracks!?) and the Polyend being a self-contained music production box. I wanted my sequencer to do more than just sequence, so the Polyend came home with me. I hooked everything up via midi, switched it on, and the next thing I knew hours had passed getting lost in making music. No reading manuals, no confusion, no wishing the workflow was similar to something else… just making music with a spreadsheet. Ha!
Another self-contained DAW in a box, based on weird music tech from the worst decade in human history?
I am not going to delve into the history of tracker software in the music industry, but since the 80s era of Ataris and Amigas, it has been used in a slew of video games and developed and employed by artists like Karsten Obarsky, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Nasenbluten and others. It answered the question of how to construct music within the constraints of the computers at the time and opened up the door of composition to the wider public. Although it had never gone away, there has been a resurgence of tracker-based approaches to electronic music in recent years. Youtube is full of artists lauding the workflow and accessibility of trackers and boutique companies have been answering the call to fill this niche.
Enter Polyend—riding off their success with the Polyseq and Medusa, Polish boutique brand Polyend jumped into constructing a hardware tracker: the Polyend Tracker. Taking their cues from trackers of lore and adding in waveform and granular synth capabilities, along with competent sampling, the Polyend Tracker has managed to come up with a sleek little black box which rivals the likes of big-guns Akai and Native Instruments. As an MPC One owner myself, I must say that the quickness and efficiency of this little boutique wonder is amazing and couldn’t be more approachable to creativity compared to the MPC if it tried. Truly plug and construct.
Fun with numbers and letters!
Here’s how it works. The Polyend Tracker has 8 tracks, however, do not let the low track count fool you. Each track has 4 columns, representing note, instrument, FX1 and FX2, in which you input a series of numbers and letters, or codes. A track can have a maximum of 128 steps. Each one of those steps can contain completely different values in their perspective column slots. What this means, practically, is that I could have each step on one track triggering a different sample or sending midi notes to external synths. One track could accommodate 128 individual samples or if you are a victim of gear acquisition syndrome, 128 individual external pieces of gear (only 16 midi channels though). Multiply that by 8 and you get way more than 8 traditional tracks. There is a catch though… each track is mono, meaning that each step generally chokes the previous step. When using my setup of 4 pieces of external gear, employing numerous built-in samples, the wavetable and granular synthesizer engines, I did not find this limiting. I actually found myself composing in a more thoughtful manner.
I must clarify what the FX1 and FX2 slots represent. Yes, they can hold values for the built in reverb and delay sends, but they have a much more powerful and necessary application. I think of them as a mix of midi effects and a mod matrix. Each FX slot holds instructions about what you want the note and instrument to do, in addition to just trigger. The possibilities are numerous: arp, ratchet, glide, reverse, random everything, micro-tune, chance, midi-chord, midi CC changes and many more.
All of this may sound overwhelming and quite a bothersome approach to music-making. I felt so myself before I turned the machine on. However, it quickly became apparent that everything just made sense and I was drifting through a sea of creativity without even noticing the “spreadsheet.” After a short time, each number, letter and code automatically translated themselves to the sounds in my head. A click of a button and turn of the jog-wheel was all it took to get there. With the almost button-per-function, there is virtually no menu diving. I need to change the envelope of a sample—click, twist, click, twist, done. I want to add a filter to a step—click, twist, adjust filter envelope, done. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy!
A generative approach… life is like a random series of events.
Rather than wax on about its hardware quality (excellent), features (wavetable and granular synths, FM radio, sampling, etc.) and all other tried and true review topics, let me give you a more practical description of how I used the Polyend Tracker to sequence hardware synths and get lost in hours of generative exploration.
