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Page 2: Polyend Tracker

Sequencer & Sampler By Rory Dow
Published November 2021

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.

The real power in tracker sequencing is the FX. Every note of your pattern can have two different FX from a long selection.The real power in tracker sequencing is the FX. Every note of your pattern can have two different FX from a long selection.

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.

Song Mode

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.

Song mode chains patterns together and offers a useful overview of which tracks are used.Song mode chains patterns together and offers a useful overview of which tracks are used.

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.

Performance Mode

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.

Conclusion

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.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • No support for stereo samples.
  • One one line output.

Summary

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.

Information

£459 including VAT.

www.polyend.com