Polyend breathe new life into an old technology with an instrument that’s as forward‑looking as it is retro.
Trackers have a proud place in the history of computer music. Back in the late 1980s, the home computer revolution was in full swing. Computers like the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST were popular with gamers but also offered sophisticated programs for anything from desktop publishing to music‑making. Trackers first made their appearance on these machines. By the time MS‑DOS PCs became popular in the early ’90s, the tracker was a well‑established platform and formed the basis for communities of gamers and demo‑scene makers to share and publish music.
Ultimate Soundtracker for the Commodore Amiga, by EAS Computer Technik, was the first tracker (and gave this type of sequencer its name). It used a vertical grid‑based sequencing system that scrolled from top to bottom. It was designed for game developers, which might explain why the slightly spreadsheet‑like programming interface caught on. The source code for Ultimate Soundtracker was disassembled by mischievous hackers and spread around. This spawned new versions such as NoiseTracker and ProTracker which were distributed as freeware, helping broke music‑makers to get started and ultimately spawning a huge free‑music movement.
Part of the tracker phenomenon’s success was the ease with which you could share songs. A finished song is saved as a ‘MOD’ file, which contains everything needed to play it: instruments, samples, sequencer and song data. MOD files are compact enough to be shared online and used in games without them becoming bloated. Back in the day, you could fit a lot of MOD files on a floppy disk.
Skip forward to today. Trackers are still around. Renoise is probably the most well‑known software tracker still under development, and has matured into a full DAW environment. But something that’s rarely been seen in 35 years of tracker history is a hardware tracker. Enter the Polyend Tracker.
Hit The Track
Housed in a sleek 282 x 207 x 33mm enclosure, the Polyend Tracker revolves around a 7‑inch colour screen, a large aluminium data encoder, and plenty of buttons. The screen is bright and big enough for programming, editing audio, file management and the like. The mechanical buttons to the right allow you to navigate to different areas such as pattern and song editing, sample recording and editing, instrument editing and so on. Just below are buttons for transport, arrows for on‑screen navigation, and copy/paste/delete. The eight buttons below the screen serve as soft‑function keys. Their purpose will change depending on what’s on screen.
Finally, there’s a group of 48 white, soft silicone keys known as ‘the grid’. This is mostly used to play instruments chromatically, but can also function to select instruments, play slices, choose values, and other things. They are not velocity or pressure‑sensitive, but serve well enough for programming.
A Tracker project contains a song with up to 255 patterns. A single pattern is eight monophonic tracks. Those eight tracks can be used to play samples from a pool of up to 48 instruments loaded into RAM. Samples are mono, 44.1kHz (stereo samples will be converted automatically). The total sample memory is just 8MB, which is around 130 seconds, although you can double that by using a low‑quality import function that halves the sample rate. If 8MB seems rather ungenerous by modern standards you wouldn’t be wrong, but a large part of the tracker ethos is keeping things streamlined. In practice, I didn’t find the 130‑second sample limit to be a constraining factor.
A tracker song starts with loading or recording some samples. The micro‑SD card can be used to store and load WAV files, as well as Tracker projects. Samples can be loaded into one of the 48 empty slots available. Alternatively, you can sample from several sources. The line and mic inputs on the rear are the obvious choices, but Polyend have added another option: an FM radio. The cable in the line output doubles up as an aerial and it works remarkably well. Sampling from FM radio is a neat touch and can be a great source of unusual material.
After recording, you can trim and save it to the micro‑SD card. The silicone keys double up as a keyboard to name your file. The layout is shown on screen. If you’re feeling lazy, Polyend have included an entertaining auto‑naming function: simply press the Auto Name button until you find a name you like. Whether an SD card full of samples named things like ‘soggy frogs’, ‘nauseating wind’ or ‘acid ladybug’ is a good thing or not is open for debate, but it certainly takes the hard work out of it.
Once you’ve got a pool of samples loaded, it’s time to decide how the samples will play back. The default is a simple one‑shot mode, in which case you’re ready to start sequencing. But samples can also be crafted into instruments in a variety of ways. Samples can be looped, sliced or used as wavetable or granular sources.
Wavetable sources are sliced into 2048 sample waveforms. An LFO or envelope can be used to modulate the wavetable position. This works better when loading WAV files specifically designed as wavetables, of which a good number are included in the factory content. But thanks to the standard wavetable specs, you can also load in wavetables created with software like Serum and WaveEdit.
Granular playback is similar to wavetable playback. It will chop the sample into small windows which loop endlessly when a note is held. Again, an LFO or envelope can move the position of the window within the file, turning almost any sample into a pad‑like drone.
