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Polyend Tracker Sampler / Workstation

Getting Back on Track

Ryan Gaston · 08/28/20

For those looking for a way to shake up their workflow—and possibly their whole approach to music—you just might want to check out Polyend's Tracker.

Tracker's workflow is based on early personal computer-style music making programs such as Ultimate Soundtracker for the Amiga, NoiseTracker, and later developments like ProTracker, FastTracker 2, and Renoise. These programs were praised for their high level of efficiency—both in terms of file size, CPU usage, and speed of programming. Tied into the culture of the early Internet and demoscene, Trackers are a famously esoteric and peculiar way of making music.

Polyend's Tracker isn't the first hardware-based tracker in existence—check out XOR's Nerdseq, for instance—but it is the mostly widely-produced hardware tracker to date, as far as I am aware. So why would Polyend, a company famous for their forward-thinking designs, choose this peculiar and perhaps arcane platform for making a new device, and...what exactly is it?

So What is a Tracker?

So you might be wondering—how is a tracker different from other music-making software or DAWs? The pivotal thing is that in a tracker, time is displayed on the vertical axis...making for a top-to-bottom workflow rather than the typical left-to-right time arrangement found in most nonlinear editors. Trackers also aren't typically meant to work with "clips" of pre-recorded audio, in the traditional sense. Instead, they are really event-based sequencers, which usually generate sound by triggering the playback of samples, be those sounds directly related to your computer's sound card, or custom sounds loaded and edited through the program itself.

The vertical "time axis" is divided into "steps" of equal duration, and there are typically several tracks that advance through time in sync with one another. Each step can contain a specific event, which often is a combination of an indication of what audio sample you want to use, the event's note value, and the event's velocity, or other per-note "effects" specific to the program (such as portamento, retriggering, and more). So to create a 4/4 pattern, for instance, you might use sixteen events, all treated as 16th notes.

One of the aspects of this approach that is most distinct from the typical DAW is that a single track need not represent a specific sound. In fact, since part of each "event" per track involves specifying the sample to be used, it's possible to program a different sound on every single event of a track. Additionally, most trackers are set up so that they can be quickly programmed using a specific set of commands on a typical QWERTY keyboard, without requiring any controllers or other gear outside your computer. So once you've figured out your way around and wrapped your head around the basic concepts, it's usually quite fast to program a tracker.

So this efficiency and novel layout alone might be enough to justify building a hardware tracker—but what else is going on in Polyend's take on this concept?

The Polyend Tracker

For the most part, Polyend's Tracker conforms to this workflow quite closely. It's a sample-based instrument, based on triggering one-shot samples. It comes with tons of factory one-shots, but you can also load your own samples via SD card, and can even record directly into the device from external sources. It also allows for internal sample editing, which makes it easy to trim down your recordings to be exactly what you need. As in typical trackers, there's also an option to automatically loop your samples up to very high rates, turning them into something akin to a wavetable oscillator (there's a load of interesting things to be explored here). There's also an integrated granular engine, which allows access to a huge range of sounds from stuttering glitches to smoothly evolving textures.

Oh, and a special note: the Tracker has a built-in FM radio, making it easy to find and record novel sound material.

The types of instruments available in Tracker are quite complex—again, you can use simple one-shot samples, a granular sample manipulator, a wavetable synth voice, and more...and each of these has several internal parameters to tweak to your heart's content. What becomes more interesting, though, is the Tracker's implementation of "effects": a classic tracker concept in which per-event manipulations can be performed. What's particularly interesting is that in Tracker, you can use these effects to perform different algorithmic operations. Sure, you can use the per-event effects to apply variable rolls/retriggers or to change the event volume, but you can also do things like variable probability per event...or, you could randomize a specific parameter of the selected instrument on each event...or specify exact parameter changes. This type of per-event sound specification makes it possibly to create highly detailed sequences of sounds using a minimal number of sources and a minimal number of tracks—so, while the limit of eight total tracks might seem like too few at first, you quickly discover that getting to complex results is no problem.

The dedicated pads and buttons make for a super quick workflow, with plenty of shift-style commands that make it fast to fill entire columns with usable musical information. And with the extensive integration of randomness and event probability, it's simple to get unpredictable, surprising, and pseudo-generative results out of what might at first seem like a rigid platform.

Of course, there are built-in provisions for modulation, MIDI sequencing, song and performance modes, and more. Tracker could easily act as an all-in-one production station, and for some, could even become a hub for a larger musical workflow.

The build is spectacular, the screen is easy to read, and once you spend some time with it, Tracker's workflow is actually fairly intuitive and easy to get around. And while this approach might not be for everyone, it can certainly be a great way to refresh your perspective on music-making. Great for highly technical dance music and generative rhythms to straight-ahead dance music, the Tracker is great for experimenters and traditional producers alike.