One of the major attractions of a vintage synth, besides its sound, is the user interface, which typically gives you hands-on control over important parameters.
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One of the major attractions of a vintage synth, besides its sound, is the user interface, which typically gives you hands-on control over important parameters. In contrast, the ergonomics of programming a modern synth module, using a data wheel to scroll through menus, is less than satisfying.

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The Poly Evolver Keyboard is a hybrid analog and digital synthesizer that gives you hands-on control over its many parameters. The keyboard has Velocity and Aftertouch capabilities

In a bold and welcome move, Dave Smith Instruments has released the Poly Evolver Keyboard ($2,699), a performance version of its 4-voice analog/digital synth module that puts 78 knobs and 58 switches under your fingertips. Although there is nothing new under the hood, the keyboard and controls immediately unlock the full potential of the Poly Evolver, even for the musician who is unfamiliar with synth programming. (You can familiarize yourself with the features of the Evolver and Poly Evolver online at emusician.com.)

Tweak and Ye Shall Find

The main signal path of the Poly Evolver Keyboard (PEK) is clearly marked on the front panel. This map invites you to begin tweaking sounds right away, and it helps you get your programming juices flowing at a higher creative level. For example, the first thing you notice is its extra 4-stage envelope, with Velocity and Delay controls, which is just waiting to be put to work. And like all the modulators, the envelope has a Destination control so you can easily route it to one of nearly 70 parameters.

Through clever design, the PEK's controls are kept to a minimum: there is one set of knobs for the four oscillators, one set for the four LFOs, and another set for the four sequencer tracks. Dedicated buttons let you select each oscillator, LFO, or track for editing. To solo a particular oscillator, LFO, or track, just press and hold the corresponding button.

To edit any parameter of a Program, turn the corresponding knob slightly, and the parameter and its setting automatically appears in the display. You can raise and lower the setting using the parameter's knob, with the increment/decrement buttons, or using the Param 2 knob. A dedicated button, Combo Part, makes it easy to edit Combo parameters when you're working with multitimbral instruments.

All of the knobs are endless rotary encoders, which have a sturdy feel. Musicians who like visual feedback when editing will enjoy the PEK's front-panel light show. For example, four blue LEDs show the instrument's voice allocation as it dynamically cycles through voices 1 through 4. This feature is especially helpful when figuring out how many voices are used in the factory presets. In addition, each of the four front-panel LFO LEDs is duplicated on the rear panel, giving your listeners a light show as well.

The PEK's rear panel is similar to the rack version in terms of connectivity, offering a pair of unbalanced ¼-inch master outputs, a pair of unbalanced ¼-inch outputs for each voice, two unbalanced ¼-inch inputs for running external signals through the PEK's filter and effects, three footswitch jacks, and MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports. A dedicated MIDI output is provided for daisy-chaining additional Evolvers or Poly Evolvers, in order to increase your voice count. The PEK uses a lump-in-the-line power supply, which helps keep the instrument's size and weight down.

Keys to Heaven

The 5-octave keyboard has a quick, light action, and the octave-transposition buttons, located above the illuminated pitch and mod wheels, give you two additional octaves in either direction. The PEK responds to Velocity and Aftertouch, and the factory patches demonstrate these features very well.

As in the Poly Evolver rack, there are four banks of 128 Programs and three banks of 128 Combos. Saving your work on the PEK is as easy as pressing the Write switch, and then pressing Yes. The Compare switch lets you A/B your edited sound with the sound that's in the location you want to save to.

Performance Driven

Although the Poly Evolver Keyboard seems expensive at first glance, when you consider its many features (8 analog oscillators, eight digital oscillators, analog lowpass filters, and four 4-by-16 step-sequencers among them), you'll see that it offers plenty of bang for the buck. More importantly, the Poly Evolver Keyboard sounds fantastic and is a blast to play. I've heard few instruments that can match the sonic power of the Poly Evolver Keyboard, and it's worthy of my highest recommendation.

Overall Rating (1 through 5): 5
Dave Smith Instruments