offspring of the Chroma
Pausing only to get the cracks about missiles and submarines out of the way in para one, we turn immediately to the long awaited follow up to the Rhodes Chroma.
The Chroma, like mankind and diced carrots, had something of an uncertain origin. Only now, for example, is science certain that the appendix sole purpose is to store diced carrots up until three seconds after you are violently ill.
The Chroma belongs to Fender, but originally development work was undertaken by ARP which Fender later absorbed. It's also said that Phil Dodds, currently with Kurzweil, helped carry the project through.
The Polaris was to be a lower priced sister synth sharing many of the computer interface features and much of the patchability. The Chroma made great play of the fact that its circuits were less restricted than the average synth and could be linked in more varied ways.
Last year's NAMM music show saw the Polaris unveiled in semi-operational form when it did look much like a budget version of big brother. But reports have it that the synth, as planned, was too expensive to produce in America. They'd never manage to bring it in around the DX7 price mark which was the aim.
Perhaps learning from their fruitful experience with Squier guitars, Fender began looking for a suitable Japanese manufacturer. Eh voila, over a year later, with different styling and a price... well... not too dissimilar from the early intention, we have the Polaris of '84.
It now has little to do with the Chroma. Gone are those multiparameter choices, instead it's a strange hybrid. There are sliders for filter and envelope generators, but parameter setting for vibrato, detune, etc.
The Polaris is an unusual, distinctive and occasionally bizarre synth that rarely follows the common or garden rules about knob twiddling. As we shall see.
It's a six-note poly with a five octave C to C plastic keyboard blessed with the ability to split or layer its 132 sounds. There's a polyphonic sequencer on board but it's not immediately apparent how many notes it can store. The machine has a non dedicated memory which means that if you want bigger sequences and are prepared to have fewer stored sounds, you can steal back some of the space from the sound section.
The sounds are arranged in 11 banks (A-K) of 12. The panel is black and most of the controls are on pressure pad, membrane switches coloured either medium or light blue and nearly all blessed with double functions.
It's MIDI equipped, but also has a Chroma-like 25 pin computer interface socket at the rear. Oh yes, the keyboard's velocity sensitive and that preset amount of dynamic response can be routed to the volume envelope generator (makes it louder), or the filter (makes it brighter), or both.
In spec the Polaris has two DCOs offering pulse and sawtooth waveforms, plus pulse width mod. Osc 1 has a ring mod, Osc 2 will sync up. The 24dB filter has the popular cutoff, resonance, sweep, envelope depth and keyboard tracking sliders with which we are all as familiar as the handles on our toothbrushes. The filter envelope has the less common arrangement of attack, decay, sustain, sustain decay and release, while the volume envelope copes manually with ADR alone.
Release lets the notes die away once you've taken your fingers off the keys, sustain decay reduces the level while your fingers are still in place. With common ADSR envelope generators, there's usually no extra volume change after the sustain point is reached, until you whip your digits away.
Pressing purposefully forward we come across one slider with a bank of seven membrane switches either side. This is the parameter lump as previously mentioned.
For each of the 132 sounds you can program amounts of vibrato, vibrato delay, detune, modulation lever range, bend lever range, glide and Osc 2 envelope to pitch amount as well as setting the strengths of footpedals that deal with vibrato, rate, volume, pitch and filter cutoff. Extensive, isn't it? A degree of programmable control not to be snorted at.
Finally there's the bank of memory select buttons which also double for selecting, storing and chaining sequences, determining the MIDI channel, dumping material to tape and generally doing the housekeeping. The sequencer itself is another section to the far left of the panel which we'll come onto once we've handled some of the Polaris' more eccentric customs.
Such as... look at those sliders again. Some are zero when they're all the way down (filter cutoff), some are zero when they're in the middle (envelope depth). The strangely graded blue markings around them don't always make this clear, and it's easy to be thrown off track for the first half hour.
And they can often behave in a strangely non linear fashion. That assignable control slider works evenly on some functions but on others (Osc 2 env) has almost no effect for the first 50 per cent of its movement, then shoots through the roof.
Again, not necessarily 'wrong', but unsettling and adding to the lone wolf character of the synth.
One inescapable fault — hopefully a simple matter of circuit trimming — was the review sample's release time. Instead of a smooth fade to silence, most notes would begin to drop in level when you took your fingers off the keys, and then, somewhere in the distance, would shut off dead. Very annoying.
And, while typewriter is shifted to complaint mode, the membrane switches are tough and need a strong prod rather than a light tap, the colour scheme won't win awards (light and dark blue on a black background are not easy colours to work with under stage lights), and the modulation levers feel stiff and are definitely designed for the 'full on' merchant. But then I never liked the Chroma's, either.
I have to confess to having real problems with the Polaris for the first couple of hours I played it. Nothing made sense. Tried and trusted ADSR/filter settings produced either bland or abrasive noises where on a dozen rival machines they'd turn out recognisable organ, string or brass voices.
The initial feeling was of frustration and disappointment, not to mention irritation when starting afresh involved plucking one sound from the memory then putting some sliders in the middle and some all the way down.
Finally it began to fall into place and the Polaris' own identity came through — grand, almost pompous... not big in terms of fat oscillators, but more like the Albert Hall: roomy, reverberant and plenty happening on the lower decks.
For example, if you wanted to produce a silky, soft, string sound would you think of adding Ring Modulation? Neither would I, but with a touch of detuning and a slight Osc 2 pitch shift from the envelope generator, it works. Gone is the regular sweep of pulse width mod, and in its place is a gentle, unpredictable chorusing akin to Poly Mod as found on Prophets.
Easiest sound in the world... Hammond organ with a key click. Can't get it on the Polaris because you can't turn off the VCA, gate the oscillators with the keys and reduce the filter to a tick. But play about and there's suddenly a double manual organ, dirty, distorted and as evil as cough mixture.
After a few more hours they were followed by marimbas, synced-up growls, half a dozen acoustic pianos (but in my life time, not a convincing Rhodes), epiglottal hiccups, digital-type honkings, and passable brass.
The split facility works well though is a little slow to set up. Press link upper, select the voice, press kbd split, touch a key, press link lower, select a voice. Layering is perhaps not so successful as you're only left with three notes to work with. All the memories can store split and layer info. The sequencer lives in four membrane switches on the left of the panel which let you stop, record and play (it's real time programmed directly from the keyboard). The fourth button swaps you over to the second function level of each switch (a common trick throughout the rest of the synth), then you can set the tempo, and step forward and backward through the sequence one note at a time.
There's a total of 12 available sequences. With all 132 sound memories used, you've got 700 notes to be shared out, each stolen program represents another eight notes. They can be chained in any order — 3, 5, 8, 11, 2 etc — but each sequence can only be played once.
This individuality of thought follows the Polaris all the way through to the keyboard itself which is sprung like a normal synth, but has a slight bounce to it, similar to an electronic piano. That helps the touch response, but on this sample at least the sensitivity had been set too high. The difference between the lowest and highest levels were covered by such a small increase in finger pressure it was a real swine to control.
Apart from the sequencer the Polaris actually does nothing that isn't already being done by rival synths. Sometimes it manages less — no ramp waveforms, no built-in chorus, no sample and hold, no cross modulation, etc.
Different, definitely (some would say peculiar), but are you prepared to pay more than £1800 to be the only kid on your street?
Polaris synth £1850
Review by Paul Colbert
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