The fraternal twin of the Roland Juno 6/60
My personal history
It happened sometime last August, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. I got a Korg Polysix with the KIWI mod installed. Interestingly, how I got it was totally unrelated to the Korg Polysix. On Facebook, someone had just sold an EMU MP7 for dirt cheap. I saw this listing and was very sad I didn’t connect to grab it, since I had, for some time, been interested in getting one for a second time (I have been known to buy, sell, and then rebuy every synth I’ve ever owned). And so I decided to reach out to this person to ask whether he had any other gear for sale. It turns out, he did. He had a Korg Polysix (with the KIWI mod), a Roland SH-101, an MPC2000XL, and an Ensoniq ESQ-1. I wanted them all. Unfortunately, he decided against selling the ESQ-1, but on August 18th, 2020, I became the owner of a Korg Polysix. I had, for a very long time, wanted one. The price was right (and part of a package deal, making it cheaper). $600 USD.
It was not without its issues (and I knew that going into it). Thankfully, it did not suffer from the dreaded battery leakage problem, or if it had, the board affected was removed and replaced with the KIWI mod. However, it had numerous other issues. 1) The front panel was a bit beat up, 2) one of the buttons was wonky and, while it worked, was sort of an eyesore, 3) one of the keys was broken and glued back together, 4) it had an “old KIWI mod” that “couldn’t be updated” (this turned out to be false), and 5) the chassis was waterlogged and chipped. In other words, I was buying a beater. I got it home, took some photos, and then tested it. Everything functioned. I feel I was very lucky, based on how it looked. However, the $600 I originally spent would certainly not be the end of it.
Vintage gear and repairs
As with any vintage synthesizer (or device in general), repairs are inevitable. They’re even more inevitable when they’re obvious and noted upon purchase. The first thing I did was fix the simple things. I bought a new switch actuator and key from Syntaur, which was only about $20 total. Thankfully the key was an easy replacement. However, I spent probably 1-2 hours replacing the switch actuator. Time is money. Let’s put time at $50/hr, just for the sake of discussion. Procurement and replacement of these parts added an extra $100 in labor.
Next, I bought a complete replacement chassis (on August 24th, 2020) for $306.81, which was made of solid walnut from Reverb.com from Synths and Stuff. Strangely, the listing is no longer available. I would bet that if he is still around, he would make one for you. Actually, I ended up chatting with him on the phone for about an hour or two because I had an issue with my unit (a few screw holes were missing). It wasn’t a big deal, and it’s good to remember that everyone was a little frantic about everything during the Pandemic (and, currently, still are). Anyway, he was great to chat with and it was interesting learning the history as to why he was making these. I recall he was in insurance sales and had made his own Polysix case, and it all sort of spun out from that, making wood cases. Installation took a good 4 hours given the technical challenges, including removing every single board and placing it in the new chassis. This would add another $200 in labor.
Next, I added the KIWI overlay from SynthGraphics for $139.95. Even though the process seems simple enough, it was delicate because the whole front panel needed to be cleaned well (and I still managed to have some dust under it I didn’t see for days), and laying out the overlay isn’t exactly easy. I spent 2 hours working on this, which adds about $100 extra in labor.
My unit was extremely noisy (I forgot to mention this). It turns out whoever installed the KIWI mod, decided not to put the ground cable back on. It was missing entirely. My local tech fixed this, as well as bad tuning, for $200. Of course, I didn’t just spend the $200 (or the $30 tip). I spent 30 minutes driving to his house to drop it off, 30 minutes driving home, driving back to pick up the Polysix, driving home, realizing that a button no longer worked, driving back to his home to drop it off, driving home, driving back to pick it up, and driving home a final time. That was 4 hours of driving, leading to an extra $200 in labor (and probably gas).
Update (7July2021): While I thought my tech fixed the noise, this was actually not true. I came back around and thought, “You know, this still sounds noisy.” About an hour of investigation (from Facebook questions to emailing Murray from Kiwi) and my main lead was “ferrite clamps.” When I asked my tech whether these were installed, he said he “thought they were in there.” They weren’t. So I spent $12.38 buying these ferrite clamps. I recorded the noise as I installed them. You can listen to that here via my Dropbox link. I’d argue I spent about an hour ($100) on this research, for a total of $112.38.
So how much did I spend when all was said and done (including the cost of the original purchase)? $2009.14 USD. Even if we exclude my labor assessment, I spent exactly $1309.14 on just the Polysix and repairs. To me, given that it’s the KIWI mod version, I think this was a great price on the Polysix, but does give me some pause and understanding when I see the prices of other vintage gear online. Money and work is put in to this stuff, which is not always obvious to buyers.
