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Polyend Seq

Step Sequencer By Rory Dow

Polyend Seq

Polyend's Seq offers straightforward step sequencing and buttons galore in one very attractive package.

The Seq is a hardware MIDI step sequencer which aims to bring a Zen-like approach to the art of pattern creation. The elegant design is reflected in its operational simplicity. No menu diving, no touchscreens, no preferences. Will the Seq take you to a higher plain of sequencing Nirvana? Let's find out...

These Go To 32

The first thing anyone will notice about the Seq is the striking design. A hand–crafted wooden case, topped with matte–black metal panel, populated by no fewer than 272 illuminated rubber buttons. The majority are step selection buttons for the eight tracks, with each track having 32 steps. Additionally there are eight track select buttons, eight function buttons, six value knobs and a nice bright TFT screen. Round the back, along with the 5V DC power input and power switch, you'll find a USB MIDI port and four standard MIDI DIN ports: one input, a thru and two outs.

Basic operation is concise enough that you don't need a manual to get going. You can select a track or step button and adjust values such as note, velocity or length using the knobs. The TFT screen will give you information pertaining to the item you have selected. If there is more than one editable item on screen, a press of the clickable encoder will cycle through the parameters. The function keys on the very left allow operations such as pattern selection, copy/paste, quantise, randomise as well as transport controls.

Around the back of the Seq we find a quarter-inch footswitch socket, two MIDI outs, a MIDI thru, a  MIDI input port and a USB socket.Around the back of the Seq we find a quarter-inch footswitch socket, two MIDI outs, a MIDI thru, a MIDI input port and a USB socket.

What's In A Pattern?

A pattern is exactly what you see on the front panel: eight tracks with 32 steps per track. If you want more steps, you'll have to link two or more patterns together (more on this in a moment). Whilst pattern chaining is possible there is no song mode, so live performance is a key part of the concept.

Each pattern can store its own tempo and swing value. There is an option to lock all pattern tempos to a single global value or follow MIDI Clock sync from either USB or the standard MIDI input port.

Up to 256 patterns can be stored. They are saved automatically as you edit them, and recalling a pattern is as easy as holding the Pattern function key and pressing one of the 256 step keys. Whilst the function key is held down, the screen will inform you of the currently loaded pattern and the relevant step key will flash. You can't rename patterns, they are automatically numbered. So pattern 2-19 would be stored in step 19 on track number 2. There is no way to tell if a pattern slot is used or not unless you actually select it and inspect the contents, so I found having a notebook handy with some jotted reminders saved me from overwriting existing patterns.

What's In A Track?

Each pattern contains up to eight tracks. Each track has a root note, which is used as a default when entering steps and is also used as the key for scale quantising. Each step can either trigger a single note or a chord. Chords are chosen from a list of 29 chord types. Sadly, there's no function for chord inversions or custom chords of your own. Notes can be lengthened, but can't overlap other notes on the same track. If you want to achieve legato notes, ties or slides, the manual suggests that you use two tracks, which works well enough, but isn't the most elegant solution.

Tracks also contain information about which MIDI port and channel to output to, and what MIDI channel to respond to when recording via the MIDI input. You can also send MIDI Clock from each track, which is a curious decision — a global option for MIDI Clock per port would make more sense in my option, given that MIDI Clock is not channel dependent.

Each of the eight tracks can have separate lengths from 1-32 steps and a tempo divider from 1/4 to 4/1. Tracks can be set to play forwards, backwards, ping-pong or randomly. So polymetric and polyrhythmic patterns are both possible.

Here Polyend have made an interesting design decision. Imagine you have a pattern which uses eight tracks of different lengths and possibly different play directions. As the pattern plays and loops, the tracks become out of sync with each other. Now you change patterns. Instead of the new pattern starting all tracks at the first step, each track continues from the position it was at in the previous pattern. This took me by surprise, but the manual confirms this is a conscious decision to encourage experimentation, unpredictability and improvisation. It's an admirable goal, but I can't help thinking that an option to have patterns start from the first step on each track when selected would give performers the ability to start from a known place once in a while. Patterns will start from the first step if you press the Play button at any point during playback, but I didn't find this to be a reliable way to re-sync tracks as it requires split–second timing — tricky if you're trying to change patterns at the exact same moment.

The Seq is a master of polymetric exploration, live composition and performance: a purist's sequencer with a clear vision and beautiful looks to boot.

Each track can contain a single MIDI Continuous Controller value per step. The CC number is set at track level. The value is set per step, but will only be sent to the output if the step is active. That means that if you want to send a CC value you must also send a note. You can choose to send a note without CC, but not the other way around.

Those with a desire to get off the grid will be happy to hear that each step can be 'nudged'. The Seq's internal resolution is 48 ppqn, which offers reasonable timing fidelity, but perhaps not as much as other sequencers. Nudging can be done manually on a per–step basis, but perhaps the best way to inject some human timing is to record via the MIDI input. Using this method, all your natural timing nuances will be preserved in each step's nudge value, unless you choose to quantise afterwards.

