The fall of the Iron Curtain revealed a surprise for Western musicians: a flourishing Soviet synthesizer industry. Its flagship instrument was crude, cheaply made, horrible to play — and sounded like nothing else...
I saw my first Russian synthesiser in July 1994, at the opening of Martin Newcombe's now defunct Museum of Synthesizer Technology. I was intrigued by it. Many of the guests were twiddling away on large Moogs and ARP 2500s, but I didn't even know that there was (or had been) a Russian synthesizer industry, so I asked Martin whether I could try the thing with the strange Cyrillic name. Crushingly, the answer was "no”, because it didn't work. Nevertheless, it looked gorgeous: black, chunky, and about as sleek as a Soviet tank.
The instrument in question was a Polivoks and, at the time, the museum's was perhaps the only one in the UK. But Martin had unwittingly started something and, fuelled by rumours that Russian synths had a raw, aggressive sound, interest in them rocketed. Happily, the Soviet Union had collapsed a few years earlier, so the time was ripe for all manner of Russian and East German synths to enter the western consciousness. The problem was that nobody knew where to find them, so by 1995, they were already well on their way to acquiring mythical status.
The Polivoks is a duophonic synthesizer designed by Vladimir Kuzmin, an electronics engineer who had been the bass player and sound engineer in his student band. Having graduated in 1976, he was inspired to apply for work at the Urals Vector Company by the inventor of the FAEMI, the first commercially successful Russian electronic keyboard. That man was Vladimir Lugovetz, the Director of the bureau that controlled development of electronic instruments at the Vector company, and the father of Kuzmin's future wife.
The company comprised two plants: one in Ekaterinburg and one in Katchkanar. The plant in Ekaterinburg was the older of the two, and its history reached back to World War II, but the one in Katchkanar, named 'Formanta', had been built in the early '70s. Given that this plant produced musical equipment such as organs, amplifiers and speakers, it's no surprise that Kuzmin accepted an offer of employment, and one of his first jobs was to work on the final design of the FAEMI‑M, a polyphonic version of the FAEMI. Interviewed by Polish synthesizer enthusiast and supplier Maciej Polak, in 2003, Kuzmin explained: "My first task was to design the spring reverberator, but I also tried to improve the design of FAEMI‑M in order to obtain some modern effects such as portamento and filtering. This led me to study the literature, patents, promotional materials and, of course, samples of Western gear. Occasionally, bands visited our city, and some of these carried organs manufactured by Crumar, Farfisa and Weltmeister, and, later, synthesizers from Moog, Roland and Korg. I would ask them to lend me their synths for one night, which was long enough for me to find out how they worked. It was great experience.”
Five years later, when the powers that be decided to extend the Formanta range to include the first voltage‑controlled analogue synth manufactured in the USSR, Kuzmin was asked to head a small team of engineers to design it. He accepted, and set to work with his wife, Olimpiada Kuzmina, who was responsible for the physical design and panel graphics, and hardware engineer Yuri Pheophilov.
Kuzmin picks up the story: "Soviet musicians wanted to own synthesizers, but there was no musical industry in Russia, simply plants manufacturing equipment as part of a programme to increase the overall volume of goods produced for the people. The best engineers worked at those plants, and it was considered economically advantageous for these military and semi‑military factories to manufacture non‑military products — TVs and radios, tape recorders and so on. You must understand that the socialist economic system was based on a simple principle: statisticians monitored how many families owned, for example, TV sets, and the Party would then decide to increase this number by, say, 20 percent in the next five‑year plan. Then, the Ministry of Planning would formulate plans for the manufacturing plants. But there were too many factories, so the planners had to look for additional products. This explains why Russia produced so many electronic musical instruments; they were products proposed by enthusiasts to keep the plants busy.”
