Wow… what a product to be asked to play with… out of all the reviews that I have ever done before, this has got to be the highlight. Now, up until last month I hadn’t even heard of the Dave Smith Poly Evolver! In fact, it only came to my attention when I was recently searching through our product list for a true analogue synth keyboard - I still dream that one day I will have the budget to add a fully featured one to my home-studio set-up! For now I will just make do with the Korg Monotribe though, which incidentally is still extremely fun and can't be sniffed at at less then £200 for some true analogue goodness!
Anyway, the obvious analogue instrument that first sprung to mind was the Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08 – a truly legendary synthesiser that is still in production today. However, during this search I came across something that was more inspirational in terms of its sounds than I could ever have originally imagined… hello Mr. Poly Evolver!
DAVE SMITH POLY EVOLVER – INTRO
Now, for those of you that have heard the Poly Evolver before, there will be no introductions necessary. However, if like (until recently) me you had no idea that this beast of a synth existed, then let me introduce you to Dave Smith Instruments’ flagship synthesiser.
The Poly Evolver is a synth that combines both the analogue and digital worlds to bring you some of the warmest, most in-your-face sounds that have ever found their way to your unsuspecting ear-drums, as well as being capable of creating breath-taking analogue pad sounds and so much more. But don’t get ahead of yourself Joe, this is only the introduction so there is no need to go into this kind of detail just yet! It’s just that this product has excited me so much that I just want to blurt out everything that I love about it in a barrage of quick-fire sentences, much like a 6 year old that has just returned home from a holiday at Disney Land and is trying to explain to their grandparents which characters they met!
Anyway, the Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver features a five octave semi-weighted keyboard, a host of control knobs, a load of preset sounds, digitally controlled analogue oscillators (DCO), built-in effects and so much more… and I’m going to attempt to explain as much of it as I can in this article!
For now I will quickly finish off this introduction with a quote from the official Dave Smith Instruments product description, as I think that it describes the Poly Evolver perfectly. So:
“If you’re looking for realistic pianos and strings, keep looking. But if you want a truly unique, inspirational, real instrument, look no further.”
DAVE SMITH POLY EVOLVER – DESIGN & BUILD
I pretty much fell in love with this thing as soon as I had taken it out of the box. Maybe it’s because I could already sense the rich, retro sounds that it would soon be pumping out, but it definitely had the aura of a classic synthesiser with a subtle modern twist. To me, real vintage synthesisers look like machines that would be more at home in a mad professors laboratory than a professional music studio, and there was definitely something about the Poly Evolver that gave off this impression – the collection of knobs sandwiched between wooden side-panels were especially reminiscent of a time gone by! However, its logical layout and that modern graphics-style logo gave it away as a product that is a lot more evolved than one might first think. Plus, I found that blue panel with illuminated red and blue LEDs and the glowing pitch and modulation wheels quite enchanting!
As you may well expect from a product of this price, the build-quality is very good. If you were ever brave enough to let this leave the safe confines of your studio for a live gig, then the Poly Evolver could definitely handle it. However, I’m not sure if I could bring myself to do it as this would certainly be the pride of my studio if I owned one!
The Poly Evolver keyboard has a nice semi-weighted feel to it, which is exactly what I would want from such a product. No need for it to feel like a fully-weighted piano; this thing is a classy analogue synthesiser and as such, I want it to feel like one!
The dials also have a sturdy feel to them, although if I’m being honest, they did feel a little cheaper than I was expecting. I own an Access Virus B synth and I think that the rubber dials on this feel of a much higher quality – and this cost me less than £300 on eBay!
Anyway, overall I found that the build of the Poly Evolver was excellent, the look was brilliant and the feel was fantastic! So, it was time to stop drooling and actually get playing the thing! I could hardly wait!