There is also a suite of destructive effects which can be applied to samples. These include normalising, reverse, overdrive, fades, time‑stretch, and more standard effects like chorus, flange, EQ, bit crush, compression, and limiting. You can preview any effect before applying it.
The final steps to crafting your sample into an instrument involve adjusting volume, panning, tuning, overdrive, bit‑depth and filtering. Simple low‑, band‑ and high‑pass filters can be applied and modulated with a dedicated envelope or LFO. There are also dedicated envelopes or LFOs (not both) available for volume, panning, cutoff, wavetable position, granular position and fine‑tune.
Lastly, each instrument can send to two global effects, reverb and delay. Both are reasonably simple but sound excellent and are much needed to help add stereo glue to what might otherwise be a very monophonic soundstage. Whilst on the subject of global effects, the master section also contains an EQ, limiter (with side‑chain), and two single‑parameter effects named Bass Boost and Space. All of these can be used to shape the overall output of the Tracker and give you a more record‑ready sound.
The uniqueness of tracking, of course, doesn’t come from samples or filtering or effects — it comes from the sequencing environment. Each pattern can be up to 128 steps, and contains eight tracks. Each step of each track can play back one of the 48 instruments loaded into the pool.
A step can hold four bits of information: the note pitch, the instrument number, and two ‘FX’. An FX can be chosen from a large list that includes simple items like volume, panning, tuning, gate length and swing. But there are rather more exciting options too: trigger probability (aka Chance), rolls, slides, randomisers, sample reverse, slice selection, sample start position, filtering, delay, or reverb send. All of them can be used to spice up your sequencing.
I won’t go through each of the FX one by one as many of them are self‑explanatory, but I’ll highlight a couple of favourites. Rolls are an excellent way of creating snare rolls (with any sample of course) without the laborious effort of inserting each step. On an existing note, you add the Roll FX and choose a value. The values are given shortcodes. For example, R2 will play standard roll (a simple repeated note) twice per step. This will continue until another non‑empty step is encountered. A value of Rv4 will play four notes per step with velocity (amplitude) decreasing for each step. RV12 will play 12 notes per step (heading into glitch territory) with the amplitude increasing. Programming these rolls using a traditional piano roll sequencer can be time‑consuming, but trackers make it a breeze, especially if you want to easily experiment with the timing or slope of the roll.
Another favourite is Glide. With a normal MIDI synthesizer, getting a note to glide smoothly from one pitch to another can be a multi‑step process. You have to make sure that you have portamento enabled, you have to set a suitable glide value. You have to make sure the sound has suitable retriggering options so that when a legato note is played, the envelopes retrigger. Then you have to program your MIDI sequence with legato notes for those you wish to glide. With trackers, glide is a simple FX you choose on a per‑note basis. You don’t need to worry about any of the synthesis elements: it just works and as a bonus, you can have a different slide speed for each note if you wish — something that is pretty much impossible with many MIDI instruments.
The basic process of editing and recording a pattern works as follows. The eight tracks are arranged in vertical columns. Each step is a cell, so if a pattern is 64 steps long, there will be 64 rows. You can move the edit field around horizontally and vertically by using the arrow keys or the data encoder. By pressing Shift and using the arrow keys, you can select an area larger than a single step. This allows you to perform actions such as preview, delete or copy/paste on multiple tracks and steps.
Editing a step involves choosing one of the four step parameters to focus on: note, instrument, FX1 or FX2. You do this by tapping one of the four pastel‑coloured buttons on the right of the unit. A long press will pop up a menu allowing you to choose a value to insert. If you’re editing notes, this will pop up a keyboard. If you’re editing the instrument field, it will pop up a list of the instrument pool. For the FX, it’ll be a list of all available FX. Once you’ve chosen, you can edit the value using the data encoder.
There are advantages with this kind of editing, versus a more traditional piano roll. Firstly, you can always see what’s happening on other tracks. Having an overview of what’s happening in your entire pattern whilst you work on one part of it is incredibly useful. Secondly, the ability to just move from one track to another whilst remaining in the same window speeds up editing tremendously.
Of course, moving around the spreadsheet and editing everything manually isn’t the only way to build up a sequence. You can record notes from a standard MIDI keyboard attached to the MIDI in or USB port whilst the sequencer runs. As tracks are not polyphonic, any polyphonic playing will add additional notes to adjacent tracks. Optionally, you can record off‑grid by enabling micro‑timing, where notes will be recorded with a micro‑timing FX enabled which records how far off‑grid your playing is. Velocity can also be recorded in a similar optional manner.
