Polyend’s Play takes a unique, and very hands‑on, approach to sequencing samples.
Polyend’s Play shares the same form as the company’s Tracker, but offers a very different workflow. By comparison, Play appears to be a more conventional sample‑based groovebox, but its freeform ‘pick and place’ grid sequencing approach challenges traditional assumptions about tracks and mixer channels.
On paper, Play overlaps with peers like Elektron’s Digitakt and Novation’s Circuit Rhythm: eight voices of mono sample playback, MIDI sequencing lanes, pattern‑based sequencing and effects. But Play’s angle is a focus on fast creation, facilitated by a generous 8x20 pad grid, a set of generative and probability‑based tools, and a palette of real‑time effects and beat manglers. Despite the resemblance to the Synthstrom Deluge, Play is not a ‘workstation’ like the Deluge, MPC or Maschine — it doesn’t, for example, have internal synth engines or record or sample audio.
I had an instant crush on the Play when it was revealed. It’s a gorgeous device, smaller and slimmer than it looks in photos. Power is via the USB‑C connection so it’s portable, although doesn’t have the cable‑free convenience of an internal battery. There’s a generous full‑colour screen supported by chunky buttons and a dial, and 15 touch‑sensitive encoders. The rest of the panel is a grid of tiny RGB pads. The pads have a low profile and slippy surface so you can swipe through rows or columns when entering triggers or sliding through performance effects.
Connectivity is minimal. The USB connection provides MIDI comms as well as power, then there’s MIDI in and out via mini‑jacks. A single stereo audio output means you’re either running to headphones or direct outputs. A quarter‑inch breakout adaptor is provided in the box, along with one MIDI jack‑to‑DIN adaptor. There’s no audio over USB; when pairing the Play with things like an Elektron unit, OP‑1 or laptop it would have been convenient to run with a single cable (even better if there were multitrack outputs).
Sample banks (and the system) reside on a removable micro‑SD card. Play comes with a 32GB card containing factory and artist sound collections. Similar to the Circuits, the Play uses the concept of sample packs, which are loaded into working memory for use in your Project. These are easy to manage without any special software: a pack is simply a folder of folders containing samples. There’s a suggested convention for organising and naming folders which dovetails with Play’s Randomize and Fill features, but you’re free to go your own way.
You can import individual samples from the SD card or load a whole pack by selecting a folder. There’s a limit of 6 minutes of 44.1kHz mono audio, although my own pack of individual hits reached the 255 sample limit before running out of memory. Importing a sample pack or opening a Project containing one can take a minute or more, so probably not something you’d want to do mid‑gig.
Once you’re up and running you’re presented with the default view: the eight‑lane step sequencer for creating sample‑based patterns. Patterns start as 16 steps long and fit into the visible grid. They can be extended up to 64 steps, and each lane can have an independent length, playback speed and order (with various sequence scrambling modes). Tapping the Pattern buttons zooms out to show the 128 Pattern slots in the Project.
Years of drum‑machine indoctrination suggest that the next step is to load sounds into tracks, or load a kit. Play doesn’t work like this. Although the rows on the grid have track‑like properties (length, speed, mute, etc.) the grid is a freeform canvas. Sample selection, sound, playback and mixer settings are all stored on an entirely per‑step basis, with no default sound or effects settings owned by any particular track.
The basic workflow for building a pattern manually is dubbed ‘pick and place’ by Polyend. You pick a sample from the loaded pool, tweak sound settings, then place the sound onto steps in the grid. You could scatter a sound all over the grid; of course it still makes sense to follow some kind of track layout, but it’s basically up to you.
The four right‑hand pad columns can be used as a trigger grid or keyboard for quick note selection as you drop steps, and these can also be used for real‑time recording of the ‘working step’. However, none of the pads are velocity sensitive, and you can only trigger one sound at a time — Play is not for finger drummers. If you plug a MIDI keyboard in you can use it to play and record chromatically with velocity.
This way of working is fast and voice efficient, and can help you to avoid predictable routines. However, it did keep tripping me up in various ways until I got used to it. It’s hard to get out of the habit of editing a pattern by just tapping a step in a track and expecting it to be the same sound as its neighbours. If you want to, say, add some snare hits to your nominal snare track, you need to hold down one of the existing snare hits first to copy it. And It might not be clear what sounds are on each step, although you can preview steps by holding the encoder button. You have to train yourself to be aware of when there is or isn’t a selection. I found the initial period while discovering and getting used to these things frustrating, but I did get past it.
Sounds already in the grid can be tweaked by holding pads and adjusting encoders. Whole tracks can be selected via the last pad on each row, or you can hold the Shift button to make a ranged selection, which can be a sub‑selection of a track, or any rectangular area across the grid. Selected ranges can be copied and pasted, nudged around with the Move control, or have any other settings adjusted. When parameters have different values within the range they show as a tilde, and any changes are applied as relative offsets.
