The Big Review: Polyend Tracker
Conceived in the 1980s as a tool for videogame-sound development, the sample-based sequencers known as trackers have finally made the quantum leap from software to hardware – and in stylish fashion.
Named after 1987’s Ultimate Soundtracker, a music program created for the Commodore Amiga, trackers are a flavour of sequencer, intimidating to look at but relatively straightforward to use. Trackers present the user with a vertically scrolling multi-track alphanumeric step sequencer that triggers samples much like a futuristic pianola.
Ultimate Soundtracker was created as a way to quickly and conveniently compose music for videogames of the era. The software it inspired, which includes OctaMED and NoiseTracker, became particularly popular with budget-conscious electronic musicians, and trackers maintain a cult following even today thanks to modern iterations such as the powerful Renoise and the freeware OpenMPT. [Ed –Check out The History of Trackers for more of the backstory]. Now, following on from these programs, and decades after the birth of the tracker, comes Polyend’s entry into the pantheon.
The Tracker is a dedicated self-contained hardware tracker unit. It has limitations but boasts a few innovations to compensate for them.
Back on track
The Tracker’s form is satisfying. Its lap-friendly 357 x 245 x 16mm dimensions are roughly on a par with those of a Native Instruments Maschine Mikro MK3. It feels solidly built at 2kg, and the attractively cold metallic body lends it a further sense of quality. The unit is USB-C powered, and comes supplied with a USB-C to USB-A cable, as well as a wall adapter. The unit doesn’t have an onboard battery but its modest 5V/1A power requirement means that it can run off any half-decent USB brick.
In addition to the USB-C connection, there’s a slot for the included 16GB MicroSD card that’s used for sample and project managements, as well as firmware updates. The only other connections are five 1/8-inch jack slots for MIDI-in, MIDI-out, mic, line-in, and output. A MIDI five-pin DIN to 1/8-inch jack and dual 1/4-inch jacks to stereo 1/8-inch jack are included too, and you also get a smart MicroSD to USB-A adapter for adding files via a computer. Overall, the Tracker’s physical quality is high. The pads, buttons and jog wheel are as responsive as you’d expect and, while we initially have some stickiness issues with some of the buttons, this seems to settle down after a little use.
Once plugged in and powered up, the unit is ready to operate in just a few seconds. What’s even more convenient is that it auto-loads the last open project. Tracker’s screen is a substantial seven inches and features three brightness settings, ample for displaying the various parameter pages, waveform displays and all-important pattern page.
The pattern page is where the Tracker’s sequencing occurs. Patterns are made up of 16th-note steps and can be up to 128 steps long – that’s eight bars at 16th-note resolution. If you’re interested in obtaining higher resolutions, you can double or quadruple the project tempo to get 32nd or 64th-note resolution. The upper limit of Tracker’s tempo is a brisk 800bpm so there’s plenty of wiggle room here, and songs can use up to 256 patterns, which is more than enough for even the most hardcore of sequencing fanatics.
Limits or benefits?
More limiting is the fact that the Tracker only offers eight audio/MIDI tracks, meaning you’ve got a maximum polyphony of eight voices. This is its biggest limitation, and means it doesn’t come anywhere near the capabilities provided by contemporary software-based trackers; the free open-source OpenMPT, for example, offers up to 127 channels. The insubstantial track count is limiting but some users will find its enforced focus creatively liberating, and it also has the positive side effect of ensuring that Pattern Mode page navigation never becomes too unwieldy. To navigate the pattern, you can use the computer-keyboard-style arrow keys, and there’s a jog wheel for faster navigation, which can be used to select parameter values as well.
Each track has four fields – Note, Instrument, FX1 and FX2 – where the user enters programming information, and each has a dedicated selection button. Note information can be entered using the 4×12 matrix of small silicon pads that represent four octaves from C3 up. These buttons aren’t labelled but they’re pretty logically laid out with an octave on each row, and it shouldn’t take too long to get used to this input method. You can use these buttons to select instrument and effects settings too when their respective buttons are depressed, and it’s also possible to enter and edit note values with the jog wheel.
The next field is the instrument parameter, which is where the user tells the Tracker what samples to play. Up to 48 instruments can be used in a project. It’s not a huge number but this limitation is mitigated by the fact that there are eight instrument modes, two of which (Slice and Beat Slice) allow different parts of larger samples to be triggered in a couple of different ways.