Kuzmin decided to adopt a modular approach to the Polivoks: each of its sound‑generating sections would exist on its own circuit board, and these boards could then be inserted into a backplane, much like the configurable minicomputers of the era. This would allow boards to be changed and updated, as well as making it possible to use them in other products. To facilitate this, Olimpiada spaced the controls widely to accommodate the modules beneath, which had additional benefits in manufacturing and servicing. On the other hand, the Polivoks could have been significantly smaller had an integrated approach been adopted throughout.
Other Russian synths were not always developed with such attention to innovation. For example, the Estradin 230 was famously 'inspired' by the Minimoog, and it not only copied the architecture of the Moog, but its control layout and, as closely as possible, its sound. Kuzmin is not entirely dismissive of this approach, and has been quoted as saying that Russian musicians (who had no access to Western instruments) wanted synths that imitated the Minimoog. Consequently, many Russian synths were 'Moog‑like' and based on existing concepts of sound generation and signal flow. On the other hand, Kuzmin also told Polak: "The level of knowledge of our engineers was different; for some of the others, copying something was the best way to achieve the goal.”
However you interpret these conflicting views, it's clear that the Polivoks is not a copy of any existing synth, although it utilises well‑understood building blocks and you're unlikely to be flummoxed by one even if you're unable to read Russian.
The centre of its panel is dominated by two audio‑frequency oscillators. VCO1 offers five octaves from 32' to 2', five waveforms, and controls for LFO modulation level plus Osc 2 cross‑modulation for monophonic FM synthesis. VCO2 offers the same selection of footages and waveforms, an independent control for modulation depth, plus fine‑tuning. Underneath these lies the mixer, which offers level controls for the two oscillators, the noise generator, and for audio injected into the external signal input. Yes… the Polivoks could be used as a signal processor, long before this became fashionable.
To the right of these, you'll find the filter, and this is where the Polivoks starts to become interesting. Eschewing conventional designs, Kuzmin decided to develop his own filter topology, and after a year's research he chose a simple 12dB/octave device with just eight components: two op‑amp ICs and six resistors. This circuit — which offers both low‑pass and band‑pass responses — flies in the face of conventional wisdom which states that analogue filters must include capacitors to function. But Kuzmin had taken advantage of the capacitance within the op‑amps themselves, and the result was a unique device with a harsh and heavily distorted character that bore no resemblance to the 24dB/octave filters in the Minimoog. In retrospect, this decision seems strange, since it has been documented elsewhere that Kuzmin's instructions were to build a synthesizer that could emulate existing American instruments. To be fair, an update in 1985 or thereabouts eliminated a little of the nastiness but, to most ears, later models sound little different from earlier ones, and nothing like an American synth, Moog or otherwise.
As well as responding to the LFO and a control-pedal input, the filter has a dedicated contour generator with two modes: a standard ADSR envelope, and a repeating mode that generates a triangular waveform determined by the Attack and Decay settings. The same architecture is provided for the audio VCA on the far right of the panel, but there's an extra switch here that has been described on the web as both a VCA envelope 'defeat' and a key‑follow on/off. It's neither. It's a Gate On switch, which allows you to use the Polivoks' filter as a signal processor and to create rhythmic sounds using the two envelopes in repeat mode without the need to press a key.
Indeed, this is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Polivoks, because you can set up the attacks and decays of the two contour generators in such a way that you obtain regular, repeating polyrhythms. You can even spice these up further using the sample & hold setting in the LFO to create pitch and filter changes that stay in time (or not) with the repeating patterns from the contour generators.
Ah yes… the LFO. To the left of the instrument there's a modulation section and a master control section. The former comprises the dedicated LFO, which offers four waveforms, including noise, and a stepped function for sample & hold effects. The latter includes the master tune, master volume, master output on/off switch, a volume control for the headphone output (labelled 'telefon'), and the glide control, which only affects VCO1 and is therefore capable of some novel effects.