I managed to spend no money on upgrading the KIWI firmware though. Murray from KIWI is always very helpful and told me that any revision of the KIWI PCBs would accept the newest firmware. That turned out to be true and I was able to update the firmware perfectly. Speaking of the KIWI mod…
KIWI mod, bugs, and oddities
There are still some bugs that I notice and some things that I wish were done differently. For instance, the sequencer is somewhat unusable in that the first note placed is always one step earlier than you can reach. This sounds confusing because it is. You cannot modify the first note or access it in any way. The second thing is not a bug, but strange implementation of the arpeggiator. I wish the arpeggiator was always activated when you press the “ARP” button. Instead, for every new patch, I have to go in and adjust some parameters in the menu (which is a bit of a pain to do and remember), to get it to work. This should just automatically work, but if you flip the arpeggiator on, you may hear nothing. This is because the KIWI mod has the rate of arpeggiation at an extremely slow speed. I have to set it to the fastest note speed for every new patch I want to use it. This is the antithesis of the Polysix’s immediacy. Further, if you go into the global menu, press “D” to access that set of parameters, the first parameter deals with Local On/Off. If you enter that screen with the FX amount knob (which is the knob that adjusts values of your global parameter) set in the “Off” position, you will exit the menu with Local Off. For 30 minutes one day, I frantically thought I killed my Polysix. Settings should only update if you move the FX amount knob, not based on where the knob is.
Do I like the KIWI mod? Yes, absolutely. It adds MIDI and a lot of extra patches. It would have been difficult to choose between the KIWI mod and the Tubbutec ModyPoly mod for MIDI. I’m not sure which I’d have gone with, as I prefer to keep the original spirit of a synthesizer alive. We are merely stewards of our gear. Eventually, someone else will own them. In that respect, the Tubbutec mod would have been the likely answer, as it wouldn’t have required a front panel overlay (although I admit, such an overlay was nice in increasing the aesthetics of my specific unit). I can’t really say however, between the two. They both seem to do similar, but different things. One notable advantage of the KIWI mod (besides the cool look of the red PCBs inside) is that it also has an internal PSU upgrade, which, depending on what you read, could be a good addition. I have opted to NOT install the Tubbutec Polysex mod, which adds pitch routed to the envelope as well as voice spread, because 1) it alters the front panel too much with screws, and 2) because it is not clear that it works with the KIWI mod.
Thoughts on the sound
I can’t believe I made it this far into my review and haven’t once mentioned the impression the Korg Polysix made on me when I got it, or whether my thoughts have changed since then. When I first played it, I was absolutely taken aback at how much I liked it. It sounded completely unique. I hadn’t heard another synth that sounded like the Polysix, and those SSM2044 LP filters were, and still are, stunning.
I thought when I bought the Sequential Prophet 10 REV4 that the Polysix would be thrown out, discarded because it’s, as people online love to say, the “Poor man’s Prophet 5.” And yet, it still remains in my studio. I can’t tell if it’s because it’s ‘weedy’ or ‘thin’ sounding compared to my Prophet 10, but there’s something very enjoyable about the core sound. Something about how it doesn’t overwhelm the audio spectrum when being played, that allows it to sit in a mix, or interact or pair well with FX pedals. My favorite pedal to use with it is the Strymon El Cap.
Needless to say, the sounds are very basic. You have access to a saw wave and a square wave (not both at the same time although there is a mod to allow both simultaneously) along with a suboscillator. While it appears there’s only one LFO (Korg likes to call this MG or Modulation Generator), there are actually two. One for the PWM and one for VCO, VCF, or VCA. The main LFO can actually modulate the VCO and either the VCF or VCA if you adjust the modulation wheel to modulate the pitch. The shape of the LFO cannot be changed, although in the KIWI mod, you can change it – but only via MIDI, which completely defeats the purpose in my opinion. There is only one shared envelope generator for the VCF and VCA. As you can see – it’s a fairly basic synthesizer.
While it sounds great – I have put it up for trade or for sale a few times, although I’ve never gotten an offer that has panned out or interested me enough to part with it. Local economy is far different than a national economy, and while some people are willing to pay ridiculous money for a synthesizer, they don’t seem interested when it’s a local purchase. That’s where you’re supposed to find the Roland Juno 106 for $200 (in today’s market). I don’t know why I’ve wanted to get rid of it. It feels redundant with a Prophet 10. Either way, it has survived the chopping block, for now.
