Novation’s Circuit Rhythm offers portable immediacy and a surprising amount of depth.
When Novation refreshed their much‑loved Circuit earlier this year they renamed it Circuit Tracks and gave it a sibling: Circuit Rhythm. Tracks built on the original Circuit’s groovebox format, with two on‑board synths, four sample tracks and two MIDI tracks. Rhythm, on the other hand, is a pure sampler/drum machine, with eight identical tracks for sample playback and sequencing. But the Circuit Rhythm isn’t just a drums‑only Tracks. It adds a number of unique features, such as on‑board sampling, slicing, performance effects and chromatic sample playback.
Both of the new Circuits appear to be identical on the outside bar the colouring and labelling. There’s the familiar 4x8 pad grid surrounded by mode, transport and track buttons, plus the eight endless encoders for adjusting parameters within each view, and the master high‑to‑low‑pass filter. Round the back there are line outs and ins, a mini‑jack for headphones, and a full complement of traditional MIDI ports. There’s also a microSD slot for storing up to 32 ‘Packs’ (see 'Packing A Punch' box) and a USB‑C port.
Portability‑wise, Novation have really nailed it with these Circuits. They are super‑light, powered by an internal battery or USB, and small enough to pop in your pack without compromising on usability to the extent that I thought Roland’s MC‑101 did. A central design limitation, or perhaps philosophy, of the Circuits is to forgo a screen, which in some ways can feel quite freeing. There are occasions where you might need to look up how to perform an operation or change settings, but there are clues in the form of chunky text abbreviations that flash up on the grid when tapping unlabelled pads.
The primary functions of the buttons are indicated with backlit displays, but unfortunately the black‑on‑grey text denoting secondary functions and encoder defaults is much harder to read in low light that on the Circuit Tracks. I found myself pulling out my phone to light the panel often until I developed some muscle memory.
The Rhythm has eight, monophonic sample playback tracks, which can be performed and sequenced in a range of ways. Drum Pads view lets you finger drum all eight tracks at once from a single grid view. In addition to the eight triggers, another eight pads turn on note repeats at various straight and triplet rates. Tapping any of the track selectors switches you to a dedicated view for that track. Half the pads then display a step sequencer grid where you can quickly drop triggers across two pages (32 steps).
Whichever track is active takes over the encoders for sound control. Unlike the Circuit Tracks, which has different parameter macros depending on the current patch, these controls always do the same thing. You can adjust pitch, sample start and length, apply both high and low‑pass filtering (with resonance control), and add distortion. Encoder 4 is labelled Slope, and is a single variable amplitude envelope control. To the left of centre, this applies an increasingly snappier Decay phase. Turning to the right dials in a longer attack and decay shape.
And that’s it for design and modulation at the sound level. Novation have clearly prioritised ease of use over deeper sound manipulation with the Rhythm. To be fair, the similarly priced Elektron Model Samples has an even more limited amp envelope, and shares the lack of a filter envelope. However, it does provide an LFO per track which can be assigned to a single parameter and can act like a second envelope. You’re certainly not without modulation on the Circuit though when you consider that you can automate/motion sequence any of the track encoders as part of each Pattern.
The bottom half of each track’s sequencing view displays a 16‑slot window into the 128 sample pool, which you can page up and down. Why devote half the pads to sample selection? So that you can easily record or drop different sounds into the same sequencer track. Holding a sample slot and tapping a sequence step assigns the sound to that step. You can also live record a sequence into the track by performing with multiple samples. This is a really simple and effective way of achieving ‘sample locks’, as they’re sometimes called, without you really needing to think about it. In fact in the factory sound pack, each group of 16 samples in the pool follows a similar layout, presenting a number of consistent kits. Each track can still only play back one sample at a time, but this system really extends the range of Circuit Rhythm.
A nice touch is that there’s a distinction between the default sound selected for a track, and other alternatives that you drop in. This sound is set by tapping any of the sample slots when Record is not active. Sequencer steps that use this default sound are shown with a different colour, and can be changed all at once by selecting a new track sound. Other active steps will remain locked to the sample you dropped there.
And there’s more... Another view, Note, replaces the sample palette with a chromatic note view approximating a keyboard. From here you can play the track’s base sound melodically. This is a big advantage compared to the sample tracks on the Circuit Tracks, and elevates the Rhythm above the level of pure drum machine. It’s a slight shame though that there are no scales, which are a standard feature on the Tracks and other Novation products that use this sequencer engine.