The final control on the front panel switches between monophonic and duophonic operation. As on most other duophonic synths, this allows you to play the oscillators separately, but there is only one signal path, so it's not possible to shape notes independently. Also, as on the ARP 2600 and Odyssey, the upper note drops to the lower if the second note is released, which makes it difficult to use the Polivoks to play two lines simultaneously.
Having had my interest piqued by Martin's dead synth, the first two Polivokses I saw for sale were advertised on a synth forums in July 1997 by a gentleman named Vlad. He was asking $350 for each (a bargain by current standards) and he sold both to a chap in the USA named Tom Moravansky.
I didn't see any others advertised until 2000, about the time that I first made contact with Maciej Polak, who would eventually sell me my own Polivoks. However, the first synth that he sold me was not a Polivoks but an East German monosynth. As you can imagine, I was nervous about buying blind from an unseen presence on the 'net, but I transferred my money, and in due course the synth arrived, exactly as described. Score one for the good guys!
A year later, Polak contacted me to say that he had uncovered a Polivoks in excellent condition, complete with its original power lead, its unusual five‑pin audio cables, and its expression pedal, and to ask me whether I would be interested in it. Admittedly, the cost had rocketed since Vlad had sold his, but only to (what I considered to be) a fair price, so I went ahead…
My first impression was of a brute of a synth that might have survived a direct strike from a Minuteman missile. It came in a metal case (rather than the tolex‑covered chipboard of American and Japanese instruments) and Olimpiada Kuzmina had intentionally made it look chunky to emphasise its quasi‑military background. Unfortunately, I soon found that appearances can be misleading. The case is quite flimsy and its clips break too easily. Furthermore, the plastic end‑pieces of the synth hold the whole thing together, and if these crack where they bolt to the lower part of the case, the bottom of the synth drops off!
Of course, Russian products have a reputation for unreliability, sometimes caused by poor design, sometimes by poor manufacturing, and sometimes by component failure, or any combination simultaneously. On the subject of poor manufacturing, Kuzmin told Polak, "We had skilled workers, progressive technology, and modern working places. We wrote good manuals for the workers, and every new model was tested and tuned. But the Formanta plant... caused real problems.” Regarding component failures, he admitted that "The reliability of any electronic products made for the people was a problem. This was not specific to the Formanta plant; the military always obtained the best components. As a result, poor components were sometimes used, and these didn't always reveal themselves when we tested the synths. Sometimes the problems occurred after the products were sold to the customers.”
Nonetheless, unlike Martin's, my Polivoks worked and, despite the scare stories above, it has developed only one fault in the years that I've owned it: a single dead key. On most monosynths, this would indicate a dirty or broken contact, but not on the Polivoks, which uses magnets glued under each key and magnetic reed switches as key contacts. On mine, one of these switches had failed, but I found a modern equivalent that fitted perfectly. Similarly, when I had a somewhat more sickly Polivoks repaired professionally, David Croft at the Synthesizer Service Centre was able to use modern components to fix faults in its filter and filter envelope generator. Indeed, I have yet to hear of an irreparable Polivoks and, given its discrete architecture, it will probably be possible to repair them long after a lack of dedicated chips has rendered many modern workstations obsolete.
When I switched on my Polivoks for the first time, I was uncertain what I should expect from it: would it be useable as a melodic instrument? Happily, my fears turned out to be unfounded. Sure, it's highly unstable at times, and its wobbly and scratchy pots mean that it will sometimes wibble off into its own sonic territory. Furthermore, it's never going to produce the superb brass or flute sounds of an ARP, nor the creamy leads of a Minimoog, nor even the thinner and more compliant sounds of early Rolands and Korgs. But when it comes to wicked screams and aggressive bass patches, the Polivoks is unsurpassed. Turn the oscillators' output levels to maximum to overdrive the filter input and crank up the resonance, and every sound becomes abrasive and distorted. Played this way, a Polivoks will produce raw sounds that you'll not obtain from any American, Western European or Japanese monosynth of the era.
