Polyend Play: a New Groovebox / Workstation

Performance and Production in the Player's Hands

Iain Smith · 05/12/22

After years of designing influential performance, synthesis, sampling, and modular devices, Polyend has landed on yet another game-changing device. Sporting a classic Polyend feel and look, the new Play is a performance and production device designed to act as the centerpiece for any setup. Play allows for sequencing eight tracks of sample playback as well as eight tracks of MIDI, featuring the tried-and-true grid design they've perfected over the years. With tactile mechanical buttons, touch-sensitive encoders, and a non-intrusive screen, Play is an easy-to-understand creative tool for both beginners and advanced electronic musicians alike!

The next evolution in Polyend's extensive line of products, Play combines amazing features from their previous devices alongside a host of new refinements/modernizations. Whether you're creating pop, hip hop, dance music, or any other grid-based music, Play provides a vast arsenal performance and production workflows. It also offers performable, non-destructive parameter changes to selectable degrees, making it a powerful tool for live performance. Let's first dive into what brought us to Play's inception—then, we'll proceed to Play itself, gradually unpacking just how useful it could be to any modern producer or performer.

A Cup of Seq with a Dash of Tracker

From their very beginnings, Polyend has always created devices for performers. Their first device, Perc, made a smash hit: it was a peculiar and innovative device that could translate MIDI and CV into triggers to strike/activate percussion instruments or other surfaces. That same expressivity lived on throughout extremely different yet highly relatable products, most notably with a foundation in grid-style controllerism.

Along with their cult-classic Medusa (with its highly flexible and multi-dimensional grid design), Polyend's first multi-track sequencer landed with Seq, an eight-track sequencer with a large-and-in-charge 8 x 32 grid. Seq not only propelled amazing ideas like per-track clock division, swing, play direction, note fill, and randomization—it also embraced per-track automation for dynamic velocity, ratcheting, length, and more. Seq's grid not only accesses the entire pattern, but also accesses all 256 patterns available as well as MIDI assigning per track. It's an insanely well-conceived and flexible controller; and in retrospect, it's easy to see that all of these ideas are implicit in Play's design.

Moving onward from Seq and Medusa, Polyend sought new inspiration. The unique sequencing method of older music tracker softwares can be found in Polyend's more recent venture, Tracker, pushing sampling, sample playback, as well as MIDI sequencing to new avenues. Although the Tracker differs heavily from the sequencing style of Seq and Play, the influence of sample playback and manipulation from Tracker is also feels like it has translated into many aspects of Play's design. That said, per-step sample choice, parameter locking, and automation is another huge feature from Tracker that seems to have translated over to Play. And although there is no modular-level I/O found in Play, the same development of preset sound design on a per step, track, and pattern basis was further manifested in the likes of their Eurorack macro controller module, Preset.

All that said, it feels clear to us that Play is the culmination of many years of continued refinement and development on Polyend's core ideals: highly flexible sequencing, sample manipulation, and an emphasis on live performability/variation. So let's take a closer look at how this all plays out in their newest design.

Your Style, Your Way—It's What YOU Play

Play showcases eight tracks of 16 buttons that can swap between sample or MIDI tracks, as well as a four by eight patterned track editing and performance grid for mutes, solos, variations, and even selectable parameter assignments. The 20 touch-sensitive encoders have dual functionality, and are easy to access without disturbing via the lightest of touches. The complementary mechanical buttons offer quick editing tools like copy/paste, grid view, and on screen scrolling and transport control—much in the style of Tracker. The rear side of Play offers minijack TRS MIDI connections for connecting to your hardware gear as well as a USB-C port, which offers both power and the opportunity for connecting to a computer for bidirectional MIDI communication.

Creating brilliant tracks purely from the Play alone is possible right out of the box. Play ships with a collection of 3000+ high quality samples, cleanly organized for immediate search and play functionality. Samples can be manipulated on a per-step basis for ultra-fine control of when and how your music plays back. The ejectable SD card makes it simple to store samples and projects—or even to import your own samples for a more unique sequencing experience.

Speaking of which...sequencing on Play is not only straightforward, but also fully customizable to each track. Every track offers variable length, speed, swing, and more, alongside copy/paste-ing at varying levels from step to full pattern. When you're in a rut or are looking to create new material from a given range of parameters, Play offers both randomization as well as a Smart Fill function, creating full beats as well as Euclidean rhythms for inspiring further creation. Easily stay in key throughout all your patterns with project-based scale filtering, and keep your patterns animated with 16 variations per track for each pattern (whoa).

Where Play shines is in its performability. You can inject momentary changes, live automation, and sequence manipulation non-destructively—keeping your core sequence intact as you create live variation. You can access quick solos and mutes along with track variation from the right four columns of pads, as well as selectable parameter changes and a live keyboard for performing quick monophonic sample runs or polyphonic MIDI performances. One easy way to inject some spontaneity is a performance mode for adding pitch shifts, filter sweeps, delay throws, and many other styles of DJ-like effects. Along with immediate access to sequence chaining in a live context, patterns can also be run in one of 35 play modes for adding chance, randomization, step loops, and many more sequence warping live edits.

The hybrid nature of performance controller and sequencer is becoming altogether more common, of course—but Play's embrace of expandability and its potential for real-time, non-destructive pattern manipulation is quite unique. Play is highly approachable, using a grid like format with only a select amount of onboard controls. And yet, it is still highly programmable, and experienced performers and producers will love Play's portable nature—only needing a power bank to create and perform music anywhere.