DAVE SMITH POLY EVOLVER – THE SOUNDS
At this point in a review I would usually spend a bit of time going into a bit more depth about various features of a synth… however, this isn’t any old synth and I can’t contain my excitement any longer… I just have to tell you about the sounds because they completely rocked my world! If I had to describe them in one word, the word would undoubtedly be ‘EARGASM!’
It is so rare for me to hear a synth that has such a distinct individual quality, but the Poly Evolver certainly had it heaps! I can honestly say that this synthesiser is capable of producing sounds that you won’t be able to get from any other synth on the market. Oh, how I want one in my home studio!
As it makes use of both analogue and digital oscillators, the Poly Evolver could produce a vast range of synth-type sounds. From huge basses that were bursting with analogue warmth and character, to precise digital riffs, from oldskool analogue Sci-fi pads and soundscapes that warp and evolve with complex detail (and take you right back to the days when William Hartnell first battled the Daleks in Dr. Who) to huge 70s and 80s synth leads that would make Gary Numan proud and pretty much everything in between, with many sounds combining both analogue and digital elements to mesmerising effect. What’s more is that even when you think you’ve got something that sounds as phat as it can, you can always put on some delay, add some distortion, or introduce some feedback to take things to the next level!
It’s also worth checking out the presets in the ‘Combo’ mode, which combine multiple programs together to produce more complex sounds, or in many cases, to create a fairly complete sounding song.
Anyway, I will stop harping on about how much I love almost every one of the 512 preset sounds in the Poly Evolver (arranged in 4 banks of 128 sounds) and how in awe I am of the Poly Evolver’s unique character, and I will move on to describing some of the features of this synth in a little more detail. However, for now I would seriously urge you to click here and visit the official Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver audio page, where you can hear some audio examples of this synth for yourself. Put on a good pair of headphones and have a good listen to a selection of them to get a flavour of what the Poly Evolver is all about. If you’re not impressed, then it’s obvious that this is not the synth for you… but I’ve got a feeling that if you are reading this review in the first place and are obviously interested in purchasing an analogue synth, the Poly Evolver may just blow your socks off!
DAVE SMITH POLY EVOLVER – ANALOGUE + DIGITAL
A question that you may be asking is how do the analogue and digital components of the Poly Evolver work together? The answer to that is not actually too complicated, provided you have a basic knowledge of synthesis and electronics in the first place.
So, each voice of the Poly Evolver is equipped with 2 digital and 2 analogue oscillators, which can be combined together however you want (you don’t have to use all of them for every voice) to form your ideal sound. The digital signals are then converted to an analogue voltage and everything is routed through a fantastic sounding pure analogue filter. This signal then gets converted into a digital signal so that it can be shaped by the unit’s built-in digital audio processors. Absolutely amazing stuff, which simply means that this one unit can perform precise digital processing on pure analogue signals, making the Poly Evolver perfect for an all-in-one stage or studio synthesiser.
DAVE SMITH POLY EVOLVER – SIGNAL CHAIN
Another refreshing feature of the Poly Evolver is the fact that it has a knob or a button for most of its functions. Now, there are inevitably some things that you will have to venture into a menu for, but compared to all other hardware synths that I have ever used, the Poly Evolver is really generous with the amount of controls that it gives you. It gives you easy access to all the most common synthesis features, plus a whole load more! In this section I’m going to take a brief look at some of these controls in a little more detail.
Let’s start at an obvious place; at the beginning of the signal chain with the oscillator section. Each oscillator in the Poly Evolver provides dial controls for Frequency, Fine Tuning, Shape/Pulse Width and Level, and Oscillators 3 and 4 (the digital oscillators) also provide additional controls for Frequency Modulation, Ring Modulation, Shape Sequence and Glide. Now, these controls should all seem very straightforward to regular synth programmers, with the Frequency dial adjusting the oscillators base note between C -2 and C 8, the Fine knob tuning the output between -50 and +50 cents, the Shape/PW control selecting an analogue or digital waveshape (depending on the oscillator you are working with) and the Shape Seq parameter controlling waveshape sequencing (adjusting waveshapes in time with a sequence, allowing for some interesting results).
