by Jason Degelman
Grid controllers and sequencers have surged in popularity in recent years, offering a variety of control techniques and layouts. For some, The Grid is the remedy for the ever-shrinking home studio and the need for increasingly mobile and reconfigurable electronic music tools. Polish electronic instrument manufacturer Polyend has already released several sequencers of this type to positive reviews, culminating in the release of the Polyend Medusa in 2018. The Medusa is the result of a collaboration between noted analog synthesizer manufacturers Dreadbox and Polyend to integrate an analog/digital hybrid synthesizer directly alongside a Grid-based sequencer. This configuration allows for immediate pitch sequencing of the synthesizer and direct control of other synthesizer parameters from the Grid. For 2019, software version 2.0 was released, adding features and usability updates. The Medusa is quirky, and not without issues; however, it’s also a new and unique idea in a crowded synthesizer market, truly merging the efforts of two emerging electronic instrument companies.
The Polyend Medusa strikes an unusual, elongated pose among tabletop synthesizers, laying across the desk like the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. A brightly lit 8x8 grid of pads covers the left side, and the six oscillator analog/digital synthesizer occupies the right hemisphere, with the preset and sequencer management section in the middle. The pads themselves offer X, Y, and Z modulation of various target destinations on the synthesizer; simply move your finger around on the last pad pressed to hear aftertouch-like effects. Two small screens are present: the central screen is the primary screen, used to set parameters and choose presets, while another dedicated screen in the allows the five [!] LFOs to be easily modified and routed to a variety of destinations. The synth case itself is stiff, feels solid, and is fairly shallow; the rear panel offers MIDI I/O, USB, phones, and monophonic audio input and output. The knobs used are fairly unusual, with caps recessed slightly into the front panel.
The synthesizer attached to Medusa presents itself initially as a monophonic synthesizer, but closer inspection reveals that it is actually paraphonic, allowing independent pitch control per oscillator, mixed down a single filter/VCA chain. The oscillators can be allocated as either six independent single oscillator voices (three analog, three digital), three dual oscillator voices or a single massive six oscillator voice—all played or sequenced directly from the Grid. The fundamental sound of the analog oscillators is good, and the digital wavetable oscillators add a welcome layer of interest to the sound. Each oscillator flows to its own dedicated VCA before being mixed down to the filter/VCA chain, allowing modulation sources like the LFOs to change the amplitude of each of the six oscillators independently! This unusual feature opens up some great sound design possibilities, allowing digital and analog timbres to phase in and out of audibility, independent of the final VCA and the tempo of the sequencer. Noise [also with a dedicated VCA] and an External In are also mixed alongside the oscillators before entering the filter.
The filter is analog, switchable between 12db lowpass, 24db lowpass and highpass settings. The sound of the filter is solid, though not particularly lively. The filter is modulated by a dedicated DADSR envelope generator, with the extra Decay stage being a helpful addition that is often overlooked on groovebox-type synthesizers. A wide range of envelope lengths can be obtained, and additional envelopes can modulate the VCA or other parameters—just hold down the dedicated button for the Envelope [or LFO!] you wish to use, and move or press the parameter you wish to modulate on the synthesizer. Voila! Your modulator now has a target!
The Grid enables both playing and recording patterns directly to the synthesizer in Note mode, but also grants the ability to capture parameter changes on each pad in Grid mode—i.e., parameter locks. A typical workflow may include live-entering your pattern [up to 64 steps] in Note mode, then switching to Grid mode for per-step modification of synth parameters and other performance tricks. In this way, each individual preset can actually conjure up a multitude of sounds, as selecting a new pad in Grid mode can alter many synthesizer parameters at once. Notes can also be programmed into the sequencer via the central encoder without leaving Grid mode. Chords or single notes may be entered, and a MIDI keyboard may be substituted for Grid input. An Arpeggio/Transpose function can add variety to simple, short patterns. Drone mode pauses the sequencer and latches each oscillator open, allowing the many modulation options on the synthesizer to really shine.
The Medusa can truly impress as a lead synthesizer—for artists that enjoy detailed sonic breakdowns and rapid shifts in modulator frequencies [ala Dubstep], the Medusa will be the performance weapon of choice. Alongside a drum machine, the Medusa can be a great tool for minimal artists; basslines and melodies are its forte. However, the Medusa’s sonic power has limits: the oscillator section itself is in fact a limited palette, with the digital oscillators all accessing identical [and rather small] wavetables. The analog oscillators can also tend to ‘overwhelm’ the sound of the digital oscillators in many scenarios when their respective volumes are matched on the Mixer; an amplitude boost could help give the digital oscillators a more leading role. The Grid offers extensive parameter locked control of all synthesizer parameters, alongside many amazing modulators within the synthesizer itself—perhaps more modulation than is needed [though who can really object to excessive modulation!?]. Additionally, the lack of an effects section may not bother studio musicians, but for those that wish to employ the Medusa as a standalone instrument, the inclusion of delay and reverb would have been welcome. This issue is perhaps the most easily remedied—alongside a good FX unit, the Medusa transforms into a genuine ambient time vampire.
For those seeking a break from traditional keyboard input or step sequencers, the Grid is enticing. The Grid can also be challenging, especially for artists not used to creating melodies with this paradigm, and inexperienced Gridders should not expect instant gratification from this new ‘recipe’ of synthesizer ingredients. Still, the investment of time to learn this system is worth it—the manual is informative and conversational [make sure to grab the 2.0 version!], and the performance and sound design capabilities of the Medusa are substantial. Though it may require more time and effort to learn than a traditional synthesizer, the Polyend Medusa will reward frequent human interaction and attention, and will delight electronic artists searching for something fundamentally different.