The French company revives a classic piece of early 80s hardware, and George Butler is impressed
Around five or so years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing the PolyKB III's predecessor, the PolyKB II. In a market that was saturated by bass-heavy soft synths aimed at producers trying to replicate the warbling sub frequencies of dubstep, the PolyKB II was a breath of fresh air. It's been my go-to soft synth ever since, and continues to dazzle me with its warm presence.
So to say I was excited to get my teeth stuck in the PolyKB III is an understatement. Its filters have been described as 'creamy', for god's sake. That's two creamy multi-mode 0df filters, to be precise.
For those that aren't already familiar, the PolyKB III takes inspiration from the RSF PolyKobol 2, a lovely French synthesizer that was somewhat of a rarity, and that was enjoyed by the likes of Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre. It was unpredictable, sounded incredible and looked beautiful. Supposedly RSF filed for bankruptcy before fully completing it, so it has achieved cult status among synth collectors. Recreating an analogue classic is a tough hill to climb at the best of times, but when it's trying to replicate a synth as unpredictable as the Kobol 2 you're setting yourself a hard task indeed.
When you first load the synth up, you're greeted with its beautiful design. It instantly feels familiar, closely resembling the likes of a MiniMoog or perhaps a Prophet 06. It looks gorgeous and sounds incredible, and a short flick through the presets quickly gives you an insight into the power it possesses. Whether it's monochrome bass or a glistening pad, it fills the speakers with warmth and beauty. Like most beautiful things, however, it's extremely complicated and takes a long time to really understand.
Oscillators and filters
The three morphing oscillators are straightforward enough, giving you plenty to work with as a starting point. Each oscillator can be tuned up or down by 48 semitones, giving you the option to create a wide frequency range that really take hold of a mix. Each one also has six waveforms (which can blended), volume control and white noise added for good measure, giving you a vast array of options when sculpting your own sound.
Next along you will find those 'creamy' filters. There's two of them and they each come with their own attack/sustain/decay/release controls, and have the options of low-, band- and high-pass. You can choose which oscillators are assigned to which filter, giving you a the chance to to create obscure sounds and textures.
The combination of the oscillators and filters is fantastic. There's a real warmth to the sounds the PolyKB III can make, even when it's just coming from the most basic aspects of the synth. I especially like the fact that you can mix between the two filters if you wish, almost like a crossfader. This opens up plenty of potential, allowing your sounds to evolve over the course of a song; it's great fun to use and can all be kept under control using the main ASDR that rounds of the oscillator and filter section.
That's the basics covered; from here, things start to get really, really complicated! What makes the PolyKB III shine is its modulation capabilities. I have to admit, I struggled to get to grips with the more complex side of the PolyKB III; it really is a beast and initially comes across as being wildly unpredictable and difficult to understand. I found myself getting frustrated being unable to carve the sounds I wanted.
Having said that, I don't think I've ever owned a piece of equipment that doesn't have this effect. Like all good instruments, machines or hardware, the PolyKB III is something that requires a lot of time; it deserves a lot of attention. You get out what you put into it.
Alongside having two complex LFOs, the synth offers per-voice modulation engines. This essentially means each voice can have its own personality, so every note can sound different. It allows you to create unpredictable yet beautifully crafted sounds that come close to an analogue texture that not many soft synths can boast about. Having such complexity makes the PolyKB III extremely versatile, and you could quite easily create a whole track using just this synth alone.
Polysequencer & arpeggiator
Two of the other key features of the PolyKB III are the sequencer and arpeggiator sections. The arpeggiator is pretty straightforward, but offers instant fun. It's user-friendly and doesn't involve too much head-scratching before you find yourself submerged in your own version of the Blade Runner soundtrack. You can easily go full Vangelis if you choose to.
The polysequencer, however, takes a little more thought to get the most out of. This is mainly because of how advanced it is. Not only can you craft wonderful patterns, it can also be used as a ginormous 128 step/four line/16 destination step-sequencer modulator. This opens up tons of options, whether it's complex rhythmic patterns or obscure slides. Although it takes time to learn, it really is a powerful beast that's a joy to play with.
FX & Space XY
If that wasn't enough, you can also control your sound in 3D space using the space XY module. You can create beautiful soundscapes where all elements of your patch can be clearly heard. On top of this you also have four onboard effects: delay, chorus, phaser and EQ. The options on the PolyKB III really do seem endless.
Overall, the PolyKB III is a very impressive soft synth that's perfect for producers looking for that unpredictable analogue sound without breaking the budget. But it's definitely not for the faint-hearted: I'm still getting my head round it and sometimes struggle to get the sound I'm looking for quickly. It's definitely a slow burner, but i'm more than willing to give it time.
Once you're up and running, though, it's a joy to play with and will no doubt be my new go-to soft synth, just like its predecessor. Its versatility means it's capable of anything from rough and ready bass sounds to soothing ambient pads. For roughly £140, it's a bargain!
Words: George Butler
Review score: 4/5
More info: xils-lab.com