Innovative live sets feel in demand right now. Just this month, a clip of UK breakout Fred Again… playing Native Instruments Maschine went viral as UK house producer Elliott Adamson got “bored of DJing” and decided to create a new live set in three days. There’s something about getting hands-on with your music that’s liberating for artists and engaging for audiences. And the Polish manufacturer Polyend is aware of this.
Polyend’s Play is a fantastically fun groovebox that lets you stack, shuffle and chop your sounds. It’s certainly not limited to stage performances – it’s a creative goldmine for building musical ideas and can communicate with up to eight external MIDI-equipped instruments to act as a studio hub. You’ll load sounds into Play and use the sequencer, effects engines, and sample editing tools to manipulate your sounds.
However, the game has some serious limitations. But, as is often the case with music technology, you may be able to take advantage of these limitations in an artistic way.
We love the sleek black aesthetic that Polyend has chosen for their product range. The minimalistic look of the Play is similar to the brand’s Tracker launched in 2021, both of which have a compact, light and slim design. You’ll power it via USB-C, either with the power supply that Polyend provides, or with a laptop or power bank. This is perfect if you plan to make beats while you’re out and about – or casually lounging on your sofa.
The layout of the Play is most striking. 160 backlit buttons, in an 8×20 grid, allow you to sequentially perform, play and manipulate sounds. That number sounds scary – and at first glance it is – but once you get used to the workflow, you realize how effective this system is. Above the grille is the visual display with five dedicated buttons and an infinite rotary knob that you’ll use to navigate parameters, save and load projects, import samples, map MIDI CCs, and more.
15 touch-sensitive capacitive buttons sit next to the screen – which provides feedback on each button’s primary and secondary functions (activated with the Shift key) – while six buttons sit on the right side of the Play and are mostly used for project management. This clean layout offers a unique way to navigate your ideas.
With no audio recording capabilities, the Play comes with a bundle of preloaded sounds and demo projects on an SD card that are ready for a variety of genres. But if you’re eager to tinker with your own sample library, just connect the SD card to your computer and drag files into the Play directory. Disappointingly, you can’t establish a USB-C connection to media with drag and drop, which is an omission from Polyend. However, it can send MIDI over USB-C.
Once you’ve found your inspirational palette, you’ll load up to 225 samples – or about six minutes of 44.1kHz / 16-bit samples – into the project’s Groove Pool. Groove Pool can be organized by folder – for example, you can create a special folder for all kinds of hi-hats.
You can also load entire sample packs into the Groove Pool for quick browsing and smart use of the generative Fill function, which automatically (and impressively) creates sequences with the sounds in the sample pack. But this doesn’t necessarily work for //all// sample packages. You’ll need to follow Polyend’s instructions to create a sample package specifically for Play, such as:
- 10-20 samples per folder
- Maximum 225 samples per folder
- Set melodic samples to C
- To make the best use of Beat Fill, name the folders with the words kick, snare and hat so that they are recognized by the fill algorithm
Both ways of importing samples work intuitively and have their advantages. We mostly avoided creating sample packages and opted to manually create folders and label samples and it worked wonders for us.
Programming a one-off sample, such as a kick drum, is easy. On the sequence page, each row acts as an audio track with 16 steps per page and a maximum of 64 steps per track. Simply use the Sample knob above the grid to select a sound from a folder and then place it on a step button. Press the orange play button below the screen to hear your song.
The four columns of pads at the end of the button grid (the green 4×8 section) are functional, so they can be used as mutes, solos and track picks, plus using Variation. With Variation, you can effortlessly toggle an alternate sequence you’ve created for that song, and up to 16 variations can be made per song, per pattern. That’s a whopping 30,000 variations per project – not that you’ll need such an incredible amount.