The last way to input data involves algorithmically filling steps, which can be a great way to create pseudo‑randomised sequences. If you select a cell, or a range of cells, and press the Fill soft‑key, the Fill Notes menu will pop up. If you have Instrument or one of the FX fields selected instead of Note, the Fill function will adapt itself to work with that field. When filling Notes, you can choose several parameters including where to fill (optoins include random, existing notes, every X notes and so on), a scale, a fill type (constant, range or random) and then a note or range of notes to choose from. Using Fill for Instrument or FX lanes is similar: you choose the frequency and range to fill and hit the button. If you don’t like the results, there is Undo, which remembers the last 20 edits.
There are yet more functions to help you edit. A suite of pattern‑based functions are available on the soft‑keys at any time and include pattern copy and paste (much used when you start to develop your song), pattern shrink and expand (which half or double the time of a pattern), duplicate (doubles the length and copies the contents), and invert (reverses the order of selected steps). There is also a Render Selection key, which will render the current selection to a new sample. This can be an excellent way to remix patterns on the fly.
If you want to involve external instruments in your sequences, the Tracker can output MIDI. If you scroll to the end of the Instrument pool, you’ll find 16 MIDI channels that can be selected instead of an instrument. Any step using a MIDI command cannot also be playing an internal instrument, so it will reduce the available voice count. The Volume FX can be used to alter the velocity of a MIDI note, and there are even FX lane options to send MIDI Control Changes, Aftertouch and Program Changes. A MIDI Chord FX can play a triad in a single step. The codes are somewhat cryptic, so having the manual nearby so you can figure out whether chord 057 is a sus4 or a dim7 is advised. Overall, I’d say the MIDI capabilities are basic but welcome. You won’t be scoring an orchestra, but if you need to change patterns on an external drum machine, or trigger a basic bass line on an analogue synth, you should be fine. One thing to note is that you cannot address the USB and 3.5mm MIDI outputs separately, so if you have devices connected on both they’ll need to be set to different MIDI channels, otherwise they’ll play together.
Once you have a few patterns prepared, you’ll want to arrange them into a song. Song mode allows you to chain patterns together. You choose a song tempo and add slots to the Song. Each slot represents a single pattern. If you wish to repeat a pattern more than once, you simply add it again as many times as you’d like it to repeat.
Although tempo is song‑based, this can be overwritten using the Tempo FX on a note in the pattern. In this way, tempo is easy to hijack on a pattern‑by‑pattern, step‑by‑step basis.
The Song mode can play in one of two ways. At the push of a soft button, it toggles between playing through the pattern playlist in order and repeating the current pattern indefinitely. Using this can form the basis of a live performance where you follow a predefined list of patterns, but can pause the playlist at any time to allow a particular pattern to loop for longer.
Speaking of performing, there’s a whole page dedicated to the live manipulation and remixing of the currently playing pattern, and rather clever it is too. The Perform page is centred around 12 parameters that can be manipulated: volume, panning, tune, low‑, high‑ and band‑pass cutoff, delay send, reverb send, sample position, sample end, sample playback (direction) and volume LFO speed.
These 12 parameters can all be assigned three offset values. Those values can be triggered as the pattern plays by using the 48 silicone keys. The top row of 12 activates the normal pattern playback. The three rows underneath trigger offset values which you can enter. So for example, whilst your pattern is playing you might set up the Tune parameter offsets to ‑12, ‑5 and +3. Then by triggering these, you can transpose the entire pattern down an octave, down to a fifth or up to a minor third.
You might not want to affect the whole pattern at once of course, and this is taken care of with the eight soft‑keys, which enable or disable their respective tracks from being affected by the performance offsets. From the same screen, you can also mute tracks entirely to create breakdowns.
The last trick performance mode has is potentially my favourite. By holding down one of the eight soft‑keys and scrolling the data encoder, you can remix patterns by choosing a track and having it play back from a completely different pattern. For example, you might have kick and snare on Track 1, and bass on Track 2. If you have five patterns, you can combine the kick and snare and bass from any pattern. When you apply this across all eight tracks, you have a huge number of possible combinations.
I can imagine entire live sets being played from just the Performace page. If you organised your tracks correctly, you could use the track‑swapping feature to gradually build up songs and introduce variations all whilst essentially playing one pattern. Performance mode works equally well with entire songs, though, and you can switch between performance mode and instrument editing without losing the performance tweaks.
One last thing to note for anyone who plays live is that the Line input can be used to plug in another synth, sequencer, or drum machine, with the level being accessed in the mixer pages. This is a useful addition, as mixer inputs can be in short supply when you’re gigging with the least amount of gear possible. Overall, I feel the live potential of the Tracker is impressive and a worthwhile addition to the tracker workflow.
Every time I switched it on, I was immediately making music. I think that more than anything sums up the Tracker — it’s the efficiency and speed with which you can be creative, and that’s priceless.
