The Korg PolySix gave Roland's Juno 6 (and later the Juno 60) some stiff competition back in the early eighties, and is enjoying a revival of popularity today. Nick Magnus takes a retrospective look at this analogue favourite, and gives some advice on purchasing one today.
Fashions, as we have witnessed over the last few decades, come and go in much the same way as Enterprise walk‑on crewmembers. Catch sight of a red tunic and you know it's all going to end in tears. Yet how do things become fashionable? Do people need to see someone famous involved with a particular thing before it becomes acceptable? Or is popularity deservedly earned on the true merits of the subject in question? Whether you view passing fashions with disparaging cynicism, or whether you just enjoy them while they last, one thing is for certain; fashion is here to stay — unlike the actual items that are fashionable at any given time.
The year is 1994. Technology has advanced apace, yet musicians all over the world are rejecting the latest in digital synth technology in favour of often unreliable analogue beasts that left the factory production lines well over a decade ago. This obsession with old synths, however, is not totally indiscriminate — fashion rears its head here too. In the realm of older synthesisers, there are specific models which have found universal popularity, for example the Roland TB303, Juno 106, SH101, the Sequential Prophet 5 and (of course) the Minimoog. So why do certain older synths fail to achieve the cult status of their erstwhile competitors? This is difficult to say (refer to the first paragraph and think about it), but our subject for this retrospective, the Korg PolySix, is as deserving a case for cultdom as any.
The PolySix was released in 1981, scant months before Roland's non‑programmable Juno 6, and a full year before the programmable Juno 60. The Juno can quite easily be seen as the PolySix's closest competitor; a glance at the accompanying comparison box reveals just how similar they are. The structure of each synth is practically identical, but that is where the similarities end. In appearance, they are substantially different, and in terms of the sound they produce, too, they are as different as two almost identical analogue synths can be.
Looking at the PolySix, it is easy to see why some people at the time referred to it as the poor man's Prophet 5. Its size and shape are very similar, excepting the front‑to‑back depth, which is smaller. It sports the same style of pitch and modulation wheels, and its front panel is graced with a selection of rotary pots and LED‑embedded switches. The only thing missing seems to be a 2‑digit LED display. The PolySix's livery is the same as its sister synth, the MonoPoly; a black aluminium panel, screen‑printed with dark blue blocks dividing the controls into specific sections, with white legending. The whole thing is finished off by dark wood‑veneered chipboard end cheeks. The PolySix bettered the Prophet's polyphony by one extra voice (hence its name), but unlike its two‑oscillator‑per‑voice American chum, had only one oscillator for each of its six voices. In the patch memory department, the PolySix had 32 memories (four banks of eight) as opposed to the Prophet's 40 (which, in 1982, became 120).
Despite architectural similarities with the Juno 60, the sonic differences are quite vast. The Juno enjoyed what quickly became known as the Japanese sound: bright, hard, thin, transparent, and twangy were terms often applied to it in both complimentary and sometimes uncomplimentary ways. None of these words, however, can be applied to the PolySix. It has a thoroughly squodgy, plummy character that has more in common with classic American analogues than the Japanese variety, although its 24dB‑per‑octave, harmonically‑challenged filters could hardly be compared with those of the Prophets or Oberheims.
At the time the PolySix was released, even an on‑board chorus was a bit of a novelty. Yet Korg fitted the PolySix with no less than three onboard effects; chorus, phasing and an ensemble effect as well, all of which had variable intensity. I'm convinced that if Korg had released the ensemble circuit as an effect pedal back then, it would have sold like hot sake... I mean, cakes. This particular effect makes it easy to believe you're listening to a synth with a lot more than six oscillators.
Editing of patches is very intuitive; moving any knob causes it to become 'live', and in the absence of a value display, settings are made by ear. The ADSR has an impressively wide range; the maximum attack time is around 18 seconds, decay 25 seconds, and release time also around 25 seconds. This compares more than favourably with the Juno, which offered figures of three seconds, 24 seconds and 24 seconds (again) respectively. Fastest speeds seem pretty much on a par. The filter, despite being 24dB‑per‑octave, has a narrower bandwidth than the Juno, but with a much richer concentration of low mids and bottom end. This fullness of sound is partly due to the fact that the PolySix uses VCOs, not DCOs. This, however, does mean that the oscillators' trim may drift slightly over time, requiring occasional recalibration (by a competent service engineer if you're not feeling bold enough to do it yourself).
In the controls/gimmicks department, the PolySix has a few useful features up its sleeve. Chord Hold will remember any chord shape and subsequently trigger it off a single note in any key you wish; great for harmonically ridiculous lead sounds. Unison mode stacks all six oscillators together into a monophonic monster of a sound, and the previously mentioned chorus/phaser/ensemble effect section adds even more weight and movement to the proceedings.
The arpeggiator is something that many folk would like to see re‑implemented on current day instruments; this feature is almost identical on both the PolySix and the Juno, the one difference being the range available. The PolySix offers one octave, two octaves or the full keyboard length as its options, whereas the Juno offers one, two or three octaves. Both include up, down, or up/down movements. Also particularly useful on both instruments is an arpeggio trigger input socket. For each trigger received at the input, the arpeggiator increments by one step, allowing pseudo‑sequencer effects in sync with your music.
For those anxious to know if MIDI is a viable proposition for the PolySix, there is good news. Retrofit veterans Kenton offer a comprehensive modification via MIDI In/Out/Thru sockets, allowing the synth to receive on any MIDI channel or in omni mode. Features include reception of program change, pitch bend, mod, velocity, aftertouch and volume messages, bringing it suitably in line with current requirements. The retrofitted PolySix will also send note and program change information. The cost of this may possibly exceed what you pay for the PolySix itself, but that has not deterred many vintage synth owners from bringing their prize acquisition into the modern age.
For those contemplating the purchase of a PolySix, here are some tips to help you along the rocky road of second‑hand purchases. Firstly, and most obviously, look for any signs of physical damage. If the end cheeks are in poor condition, or the panel is dented, approach with caution. This is a sure sign that little love and care has been lavished upon the poor thing, and that it has had numerous arguments with the floor of a Transit van. It suggests internal damage such as fractures on the circuit boards; a very costly problem to remedy. Minor scuffs or scratches may be unimportant, unless having a pristine example is important to you. In the case of my own PolySix, it was in a very unappealing state when I bought it — it was covered in residue from brown parcel tape. Everywhere. Even all over the keys — don't ask me why. But it was a steal at £100 (presumably due to its appearance), so I didn't mind. It was in perfect working order, and a good clean with isopropyl alcohol soon restored it to almost showroom condition anyway.
Naturally, you should check that all switches, knobs and keys work as they should. If the odd key or switch is slightly hesitant, don't panic unduly; it is probably due to oxidisation, which is generally curable. Dodgy pots may present more of a problem, as they are often sealed and may be of kind peculiar to a particular manufacturer, which could make replacement difficult. If you do decide to purchase a PolySix, you can currently expect to pay between £75 (for a wreck) and £250 (for an immaculate specimen). Good hunting!