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Novation Circuit

Groovebox
Published January 2016
By Simon Sherbourne

The Circuit measures 24 x 20 cm, so should fit most desktop setups or rucksacks. The Circuit measures 24 x 20 cm, so should fit most desktop setups or rucksacks.

Novation’s new groovebox, sequencer and performance instrument could be this year’s essential synth accessory.

Despite looking like a cut–down Launch controller, Novation’s Circuit is a fully independent musical sketchpad — yes go ahead, you can say groovebox — which promises immediacy, playability and, above all, fun. It features a four–part drum machine and two polyphonic synth engines, all of which can be sequenced in real time or by steps, then woven into a live arrangement on the fly. Let’s take it for a spin...

Road Warrior

Like the latest Launchpads, the Circuit is small but solid. If you take it on the road you’ll want it in your carry–on, because not only can it be powered by batteries, it also has a built–in speaker and mini–jack headphone output. The speaker is on the bottom and not exactly hi–fi, but its being there was one of the reasons I regularly found myself absentmindedly picking the Circuit up and tapping out a tune.

Six AAs will keep you going unplugged for five hours or so. You can’t charge batteries in the unit, something I guess we take for granted now with our phones and tablets. And, disappointingly, the Circuit can’t be powered from a USB connection, so you can’t plug into your laptop to keep going — you’ll need a power supply. Expect to see a battery charger in the ‘Frequently Bought Together’ section on the Circuit’s Amazon listing.

A USB port lets you use the Circuit as a MIDI controller and sequencer (and even sound module), and hopefully it will also connect to some dedicated software at some point. You can’t pipe audio over the USB connection; output is analogue via a pair of quarter–inch jacks. MIDI ports are also included, making the Circuit a true stand–alone sequencer, and there’s the always welcome Kensington lock port for security on the road or in college labs.

In Session

Novation say experimentation and discovery are the philosophy of the Circuit, and with its rather deep set of features and modes, and no traditional displays, learning the Circuit was a process of exploration supplemented with some videos and an occasional unmanly look at the manual. Thankfully, this process was fun, and fast.

The best place to start is to play with some of the preset ‘Sessions’. A Session stores the state of your drum and synth sounds along with up to eight 16–step sequences for each part, plus your mix and effects settings.

Three main modes, Pattern, Mix and FX, are accessed from a strip on the right of the surface. The row directly above the grid selects the different synth and drum parts, then the buttons to the left select sequencing views. A top row of buttons provides functions like Save and Duplicate, as well as access to Tempo, Swing and Scale settings and the Session view. Most modes and functions have a dedicated button.

Along the top are eight nicely weighted rotary encoders. Each has an LED with colour indicating its current function, and brightness representing the value. This is very effective at telling you what you need to know at a glance. Alongside the encoders is the large master Filter knob. This sweeps a low–pass filter across the entire output when turned to the left, and a high–pass to the right, with the indented central position unfiltered. This sounds great and is really useful, especially for creating transitions between Sessions or Patterns.

Drums

Drum patterns can be played in real time in a simple view with just four active pads. However, as there’s no click option, you’ll generally need to start in step sequence mode and add a few hits to get a grid reference. When step sequencing, the drums are split into two pairs, each triggered by 16 of the 32 pads. Patterns are always 16 steps, although as we’ll see, longer loops can be generated by stringing up to eight patterns together per part.

To overdub in real time, you can switch to the four–pad mode and hit Record. This captures velocity (with the same excellent feel and dynamics as the new Launchpad Pro) and quantises to the closest step. To adjust the velocity of a trigger you hold the corresponding pad in the sequencer zone, and use the other two rows of pads to select a value of 1–16. This concept is used in the synth parts as well for setting gate length and velocity.

Shift–tapping any of the sound parts switches the grid into patch selection mode. On the drum side there are 64 sampled drum sounds, split into Kicks, Snares/Claps, Hats and Percussion, all very much with an electronic/dance/hip–hop flavour. While the four drum parts default to kick, snare, and closed and open hats, you can assign any sound to any pad.