Taking It Beyond
The final optional step of your song‑making experience may end with a need to transfer your song to a DAW. As much as any hardware device is fun to play, nothing can compare to mixing and mastering on a computer. To help, Polyend have added a bunch of export options. You can export an entire song to WAV, or song stems which include eight mono tracks, the delay and reverb sends and a single stereo master. Renders are 16‑bit, 44.1kHz. Additionally, there are options to export single patterns as either a mix or as stems. After that, it’s simply a case of copying the WAV files from the micro‑SD card and importing them into your favourite DAW.
It would be a mistake to write off trackers as a relic of the past. When I was 18, I had an Amiga and many of my first electronic compositions were written in Octatrack. It served to introduce me to the wonderful world of creative sampling. Of course over the years, I progressed to an Atari with Cubase, then PCs with DAWs.
But the Polyend Tracker is more than just a nostalgia trip. I’d forgotten just how quick tracker sequencing can be. The permanent visibility of all tracks, the ease with which you can move between them, and the efficiency with which you can create complex effects like rolls, slides, and reverses all adds up to a unique way of crafting electronic music.
Polyend have done a great job of transitioning the tracker from software to hardware. The package as a whole feels fun and intuitive to use. I daresay anyone who already knows their way around a tracker will take to it like a duck to water. There is even an option in the preferences to enable hexadecimal numbering for those that want the full authentic ’90s experience. For others who might find hardcore tracking a little intimidating, there are some nice options to ease you in. For example, the version 1.4 update that landed just as this review was wrapping up adds a horizontal pattern arrangement setting for anyone freaked out by the vertical option.
Tracker music, far from being simplistic as one might imagine, can be deep and complex. And it goes way beyond the archetypal chiptune game music. Jungle, rave, IDM, glitch, breakcore, electronica, and techno all owe a debt to the humble tracker. If you want some evidence of the depth and beauty of tracker music, seek out the album Claro by Brothamstates or Rossz Csillag Alatt Született by Venetian Snares. Artists such as Aphex Twin, Legowelt, Richard Devine, Cristian Vogel and John Tejada use trackers as part of a wider palette of tools. Tracking as an art form seems to have a bright future.
The Tracker does have a few limitations. It doesn’t always play brilliantly with other equipment, for example. You can use it to sequence external MIDI instruments with the MIDI output, but this will use up precious tracks, of which there are few to begin with. Also, the inclusion of only one stereo audio output means that you can’t use external effects very easily. In short, the Tracker feels self‑contained. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it has all it needs to write full songs, after all — but if you’re hoping to introduce it to all your other toys you may find stumbling blocks.
Despite this, I can’t get over how much fun the Tracker is. I forgive its loner nature because it’s such a pleasure to use. The Tracker somehow reminds me that music‑making is supposed to be enjoyable. As a lap‑top device or a holiday beat‑maker, it would be at the top of my recommendation list. When the larger studio feels like a grind, picking up the tracker and banging out some jungle beats is a refreshing palette cleanser. Every time I switched it on, I was immediately making music. I think that more than anything sums up the Tracker — it’s the efficiency and speed with which you can be creative, and that’s priceless.
It’s Also A Gaming Device?
As unlikely as this seems, the Tracker contains a complete Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) emulator. In the File screen is a Games button that shows the contents of the Games folder on the micro‑SD card. In this folder are a few NES ROM files that can be loaded and played using the arrow keys and various other buttons. It should make that long plane journey a little less dull.
Artist Edition Trackers
In April 2021, Polyend announced three special Artist Edition Trackers. Limited to 300 units each, the Trackers were adorned by artwork created especially by each artist. Legowelt, Bogdan Raczynski and Pete Cannon also supplied tracks written on the Tracker which were pressed to vinyl. At the time of writing this review, some online retailers still had stock of the special editions but by the time you read this, they could be sold out. The good news is that you can head to the Polyend website and download the song projects from the three artists to open, study and remix.
Importing IT And MOD Files
Traditionally, tracker songs were distributed around the internet in a few different formats. IT and MOD files were two popular formats that can be imported by the Polyend Tracker. Basic properties like samples, instruments, patterns, song structure, and volume info should all import correctly. The Tracker can also export IT files if you ever need to load your Tracker song on your old Amiga.
- It’s a hardware tracker.
- Intuitive to use once you grasp the tracker concept.
- Solid metal build.
- Some great included content, including many full songs.
- No support for stereo samples.
- One one line output.
Polyend have done a fantastic job of turning the humble tracker into a hardware device. It feels great to use and should appeal to both hardcore tracker aficionados and newcomers alike.