One thing that I did notice when trawling through the analogue waveforms though, was that there was a Sawtooth wave, a Triangle wave, a Saw-Tri wave and a Pulse wave… but where is the sine wave? The truth is, there isn’t one! If truth be told, this did annoy me a little bit at first. However, I then snapped right back to my senses. For starters, I just went back and listened to some more presets. With sounds like this, many of them exhibiting warm, deep bass characteristics, do I really need a sine wave? Would it actually add anything to these sounds? For some, yes I guess it might add something a little different, but I concluded that for most of them, the sounds were already in a state of perfection as they were. And secondly? The Poly Evolver has a rather nice sounding analogue filter that is capable of self-oscillation in 4-pole mode at high resonance settings. So, although I would have preferred a dedicated analogue sine waveshape, I can’t really complain too much as it is there if I find that I desperately need one.
Now, although there is a hardware control for each parameter of each oscillator on the Poly Evolver, the controls aren’t separated for each. What I mean by this is that all four oscillators share the same hardware control for Frequency, Fine, Shape/PW, etc. and you need to select which oscillator you want to manipulate by pressing the relevant button towards the left of the oscillator section (1, 2, 3, or 4). Now, whilst you may view this as a little limiting as you cannot control aspects of multiple oscillators at once, the fact is that if the Poly Evolver did equip you with controls for each oscillator, it would either be a lot bigger (and therefore a lot more expensive and inconvenient), it would lack controls in other important areas, or it wouldn’t be able to offer such in depth control for each oscillator. All things considered, I think that Dave Smith Instruments have got this one just right. The fact that you use instant-access buttons (instead of a scrolling system) to quickly switch between oscillators makes this extremely quick and easy, so it really isn’t a hassle at all.... and one final point to make on the oscillators is that you can also hard sync the analogue oscillators for a real analogue ear-treat!
Next in the signal chain comes that exceptional analogue low-pass filter, although you can also add in the signal from a noise oscillator and/or external input before this stage if you wish. The low-pass filter features a 2 and 4 band mode with controls for Frequency, Resonance, Env Amount, Velocity, Key Amount, Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release, Audio Mod and L/R split. If you have ever heard a proper analogue filter before then you should be able to imagine how good this thing sounds. If you haven’t then just take my word for it… it... sounds... a... mazing! In fact, the Low Pass filter of the poly Evolver is actually made up of two different analogue filters, one for each channel, which allows for true stereo processing if you so wish!
Following on from the Filter section is the Amplifier. Here you get controls for VCA Level, Env Amount, Velocity, Output Pan, Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release. Again, all this should make perfect sense to anyone with a basic concept of synthesis. There is plenty of information about these types of parameters online, or feel free to leave a comment and ask if you are confused about anything. Actually, just to be clear, I mean 'anything' as long as it is to do with the Poly Evolver! I have no intention of becoming Absolute Music's resident Agony Aunt, so if you are worried about an unsightly rash, you fear that 'your bum looks big in this', or your husband is having an affair with a weasel, I repeat, this is not the place to ask for advice!
Next, the signal will generally enter a High-Pass filter, although the position of this filter can actually be altered with the Pre/Post button to affect external audio before it enters the Low-Pass filter if desired. Following the HP filter comes the Feedback section, which is implemented by placing a delay line on each channel. Here you can set the base frequency for the main feedback loop, set the feedback level and activate a ‘Grunge’ mode, which, as Dave Smith Instruments describe it, ‘sets nasty feedback at higher levels!’ This mode is definitely worth experimenting with if you ever get your hands on a Poly Evolver!
The signal then passes through an awesome optional distortion stage, then through a delay effect, through an ‘Output Hack’ stage, which can be used to mash up the signal even more, before finally entering the Voice Volume stage. If this sounds in any way confusing, there really is nothing to fear. The top panel of the Poly Evolver features graphic arrows that illustrate exactly how the signal flows, so you can always visualise how a voice is being shaped.
