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Discover the Power of Polychaining

Did you know each Modal Electronics synth offers a feature called Polychain? In this article we explain what it is and how your creative output will be forever changed by this powerful, often misunderstood feature!
by Modal Electronics

Introduction

Did you know each Modal Electronics synth offers a feature called Polychain? In this article we explain what it is and how your creative output will be forever changed by this powerful, often misunderstood feature!

So what is Polychain?

At a basic level, Polychain allows you to connect two COBALT8, two ARGON8, up to four SKULPTsynth SE & SKULPT in mixed configurations, or four CRAFTsynth 2.0. This doesn’t simply increase the amount of voices, and subsequently the quantity of the oscillators available for a synth patch, it creates an integrated electronic instrument that acts as a single synth.

While many other synth manufacturers use a very simple implementation of Polychain (that often just sends MIDI-Notes to a second or third unit), you may find yourself in trouble if the synths have slightly different settings, or different patches in a given memory location. In this case, your setup will not act as a single instrument and you will need to manually adjust your synth settings to counteract these discrepancies.

At Modal Electronics, we opted to use Polychain in a more musical and creative way. In essence, we unify the polychained synths into a single instrument that is controlled from the master device – a sure fire guarantee that the setup is much more user friendly than you might experience somewhere else. With our polychain implementation, you don’t need to do any manual setup – all settings from the master are synchronised automatically so ‘it just works’ and can be played as if more voices have just been added to your synth.

Possible Polychain Setups for Modal Synthesisers

This feature injects some incredible creative opportunities into your synth arsenal, expanding and enhancing your sound design workflow. In a Polychain setup, the Polychain master will control all settings of the Polychain slave(s), including patch selection, parameter adjustments and so on. Actually, the control panel of the slave synth will deactivate completely and wont respond to any button pushes or knob turns once Polychain is instantiated. Sounds interesting right? Let’s start with the basic setup before we showcase some of the more advanced Polychain configurations.

You are able to generate and perform face-melting sounds at a considerably low price tag.

Making the Connection

COBALT8 and ARGON8 FAMILIES

Setup really is a snap. To connect two ARGON or COBALT synths from the same family for a Polychained rig, first connect the 5-pin DIN MIDI OUT of the chain master to the 5-pin DIN MIDI IN of the chain slave unit. Then navigate to ‘Settings (General) > Polychain Master’ on the master synth and turn this on. On the slave synth, all LEDs above the voice mode buttons light up and the LCD screen shows ‘Polychain Slave’. This video shows how to setup Polychain for the ARGON8 and COALT8 series.

SKULPT and SKULPTsynth SE

An immense configuration of 4 SKULPT or SKULPTsynth SE can be Polychained in mixed setups and rigging this together couldn’t be simpler. First, power down all SKULPT or SKULPT SE devices. Now, connect all synths from one’s 5-pin DIN MIDI OUT to the 5-pin DIN MIDI In of the next, ensuring the master unit is first in the chain. First switch on the slave units, then power on the master SKULPTsynth SE or SKULPTsynthesiser while simultaneously holding down the VOICE button to select the number of Polychain slaves on the touch pads – for instance if you have 2 additional slaves connected to the master, press touch pad ‘2’. An LED animation should run across all SKULPT units and will disable all slave unit’s front panels. The VOICE LEDs will be lit and the slave number will flash on the touch pads. This video shows you the setup of a mixed setup including SKULPTsynth SE as master and an original SKULPT as Polychain slave.

CRAFTsynth 2.0

As with SKULPT or SKULPTsynth SE, CRAFTsynth 2.0 can also be polychained to transform CRAFTsynth 2.0 into a powerful 4-voice polyphonic setup. First, power off all CRAFTsynth 2.0 units. Now, connect all synths from the 5-pin DIN MIDI OUT to the 5-pin DIN MIDI In of the next syn in the series, ensuring the master unit is first in the chain. First switch on the slave units, then power on the master CRAFTsynth 2.0. Once booted, hold down both the PRESET and LFO-2 buttons for 3 seconds to enter polychain setup, then select how many Polychain slaves are connected using touch pads 1, 2, or 3; for instance if you have 2 additional slaves connected to the master, press touch pad ‘2’. Once the PRESET and LFO-2 buttons are released, an LED animation should run across all CRAFTsynth 2.0 units and will disable all slave unit’s front panel controls.

Top Tip

It is vital to connect the audio outputs of ALL polychained synths to your mixing desk or audio interface to enjoy the full benefit of a Polychain synth setup.

So, now we have our connectivity and setup covered, let’s explore the full potential of a Polychain setup.

Increased Polyphony

If you honed your keyboard skills on a traditional acoustic piano, polyphony was never a consideration. The piano’s mechanical foundation of hammers and strings meant that all 88 notes could theoretically play simultaneously.