In Slice mode, you can play the sample chromatically using different notes, with the Slice FX parameter controlling which slice is played. In Beat Slice mode, each slice is triggered by a different note, so you lose the ability to play chromatically but save yourself an effects parameter slot. Both modes offer automatic slicing capabilities, and you can add and position slices manually, with a helpful zoom control for fine-tuning sample start points.
Wavetable and granular instrument modes offer a more sound design-centric approach. Wavetable mode is straightforward, giving you two parameters to select, Position sets the part of the sample that’s initially played back, and Window controls the length of the sample playback. Moving the wavetable position in real time via an ADSR or LFO requires a visit to the Instrument Parameters page, which is where you can set up the volume, amplitude envelope, filter, tuning and fine-tuning parameters of the instrument.
Tracker’s Sample Editor page has a dedicated tool for smoothing out samples for the wavetable mode, and this also allows you to apply other offline destructive processing effects: crop, reverse, amplifier, delay, bitcrusher, chorus, flanger, limiter and compressor. These all have their own parameters that can be set and applied to the sample before it can be previewed or saved, and are pretty basic, with between two and four parameters.
Granular mode is only slightly more complex than Wavetable mode, and features similar position and length parameters, plus shape and loop-type settings. Like Wavetable mode, Granular position is controlled via an ADSR or LFO in the Instrument Parameters section. The results from Wavetable and Granular can be pretty rough-sounding, and it feels like you’d have to spend a fair bit of time sourcing appropriate samples to really get the most out of them.
There are also some more straightforward playback modes: 1-Shot, a traditional non-looping sample playback, plus Forward Loop, Backward Loop and Pingpong Loop. These are useful additions but don’t feature any kind of crossfade looping and can sound a little lo-fi.
One step at a time
Back in the pattern view, the remaining two fields are for effects, and these work quite differently to the real-time effects found in DAWs and hardware effects units. In trackers, effects are added to each step with a parameter value and are usually quite simple processes. The Tracker offers volume, panning, glide, tempo, micro-move, micro-tune, roll, position, slice, reverse and various other randomisations, filter and LFO adjustment options.
Micro-move and tempo – which controls the playback speed of the whole pattern between 10 and 400 per cent of the project tempo – can be used to create swing effects or even alternative time signatures. Micro-tune is capable of pitching a track up or down 99 cents, though you won’t find a traditional pitch bend here. Roll creates rolls of various resolutions that can be set to fade in or out, ideal for kick or snare build-ups.
Position affects the sample start point and can be used to create lo-fi time-stretching effects. Low-, high- and band-pass filter cutoff effects are simplistic but useful additions, and the randomisation options are fully featured, and give you the ability to randomise instrument, note, volume, chance of playing, and effects settings that include roll randomisation.
At the time of writing, the Tracker’s online-only manual (polyend.com/tracker-manual) doesn’t appear to feature any specific information about the effects, although a guide to them is located at the bottom of Tracker’s rather lengthy FAQ, (ONLINE – LINK TO – polyend.com/faq/#Tracker). A comprehensive PDF manual would be a boon and is hopefully in the pipeline, though Polyend does have some short instructional videos that deal with specific scenarios.
While software trackers would typically use hex values for these parameters, the Tracker ‘translates’ these for the user and uses more familiar units, thankfully reducing the amount of mental effort required to put them into practice. With two effects parameters slots available for each step, it’s possible to use two effects at once. But that’s your limit, in regular operation at least.
The Tracker has two modes for turning your patterns into complete pieces of music: Song Mode and Performance Mode. Song Mode works just like the playlist arranger you’ll find in traditional trackers, and works by simply making a playlist of patterns. Once you’ve created a Song, you can export it at 44.1kHz in 16-bit, and there’s also the ability to export eight mono stems. It’s also possible to select part of a pattern and bounce it down to a single audio file, which is especially useful considering the eight-track limit.
In Performance mode, you can play Songs back and remix them in real time by swapping between patterns either immediately or when the current pattern ends. You can also apply real-time effects including the familiar ones from Pattern Mode, plus a send Delay and reverb channels.
The included MicroSD comes with more than 3,700 WAV samples from a variety of soundware creators, including Legowelt, Jamie Lidell and Plughugger, and these include a wealth of one-shot drums, effects and synth sounds, plus some dedicated samples designed to be used with the wavetable mode. The library is a great inclusion and has some top-drawer sounds, and makes it possible for new users to get experimenting right away.