DAVE SMITH POLY EVOLVER – MORE CONTROLS
Along the top half of the front panel of the Poly Evolver are a number of other immediate controls. So, from left to right, we start with an Envelope Section. This is labelled as ‘Envelope 3’ on the Poly Evolver and as well as including the usual Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release parameters, it also has a very handy Delay dial (for delaying the onset of the envelope), Amount and Velocity dials and a Destination dial, which allows you to skim through and assign the effect of the Envelope to a vast number of modulation destinations! Now, it’s by no means as hassle free as setting up complex modulations in a software synth such as Native Instruments’ Massive (available in Komplete 8), as you have to use the Destination dial to scroll through a list of modulation destinations on the LCD screen, but it’s about as simple as it can get on a hardware synth without employing an interface the size of a dining table!
Next to Envelope 3 is a section of 4 LFOs with Frequency, Amount, Shape, Destination and Key Sync controls. You can control each LFO individually in the same way that you switch between controlling different oscillators; by using dedicated buttons to select the individual LFO that you want to edit. These buttons have some rather cool blue LEDs next to them, which pulsate at the same rate of that particular LFO, allowing you to get an overall visual view of how each LFO is working together.
To the right of the LFOs is the Modulators section. Again, this features 4 individual modulation slots, each of which can be selected by a button, and within this section you get dials for Source, Destination and Amount. So, it’s essentially just a modulation matrix, but one that keeps menu use down to a minimum through the use of a handy collection of dials. For a hardware synth, this really is a joy to work with as setting up modulations in the modulation matrix is one of the most tedious things you can possibly do on most others!
To the right of this we have two small screens, a couple of dials (for altering various parameters that are displayed in the right-most screen) and a number of buttons, including a keypad for quick entry of data, such as for changing programs.
Underneath these screens there are three important buttons, which can be used to set the Poly Evolver in three different modes. In Global mode, you can adjust a number of global settings on the Poly Evolver, such as tuning, MIDI settings, LCD contrast, etc… all the usual global stuff! In Program mode you can play a single preset, or four-voice sound and you can arrange these voices however you want, stacking them in a four-voice unison if you so require for a fatter sound with a larger stereo image. The important thing to remember here though is that all four voices are always set to the same sound/preset.
Finally there is Combo mode. In this mode you can combine up to four presets to create a more complex patch or even a keyboard split. However, the best way to make use of the individual voices is to create different elements of one song in one combo patch and route them out of different outputs on the back of the Poly Evolver. For example, you might create a bass patch and assign it to the first voice of a combo preset. For the second you might create a pad sound, for the third voice a sequenced lead and for the fourth voice, a beefy analogue kick drum. You can then load up all the sounds together in one combo patch and route each individual element to a different track in your DAW for individual processing. To choose which voice of the Combo program you want to edit, simply press the corresponding button (1-4) underneath the screens. Again, this is so much simpler than most other hardware synths. In this respect it really does make my old Virus B appear like something that has come out of the Iron Age, with its deep menu scrolling making editing multiple voices in a Combo patch a real pain in the backside!
Next to the keypad there is the Miscellaneous Parameters section, which despite only having two dials, allows you to alter a number of other less integral parameters within the Poly Evolver. To do this you simply turn the Select dial until the relevant parameter appears on the LCD screen and then use the Value dial to alter the value of the parameter.
Finally, there is the 4x16 analogue-style step-sequencer. With this, you can create up to 4 separate sequences (again, use buttons to switch between each) of up to 16 steps each. You can then assign these sequences to any modulation destination, so for example, you can create melodic sequence by routing it to a voices pitch, or you may want to create sequenced filter effects! Or, route it to the amplitude for a stuttered or evolving effect! It’s completely up to you and it is so fun to play around with and very rewarding when you nail something that sounds amazing!