The Circuit’s rear panel features a  power button and input for the external 12V DC power supply, a  USB-B port, MIDI I/O on mini–jack ports and a  pair of quarter–inch audio outputs.The Circuit’s rear panel features a power button and input for the external 12V DC power supply, a USB-B port, MIDI I/O on mini–jack ports and a pair of quarter–inch audio outputs.My main frustration with the Circuit was the inability to audition sounds manually. With the patch selection grid open, you’re reliant on an existing sequence to play sounds as you select them. I’d much rather be able to select a sound first, then sequence it. You get much more better idea of a preset when you can feel how it responds to velocity and pitch, and the sound itself often inspires the part you record with it.

Synths

The two synth parts are both powered by the same engine and share a pool of 64 patches. Novation say the synths are “Nova heritage”, which I guess means more akin to a Nova-badged synth than, say, the embedded synths on some of their earlier controller keyboards. To my ears they cover a good range of analogue–modelled sounds, with lots of wide-ranging modulation, oscillator sync, etc, giving you good scope to deviate from the presets. The palette is weighted towards basses and bright leads that work well when sequenced.

Following a tried and tested convention, the presets provide starting points with eight macro controls for shaping the sound. This is a good compromise between simplicity and tweakability. The knob assignments are loosely standardised, but this scheme is happily abandoned when more interesting or appropriate modulations are available. The trade off of this arrangement is that the Circuit is not going to fully satisfy the sound designer or analogue tweaker. On the other hand, the well-chosen macros do provide decent scope within each sound, and this comes in particularly useful when capturing knob movements.

One of the great things about the Electribe boxes was the Motion Sequencer, and the Circuit has much the same feature. To capture some parameter automation you just hit record and twiddle the macros, and the movements will be embedded into the current patterns. In addition, it’s possible to set knob values at specific sequence steps while playback is stopped, which can produce some interesting rhythmic results or allow effects to be added to single hits, for example.

The standard Note view for each synth splits the pads into two rows of playable ‘keys’, plus two rows showing the step triggers. A dedicated Scales button gives a choice of keys and root notes, so that each row of eight pads is cut down to an octave, with the exception of the Chromatic scale which lays out two rows like piano keys.

To step sequence you simply hold down a step in the bottom half of the grid then tap the note(s) you want to add. Chords can be added easily by tapping multiple pads. Velocity and Gate views allow you to adjust the velocity and gate length of each step; again it’s fast and intuitive. The synth parts also have two extra modes. With Nudge you can slip patterns in single steps against the grid, while Length lets you reduce the number of steps. These are great fun for creating random variations during a performance.

Patterns & Performance

The Circuit has some rather innovative ways of creating larger structures from your sequences. Unlike a typical groovebox or workstation, patterns are all standardised to 16 steps (apart from any synth patterns with a reduced length value). This is not the limitation that it sounds, as longer loops are created by chaining patterns together, and not in the rigid and laborious way typical of drum machine song modes.

In Pattern mode the grid is divided into four columns, each showing the eight pattern slots available to each part and drum pair. Patterns can be triggered individually from the pads in Live Session View style. But the genius move here is that if you hold down two pads within a part, the Circuit will loop across that range of patterns. All playback, recording and sequencing operations are then performed within these longer structures.

While this fluid arrangement of patterns and loop lengths allows for fast and flexible on–the–fly arrangement, you may find yourself wanting more room for manoeuvre. Luckily you’re not limited to the basic Session container. It’s trivially easy to Save a copy of your Session to another slot in the Session view. Now you have space for new patterns and automation, and you can also change any other aspect of the Session: sound presets and macro settings, Mix and FX settings and so on.

Sessions can be triggered from the grid, and will start in time, seamlessly recalling the patterns and sounds used in that Session. Best of all, if you hold Shift when selecting a new Session it will trigger immediately from the same beat position as the current Session — what Live calls a Legato Launch. In other words, Sessions can be used more like Scenes than top–level projects. They can also be snapshots and fills. For example, I created a version of a Session with one different synth sound and some different patterns to use as a different song section. Then I had another which had snare rolls that I could shift to for the odd bar as a fill, then another that had all long reverb and delay settings. This is lots of fun as switching between Sessions with different effects causes classic delay pitching while the effects morph to their new settings.

Wishlist

With it being so easy to use multiple Sessions as variations and scenes, (and with my six year old also claiming his own Session slots!) you eventually fill up the 32 Session slots. Right now this is a big problem because there’s now way to save or export anything. The Circuit is really in need of a software utility to backup its data, and to store and load banks of Sessions. Novation are aware of this, so with any luck there will be some supporting software to follow.