Another creative step tool is the Roll function, which allows Berlin-style ratcheting. Pressing a step button and adjusting the Roll knob will allow you to choose note subdivisions from 1/1 to 1/16, and cause that step to be divided and re-triggered accordingly. There are curve options which cause the velocity or pitch to increase, decrease, randomise or rise and fall during the roll. These are nice options to have and can be used to program trills, runs and flams. There's no way to control the amount of pitch or velocity variation, however, and I also noticed that if you have scale quantising enabled it can sometimes cancel out the effect of the note curve because the adjacent notes are forced back to the same value.

The Roll knob also serves a second function. When used with a track select button, it will populate the track with notes. As you increase the Roll amount, the interval between steps increases, giving you a fast way to program typical dance drum patterns: 16th–note hi-hats, 4/4 kick drums, etc.

Tooled Up

The Seq provides some useful tools to help you compose your sequences. The Duplicate function allows you to copy either single steps, tracks or patterns to other locations. Copying more than one step at a time is not possible. Quantising is also available on its own dedicated button. Any nudge value used on steps within a track are set to zero when quantised. You can quantise tracks or individual steps.

Randomise does much as one might expect. Quite cleverly, the randomise function will only randomise pitch if a scale has been set for the Track. If no scale is set, then the pitch remains at the track default and just the triggers are randomised — great for drum programming. Randomise can also work on velocity, modulation or nudge as you wish. Finally, the Clear function offers a quick way to initialise either tracks or patterns, and the On/Off button allows you to mute and unmute tracks.

Conclusion

A certain serenity descends when using the Seq. Its uncomplicated approach to sequencing helps to focus on the music. I found myself being led towards improvisational, experimental and often polymetric compositions, which seems to be a direction that Polyend have deliberately taken. Being able to see a whole pattern without scrolling, page flipping or menu diving is a pleasure. Of course, you don't see everything. You can't see pitch, chords, velocity or any other potentially useful information unless you select a step, but one quickly adopts a speedy workflow of selecting steps and twiddling knobs in order to make things happen.

The ultimate test is whether one is able to come up with inspiring and musically relevant sequences and on that, I can confirm that the Seq delivers. Orson Welles once said, "The enemy of art is the absence of limitations," and many of the design decisions made by Polyend make a great deal of sense. There were a couple of areas of frustration, however. The lack of reset to the first step upon pattern change, whilst creatively interesting, can become vexing. It's great to disappear down a polyrhythmic wormhole, but sometimes you need an escape route. Equally, the lack of pitch-bend, aftertouch, Program Change and legato may be a problem for some.

Step sequencers seem more popular than ever and Polyend have a very compelling offering. Every sequencer has its strengths and the Seq is a master of polymetric exploration, live composition and performance: a purist's sequencer with a clear vision and beautiful looks to boot.

Alternatives

Eight seems to be the golden number of tracks for hardware MIDI sequencers, and there are quite a few alternatives, although I can't think of any that present 32 steps without flipping though pages. Just a shade more expensive than the Seq is the Elektron Octatrack, which offers eight tracks of MIDI sequencing with a very different approach. You miss out on the Seq's pure focus on sequencing, but you get a very capable sampler thrown into the deal. Elektron's Digitakt has a similar eight–track MIDI sequencer on-board and weighs in a few hundred pounds cheaper than the Seq or the Octatrack. Social Entropy's Engine is another eight–tracker which can do both MIDI and CV, and lastly the Squarp Pyramid would also be worth a look. The gold standard in step sequencing is widely considered to be the Sequentix Cirklon, capable of 64 tracks of up to 256 steps, but it will cost you considerably more.

Backing Up

In order to backup your patterns, Polyend have written the PolyendSeqTool, a Javascript tool that can run on Mac or PC. At the time of writing, it was still in beta, but I was able to successfully backup and restore patterns to a file on my Mac without problems. The tool also allows you to update the firmware as and when updates become available. My personal preference for backup and firmware update would be via SysEx. It's tried, tested and reasonably future proof, whereas Javascript programs can be at the mercy of computers, updates, operating systems, etc. However, it works well enough and provides a much–needed way to archive projects.

CV Or Not CV

The Seq lacks any CV/gate capabilities, but Polyend have a companion product that might help if you're looking to sequence your analogue gear. The Polyend Poly is a Eurorack–format MIDI–to–CV convertor. It's designed to partner the Seq and so has eight channels which can each output gate, pitch, velocity and modulation values. It can work as a polyphonic CV source or as individual tracks. As an added bonus, it can also be used with MPE controllers like the ROLI Seaboards, via USB hosting.

Pros

  • A beautifully crafted instrument with a focused vision.
  • Eight tracks of 32 steps in front of you.
  • Hands-on; minimal menu-diving or page–turning.

Cons

  • That singular vision might not be for everyone.
  • No pitch-bend, aftertouch, Program Change or legato.
  • Chord options are limited.

Summary

A puristic approach to sequencing that focuses on immediacy, live composition and performance. All with debonair good looks!

information

£879 including VAT.

www.polyend.com

Published July 2019