Grid, sequencing, self-contained operation – Polyend’s new game, previewed at the Superbooth, now feels like a familiar concept. But what makes Play worth considering is right there in its name: fun and immediacy are front and center.
And it might even be my pick of Superbooth ’22 – really.
Play, slated for US$799 at retail, is very much about fast workflow. It might not be obvious in the photos, but it’s also incredibly light and slim compared to some of its rivals. (The base unit weighs only 1 kg.)
Now, despite the grille, I wouldn’t directly compare this to the Synthstrom Deluge or the Squarp Hapax. These devices look great – and if it’s full sequencing you’re looking for, it might even be more to your liking (especially the advanced modulation and effects on the Squarp – more on that later). No, the hardware it’s most reminiscent of is a design prototype of a 2019 Superbooth, Composer Pro from dadamachines. It’s a compliment to this design, even – especially since the Composer Pro project is apparently discontinued.
So yes, the basic formula is familiar – 8 audio sequencing tracks, 8 polyphonic MIDI tracks and a large grid. But the Play is quick to pick up in part because it doesn’t try to do too much.
In fact, I’d say the Play has as much in common with Novation Circuit and its appeal as it does with all those fancy grid sequencers. There’s a clear display, so you never have to guess what something is doing. But other than that, everything is reasonably flat and discoverable – not buried in layers of menus and hierarchy.
They still managed to focus on what you want:
- Pick and place samples quickly. It doesn’t save samples, but what it does do is allow you to quickly drop your own samples (or use 3000 included samples) wherever you want on the grid.
- Quick step-by-step access to settings
- 35 game modes for random, repeat and combos
- “Smart Fill” lets you fill an area with a pattern of your choice, Euclidean rhythms or random steps
- Quickly select and copy-paste anything, anywhere
This already suggests jamming and performance possibilities to me. So one of the problems with a lot of these supposedly advanced tools is that editing templates can be a bit tedious. It’s not that it’s bad that music production sometimes takes time. But slow or convoluted editing definitely doesn’t work live or jam with another person. It can also kill your creative process when inspired.
It’s still a sampler, with encoders that look like some of your favorite controls from the Maschine, Push, MPC, and Elektron workflows. And look at how many great things there are at your fingertips, from microtuning to audio effects to sampling settings. It even reminds me a bit of Elektron’s Model line – quick access to encoders. It really is one of the greatest hits, almost, of recent practical material.
There are also performance-specific features:
- Non-destructive effects in Perform mode (Tune, Filter, Overdrive, Rearranger, Reverb, etc.)
- Live recording automation
- Live MIDI recording in the pattern (a must)
- Pattern chaining on the fly
They’ve also included some nice audio effects, including reverb and dynamics, and a DJ-style filter.
Plus, there’s instant save and recall for patterns – which also saves you if you mess up a live set.
This all appeals to me, because there are plenty of very powerful sequencers out there for studio use that just aren’t fast enough to use in the heat of live action. Also, if I really want more advanced sets, I have, like, a computer. I want the hardware to be faster than the computer. It doesn’t matter if he does less. I’m sure I’m not alone with this.
The game is no slouch as a sequencer either. On these 8 MIDI tracks (and the 8 tracks that play audio samples) you can set separate lengths, different speeds, playback modes and swing per track. And yes, you can send everything in MIDI.
You can use the rotary ones – with labels on the screen – to send MIDI CCs, like on Push or Maschine. Polyend has even come up with pre-mapped MIDI sets for a range of hardware, and you can create your own – a feature I loved on Native Instruments’ Maschine. (That means we better make MeeBlip presets, which Maschine had.)
There’s no internal battery, but it runs on 5V 1A USB-C power, so you can easily plug it in or use a power bank. And it’s just fantastic, with an aluminum front, crisp keys and pads, and smooth encoders.
Oh yeah, and if you’re a big Polyend fan, there’s also a preset for using it with Tracker. The combo looks killer. I can also very easily imagine using it alongside the Elektron Syntakt I was playing live at the Superbooth, which sounds great but could use more accessible sequencing – resolved.
My only real criticism was that I desperately wanted some kind of mixer control. You just want to be able to turn down stuff when you have eight games. Faders would be great, but I’d take encoders – or keeping the step paradigm, the ability to control volume over a range of steps.
I’m excited about this one, though. There’s a lot more to the workflow. The firmware doesn’t seem entirely final, despite the first reviews I’ve seen from YouTube influencers, so that would have to wait for a full hands-on review. But I was impressed with the logic of the layout of commands and shortcuts and how quickly it can be done – without, again, complex menus or many combinations to remember. The fitness factor, feel and functionality here promise to be so much more than the sum of their parts.
Honestly, perhaps the biggest competition here is Polyend – if you don’t have a Tracker yet, it has powerful features and costs a bit less.
For answers to this and other questions, however, look for a review soon.
Here is the demo I got from Piotr, more or less (minus my interruptions):