Ploytec PL2 “Leukos” Mini-Synthesizer
By Anderton |
Have a terrific time tweaking this tiny titan of tantalizing tones
By Craig Anderton
It seems like “little” is the new “big” these days—check out Yamaha’s ReFace series, Roland’s Boutique line of synths, or Korg’s various micro, nano, and femto devices (okay, admittedly they haven’t reached “femto” yet). But this is not like any of the above. If you like Commodore-64 SID chips, speak ‘n’ spell, circuit bending, and generally affordable hardware weirdness that’s about the size of a corpulent ice cube, you’ve come to the right place. If on the other hand you’re looking for fat analog strings, Moogacious bass lines, and piano sounds…keep looking.
HARDWARE IN A SOFTWARE WORLD
There are two PL2 models, the black MIDI one and the white USB one (nicknamed the Leukos).
The black version has a 5-pin MIDI in, RCA phono audio output, and mini-USB jack for power; it’s your basic real-time hardware synth. The Leukos being reviewed here is designed to work with computers—both Mac and Windows. It connects to your computer via USB (pre-lightning iPad fans, get the Camera Kit while you still can), and the RCA phono output feeds your mixer or a powered speaker. I tested the Leukos audio with a KRK 5 powered monitor not just because it sounds really good for a small speaker, but also because it’s pretty much indestructible—which matters with the Leukos, because it has a pretty hot output.
This graphic represents the complement of modules. Note that this cool artwork is not the accompanying editing software (Windows, Mac 10.6 and above, and iPad), but it does get across what the PL2 offers.
And here’s the editor itself. Granted, it looks like something that crawled out of Windows 95…but it works.
IS THERE A CATCH?
Normally in reviews, you list the limitations at the end because people are usually interested in finding out what something does before finding out what it doesn’t do. However we’ll get the main issues out of the way now because let’s face it…when you have something that costs under $100 and is small enough that your dog could eat it, there are going to be some limitations.
The main ones are two oscillators (although a mitigating factor is that you can configure these as two individual notes, stacked notes, octaves, or mono) and no filter envelope. Also, the choice of waveforms is limited, and of course, there are no onboard controls so you need to use the computer editor or an external controller to make it do interesting things. The PL2 requires MIDI literacy to get the most out of it and the concept in general is, uh, somewhat unconventional—which some will consider a limitation, but which I think makes a perfect segue into the cool stuff.
The Leukos has a unique sonic character (Ploytec calls what they do “Square Wave Synthesis”); it reminds me of the early days of computer-generated sound and onboard synth chips. (Your historical trivia for today: The Atari 1040ST included a MIDI port not because the company was so forward-looking, but because they couldn’t get decent yields on the internal “Amy” sound generator chip.) However, the fidelity here is better—we’re not dealing with the same level of crudeness, although Ploytec claims “No other synth on the market has more aliasing and quantization noise.” That should give you some insight into the thought processes of the designers behind this little box.
A huge advantage is that being hardware, there’s no soft synth latency. It’s refreshing to have something loaded into a computer where there’s virtually zero delay between what you play and what you hear. You can use the editor’s internal on-screen keyboard by clicking on the notes or hitting QWERTY keys; unfortunately, it’s not touch-sensitive—although if you use SONAR and have a touch-screen computer, you can drive Leukos with SONAR’s onscreen touch-sensitive virtual controller.
Note that up until Windows 10, MIDI hasn’t been multi-client in Windows so in theory, you can’t open the Ploytec editor at the same time as a DAW. However, Ploytec offers an optional driver that is multi-client, and works very well. You don’t need to install it unless you want to do the multi-client thang.
Speaking of control, pretty much anything can be controlled via CCs. This screen shot shows part of the Windows editor’s mapping page.
Ideally, you’d want to use a keyboard with a lot of programmable sliders and knobs, but Ploytec provides a nifty-looking programmer for Native Instruments’ Reaktor as well as templates for the Behringer BCR2000, Korg nanoKontrol2, Korg taktile 49, Nord Modular G2, Novation Impulse 49/61, Roland A300/500/800 pro, Terrasoniq Area61, TouchAble (iOS), TouchOSC (iOS) and Yamaha KX25/49/61.
And now, for my arguably favorite feature: You can swap firmware via the editor program, and loading version 2.56 loads—yes!—speech synthesis software (another option loads an electro-type kick and noise—nothing special, but nice to have). Hit the keys and get those rockin’ phonemes—huge fun, regardless of whether or not they make any sense. (Note: Turn down the volume when loading firmware, because the PL2 excretes some nasty pops and clicks during the process.)
We really don’t need to go into much more detail, because Ploytec’s product landing page at http://ploytec.com/pl2/ has lots of useful info, as does that of the US distributor, Eleven Dimensions Media http://www.11dmedia.com/ploytec-pl2---palm-sized-synthesizer.html. You can access the Soundcloud audio examples from either page to hear what I’m talking about.
For me, this is a great candidate for making a sound library—there are lots of sounds I want to sample, and the speech synthesizer option is begging to be turned into a kickass loop library. Overall, this is a fun box, doesn’t cost much, doesn’t take up a lot of space, was clearly created by people who we want to have keep their jobs so they don’t end up working for a hostile foreign government, makes sounds you’re not going to get out of your other synths, and hey, there’s a speech synthesizer! The PL2 also makes a thoughtful earth souvenir for visiting aliens, as they claim USB version 257 is backwards compatible with it.
Yes, I had a lot of fun playing with the PL2 and writing this review. It’s a quirky little box…but that’s one of its significant charms.
Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.