Within the sequencer you can set the basic BPM for the sequence (between 30 and 250), and it also features a Tap Tempo button, a Clock Divide dial (for a wider range of sequencer speeds including swing and triplets), a Start/Stop button and a Reset button.
Programming a sequence is extremely simple. Each of the 16 sequence steps has a dial associated with it and you can use as many of these steps as you desire. Turning a dial past its maximum value of 100 signals that this is the point where you want the sequence to stop and reset. Anyway, as you can probably guess, programming a sequence simply consists of turning the dials for each step of the sequence to create a desired pattern based on the selected destination! So for example, when I had the destination set to the low-pass filter cutoff, each step-dial controlled exactly this. If I wanted the first step to be fully open, I just increased the dial to its maximum value. If I wanted the second dial to be half closed, I just set the dial to its centre value, etc, etc. There is so much room for creative experimentation here, it really is unreal and I ideally needed a lot longer than a couple of hours to get to grips with exactly how much this thing can do.
DAVE SMITH POLY EVOLVER – CONNECTIONS
The connections for the Poly Evolver are all found on the back panel. You get a quarter inch headphone jack, followed by two ¼” main outputs (L and R for a stereo signal) and then 8 more ¼” outputs, giving each voice a stereo output pair. The point to note here is that the main audio output will pass out sonic information from all of the voices unless any ¼” cables are inserted into any of the Voice outputs. If this is the case then that particular voice will be removed from the main output and will instead be routed through that particular stereo Voice output. This allows for complex live and studio set-ups and allows you to do things such as route individual voices to different inputs of your audio interface and hence different tracks in your DAW. Next to these, there are stereo ¼” inputs for routing an external audio signal into the signal path within the Poly Evolver. This can be especially useful if you want to process some external audio through the beastly analogue filter of the Poly Evolver!
One slight annoyance here is that all these inputs and outputs are listed in the specifications as being unbalanced. Now, I imagine that most people would only ever hook this synth up with short cable-lengths, but I still just like the safety of knowing that all my connections are balanced! For some reason it just gives me a little nagging uncomfortable feeling when I learn that I’m using unbalanced equipment even if I know that it won’t make any noticeable difference to audio quality in a given situation! O.C.D.? Maybe!
Next we have a power connection and a power switch, a ¼” input for a Sustain pedal, two more ¼” inputs for a further 2 pedals and then the MIDI connections for Poly Chain Out, Thru, Out and In. There are also four more blue LEDs on the back of the Poly Evolver that flash at the same rate as your LFOs. I’m really not sure why these are there though. In a live situation, I’m pretty sure that an audience will be a lot more captivated by the clubs lighting display rather than 4 tiny LEDs on the back of my keyboard. In the studio, I’m not sure how much the wall will enjoy this display…
DAVE SMITH POLY EVOLVER – SUMMARY
If you’ve got the money, get one and we can all be very, very jealous of the unique, larger than life sounds that come spitting out of your studio. This is one extremely special synth, capable of creating sounds that you won’t find anywhere else. Again, if you haven’t already gone to the official Dave Smith Instruments website to hear some of the Poly Synth samples for yourself, click here and do it now because those recordings will speak louder than my words ever can!
I guess my only main complaint about the Poly Evolver is that it only has four-voice polyphony, which means that you are limited in the chords that it can play (without overdubbing) and in the number of Unison voices that you can use. I can tell you that when creating big bass sounds, I’ve been known to push the Unison mode on other synths to using a lot more than 4 voices! However, at the same time, I do think that the four-voice polyphony is part of the package of the Poly Evolver and it adds to its character. Plus, with regards to the Unison, I can’t see myself wanting to use any more than 4-voices to beef a sound up with all this analogue warmth at my disposal!
So, to finish off, the Poly Evolver is one hell of an amazing product. Completely unique and completely inspiring and it’s not often that you can say that about an instrument. This is something truly special that will take your songs to a whole new level. I want one…
For more information on the Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver or to buy one, click the link below: