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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Crush the Dance Floor With These Colorful Retro Beat Machines

It seems like every week another tool emerges for making bleepy-bloopy techno music. But few of those tools come with the colorful confidence of Polyend’s newest noisemakers.

The Polish music tech company recently announced a line of limited-edition “Trackers.” These devices, which function as both stand-alone electronic music instruments and as tactile controllers for manipulating music software, are available now.

The device takes the inspiration for its name and its design from tracker software, a type of music-making computer program that was popular in the 1980s and ’90s. Trackers were the progenitors of modern digital audio workstations like Logic and Ableton Live. Installing a tracker on a laptop turned the computer into a one-stop shop for making electronic music; the software could be used for arranging and manipulating samples, composing songs, and for live performance.

Polyend’s trio of new Trackers were designed in partnership with three electronic music artists known for regularly using tracker software: Bogdan Raczynski, Legowelt, and Pete Cannon. Each artist’s Tracker comes with a vinyl EP of songs made with the device. The original songs and other unique samples are also preloaded onto the device for users to remix. Only 300 units are available from each artist, and they cost $799 apiece.

Vertical Integration

The interface of a typical vintage tracker program looks cumbersome and complicated at first glance. Instead of using the type of graphical interface common to music creation apps, trackers rely on blocks of text characters to represent musical notation, with archaic text strings crowding a screen that looks more like a Wi-Fi networking utility than a tool for composing music. Also, while most modern digital audio workstations utilize a horizontal timeline, with the music playing out from left to right, tracker software displays its playback vertically, with a cascade of letters, numbers, and symbols flowing upward from the bottom to the top of the screen as the track plays. Think of the flowing screen full of code in The Matrix and you’ve got the visual. Polyend’s hardware Tracker includes a 7-inch screen on the front, and the user interface is based on that vertically scrolling tracker interface of yore.

The hardware design also includes dozens of tactile pads (and one very big knob) that can be used to navigate the interface, control the sounds, edit and trigger samples, or serve as Midi controls for any other electronic instrument. The whole assembly fits into a rugged, gig-ready aluminum box that weighs about 2½ pounds. Even though it’s an instrument built to work with 2020s technology, it’s designed to bring some of that old-school tracker inscrutability to the modern musician’s toolbox.

“This hardware and software gives you limitations,” says Polyend CEO Piotr Raczyński (no relation to Bogdan Raczynski, the musician he collaborated with). “When you have a DAW nowadays with any computer, you can have thousands of tracks and thousands of effects. That is tempting, and it can be a little intimidating. But here you don’t have any fancy graphics. You have to listen to it; the main receptor is your ears. This limitation gives you a kind of freedom that you don't have to think of the process anymore.”

Trackers first emerged in the late 1980s. Karsten Obarski, a video game sound designer, created a program called Ultimate Soundtracker for the Commodore Amiga as a way to streamline the process of scoring games. The concept proliferated from there, inspiring similar programs like OctaMED and Renoise. The signature 8-bit sound samples of trackers became a staple of video game soundtracks and were used to score games like the original Deus Ex and Unreal. Trackers also became instrumental to the '90s rave scene, because of the ease with which users were able to quickly whip up frenetic, danceable beats using just a laptop keyboard. Polyend’s choice to combine that functionality with retro appeal to make a slick hardware controller was inspired by not a small amount of nostalgia.

“If ‘retro appeal’ is code for ‘nerdy,’ then yes, trackers are (not exclusively) for geeks,” Bogdan Raczynski says. “Musical evolution owes an immeasurable debt to the nerds who have moonshot electronic music to where it is today.”

Raczyński and Raczynski met at a 2019 concert in Poland where Bogdan was performing. (Incidentally, Legowelt was playing at the same concert.) Polyend’s Tracker was still in the prototype phase then. Bogdan, who had been using tracker software since the '90s on albums like Samurai Math Beats and Rave Till You Cry, offered advice that shaped how the hardware developed.

“He showed me what was going good, what maybe needs improving,” Piotr says. “That was a very, very important point of the development of this.”

For Bogdan, the inspiration for his custom Polyend tracker—a bright yellow design named “BANANS”—came from a series of Instagram posts that featured the titular fruit. He wrote on his website that the design was intended to “evoke a sense of joy” that would encourage users to gleefully explore the device.

“The wonderful thing about every instrument, from trumpets to trackers, and the Tracker, is that they're just a medium,” Bogdan says. “Anyone can pick up a saxophone, but nobody will ever sound like Gato Barbieri. It is misguided to hope to sound like anyone else. The Tracker is an instrument that empowers you with an opportunity to express yourself in a way that you aren't able to with any other instrument.”

If you miss out on this round of Polyend's limited-edition hardware, be aware that the company is also developing another new product with creative input from the electronic musician Aphex Twin. Expect that collaboration to come out next year.

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