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.
Pick & Place
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...
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