I am definitely less enamored with its sound today than I was when I got it. As usual, the “honeymoon” phase is really a thing. The dopamine release in the reward circuitry is always active when you first buy something (which is why people love spending money – well, part of the reason). Then, over time, you start realizing that you have explored this or that 100 times and now it’s not as interesting. But hey, now there’s a new synthesizer, or an old one that you’ve now taken interest in. Thus, things fall out of favor. Even still I find myself drifting towards it for writing music. I think where we find true passion is how we use things after the gear-lust and honeymoon phase ends. This can be true of everything in life, not just gear. Once we think we know something, it’s easy to discard it (which probably explains why a lot of marriages end). But that’s the time when you start needing to put real effort in, and I think that when more effort is put in, that’s when our styles really start to shine. Then it becomes your sound and not the instruments sound.
The user interface, or why I love the Korg Polysix
In a way, sometimes I think of the Polysix like a guitar. It has this ability to get me to be extremely hands on with it. I don’t feel the same way with most of my other gear. There’s something very interactive about the Polysix, whether it’s the layout, the number of parameters, or the knobs themselves. I very much still enjoy playing it. There’s nothing quite like playing the Polysix and tweaking the cutoff knob. Unfortunately, I do feel my particular unit suffers from function creep with the KIWI mod. I imagine the original Polysix is far easier to use. There’s not much to add to this really – what you see is what you get, and on the Polysix it’s laid out well.
Comparing it to the alternatives
Against the Sequential Prophet 5/10
The Korg Polysix lacks in many ways compared to the Prophet 10 REV4 (I can only speak towards the newest REV4 and have no experience with older revisions/models). It does not have a polymod section where a second oscillator or filter envelope can modulate oscillator 1 pitch, PW, or the filter. It does not have two envelopes. It does not have two oscillators. It is not built as well as the Prophet 10 either. As such, it is highly disadvantaged. I cannot claim a single point of fact that suggests the Korg Polysix is a justifiable alternative to the Prophet 10. While the Prophet 5 REV2 and REV4 both have similar SSM filters (SSM 2040 in the original P5), I think they sound sufficiently different.
Are there benefits to the Korg Polysix? Sure. It looks cool in its own way. This is subjective, but I like how the Polysix looks, but it certainly doesn’t look better than the P5/10. The Polysix also has an arpeggiator, which is absolutely something every synthesizer should have, but many don’t. I also really like how fluid the knobs move. On the Prophet 10, the encoders are actually quite stiff, no doubt because the unit is so new, so it’s hard to compare them. Basically, it’s a stretch to compare the Prophet 10 and Polysix and come out with the Polysix winning. However, because they sound different, it’s difficult to really say the Polysix is not worth owning if you have a Prophet. My Polysix did not become obsolete.
Against the Roland Juno 6/60/106
I’ll be honest, I have been looking at buying a Juno 6 for quite a long time, but haven’t actually found one I want to spend money on. The prices are now incredibly high on the Juno’s and I just refuse to pay that sort of money. This means I will probably never end up with one, and that’s ok. It’s ok to live with discomfort. I actually did own a Roland Juno 106 back in 2012. I bought it for $250 and sold it for $350 a few months later. I really did not like it. Time and tastes change. Now I own a Roland System 8 and still dislike the Juno 106 plug out. I have also borrowed a Juno 60 and did a long video demo of my exploration with it. What’s hard for my brain to separate is whether I actually want a Juno 60, or whether I’m just completely bummed that I don’t own one with the prices skyrocketing into the $4000 USD range. Listening to the demo I made, the type of sounds I normally make could easily be made on my Polysix (I did not use Chorus at all in my Juno demo). In fact, I don’t really like my demo of the Juno 60. Was that because I knew it wasn’t mine so I didn’t need to justify the purchase? Was it because I truly didn’t care for the sounds?
The Juno clearly beats the Polysix with envelopes. While both the Juno 6/60 and Polysix have hardware envelopes, the Polysix is quite sluggish comparatively. The Juno 6/60 envelopes are very snappy. The Polysix and Junos both have pretty similar architectures, although the Juno allows you to have both the saw and square wave active at the same time without modification. The Polysix has knobs instead of sliders and personally I prefer knobs. I find tweaking knobs more fun than sliders. I think this is just a personal preference and have no real justification for it, I just feel like I have better control of a parameter if I’m turning a knob than I have when I’m moving a slider. They both have FX, but the Juno Chorus is in stereo, while the Polysix only has mono outputs and mono chorus, flanger, and ensemble. I typically only use the chorus on the Polysix.