The encoder system is another unique design feature that has a learning bump to get over. Each encoder controls two parameters. Touching an encoder promotes it to the screen, where you can toggle which of the two parameters is focused using the left‑hand buttons. It’s absolutely clear looking at the layout how to use it, but my brain kept messing it up in practice — regularly grabbing the wrong encoders. This improved with practice but the issue that persisted was that it’s easy to accidentally switch modes by the slightest touch of any other encoder. I switched off the mode that lets you double‑tap knobs to switch to the Shift layer after I kept doing it unintentionally.
There’s a modest amount of sound tweaking possibilities. You can adjust level and panning, and apply a high‑ or low‑pass filter, bit‑crushing, overdrive and reverb/delay. Sample editing starts and ends with start and end times: there’s no looping, slicing or time‑stretching. The closest thing to an envelope is start/end fade: there’s no other conventional modulation. All the focus is on sequencing and per‑step parameter changes, assisted by features such as Chance and Randomize. Fair enough, these can imprint a lot of movement, but there’s no way to write automation outside of sound steps (‘trigless trigs’ in Elektron speak) so no way to modulate notes as they play.
Play’s Fill button holds a wealth of clever ways to generate rhythms in selected areas of space. For example, you can select a whole track, then generate a random pattern with variable density using the current sound. Multiple taps of Fill each generate a new pattern. There’s also a deterministic Euclidean pattern option, if you prefer.
Three specific drum modes — Kicks, Snares and Hats — generate patterns that make sense for those sound types. Each grabs a random sound from the appropriately named folders within the loaded sound pack. If you select two or three lanes at once you can do a ‘Beats’ mode Fill, where the Play layers all three drum types. If you don’t like the sound selection you can hit Fill again and it will pick anew.
Fill is only the first step in Play’s generative journey. Randomize offers a range of ways to mess up stuff already in your Pattern. Like everything on the Play, this applies to the tracks or range that you select. Modes include Notes (with one‑ or two‑octave range), Volume and Sample Length, which can add lots of interesting and natural variation. More fun are Sample In Folder or Sample In Pool, which dial in random sample flips per step. Then there’s Texture and Space, which modulate settings like the filter and overdrive, or the delay and reverb. Finally Nuke and Duke Nuke (nice) vary a whole bunch of things at once. The key is that you control the amount of randomness, from subtle variation to full mayhem.
You can reset the randomisation to re‑roll the dice as many times as you like, then if you hit on something you want to keep you can commit it. This prints the random settings into the steps and resets the Randomize amount to zero, so any further randomisation will be applied to this altered state. Switching to any other encoder mode cancels any randomisation being auditioned.
Fill and Randomize generate sequences and step settings that are written into your Patterns. Chance sets up generative processes that run as your pattern plays. This provides real‑time randomness, and ways to build in variations and cycles that are not tied to the 64‑step pattern limit. Users familiar with Elektron’s devices will feel at home here as it echoes their Trig Conditions’ functionality. The Chance encoder lets you select an action and a chance of that action occurring. The most obvious thing is to set a condition for when the step plays. This can be a percentage probability or a frequency, for example play 50 percent of the time, or only play on the fourth loop.
There’s more to Chance than trigger conditions: it can apply randomness to other settings, such as note (in scale), timing, filter cutoff, sample start, etc. It’s brilliant, but I quickly wanted to be able to do more with it. For example, you can only have one Chance action running on each step. I found myself wanting to commit Chance actions in the same way as Randomizations, and add more. I also wanted to be able to apply Chance to other functions such as the Step Repeat or Performance Effects. (I’m reminded of the Step Components on Teenage Engineering’s OP‑Z). Talking with Polyend it sounds like they are already looking at ways to re‑think and build on the Chance features.
The main working block on the Play is a Pattern: eight lanes of up to 64 steps, with all the associated settings. As there is no separate mixer stage, a Pattern is self contained. Well, almost — Solo and Mute states persist across Pattern changes, as does Tempo, which could be a pain if you want to set up a live set in one Project. Patterns can be stored and recalled from a Pattern Grid much like on the Circuit. Tapping a Pattern during playback cues it, or you can launch instantly in step by holding Shift.
Adjacent Patterns on the grid can play as a chain, so you can lay out multi‑Pattern sections or whole songs on the generous grid. Tapping a pad during Chain play will move the position to that point, and you can also flip in and out of looping a single Pattern at any time. All very nice.
The Play has an additional concept called Variations, which can be used alongside or even instead of Patterns. Variations are track‑based alternate sequences within a Pattern. Each track has its own Variations lane (displayed via the pad column next to Solo) with 16 slots. You could make fill variations on a snare track, melody variations on a tone track, etc. But Variations within a track can be entirely different, with different samples, mixer settings and so on.
