I HAVE to keep reminding myself of the many
surprising sizes and shapes synthesizers can
take: A modular synth, for example, can span
an entire electronic music lab. In contrast, the
Ploytec PL2 synthesizer (which is, admittedly,
not nearly as complex as a full-blown modular)
is not much bigger than a gift box for a ring, yet it
puts out some of the fattest, rudest tones possible
(see Figure 1). And although its surface is too
small to accommodate more than a single RCA
audio output, MIDI input, and USB port, the
programmable parameters are remarkably rich.
|Fig. 1. The Ploytec PL2 provides a range of intense synth sounds. Small and lightweight, it can be conveniently attached to any controller or instrument.
Squaresville With a footprint of less than
a square inch and no front-panel controls,
the PL2 handles programming, and setup
happens via MIDI within the freeware editor
(see Figure 2), which you can download at the
Ploytec website. Because of its light, plastic
build, I frequently pulled the synth off of the
desktop with the weight of the MIDI cable.
You’ll need to affix the PL2 with double-sided
Velcro or something similar. On the other
hand, it is small enough to attach to the side of
my MIDI guitar or sit on top of my half-rack
Axon MIDI converter.
The PL2 draws power from its MIDI
connection; no wall warts or other transformers
are needed. You can also supply power through
its USB mini-B jack using a wall-plug adapter
or by connecting a USB cable to a computer. I
set mine up on my desktop
with the unit plugged
into the MIDI Out of
my Novation SL61 MKII
keyboard controller, which,
itself, was powered via USB.
Templates for a wide range
of controllers (including
those by Behringer,
Korg, Novation, Roland,
Terrasoniq, Yamaha, and
controllers for TouchOSC) are
Editing Ploys There is no MIDI Out or Thru
on the PL2, so the usual handshake protocols
between MIDI devices isn’t necessary to
program sounds. It’s understandable that,
given the unit’s limited real estate, it doesn’t
allow for the extra MIDI ports.
You get 32 preset locations and another 32
user slots. An additional 64 slots provide an
assortment of random sounds, many of which
are throwaways. Patch edits are created and
stored in the user area only, so any tweaks
made in the first 32 presets must be copied to
the user locations in order to preserve them.
You do this, sensibly enough, by hitting the
Store button, or as soon as the unit receives
a MIDI Program Change message from
an external source such as a controller or
sequencer. Program Changes issued directly
from the editor, however, will reset the patch,
but when receiving an external Program
Change from a controller or DAW will store
your work. You can of course, save the patch
to disk for later recall—something I’d advise
doing if you’re attached to any of your tweaks.
A pair of tabs at the top of the window
shuttle you between the editor and the setup
screen. The setup screen also provides a
firmware update page. There is no help or manual
provided for the editor, and there is no
handshake and no real confirmation that the
editor is connected or the firmware updated;
pressing the Firmware Update button will result
in a successful firmware update message, even
if the synth is not connected. At one point, the
software lost contact with the instrument, and
although everything worked fine in the DAW, I
could not affect any changes in the instrument
or trigger from the preset tests in the editor.
Although the manual for the synth states
that it only receives on MIDI channel 1, with
the version 2.0 firmware update, the editor lets
you change reception to other MIDI channels.
You can accomplish this by setting the new
MIDI channel, checking the Use Extended
Features field, and then hitting the Update
Features Only button.
|Fig. 2. A view of the two editing screens for the PL2. Although they indicate what the
synth is capable of, they can also be somewhat misleading at times. The lack of editor
documentation doesn’t help.
In the editor, you’ll find parameters for
MIDI output where none seemingly exists. In
fact, they designate a separate MIDI output for
Topology The editor still provides a good
indication of the PL2’s sonic capabilities, and they are pretty impressive. The synth has two
analog oscillators that share an ADSR envelope
generator. A button at the bottom of the editor
lets you link the ADSR to the filter or disengage
it. Technically, both oscillators start off with
the same square wave, and each Waveform
selection from the pull-down menu imparts a
slightly different pre-filter modulation scheme.
Access the first four waveforms by
selecting Normal mode in the editor; the
waveforms include a square wave with pulsewidth
modulation (PWM) controlling both
oscillators. The second waveform choice
allows independent square-wave modulation
over the oscillators with PWM 1 and PWM 2
parameters. The third and fourth waveforms
allow more complex adjustments of the
waveform by splitting changes on the duty
cycle of higher and lower frequencies in
different directions. The oscillator mode
pull-down menu offers Mono (one oscillator),
Poly (two notes), Dual (a detuned pair), and
Octave, which sets the oscillator pair one
octave apart. Dual mode produced sounds with
enormous girth, and tying the resonant filters
to the envelope generator produced delicious
animation. (Audio examples are available at
emusician.com; here, reference Clip 1.) The
PL2 has no built-in effects processors.
The firmware 2.0 update provides,
among other improvements, four additional
waveforms. The first is an analog kick-drum
waveform. Here, the PWM controls can alter
timbre and attack parameters, and the DC offset
changes the release. That’s not very intuitive,
but again, an editor software update can change
that. It’s anyone’s guess what the remaining
waveforms are, as they are documented by
name only. The best description I can provide
is that the second and third are spiky and
somewhat nasal sounding, a bit like a clavinet,
and the fourth has pronounced harmonic
overtones, sounding like a chord.
The PL2 features a resonant, 2-pole,
state-variable digital filter (useful for taming
aliasing), followed by an analog lowpass filter.
The digital filter’s DC offset parameter in
Normal mode helps create clipping effects,
roughs up the tone, and increases the raunch
factor considerably (reference Clip 2).
The new 2.56 firmware update (released
at Summer NAMM but unavailable for this
review) includes a vocal-tract modeler
offering formant sounds and synthesized
speech—a tribute to the General Instruments
SP0256-AL2 chip of the early ’80s. You can
play the allophones (speech elements) on
the keyboard and control the notes via the
modulation wheel, or the other way around.
Select between alphabetical or original order,
or use a button controller, such as the Novation
Launchpad Mini, to access all 64 allophones.
Attention, Shoppers If you’re looking for
silky strings, polished brass, or smooth pads,
you’re in the wrong aisle. Though you can tame
the PL2’s oscillators into more polite timbres,
its stock-in-trade are rough, edgy sounds on the
edge of stability that will spit, howl, and bite. If
you like sounds in which aliasing is deliberately
part of the package, this synth is for you.
The PL2 excels at creating eerie drones,
growling basses, and stinging, distorted
leads. The Kick Drum oscillator is nice and
punchy. As a mono lead synth or bass, it offers
adjustable portamento, but legato mode
is strangely absent. Otherwise, practically
every parameter has an associated (but fixed)
Control Change message, and therein lies my
plea for a plug-in version of the editor, which
would make automation that much easier.
I have serious reservations about the PL2
editing software. Moreover, there are holes in
the synth’s documentation, and without a user
manual for the editor, learning many of the
parameters (in particular, as they apply to the
different oscillator modes) is a shot in the dark.
Still, I’d recommend this synth. Priced
below $100, the PL2 is an irresistible bargain
and a welcome addition to tracks that need a
little tough love.
STRENGTHS Fat, flexible, rough, and animated
sounds. Pocket-sized. Analog filter.
LIMITATIONS Software editor has no