The Polivoks synth and The Intriguing Russian Legacy


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This article was originally just intended to let you know that there is a nice interview with Vladimir Kuzmin, the engineer behind the Polivoks Synthesizer, but as we read through the interview we also came to think of the much greater Russian synth legacy and some of the models that perhaps never saw the light outside the realms of USSR. We are not saying that all these machines produced in Russia during the 70´s and 80´s actually deserves any immediate attention today, more than as an intriguing music legacy and the fact that many of these machines were actually developed with extremely limited insight to what the rest of the world was doing in this arena.

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The Polivoks was clearly the most famous one and has been widely used by contemporary acts like Goldfrapp. It’s purely analog with two voices of polyphony, two oscillators each with triangle, square, saw, two types of pulse waveforms and one noise generator, the levels of which are controlled via the internal mixer. Although the oscillators can become unstable and difficult to tune, the Polivoks is well suited for making screeching sounds and thunderous bass. You can also connect an external audio input for processing through the Polivoks’ switchable dual-mode band pass/low pass filter and LFO sections. The LFO, or “Modulator” offers triangle, square, random and noise waveshapes and can be applied to the oscillator level and pitch or the filter cutoff. There are also two ADSR envelopes for contouring the oscillators and filters.

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Developed at the tail-end of the Cold War, the Polivoks synthesizer embodied life in communist Russia: with a raw military design, harsh noises and Cyrillic lettering, the duophonic, analog machine stood apart in appearance and sound.

As Vladimir Kuzmin puts it; I wanted to invent something close to Peter Zinovieff’s Synthi 100; I dreamed to manufacture something like this.

I wanted to give musicians the opportunity to have the sounds of well-known synths like Moog, KORG and Roland. To me, the only thing that made the Polivoks different from other synthesizers is that is has no joystick, and all control parameters have wider limits with maximum variants of control.

But as mentioned above there are many more jems to be discovered in the Russian archives – here´s a small selection we found when opening the vaults to the Russian synth and machine museum over at Ruskeys.net.

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Formanta mini is a small eight-voice keyboard EMI with finger-board. Formanta is designed for playing musical compositions of different genres. It can play timbres of wind and strings instruments. Besides, it can create different synthesized timbres. Using this instrument one can get the following sound effects: frequency vibrato with the continuous control in depth and in frequency, percussion with continuous control, continuous fading and rise of sound, glissando. This instrument provides for continuous and discrete volume control.

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Electric musical synthesizer Aelita (Murom plant RIP). This monophonic synthesizer with 3 oscillators is a modern musical instrument. If a player uses different musical effects (for example three-part unison, timbral glissando, frequency vibrato, timbre tremolo, decay, attack, strings.) a composition would sound in a new fashion.

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This synthesizer was manufactured by Kirovsky musical instruments’ factory in 1984, designer – Viktor Nikulin. The EMI Ritm 2 is an one-voice keyboard synthesizer designed for solo, ensembles and orchestral playing musical compositions of any genre. It can be used both for educational needs and creating different musical effects. This synthesizer can be used with an acoustic amplifier which has a response of 0,775. There is a possibility to use a low frequency amplifier such as radio receiver, TV and tape recorder. The quality of the sounding depends on an acoustic amplifier.

The synthesizer Ritm-2 can play soundings of the other classical instruments (keyboard, strings, reed and percussion instruments). It is intended for creating some specific sounds (wind, noise of surf, train, gun and whine). Using this instrument one can play some compositins with a random pitch and a timbre.

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Unost’ – 21 is a portable polyphonic keyboard EMI. A player can hang it on a shoulder. Timbre of sound can be changed in accordance with players desire by the use of controls or choosing one or 12 programed timbres with digital indication of chosen one.The instrument changes sounding during playing composition using such effects as chorus, unison, transposition with continuous and coarse control, frequency and timbre vibrato with continuous frequency, depth and delay time control, fixed and dynamic change of timbre, attack and fading of sound. Attack, fading and level of envelope of the filter. Filter’s cutoff frequency control from the keyboard.

The case of the instrument is made out of aluminium. Control panels are made out of shockproof polystyrene. Power unit is made as an individual part.There is a leather belt to hang the instrument on a shoulder. There is a special case out of veneer for carrying purposes. There is a possibility to plug a power source with voltage within +/- 10 V in a socket.

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FORMANTA EMS-01 is an electronical music instrument combining a polyphonic organ and a monophonic synthesizer. It is designed to perform music of all genres and to create various sound effects while recording soundtracks for movies and plays, or studio recording. The organ has a 5-octave keyboard, 6 preset sound timbres, frequency vibrato with adjustable vibrato delay, decay adjustment and a stereophaser (both for organ and synthesizer). The “vibrato delay” scheme is activated again only after all the previously pressed keys are released. In the “legato” mode the “vibrato delay” scheme is not activated

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A monophonic synthesizer Estradin – 230 (plant “Elektroizmeritel” of Zhitomir) contains 4 main sources of sound – 3 tone generators and the source of noise. Such external sources as electroguitar and electroorgan can be connected to the instrument. The filter of lower frequencies is intended for changing harmonic compound of signals of audible frequency in self-excitation condition. This filter can be used as fifth source of sound.

There is a possibility to control attack, release and sustain. One use such an interesting effect as sliding transition from one sound to another. There is a memory device in the synthesizer that saves sounding of tone as soon release time.

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Cadans S-12 – (Tula musical factory) it is a polyphonic programmable digital-analog 12-voice synthesizer with microprocessor control, has 61-note keyboard, 2 wheels, 64 patches in memory (32 preset, 32 user), 2 DCO, 1 analog filter with extended envelope, amplifier with envelope, LFO, detune, analog chorus, chord memory, noise generator and much more. It has input for external keyboard control, tape interface, signal-to-noise ratio -55dB, dimensions 920х390х95, weight about 13kg.

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Monophonic synthesizer Altaiir 231 (Estradin factory, Zhitomir city) is intended to play different sounds from the imitation of natural instruments to complicated synthesized electronic timbres, sound effects, percussion sounds & so on. There are a four-octave keyboard & a wheel to pitch control. There are also controls for parameters on the front panel, an output for phones, an input for a pedal. The instrument consists of four main blocks of sound synthesis – Generator, Mixer, Filter and Contour.

Synthesis is based on 3 master oscillators (each of them with different parameters of registers) waveform, frequency modulation. There is also a generator of white & pink noise. Low-pass filter with main parameters gives the possibility for keyboard tracking. Portamento adjustment knob is provided. To tune a pitch the tone signal is used (440Hz) It provides a linear input to connct an external sound source to Altair. Output and input sockets are 1/4″ jacks.

To round things of we include a nice demo of the Polivoks in action.

Interview at Redbull Music Academy:

The full interview with Vladimir Kuzmin can be found here.