I think the main idea of Variations is that they are a way to add smooth progressions without saving a new Pattern for every small change. However, you can also treat them as your primary framework for arranging and performing. You can choose to show/hide all track Variations as a block instead of individually, and you can trigger a whole column of Variations at once, emulating the track and scene way of working from Ableton Live or Roland’s MC‑707.
I love the idea of Variations but didn’t gel with it in practice, perhaps because it’s another view to switch to, accessed in a different way to Patterns. Also the Variations view overrides everything else and can get in the way of Pattern selection, for example. I actually ended up fairly happy just using Patterns, taking advantage of the spacious grid to organise smaller variations and fills underneath my main Patterns.
My frustration with trying to make Variations fit into a workflow faded as I discovered more immediate and fun ways to create non‑repetitive beats. The Play is set up for performance. Mutes and solos are always present, and Pattern changing is fast, but the real jewel in the crown is Perform mode, which transforms the entire grid into a palette of real‑time transformers, split into a rainbow of effect banks.
There’s a transpose section, low‑ and high‑pass filters, overdrive and bit‑crushing, all applied progressively up the pad columns like virtual faders. Then there are sequence re‑arrangers (my favourite), beat repeaters with pitching (think jungle snares), and banks of delays and reverbs. All of these effects are applied to selected tracks, but the final bank is a sample‑grabbing looper active on the combined output.
As a side note, a Project also has customisable master effects: EQ, limiter, Space (spread) as well as the delay and reverb.
There’s loads of goodness in the way Perform mode works. You can combine effects from each bank; effects are momentary when held, or latched with a tap. Effects are only applied while you’re in Perform view, and latched effects are remembered, so you can set up a cool transition or fill combo and punch it in whenever you want. Encoder parameters like Reverb, Filter and Sample Length can be tweaked in Perform mode, but are then reset when you exit out. This facilitates awesome breakdown/build‑up madness such as flipping the samples on all tracks, maxing out reverb and filters, then kicking back into the main beat.
The Play offers a different take on the idea of a sample groovebox: it doesn’t sample, chop or loop, you can’t finger drum on it, and there’s limited scope for sound design. Instead, it’s all about the sequencing and real‑time performance features.
The Play offers a different take on the idea of a sample groovebox: it doesn’t sample, chop or loop, you can’t finger drum on it, and there’s limited scope for sound design. Instead it’s all about sequencing and real‑time performance. And using it does feel like play. It clicked for me when I pulled back from the headspace of ‘programming’ a beat and relaxed into interacting with the generative and probabilistic features. Just randomising samples proved an inspiring source of happy accidents. I like that performing a dynamic live arrangement is relatively straightforward and relaxed, with the Perform effects and safe ways to go off the rails then get back on track. Comparable devices often require a lot of project setup and practice to get similar results.
There are some things that are clunky, or could work better. Polyend have already pushed two significant updates and promise more, with meaty new functionality. As with many drum machines and grooveboxes, my main outstanding question is how to capture what I’ve made. The first update added the ability to export Patterns and Chains as mixes or stems, which is great. I’d love to capture more of a performance, and with no multichannel output this leaves you recording a stereo mix. And maybe that’s fine, but it would help if you could imprint more by automating Perform effect triggers or stacking Chance actions.
The Play takes a little getting used to; it’s not going to be a fit for everyone’s way of working. But I’ve found it a welcome change and an ideal companion in my synth setup, allowing me to get less hung up on beat creation and enjoy the bigger musical picture.
Sequencing of external MIDI devices is handled in a separate view which gives you eight separate lanes and MIDI‑specific encoder functionality. Like on the audio side, the Play is less track‑centric than most other sequencers, and any step can trigger a different MIDI output, channel and program. You can create sequences on the MIDI tracks in similar ways to audio, although only Random and Euclidean Fills are available, and Randomize has a smaller set of options.
The MIDI tracks are billed as polyphonic, although only in the sense that you can assign preset chords to steps. For true polyphonic recording you need to select multiple tracks and your incoming notes get shared into separate voices. (It would be quite nice if you could sacrifice some tracks and designate a single track as poly for ease of handling). With a MIDI keyboard attached, the Play works as a little hub, redirecting incoming notes out to the last selected MIDI port/channel.
Fun stuff like track play modes work with MIDI, but sadly the Perform effects do not. This is understandable for audio effects like the filters and overdrive, but I hope Polyend will make banks like Transpose, Rearranger and Repeat available to MIDI sequencing. Of course it would have been great if the Play had an audio input like the Digitakit or Circuits, so you could integrate external elements and run them through the Perform and master effects.
- Fast, creative.
- Real‑time Perform effects.
- Interactive, inspiring pattern generation and randomness.
- It’s a MIDI sequencer too.
- No audio inputs.
- Accidental encoder touches jump modes.
- Limited sample manipulation and modulation.
- Some frustrations while learning its quirks.
A refreshing take on the drum machine/groovebox format with step‑sequencing and randomness features that can break you out of predictable patterns.