While I’m making a wishlist it would be a nice bonus to have a User page (something that the Launch range does very well), so you could head out with just your laptop and use the Circuit as a generic pad controller or even clip launcher. Failing that I’d settle for a Scale mode that maps perfectly to Live Drum Racks. Finally it would be awesome if the hopefully–coming–soon software had a way to load in drum samples (and, what the hell, a synth preset editor!).

Novation CircuitAnd finally, a smart way to export your work to a DAW would be great. The new Electribe has an export function that renders your patterns as WAV files and exports everything as a package. It’s of course possible to capture your Circuit sequences as MIDI (especially easy in Live), or to record out the individual parts as audio, but a one–shot process would be nice, though not essential, feature.

Conclusion

The most notable thing about my time with the Circuit is how much I used it. It’s so easy to noodle on the Circuit around the house in those slivers of time between work, kids and passing out. Novation have made a lifestyle synth! Its portability and easy MIDI sync also makes it an unusually social electronic instrument — jamming with other Circuits is a single-cable hook–up.

As with the Launchpad Pro, Novation have shown that you don’t always need displays and plug–ins to make a deep hardware device. Not everything in the Circuit is immediately obvious, but once you’ve learned how to do something it’s easily remembered, and fast. The exception that proves the rule is patch selection and auditioning, which was my one frustration.

The palette of drums is appropriate though not inspiring. The Nova engines are dynamic and capable synths with plenty of user tweakability. Sonically they may not hit the spot for analogue buffs, but there’s a ton of bleep-box alternatives with which the Circuit is not really competing. The Circuit is more an electronic music notebook that lets you generate ideas super fast, then jam with them — it just needs to be able to export them now. It’s also a pretty capable hardware sequencer and controller.

The Circuit is a groovebox in the classic tradition: a glorious mash up of Novation’s hardware synth and pad controller expertise. It’s all about immediacy, experimentation and fun, and in many ways feels like the true successor to the original Korg Electribes.

Alternatives

Korg’s Electribe is probably the most comparable product to the Circuit currently on the market. It’s a bit more expensive, but is a lot more versatile in the synth department and has more voices. However, much of the previous generation’s immediacy and fun seems to have been lost, so you’re left with a choice between power and playability. Teenage Engineering’s OP1 costs nearly three times as much as the Circuit, but has a lot to offer over and above its boutiquey charm. If you’re happy to trade in the arrangement, automation and recall power of a digital groovebox for analogue unruliness there are lots of fun devices you could look at, in particular Korg’s Volca range.

Integrated Circuit

While the Circuit is happy to stand alone, it also makes a capable companion as a (polyphonic) hardware sequencer, and can even stand in as a MIDI controller. MIDI communication is over both USB and traditional hardware ports (using the supplied mini–jack adaptors). Novation have made connecting with other devices as simple as possible. The Circuit automatically always spits out beat clock, and will always chase incoming clock — there are no setup or configuration pages anywhere. In fact you can sync multiple Circuits up by simply daisy–chaining mini–jack cables between them.

I plugged in the USB, fired up one of the new Blocks modulars in Reaktor 6 and Reaktor started chasing the current sequence on the Circuit immediately. The knobs transmit MIDI and I was able to map them with little fuss. A nice feature is that in the Circuit’s mixer view, the Mute/Enable buttons actually control the sequencer not the audio signal, so are functional when sequencing an external device. When using a Circuit part as a hardware sequencer you can cut the internal sound by turning it right down in the Mixer.

I also tried hooking up the Circuit with Ableton Live (Live Lite is bundled) in various ways. Syncing to Live and vice versa worked great. I was curious to see how much I could use Circuit to control Live, as just the two would make a very portable set up. All the grid pads and macro knobs transmit on fixed channels/values separately for each of the six parts. None of the mode or transport buttons transmit MIDI. It’s possible to play and sequence instruments in Live with the pads and create fixed knob assignments, although it’s certainly not as slick as using a MIDI controller with a Live Remote Script. The grid cannot be used like a Launchpad for triggering clips.

Finally I found the Circuit could be used like a sound module, with the synths responding on MIDI channels 1 and 2, and drums on 10. So that’s a bonus!

Published January 2016