With the introduction of synthesisers, players had to accommodate the limited polyphony of these instruments compared to an old-fashioned piano. ARGON8 and COBALT8 synths can generate up to 8 voices or notes, whereas SKULPTsynth SE and SKULPT are limited to 4 voices or notes. CRAFTsynth 2.0 as a monophonic synth can produce only 1 voice. When additional notes are triggered, the oldest-played note will be deactivated to allow new notes to play. You might have heard the term ‘voice-stealing’ before which is often used to describe this phenomenon.

With Polychain you can can double (ARGON and COBALT) or even quadruple (SKULPTsynth SE, CRAFTsynth 2.0) the amount of simultaneous notes – perfect for playing e-piano patches or keyboard-like sounds using typical performance styles – like sustaining complex chords or playing impressive trills on the keyboard without any voice stealing. Furthermore, Polychain is perfect for synth pads with long release stages, allowing all notes of the first chord to conclude their release tail without getting cut off by newly played notes. In this example we show you this effect with and without Polychained synths.

COBALT8 Chord Arpeggio without Polychain

COBALT8 Chord Arpeggio with Polychain

ARGON8 E-Piano without Polychain

ARGON8 E-Piano with Polychain

Long 12-note ARGON8 Chord without Polychain 

Long 12-note ARGON8 Chord with Polychain

Let's Stack

Exploring the Stack Modes

Note: This mode doesn’t apply to CRAFTsynth 2.0, SKULPTsynth SE and SKULPT.

Stack modes are polyphonic keyboard voice modes where multiple voices are stacked. On COBALT and ARGON synths, Stack-2 offers 4-note polyphony and Stack-4 offers 2-note polyphony – or to think about this the other way around, Stack-2 facilitates two voices and Stack-4 subsequently 4 voices.

The beauty of all these modes is that they can create super phat sounds by detuning the oscillators within the stacked voices via the associated synth’s Spread parameter.

Sounds great right? The only downside is that Stack modes reduce our available polyphony – but by using Polychain, we can overcome this hurdle, expanding the polyphony to play massive staked sounds as complex chords or ultra-lush pads with long release stages, all without any pesky voice stealing. Listen to different stack modes in the examples below.

Consider Stack mode as the stereo mode. The key to success lies in the parameters “Spread”, “Drift” and “Voice Width”. 

Practical Example - A String Pad

To really understand those functions, let’s start with a basic string pad.

COBALT8 Simple Simple String Pad

 

Now increase Drift to simulate the beloved instability akin to a vintage analogue synth. You will hear how the pad sounds more organic and single voices start to randomly fluctuate in pitch.

COBALT8 Simple Simple String Pad with Drift

 

Sounds good? Let’s dial in some Spread to detune the oscillators of each voice in contrast to one another. You can hear how the pad increases in density, producing an organic and thick sound.

COBALT8 Simple Simple String Pad with Drift and Spread

 

Still reading? Guess you need some more tweaking! So next, let’s spread the voices within the stereo image. The weapon of choice here is the Voice Width parameter.

COBALT8 Simple Simple String Pad with Drift, Spread and Voice Width

 

Increasing the width slightly might not give a great effect immediately, but with a fully instantiated voice width you might feel as if the world around you is disintegrating in the wake of the sheer power of the resultant sound. Therefore we advise you use this parameter with caution.

COBALT8 Simple Simple String Pad with extreme WOW! Factor

Practical Example - Plucked Sounds

Another good excercise is to use a plucked sound. Listen to this basic sound and how it turns from a bright pad-llike patch into a plucked sound. You can hear the direct impact of the Filter ENV that moves the filter cutoff frequency. The activated Stack-2 Mode limits the polyphony to only 4 voices. 

COBALT8 Plucked Sound in Stack-2 Mode  without Polychain

 

This is the same patch from our previous example, but played by two COBALT8, connected via Polychain.  Youy can hear that no notes are ‘stolen’ when more than 4 notes are played. 

COBALT8 Plucked Sound in Stack-2 Mode with Polychain

 

But how does it sound in an entire arrangement? Voilá – Here we go. 

COBALT8 Plucked Sound in Stack-2 Mode in Song Arrangement

Top Tip

Exploring these three parameters (Spread, Drift and Voice Width) with the
entire arrangement playing back might be a good rule of thumb to tailor the sound to your track.

Bonus for COBALT8 and ARGON8 users

If you are a happy owner of either COBALT8 and ARGON8 synths, you may want to try combining the stack modes with the Chord Invert feature. With this function, creating dramatic and musically interesting stereo chords couldn’t be simpler by exploring some of the more experimental/extreme settings.

Famous Last Words

Feeling Inspired? Ready to unleash the true power of your synth with Polychain?
We sincerely hope so! Now you are armed with everything you need to craft and perform face-melting sounds at a remarkably low price tag. Got some questions about creating the ultimate Polychain setup? Contact us anytime  – we are very happy to help you on your journey to Polychain nirvana!

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