This character accounts for the synth's rise in popularity throughout the '90s. In the era of hard techno and Berlin‑school industrial, the harshness of the Polivoks was what some musicians craved. Mind you, it was not universally liked, and Kuzmin admits that some of the comments made while it was in production were less than complimentary. If there is one area in which this criticism was deserved, it's regarding the Polivoks' 48‑note F‑E keyboard. While it seems that this was designed to a Russian standard that determined the appropriate length of travel and the amount of force needed to play it, the keys feel horrible, their travel is remarkably shallow, and they clatter unpleasantly. In fact, the Polivoks has the worst keyboard I've ever played, and its yellowed keys look like they've been smoking three packets of Woodbines a day for the past 20 years. Oh, and while I'm complaining, I have to mention the lack of a modulation wheel or joystick. Given that Kuzmin was attempting to design an alternative to the likes of the Minimoog, this was a shocking oversight.
In the '80s, the Soviet government did not permit the importation of Western electronics, so few Moogs, ARPs, Rolands or Korgs made it behind the Iron Curtain. Some were sold by visiting musicians to their Russian counterparts, some appeared on the black market, and a handful were legitimately imported by the Ministry of Culture for institutions such as state orchestras and the Party's favoured bands and singers, but Formanta's main competition — brands such as Aelita, Alisa, Electronika, Estradin, Junost, Lell, RITM and RMIF — came from plants in Russia and the occupied Baltic countries. Given the size of the Soviet market, it would therefore seem reasonable to expect that a lot of Polivokses were built. Kuzmin again: "It took us a year to design the Polivoks, and the first units were sold in 1982. It was in production until 1990, and in the middle of this period we were selling between 20,000 and 25,000 per year, all to the inner market of the Soviet Union. The designs were patented, so we could have exported them to other Soviet countries and to Africa and Latin America where the USSR exported arms, but there was no place for our products among other brands. As for the Western world, it was only after 1991 that anyone could buy freely in Russia and export products out of the country.”
(Whether we can believe these figures is not clear. In an earlier interview, Kuzmin suggested that, at 920 Roubles — a large sum in Soviet Russia — the Polivoks was too expensive for the majority of musicians, and that many were sold to 'cultural organisations' rather than individuals, with a total number in the range of 20,000-30,000 units produced.)
Having designed the Polivoks, Kuzmin and the Katchkanar team worked on numerous other instruments (see 'Other Katchkanar Synthesizers' box), but none of these became classics; that accolade belongs solely to the Polivoks, which now enjoys an enviable reputation worldwide. Recently, Polak asked Kuzmin, who is now Director of the Urals Centre For Music Technology, how it felt to be the father of a legend. Kuzmin replied: "From 1991 until 2002 I didn't hear anything about the Polivoks at all. I had access to the Internet from 1998 onward, but it didn't occur to me to search for it. Then a musician who had known me for three or four years discovered that I was the inventor of the Polivoks. He told me that it had become popular, and that there was a kind of Polivoks‑mania on the Internet. At first, I didn't believe him, so you can imagine my feelings when I saw the number of sites devoted to it. Olimpiada and I never dreamed that our Polivoks would be ranked alongside the classic Moogs!”
So that's the Polivoks; a bit dodgy, a bit unpredictable, offering a psychotic filter and suffering from horrendous distortion in the signal path. But before I go, I would like to offer the last word to Polak, who recently wrote: "I have come to realise that everything is shite about it. It's clanky. It's squeaky. The plastic looks sturdy but is actually very brittle. Uncleaned knobs (ie. the ones you buy it with) crackle devastatingly, and the keyboard feels terrible. I love it! It's my favourite synth. It's sexy as hell, too.”
What more could I possibly add?
Numerous other keyboards and synthesizers were developed at Katchkanar, some bearing the Formanta name, others not. The Polivoks was followed by the Maestro polysynth and the Arton VS34 Vocal Synthesizer, which produced vowel sounds using formant synthesis. But my favourite of the early Formantas is the Kvintet, a string synth that also produces 'vocal' sounds. Despite its agricultural looks, it sounds gorgeous.
