Polyend Play Is Weird, Opinionated, and Kind of Awesome

It’s more of a collaborator than a simple instrument

  • Polyend’s Play is a cleverly-designed sequencer with generative abilities.
  • Its focused simplicity enables complex, interesting compositions.
  • It also looks really cool.
Polyend Play Sequencer

Polyend

It might seem obvious, but music is all about the notes you choose and what order you play them in. In electronic music, that's usually the job of a sequencer, but what if the sequencer has a say in your composition? That's Polyend's new Play

There are almost as many sequencers as there are opinions about the best kind. And the Play, recently announced at Berlin's Superbooth music show, is a weird one. It plays samples, but it cannot record them. It can control synthesizers via MIDI, but it has no built-in sound generators. And yet it's one of the most interesting sequencers to appear in a while. It proves that focus, not an excess of features, can be a benefit rather than a hindrance. 

"Personally, I think it's a great device. I don't need deep synthesis or editing capabilities," said musician RFJ in a forum thread participated in by Lifewire. "It's the sequencer here that is really turning the trick. The controlled random and glitched ratcheted fade type things it does, even the auto beat generation, I think all of that really sets it apart."

Sequencers

First, a little look at what sequencers do. If you play the piano or guitar, you might record your performance live into recording software, a tape, or a looper pedal. You can do this with a drum machine or synthesizer, but you will more likely sequence those notes. Typically, a bar of music is divided into 16 steps (four quarter notes per beat), and you tell the device what to play (or not) on each step. You can also specify note length, velocity (how loud it is), and lots more.

The advantage is you can easily build and change these sequences, looping them, copying them, and modifying them. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Is electronic music loop-based and repetitive because it uses sequencers, or the other way around?

The Play works like this: You get a big grid of light-up buttons and a bunch of knobs. The knobs always do the same thing (or two things—there is a shift button to choose the secondary function), so you can learn to get around the UI by memory. 

The grid is made up of eight rows of 64 steps (eight tracks of one bar length), plus a 4x8 grid for playing notes or choosing modes. You choose a sound, then tap any grid button to place it on that step. 

Totally Random

Because sequences are based on patterns, they can be morphed over time by the software. In the case of the Play, this is a kind of guided generative music. The Chance feature lets you bring some changes to your sequence by turning a knob and dialing in a percentage chance for something to change. "Something" in this case can be, for instance, a note's pitch, octave, length, or chance of even playing. It can also change any applied audio effects. This is applied anew every time a bar plays through. 

The Random control is a kind of one-time dice-roll that can mix up your selected tracks. Once you get a result you like, you hit the save button to keep it. 

Close up shot of the Polyend Play

Polyend

In this way, the Play invites playful interaction with the device. The user (you) and the device interact to create something either of you could have done alone.

In 2004, musician Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher, published an essay in Flux magazine. In Collaborating With Machines, Jenkinson posits that the machine is as active in the creative process as the artist. That is, its limitations and its design force the musician to use it in a certain way. This is true even of older instruments. A guitarist will come up with different melodies than a pianist just because of the way the notes are laid out. 

Play

The Play is far from the only sequencer with chance-based tricks, but it does seem to be one of the most fun to use in this way. No, it cannot sample from an audio source (you load sounds onto an SD card), and the one- (or two-) function-per-knob design means it does less than some other machines.

"So disappointed that this doesn't offer sample flipping, chopping, slicing, etc.," says musician Echo Opera in a forum thread. "Who uses Samples and doesn't chop them up and resample these days?"

But its focus, and the flow states it enables, are exactly what a musician loves. It lets you stay in the groove, working on the music and not working out how to use the device. And that's a pretty rare feature in today's music boxes.

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