If I could only have one, it would be silly of me to chose the Polysix given the huge inflation of Juno prices. So unfortunately, I have no good advice for anyone searching and comparing which to get. I think they sound very similar, and I think they both look very cool, so in that respect, I would say if you can find a Polysix for a lot cheaper, why not go that route? In fact, I would say a good compromise is to get the Polysix for pads and real horror-show sounds and a Roland SH-101 for those snappy envelopes for bass sounds. Best of both worlds. The Roland SH-01a would suffice as an alternative (and has 4 voices as well).
Note that I didn’t really compare the Polysix to the Juno 106. To this day, I still don’t care much for the 106, and would only want it as a collector item because the sound really just never appealed to me. They look great though.
Against the Chroma Polaris
Now, I make this comparison only because I have both. They often get brought up in forum discussions (along with Junos) about which to get and which sounds better (note: there is never a correct answer to that question). The Polaris is usually cheaper on the used market, but it’s hard to say given the relatively few listings I have seen over the last few years.
The Polaris has some great features above and beyond the Polysix. Notably, it has two oscillators and an independent envelope for the filter. You can even use pulse width on the sawtooth wave. The Polaris is an incredibly thick and powerful synthesizer. However, it too suffers from a very present ‘thick’ sound, much like the Prophet 10, making it slightly more difficult to sit in a mix or add FX to. I’m not sure if that’s due to some mid-range frequencies or what. In some instances though, you can get instant Vangelis sounds out of the Polaris, but it’s really hard to dial that back. On the Polysix, I’ve never come up with a sound that was “Vangelis-like.”
The Polaris actually has an incredibly advanced computer system inside, for the time. It has an Intel 186 processor in it. I remember when we bought a Gateway PC in 1994, which sported the Intel 486. In a way, that computer and the Polaris share some history. Anyway, the Polaris is in many ways, too complex. If I want to adjust any MIDI information, it’s a 20 minute read through the manual as it discusses “The MIDI.” Still – it’s absolutely how incredible it is under the hood. You can even shut off individual voices. I guess I’ll take a complex global menu system over not having it at all. The same is true of the Moog Matriarch and its global menu. That one is almost as bad as the Polaris.
A final note on the Polaris. The resonance slider only has 6 steps (which isn’t an issue to me), while the cutoff knob has audible stepping. This is a shame, given how good it can sound to sweep the filter cutoff. The Polysix does this flawlessly, while the Polaris struggles. This might seem minor, but if you plan to play the synthesizer using a lot of real-time hands-on controls, it isn’t very fun. The Polysix beats the Polaris on this account because there is no audible stepping when using the filter cutoff.
Against them all
I will be brief here, as I near the end of what I want to say about the Polysix and its comparators. All of them are good. I don’t think I could ever get bored of the Prophet 10. There is so much you can do with it’s simple design and well-thought out modulations in the polymod section. The Polaris Juno 6/60/106, and Polysix suffer from a fairly simple architectures, and likely more susceptible to the whims of a bored studio musician. However, they’re much cheaper than the Prophet 10, except the Junos, which actually are getting into the Prophet 5/10 territory. Really, it comes down to money and what you can comfortably buy, as well as the core sound. The core sound of ALL OF THEM is different. Because I cannot detatch myself from the realities of the market, I would likely place my ratings of these as Prophet 10 > Juno 6/60 > Polaris > Polysix > Juno 106. I hesitate to really make this claim, because I have everything but Junos now, but I have to admit the Juno 6/60 interests me still. The Polaris is possibly the most similar to the Prophet 10, and in that respect, is the least necessary in my studio. The Polysix could more easily stay, given its somewhat more anemic sound (which mixes well with FX).
I hope you don’t get bent out of shape for me calling the Korg Polysix anemic, weedy, or thin. It is how I perceive the sounds in the Polysix (you may call it lush, but I don’t). I see these descriptions as strengths of the Polysix, not weaknesses. The simplicity and the look also contribute to what I believe is an excellent synthesizer. It might not be the first synthesizer I would recommend, because it is a vintage unit and things can and do go wrong with these. However, I think the Polysix is fairly equal to the Junos in architecture and general use. I’m not alone in this assessment. Almost every forum thread comparing the Juno to the Polysix has three camps: those who love the Juno, those who love the Polysix, and those who have both don’t care anymore. Considering I have thought about selling the Korg Polysix on a number of occasions, it’s clear that I’m not 100% in love with the Polysix. It has flaws, it is simple, but it still has a lot going for it.