Sit down, relax and take a deep breath, smile.”
It’s refreshing when the manual of a tech product reminds you of such things, especially when it’s intended for music. For those of us old enough to remember the impenetrable manuals that accompanied products at the dawn of MIDI, it’s wonderful to read an instruction like this and know that the manufacturer actually has tried to “keep things as simple as possible.”
Such is the case with the Polyend Seq, a polyphonic MIDI step sequencer designed for spontaneous use in performance. But why would you use a hardware sequencer that costs as much as a small Eurorack system, in the era of powerful software (much of it available free or inexpensively on an iOS device)?
The first answer, of course, has to do with touch. It’s a different experience when you run your fingers over an array of 32 bumps (e.g., buttons) rather than across a glass screen with images of buttons below. For many musicians, a fully tactile interface is inspiring, and not just to those of us who started out on hardware devices, either. (Moreover, Seq feels solid with its metal top and bottom plates and wooden case.)
Second, it is usually more satisfying to make music with a dedicated instrument rather than a general-purpose computing device. Of course, such an instrument takes up more room than a laptop or tablet, but the inspiring ergonomics of a well-designed interface, such as this one, is difficult to deny.
Seq’s buttons have a rounded top and a light inside that indicates when they are engaged. They are small, easy to press with a fingertip, and close enough together that you can draw patterns across the matrix of 8 horizontal tracks with 32 steps in each.
Another plus for a hardware device, particularly this one, is that each of its functions is immediately available; no cursors or mousing around, and no squinting at a densely packed GUI to find a tiny icon to click on. On Seq, you tap the track button you want to work with, then touch the steps to toggle them on and off.
On the far left are 8 additional buttons, as well as 6 encoder/switches and a small, 4-line screen with just one menu level. From the austere look of Seq, I expected to encounter a deep feature set that would take hours to figure out, but this was not the case. You can begin using Seq without knowing what most of its functions are, although they’re intuitively named and understandable to anyone who has prior experience with a sequencer.
Play and Stop are self-explanatory. To play a track, touch the track number followed by On/Off (or vice versa): When a track button is lit, it will play through its data. Holding down Stop, then Play, will give you a 4-beat count-in (shown using banks of step lights). Press Play and Stop simultaneously to record MIDI data from an external controller. Once you’ve recorded a sequence into Seq in this manner, use the Quantize button to line things up rhythmically in each track.
You can easily turn tracks on and off, and modify their data, while the sequencer is running. Let’s say you have tracks 4 and 5 switched off, but you want to swap them with the other tracks. Simply press On/Off, then sweep your finger down from the top to the bottom of the column of track buttons: This turns off the ones that are on, and 4 and 5 will begin playing once your finger goes over them.
You can instantly erase the contents of a track by pressing Clear and the track number. Or, immediately populate a track with randomly selected data by pressing Random and the track number. Random will also add multiple beats per step, or rolls as they’re referred to on Seq. At any time—with or without the sequencer in Play mode—you can adjust the number of triggered notes of a roll inside a step by holding down the step button and pressing and turning the Roll knob. In fact, many editing features can be performed on individual steps as well as full tracks, allowing you to subtly alter sequences as they play.
Furthermore, each of the 256 step buttons is also used to store a preset pattern. You store and recall patterns by pressing Pattern followed by a step button. For example, pressing the fifth button in track four calls up pattern 4-5 (and the number is shown in the display). Because patterns cannot be renamed, you’ll have to remember the numbers for the patterns you want. Nonetheless, this system is simple to use.
Duplicate makes it easy to not only copy the steps of one track to another, but also the track parameters such as root note, scale, track length, playback direction, and so on. One inspiring way to use Duplicate is to modify the various aspects of the duplicated track, such as its length and playback direction to create interesting patterns.
PUSH AND TURN
That’s where the rotary encoders come in. For example, you hold down a track button and turn the Length knob to quickly change the number of steps in that track—perfect for creating polyrhythms on the fly. The lights in that track indicate, from left to right, how many steps are selected.
Pressing a knob reveals the three or four parameters in the display that are available to you. Press Length to select the Play Mode (forward, backward, ping-pong, random), and press again to set the Gate length (5%-100%).
You can use the Move knob to slide an entire track forward or back in time, step by step, or hold it down to select Nudge, which can incrementally adjusts the amount of delay (0-94%) for any step. The Humanize setting determines if the Nudge amount is included when you randomly populate a track.
Under Velocity you can set levels or have them chosen randomly for a track. You can also choose which CC the track accepts for modulation as well as set the modulation level to Random.
Holding down a track number then pressing and turning Roll gradually fills the track with notes. Holding down a step button while pressing Roll gives you options for the number of repeats (up to 16) and the volume curve (flat, increasing, decreasing, etc.).
With the Notes control, you can assign a specific scale to a track based on any root note you’ve selected: There are 40 scales to choose from. As you tune individual steps, the note choices are confined to the chosen scale. If you change the track’s root note, the note in each step is transposed by the same amount: For example, if you started with a G3 root using the BeBobMaj scale, changing the root to, say, F3, transposes all the notes down a whole step.
This is where the Random button comes in handy, because it selects notes within the chosen scale as well as a random number of steps, while at the same time retaining global settings of the track such as Length, playback direction, and so forth. And at the step level under Notes, you can select a chord (from a list of 20) or set a transposition interval.
Link To is a powerful tool found in this section. Here, you can select a specific step in a track that, when the sequence reaches that point, changes the entire sequencer to a new Pattern. For example, you can program it so that when your sequence hits Track 2, Step 32 you have Seq jump to a new pattern—say, 3-1. But if Track 2 (in this scenario) is turned off, the pattern won’t change as the sequence passes step 32. This clever feature is easy to program and lets you nest sudden pattern changes, or plug them in on-the-fly.
MIDI, MIDI, MIDI
Seq has four standard MIDI ports—In, Thru, Out1, and Out2—and a USB port for bidirectional MIDI transmission. Each track can be assigned its own MIDI Channel as well as its own MIDI port (the latter is done using the Note knob while the user is holding a track button). This flexibility allowed me to input MIDI data from an external controller, as well as to play instruments in Ableton Live over USB at the same time as various hardware instruments using the DIN connections.
For modular users, Polyend sells Poly ($399), a Eurorack MIDI-to-CV converter with USB and DIN connections and 8 channels of four outs—gate, pitch, velocity, and modulation. It also supports the MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) standard.
SEQ AND YE SHALL FIND
Sure, there are software MIDI sequencers that run circles around this unit in terms of exotic functionality, but Seq was not intended to offer every feature imaginable. Rather, it was designed to be so intuitive to use that it becomes invisible once a musician figures out how to use it: Like any well-designed instrument, it is meant to serve as a conduit for creativity. To this end, Polyend has succeeded.
And while one could argue that it’s expensive for this day and age, Seq is clearly one of those cases where you get what you pay for. Anyone who performs with hardware and step-sequencers owes it to themselves to check it out.
Easy to use. Flexible MIDI implementation over DIN and USB. Solidly built. Link function.
Gino Robair is Editor in Chief of Electronic Musician and keyboardmag.com.