Adding your own pre-recorded samples is simple enough; you can simply add them to a folder on a MicroSD. Plus, because the included MicroSD card has almost 14GB free from the off, you won’t even have to source your own. The card also includes 26 demo projects created by the likes of the Flashbulb, Richard Devine and Machinedrum, and this is a fantastic addition that makes for a cool way to learn more about the device and its capabilities. You can even load tracker MOD files too, a feature that will surely be appreciated by tracking veterans.
Polyend has tested the device with MicroSD cards up to 64GB in size, and larger sizes could potentially work too. Given the small project file sizes involved, though, even the default card will be enough for most users, as long as they’re judicious with how many samples they try to cram onto it.
In addition to loading sounds from the MicroSD, you can also sample into the device using the mic and audio input. The Tracker features a built-in FM radio receiver, which is a quirky touch but it’s not possible to sweep the radio frequency while recording, which limits its usefulness. Once a sample has been recorded, the Tracker sensibly brings up a dedicated page for cropping, which saves you from having to use the crop function on the Sample Editor page, though that can also be used if you decide to truncate the audio further.
As you’ll have no doubt already surmised, Polyend’s Tracker is not a toy. Although its capabilities are limited compared to contemporary tracker software, it has a steep learning curve. Even for those who learnt to make music on the OctaMED, it can take a while to get your head around the Tracker’s architecture. Although, after a few hours, you’ll likely feel as if you’ve worked out where everything is, operating the device still feels slow compared to using a modern DAW with a mouse and keyboard. That said, those prepared to put the time in and get the muscle memory down will find themselves able to operate the Tracker much more efficiently.
The Tracker isn’t badly designed but its limitations and learning curve (plus idiosyncrasies such as allowing you to overwrite an instrument’s sample without confirmation) make it a product that demands a fair bit of effort on the part of users. This could be mitigated somewhat with improved documentation but, even so, the Tracker is not for dilettantes: you’ll need to concentrate even to get results that could be achieved more quickly via a DAW.
However, if you’re really looking for a tracker-in-a-box concept, Polyend has put together a handsome response in the Tracker. It can be used without a computer at all (though you will need access to one to add firmware updates to the MicroSD), and offers plenty for electronic-music enthusiasts to get their teeth into. The eight-track limit and near-total absence of real-time effects make the Tracker unlikely to appeal to broad audiences but we suspect there are some performers and producers who will absolutely adore it.
1. Grid pads – 48 small silicone data-entry pads used to enter notes and select instrument and effects settings. They light up in a single colour to indicate selected parameters
2. Jog wheel – Digital jog wheel used to navigate patterns, enter note information, and select parameters. It scrolls endlessly and smoothly
3. Display – The seven-inch screen isn’t of a massively high resolution but it’s more than capable of displaying tracker information and waveforms, which can be zoomed into for more detail
4. Screen keys – The function of these ‘soft’ keys changes depending on the selected page. Their function is displayed at the bottom of the screen
5. Function keys – Fixed function keys that navigate the users through the various pages, and select the Note, Instrument, FX1 and FX2 tracker parameters
6. Navigation keys – arrow keys for navigation, transport and copy, paste and delete functions. The shift key changes the function of some of the others
Do I really need this?
If you’re not already a tracker aficionado, it’s unlikely that the Tracker will convert you or be something you’ll want to pursue. If it does pique your interest, though, we recommend checking out some free tracker software to see how well you get on with the core concept before proceeding further. If you are indeed a tracker fan, this could be the hardware music-making device you’ve been waiting before – but it does have its drawbacks.
The eight-track limit will be a significant drawback for many (especially if they’re thinking of using it as a MIDI sequencer, which means you’re limited to playing eight notes at once) and the sub-optimal documentation is a pity. Ultimately, though, the Tracker dutifully fulfils its remit of being a standalone tracker in a box, and if that sounds appealing, you’ll probably enjoy climbing its robust learning curve.
- Eight-track sequencer
- Performance mode
- MIDI-in and MIDI-out
- Sampling from audio input
- Offline sample processing
- Master and stem audio export
This eight-voice drum sampler and sequencer doesn’t have the tracker interface and delightfully large display of Polyend’s rival but it does have a step sequencer with a lot of randomisation options and effects. A good choice for those who want real-time drum sample sequencing and processing.
As yet unreleased, Nerdsynth is still the closest competitor to the Tracker and will feature six audio tracks, the ability to be expanded with custom sound chips, and even a dedicated visuals track for video output. It sounds bonkers, though it’s been in the works for a few years now with no sign of a release yet.
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