Universal Audio (UA) is one of the giants of the plug-in world, and their emulations of classic analog gear are among the most hallowed. With the release of their PolyMAX synth, UA is showing they’re capable of more than mixing magic; they can deliver innovative music creation tools as well. The PolyMAX is a virtual polyphonic synth inspired by the warm, rich tones of the '80s' Prophets, Oberheims, and Jupiters that we know and love, and manages to deliver those vintage vibes with a clean and intuitive GUI. In a world where there are as many throwback soft synths as there are reverb plug-ins, it would seem that introducing yet another would be a fool’s errand, but UA manages to find a niche with the PolyMAX, balancing quality and immediacy to create a useful and powerful music creation tool.

The PolyMAX GUI is clean, fun, and has an inviting look, a far cry from the infinite black knobs and tiny white labels of most actual vintage synths. The knobs are color coded in a way that guides your eye around the synth, with the most important knobs coded in yellow, blue, or white, and lesser knobs as gray. There are two oscillators, a filter section, LFO, an arpeggiator, a modulation section, and a “Space FX” section, providing hall and spring reverbs or delay. The output section also offers a Unison knob that stacks all eight voices as a single voice and detunes them against one another for an adjustable modulation/chorus effect. Finally, there's also the ability to engage Voice Panning, which throws sounds around the stereo field, adding a shot of interest to your retro synth cocktail.

In use, the PolyMAX is a lot of fun, mostly because it sounds good (and wonderfully nostalgic), but also because it’s easy to use, and doesn’t offer many options that you aren’t likely to use. In that sense, its limitations are a big part of its success. It’s a thoughtfully distilled-down version of your favorite synths, with an easy to navigate preset menu that contains most of what you’re probably looking for. The presets are based on tags, so you can sort by genre, type, description, etc. For instance, I can sort by Pop, Lead, and Pluck and find a few options that fit those descriptions, and I can flag ones I like as favorites for easier identification next time.

The goal of the PolyMAX is to provide great vintage sounds quickly and easily, and in my experience it absolutely does that. I had no trouble finding inspiring sounds that fit what I was working on, and tweaking those sounds didn’t require a doctorate in analog synthesis. While the PolyMAX retails for $200, which may turn some potential users away, UA has frequent sales, and best of all it’s included in some of their new native bundles, including the entry level Spark bundle. I have no hesitation in recommending the PolyMAX to virtual synth newbies and veterans alike.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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