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Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Polyend Tracker review: A powerful but confounding groovebox

The features are impressive, the hardware solid but the workflow won't be for everyone.

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I’ve been sitting on this review for a long time.

That’s partially because the Polyend Tracker wasn’t ready for the masses until recently. But also, frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. 

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Tracker

Pros

  • Incredible build quality
  • Extensive sample manipulation tools
  • Thoughtful interface and shortcuts
  • Excellent value

Cons

  • Workflow can feel archaic
  • Occasional bugs

Honestly, I struggled with the Tracker: On paper it’s an almost intimidatingly powerful and versatile piece of music making gear. Its combination of sampling, slicing, sequencing and synthesis has few direct competitors. Maybe Akai’s MPC line or some of Elektron’s higher-end gear is close. In your hands it feels absolutely seductive. The large click wheel is satisfying and the clacking mechanical keys set my nerd heart aflutter. From a pure design perspective it is one of the finest musical instruments I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. And it’s only $599.

Yet, I had trouble building a connection with the Tracker.

At first when I sat down with it I was lost. I constantly found myself stuck in four-bar loop land. Making music on it felt like work.

It didn’t help that the sequencer here is completely alien to me. See Polyend’s Tracker is, well, a tracker (lowercase “t”). Trackers are sort of the precursor to modern DAWs (digital audio workstations) like Logic and Ableton. There’s some disagreement about who exactly can lay claim to the first tracker, but they emerged in the mid- to late-eighties with apps like Ultimate Soundtracker on the Amiga. They’ve remained popular among chiptune makers, and iconic artists like Aphex Twin have made extensive use of them, but they’ve never really enjoyed mainstream success. And, more importantly, I’ve never actually used a tracker before. 

The most obvious difference between a tracker and a typical step sequencer is that everything is oriented vertically. Your creation scrolls from top to bottom and each step can have any combination of samples, instruments and effects on it. That means you don’t have to waste an entire lane in Polyend’s eight-track sequencer just for your four-on-the-floor bass drum. You can squeeze in your snare or even a synth stab or vocal sample too. 

Polyend Tracker
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Keep in mind, though, that each track is monophonic, so if you trigger a new note in a track it cuts off the previous one. And if you want to play a major chord, that will eat up at least three tracks. There are also only two slots for effects, such as rolls, panning, glide, note chance and filters. And since microtiming is considered an effect, if you don’t want your stuff to be robotically on the grid, then one of those automation lanes is going to be claimed from moment one. 

The most common criticism of trackers is that it can often feel like you’re making music in a spreadsheet. And that’s not inaccurate. The pattern screen where you’ll do most of your composing here bears more than a passing resemblance to Excel. And all your notes, instruments, effects, etcetera are represented by a number and/or letter combination in a cell. That said, the controls that Polyend built are far more enjoyable than a mouse or keyboard could ever be. 

Terrence O'Brien / Engadget
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

If you can get over the sort of archaic presentation and find a groove with the workflow, the Tracker has a ton of power to offer. It is, at its heart, a sample-based groovebox -- you can trigger samples of drums, synths or whatever. But in addition to playing one-shots, you can use the Tracker to chop samples. So you can bring in a soul loop, break it up and recombine it using the 48-pad grid. You can slice a sample manually, or by using one of the two automatic modes, one of which is specially created for chopping up beats and drum breaks. It’s pretty accurate too; I only occasionally need to pop in and do manual adjustments on busier breaks.

A sequencer, a sample player and a sample slicer alone would make the Tracker capable of creating perfectly compelling compositions. Considering the reasonable price and the power that lurks inside the sequencer, once you’ve mastered its intricacies (which I admittedly still have not) you’ve already got a pretty solid instrument. But there’s more. So. Much. More.

Polyend Tracker
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

For one, the onboard sample recording and editing capabilities are pretty rich. There are mic and line inputs, you can resample tracks from within your sequence, and there’s a built-in FM radio you can record from. Then you can manipulate your recording by cropping or reversing them or adding effects like delay, chorus, flanger or a bit crusher. In short, if there is a source of sound out there, you can capture it and manipulate it to your heart’s content. To test this out I spent an afternoon in the park with the Tracker and my field recorder, capturing bird chirps and making sounds with a beer can. Then I turned them into a drum kit and tossed together a little sequence. 

(By the way, did I mention the Tracker is portable? It doesn’t have a built-in battery, but since it’s powered via USB-C you can take it anywhere and just connect a standard power bank. So yeah, it’s got that going for it too. Though, I will say that the large screen is generally excellent and makes navigating the device a breeze, it can be a bit hard to see in sunlight. )

In addition to all these more straightforward ways of handling samples, the Tracker has wavetable and granular synth engines built in. Now, those are sample-based synthesis techniques, so it’s not that big a leap from sampler, to granular synth. Still, very few samplers or grooveboxes do this without some coaxing. The granular engine is pretty limited and sounds a little thin, but the addition of some delay or reverb can help beef things up a bit. And you can always resample your synth line and run it through additional effects. Just know that the Polyend has an unmistakable gritty digital quality about it. It’s perfect for percussion, but it might not be everyone’s cup of tea for melodic content.

Polyend Tracker
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

More impressive is the wavetable synth. There’s a bunch of wavetables included, but you can also import your own or create them from your sample collection or even pull from other synths. Since you can change the size of the “window,” it will work with wavetables designed for apps like Serum or Ableton. And beyond the wavetables, the stock sounds included are really excellent and include contributions from artists like Jamie Lidell. The one complaint is that there’s no real way to preview what a wavetable will sound like when played from the sample loading screen. So it can take a lot of back and forth before you find what you’re looking for.

There’s full ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release) control over the synths as well as sample playback, a solid digital delay and a passable reverb, a variable mode filter plus modulation control over the filter, wavetable position and grain position. 

You’ve got a lot of sound design power at your fingertips -- a lot more than you have any right to expect out of a $600 box that will fit your backpack. Especially considering that the hardware itself is this good. This is high-end stuff, no doubt about it. 

So where did it start to fall apart for me? The sequencer.

It took months for me to even start to build a bond with the tracker workflow.

Gallery: Polyend Tracker review | 28 Photos

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My background is primarily as a guitarist and recording live is a big part of how I compose music. And that’s just not where a tracker shines. It’s at its best when you’re willing to sit and meticulously and manually manipulate your sequence. I’ve struggled to master the use of things like the note off, cut and fade commands. And I frequently find that I’ve somehow screwed up by changing the instrument when I meant to change a note. 

Now, you can record or perform live with the grid, but those pads are not particularly great for accurately knocking out chords and melodies. They’re small and if you’ve got sausage fingers or clumsy hands playing them is difficult. Of course, you can always connect a MIDI controller, but that takes away from the appeal of the Tracker as a self-contained music creation machine. 

Polyend Tracker
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

There are a few minor bugs and annoyances, too. Sometimes a screen will get stuck on a specific parameter, for instance, and you’ll have to switch views completely to change a different one. Most often this happens in the effect screen under instrument parameters.

There’s also limited sample memory. You can store as much audio on your microSD card as you want, but you only get 133 seconds of mono samples to work with in a given project. That said, you can opt for a low-quality import to double the amount of room and truly embrace that gritty digital vibe, which honestly isn’t a bad thing. And you can double down on that by reducing the bit depth of individual samples from 16 all the way down to four in the effects. 

If a sample is particularly long and you only want to use a snippet of it, you can crop it before loading it using the import option. Or you can also use the built in recorder which will let you crop the audio before adding it to a project.

Terrence O'Brien / Engadget
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

If you can make your peace with the somewhat anachronistic sequencer, though, there’s plenty to like here. For one, there’s a dedicated performance mode with a slew of punch-in effects like beat repeat, low pass filter and transposition that you can apply to all the tracks or just individual ones. And the eight tracks can also send MIDI out to other devices, so the Tracker can act as the brains of a larger set up. (Just know that it uses TRS MIDI type B, which is non-standard.) It can even send MIDI CC as an effect and change the parameters on external synths.

If you’re comfortable with trackers you’ll probably appreciate the piles of shortcuts and smart interface choices Polyend made, too. Selecting an entire track takes just a couple of button presses. And you can then insert notes or FX across every step or every fourth quickly with the fill function. You can also set the sequencer to skip a certain number of steps ahead each time you insert a note or parameter change. So, if you wanted to quickly put down a four-on-the-floor bass drum you’d have two different ways of quickly doing that. The fill function will also let you do things like randomize effects parameters or notes. If you combine the random feature with the snap-to-scale option in the settings, you can quickly generate musical ideas when you’re short on inspiration. 

Terrence O'Brien / Engadget
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Polyend also made sure that you won’t have to go hunting online for guidance if you’re stuck. There are plenty of helpful tips and explanations built into the UI. If you know the note you want to play but don’t feel like trying to navigate the pads, you can just hold down the note button and pick from the menu. If you’re confused about what an effect does, a simple button press exposes a detailed explanation. There’s even a quick-start guide in the config menu if you just need to find your footing.

Terrence O'Brien / Engadget
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Polyend also deserves credit for going out on a limb here. Hardware trackers just aren’t really a thing. There’s the NerdSEQ, which is a niche sequencer for Eurorack modular synths. And… that’s about it. XOR Electronics, the company behind NerdSEQ, announced a portable version of the NerdSEQ right around the same time as Polyend’s Tracker, but its late summer 2020 release date came and went with little update. 

So, if you’re looking for a self-contained tracker-based groovebox, this is the only game in town. If you’re not wed to the idea of a tracker but want something with comparable sound sculpting capabilities then AKAI’s MPC line or Elektron’s Digitakt are probably your best bets. But those are still dramatically different instruments, with higher price points ($699 and $749, respectively) and much different workflows. It’s unlikely that you’d have a hard time choosing between the three. 

Polyend Tracker
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

On paper, the Polyend Tracker is a beast of a device and a pretty good bargain at $599. It’s a portable eight-track groovebox with a sequencer that can be any number of steps from one to 128. Then you can arrange sequences to build complete compositions in song mode, master them and export them as polished pieces. It can record samples, edit them, turn them into playable synths. It can control external gear. And the hardware is truly lust-worthy. The Tracker workflow is not for everyone, but that doesn’t stop it from being a fascinating and impressive instrument.

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