Less gratifying are the battery‑powered FAEMI Mini, the FAEMI‑1 organ and the FAEMI‑1M paraphonic synthesizer. The FAEMI‑1 used an unusual architecture with 12 master oscillators and 12 sets of octave dividers (as did the rather more successful Korg PS‑series polysynths) while the 1M employed the more common single‑master‑oscillator design, but added a single VCF similar to that in the Polivoks.
More recently, there was the Formanta Mini, an eight‑voice sling‑on preset wind/string synth that looked much like a Yamaha KX5 MIDI controller, and the preset P432 polysynth. But perhaps the most intriguing of Formanta's analogue instruments was the EMS01, an attempt to combine a five‑octave organ and a three‑octave monosynth in a dual‑manual instrument. In Kuzmin's words, "Very often, we would see a monophonic synthesizer placed above an organ. This combination was used by many keyboard players, and inspired our engineers to construct the EMS01. Unfortunately, the result was too heavy, too large and not reliable.”
Moving into the digital age, there was the Arton IK51, a wavetable‑based polysynth. Kuzmin claims that this had a very natural sound, close to that of a sampler, but with controllable parameters and a memory requirement of just 256 bytes per voice. Unfortunately, it was never completed, and just one prototype was built.
The team also designed drum controllers, drum sound generators and sequencers, some of which reached the market, and some of which did not.
The name 'Polivoks' has been translated into English in numerous ways. In defunct UK magazine The Mix it was called a 'Polyrock', but it's clear that the Cyrillic characters spell out 'Polivoks' or, at a pinch, 'Polyvoks'. Nonetheless, that hasn't stopped many people from truncating the name from eight letters to seven, choosing to call the instrument a 'Polivox' or 'Polyvox'. Either way, the name was never intended to suggest that the synthesizer was polyphonic. In Russian, the implication is one of multiple timbres (or 'voices'), not multiple notes.
There has been some speculation that the Polivoks logo — which looks similar to the ancient 'Yin and Yang' — has a hidden meaning. Kuzmin disagrees. "I don't remember how we designed this symbol, but it has no mystical meaning. It represents two solder points on a circuit board.”
Eventually, there were four types of Polivoks. I've mentioned elsewhere that there were pre‑ and post‑1986 models defined by changes to the filter, but there was also a cosmetic variation; Olimpiada had specified that units could be built using either white or brown switches. Whichever version you have, the synthesizer is essentially the same.
What do you do if you can't get your Polivoks to play in tune across the full width of the keyboard or at different octaves? At first sight, there's no way to tune and scale it, and this might tempt the brave (or stupid) to open it up and start poking around. Happily, there's a much simpler solution.
If you pop off the plastic plate bearing the Polivoks name on the control panel, you'll find six trimmers, three for each of the oscillators. Let the synth warm up and follow the instructions, and it should tune without problems. Furthermore, because the Polivoks's oscillators are thermally stabilised, it should stay in tune afterwards.
Maciej Polak is the proprietor of Analogia, a small company that, amongst other keyboard‑related activities, uncovers rare Soviet synthesizers, repairs and refurbishes them when necessary, and then resells them to Western Europe and the USA. Nowadays, he sources his Russian synths — including Aelitas, Estradins and lesser‑known brands — from a country that he describes as "close to the Chinese border”. So, despite living within three hours' drive of the Russian/Polish frontier, he has them shipped from somewhere that would take two weeks to reach by train. As he says, "Every time you think you know how to do something, the East will mess up your plans.”
For those who have never heard one of these magnificent Soviet beasts in flight, I've prepared a few audio examples using my own Polivoks (the one shown in the photos). You can find them at /sos/jul10/articles/polivoksaudio.htm. Sam Inglis