Construct a drone. After spending about 20 minutes on the Korg Opsix, twiddling and experimenting with algorithms and such, I was able to form a seemingly evolving drone with hints of glitches and chirps filtered in the background. Slow attack, long release. On track 1 of the Polyend Tracker I added midi channel 4 (Opsix) to the instrument column and used the fill function in the note column to randomly fill steps with notes from a pentatonic minor scale. With a drone, we don’t want to constantly trigger notes, so I set the density to a low percentage, triggering different notes within the set scale only twice in a 128 step pattern. FX1 slot was used for the midi-chord effect. FX2 slot was used for micro-timing tweaks. I added a bit of onboard reverb and delay to taste.
Supporting bass. Hopping on my Wasp, I used the low pass filter to tame the buzz, stretched out the attack, pushed release to the fullest and added a modulated reverb from a pedal I have lying around. In the Polyend I added midi channel 2 (Wasp) to track 2. In the note column of track 2 I put notes on the same steps as track one, albeit one octave lower to complement the drone and give it some oomph. As there are lots of empty steps left in this pattern, I have plenty of space left to accent notes from steps three and four once we are done. I added a bit of delay to taste.
An evolving pad. The Deepmind will take care of this. I had constructed a spacey pad a week ago on the Deepmind. Now to employ it. On track 3 of the Polyend I added midi channel 1 (Deepmind) into the instrument column. In the note column I used the same pentatonic minor scale as the drone, but with a higher register note spread. Again, I randomly filled notes in the steps, but with a higher density and only 64 steps this time. In FX1 I used the chance effect at random values so that each time the pattern cycles through it will be different. In FX2 I used the filter LFO option to have a bit more random movement as well.
Put in motion a dancing lead. My Dreadbox Typhon will take to the floor for this one. I used a tinkling-bell type lead patch I had constructed and put the midi channel into the instrument column of track 4 on the Polyend. This time I filled the note column with random notes from a basic minor scale with notes ranging in the higher octaves. The density of notes in the 32 step track was set to 50%. In the FX1 column I entered a panning LFO for movement and in FX2 I used a random trigger generator. A bit of onboard reverb and delay to taste.
Cleanup, control and pattern sequencing. All four tracks above are just one pattern. Multiple patterns may be sequenced to make a song. I easily copy/pasted pattern 1 into 3 more patterns, then began manipulating the beast. Each track can have different step lengths, so I went into pattern 2 to change the lengths of all the tracks to random odd values. This adds even more of a generative effect to the composition. I also re-randomized the chance values for the pad and lead tracks. Patterns 3 and 4 were used to give the “song” structure by cutting/copying/pasting certain steps of pattern 1. I then went back and filled in some bass notes from the Wasp track to match triggers of the Typhon, giving some steps a “chord” feel.
Conclusion of a step-by-step, confusing wall of text?
After constructing the four-pattern four-track composition above, I sat there and played around with Polyend Tracker’s performance mode. This mode is accessible with a click of a button (as with everything else on this machine) and can be used to immediately mess with tracks and patterns in multiple ways using the pad grid. Want to reverse a track? No problem. Speed or slow down a few steps? Yep. Filters, reverb and delay sends, repeats and ratcheting, rolls, etc.? Affirmative. I also used the legion of samples included in the machine to add some percussion on track 5 and was satisfied with my creation. On top of this, there were 3 more tracks and hundreds of steps left to throw in one-shots and samples wherever needed to flesh out the composition. I was satisfied far before I could even imagine reaching the limitations of the Polyend Tracker.
Is this machine the answer to my sequencer quest? Well, in terms of using its generative options to explore sounds, yes. The ease of pattern evolution and song sequencing is commendable. The performance mode is a blast. As the brain of a hardware setup, things just clicked. Sure, using the Polyend Tracker involves some muscle memory and the “spreadsheet” approach was weird at first. I found myself making some silly mistakes and changing things I hadn’t wanted changed. However, it worked for me as a whole. It still hasn’t satisfied my G.A.S., but it will be employed extensively until I can get my hands on Polyend’s next device: the Polyend Play.
Have you used the Polyend Tracker? Let us know your experience in the comments below!
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