Sonic LAB: Polyend - Dreadbox Medusa - Hybrid Synth Review

The power of two      05/10/18
    MP4 20:42 mins    

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Take two independent manufacturers at the top of their game 0 Dreadbox and Polyend, mash them together and out comes Medusa!

Polyend are smart designers, makers of the highly appreciated Seq a multi-lane large format step sequencer and other clever devices. Dreadbox make analog synthesizers.

Medusa features the DNA of the SEQ engine in a 64 pad grid, with pressure and X/Y position sensors, the synth engine with 3 analogue oscillators (saw/square/tri/sine), 3 digital oscillators (saw/square/tri/sine/wavetable), analog VCF (2/4-pole, High Pass), 5 looping DADSR envelopes, 5 syncable LFOs.

Medusa can work in 6 osc mono mode - yes 6! Three voice (1 analogue, 1 digital per voice) and 6 voice modes. It's paraphony Jim, but not as we know it. Each voice has its own VCA but then shares the same filter.

Oscillators - Analogue - these are classic Dreadbox, though lacking a smidge of the charisma of the Erebus, still beefy with 3 octaves,  +/- 12 semitones and +/- 100 cents tuning.

PW is a modulation destination for both envelopes, LFOs and X/Y and pressure so fill yer boots.

Digital oscillators, offer the same basic waves which are OK, though there is aliasing on the top octaves, but you also get 20 wavetables with wave shaping control.

FM can be applied from analogue OSC 3 to OSC 1+2 as well as filter mod, though not to the digital oscillators. Additionally OSC 2->1 Sync and OSC 3->1 sync

The synth engine is fairly simple in many ways, with a basic modulation matrix, with 1:1 routing for LFOs and Envelopes and X/Y/Z (pressure) being pretty much it, aside from the FM. But as there are so many of each this is actually enough to create some complex stuff.

Filter is  a 2-pole/4-pole Dreadbox design, with a high pass mode, resonant and can be played via note tracking, though I found it hard to dial in precise octave tracking. Again, it has the Dreadbox character but not quite the classic Dreadbox thing. Presumably some compromises have been made along the way which result in variations of the sound from a pure Dreadbox machine.

LFOs and Envelopes - five of each, LFOs goes to 30Hz with morphable waves: sine/sq/ ramp down/tri/ramp up and are syncable to tempo. Envelopes: Delay, ADSR  and are all loopable, with a reasonably snappy speed.

Sequencer: The 64 note grid is used for more than just the sequencer - it's a playing surface which can be configured as chromatic, scales, root note and modes. With the pressure and x/y position expression you can use it to really play the synth engine - though there is no way to adjust the sensitivity of the pads, I found that pressure required less effort than I would like. It also does not send any velocity data, either to the synth of over MIDI.

All is this is stored  per patch of which there are two banks of 64.

Sequence step length from 1 to 64 with swing and direction options, in the current firmware (1.02) it can only be used in step mode, no realtime record, though we understand that this is to be addressed in a soon to be released update.

Currently no CC is sent out from the pads either, though we are told that this is probably going to be in next weeks firmware update as will MPE support.

Grid Mode - this is where stuff gets very interesting - every synth parameter, aside from play mode can be recorded per step. That’s right - you can effectively store a complete patch change in each step. This is something that can both be recorded in step mode and also realtime record. It's a very powerful feature. Though there is one gotcha, parameters can only be adjusted in Grid Mode when in record ready. When in the play state, the synth parameters cannot be used, or at least are not effective.

Medusa is a unique and powerful instrument, it has a lot going for it, but does require some work to get where you need to go There are some peculiarities in the firmware, but as I say, Polyend are swift and responsive when it comes to updates.

What would be really cool, is if that the synth and sequencer could be disconnected. Address the synth via MIDI or USB port and the same for the sequencer,  I don’t know if there are plans for this, but I do know that MPE is on the list of imminent updates.

It's an instrument capable of some really complex sounds, I like it for long evolving ambient textures using the envelopes to bring in additional tuned oscillators, but it can bang out heavy sounds by layering up to 6 oscillators too.

The price is £860/€996/$1199 street which I think is fair for the features you get. It's an interesting and unique device which does require some time to get into, but the grid is highly configurable which means you can match it mostly to any other grid devices you may already own. Of course you can plug in a MIDI keyboard too if that’s your thing, and perhaps use the grid for parameter automation and patch snapshots. There are many ways in which Medusa can be integrated into a creative or performance workflow.

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