Sequencing a melodic sample is a joy. You can use the Sample Start knob and its secondary function, Sample End, to cut the sample to your desired length. Setting the end point before the start point will play the sound backwards. Once you determine the length, you can place it anywhere in the sequencer. You can change the properties of this step by holding it down and changing it using the knobs for parameters such as Filter Cutoff, Sample Attack, Reverb Send, Overdrive, Volume, Panning, Chance, Randomisation and more. You can also use the five main effects, which include different types of reverb, delay, saturation, limiters and volume – essentially a set of master EQ presets.
This is a burst that cuts a sample in several ways in sequence. You can set a piano sample to play at different points for all 64 steps if you like. And you can create short passages that are flipped, manipulated and panned in different ways at different steps for an intriguing loop. Plus, because the track isn’t dictated by the instrument like in a DAW, you can make complex beats using just a few lines – such as placing different hi-hat speeds, rim shots and bells over a track when making a drum’ n’bass groove.
Polyrhythms are easy to call up with Play, thanks to each track having an independent number of steps from 1 to 64. However, it’s a pain to navigate through the various pages of the sequencer, which is a shame. To cycle through the steps of a song, select it and use the Move button, which looks nice, but you can only move one step at a time. It’s a hassle – it would be much better to be able to scroll on a page.
However, the Move knob’s secondary function, Micromove, is superb for making small adjustments off the grid. In addition, the useful secondary function of the global Tempo knob is Swing, which allows you to quickly dial a channel to your beat, from 0 percent to 100 percent swing.
For a more unpredictable beat, you can deploy the excellent Randomise and Chance knobs, which let you define the parameters by which a sample is played – or not. This can help you add a dynamic touch to your music, such as switching which hi-hat is played on a given beat. Speaking of dynamics, the built-in limiter can be used to set up a sidechain compressor triggered by a specific track, which is just a great addition.
Fortunately, you can also automate all available parameters using Live Rec, activated with a button below the display. Live Rec will also let you overdub more samples into a song, and you can decide whether or not to quantize your performance via the main menu.
Play’s Perform page is one of our favorite features. Here, the grid becomes multi-colored and allows you to apply real-time effects to your selected tracks. Along with filters, delays, reverbs and the like, there are repeat and loop effects that, while not creative for all instruments, will help you quickly add drama to your performance. This is another area where we can see producers getting clever with their live sets.
If you have MIDI-equipped hardware in your studio, you can connect it to the Play via the 3.5mm MIDI input and output ports. Polyend provides you with a five-pin adapter, but you’ll need a MIDI Thru hub or MIDI Thru equipment to control multiple parts of the kit. The MIDI mode is gorgeous though. You can map parameters to knobs and automate them, trigger chords on a song, and arrange your MIDI gear.
The Polyend Play has a serious edge over other groove boxes and has a lot of nicer features that we haven’t mentioned here. Like producers who bring Roland SP-404s, Akai MPCs and Native Instruments Maschines to the stage, we’re excited to see artists use Polyend Play in a live environment. One gripe we have is that the sample will ring out when stopping the sequence instead of cutting completely like in a DAW – this can make for some awkward moments during a set.
Its limitations quickly become apparent, such as the inability to sample directly and the lack of export options to flesh out your genius ideas – either via an output for each audio track or, for example, a native DAW export. Polyend assures us that the latter is coming soon, thankfully.
The asking price is a little higher than one might expect to pay for a groovebox, but we can confidently say that if you enjoy producing with samples, you will hardly regret this purchase.
Still, we’re amazed at the hours of fun we had just playing with a sample and seeing how we could twist it in innovative ways.
We just want to have two review devices that we can connect to a mixer to experiment with a new type of DJ and live set. You may wish the same.
- Engine for editing creative examples
- 8×20 sequence and performance grid
- 15 touch capacitive knobs for setting parameters
- Five main effects plus high and low pass filters
- 225 samples per project
- Performance mode with eight effects engines
- MIDI connectivity to up to eight external devices via 3.5mm MIDI input and output
- USB-C power supply
- One 3.5mm stereo jack output
- Price: $799 USD/£699 GBP/€799 EUR
- Buys: Signal sounds, Polyend