Those of you who like to slice up longer samples and breaks will have realised the potential of the sample flipping feature to perform with chopped samples. You can indeed work like this, and in fact when sampling into the Rhythm you can live chop the incoming audio onto multiple sample slots.
However, there is a dedicated Slice mode for splitting a single sample slot into multiple slices. Switching a track into Slice mode gives you a choice to split the sample into four, eight or 16 zones. In Note mode you’ll then see the slice triggers on the lower pads instead of the chromatic keyboard. Encoders 2 and 3 adjust the slice start points and lengths.
Pitch adjustment affects all Slices unfortunately, and at least for now is the only way to match the tempo of a longer sampler or loop to your project. If Novation could squeeze time‑stretching into a future update, it would be the icing on the cake and let the Circuit Rhythm compete with the bigger and considerably more expensive sampler workstations.
Staying with the theme of features you might not expect at this price, Circuit Rhythm has on‑board sampling. (By contrast the most obvious competition, Elektron’s Model:Samples does not offer this.) You can sample from the audio inputs or resample the output of the unit, or both at once. Sampling has a dedicated view where you choose the slot you’re recording to and select from various mode options. You can grab up to 32 seconds at a time, although you’ll need to make sure there’s enough space left from the maximum 220 seconds. The Factory Pack has just a few seconds free, which I discovered when the guitar pluck I first tried to sample cut off in its prime. Luckily you can delete samples directly from the unit.
Once you record a sample you can trim it in the Sampling page, which will truncate it destructively and save sample memory. Although there’s no screen to aid in editing, a single row of pads gives you a rough visual guide to how much you’ve trimmed from the original sample. You can switch playback mode in the record/edit page, making loops easy to trim by ear, and Novation also recommend temporarily flipping to Reverse playback mode when you need to fine‑tune the end point of a sample.
The sampler has an input monitoring mode, and you can sample during general playback, making something approximating Octatrack or Looper workflows a possibility. For example, you can grab an incoming loop from a sync’ed device into a slot that you already have triggering in a Pattern. You have to punch recording manually in and out, but there’s still lots of fun to be had here. (An auto‑sync’ed start/stop would be great in a future update).
The Circuit Rhythm manages to be a really easy‑to‑use drum sampler, while still sneaking in some power features like slicing, live sampling and chromatic sequencing that you’d normally find on top‑of‑the‑range beat workstations.
Although portability might be the most compelling feature of the Circuits, this is matched for me by the open nature of the sequencer and project structure. A typical drum machine or groovebox works within Patterns, with sequence lanes for each track or channel contained within a single block. Circuit works with separate Patterns for each track, which can be mixed and matched via an Ableton‑style launch grid. Patterns can be chained into longer sequences simply by holding a start and end point in the Pattern list.
Various combinations of Patterns (and chains of Patterns) can be stored as Scenes for easy simultaneous triggering. These too can strung together to create a larger Song structure. All this lives within a Project, and as Projects can be loaded instantly during playback you can also use them as sections of more complex compositions or live sets.
The ad‑hoc way you can trigger parts, set longer structures running, and instantly jump between Projects (or variations of a Project), each with its own mixer and effects snapshot makes the Circuit Rhythm a really strong live performer. I love how the Mixer view gives you a single place to play with levels, mutes, Scenes and Grid Effects. The wicked demo projects that come with the Factory Pack underline the Rhythm’s strength here, showing how you can put together a fully arranged beat, but still interact with it and change it up in a live setting or dynamic mix down.
Yes, the Circuit Rhythm has a suite of master performance effects in addition to the Reverb and Delay seen on the previous Circuits. These are along the lines of Roland’s Scatter effects on their MC/TR lines, or the Perform and XY Effects found on Maschine and MPC respectively. There are seven effects to choose from: Beat Repeat, Reverser, Gater, Auto‑Filter, Digitise, Phaser and Vinyl Simulation. All have adjustable parameters which are accessed via Components and frozen to 16 slots in your Pack. (It would have been extra nice to be able to adjust the effect parameters with pressure).
I’m a huge fan of even a simple Beat Repeat effect on any drum machine, it just makes it so easy to add little fills and variations without programming extra patterns. You can do that here, although triggering is not quantised (while the repeats are) so you need a bit of practice to always get the desired result. All the effects are usable and not cartoonish, and you can stack them up by holding multiple pads!
The Circuit Rhythm manages to be a really easy‑to‑use drum sampler, while still sneaking in some power features like slicing, live sampling and chromatic sequencing that you’d normally find on top‑of‑the‑range beat workstations. It doesn’t have the depth or scope of more expensive machines, especially in terms of sound design, but it does have the advantage of being truly portable and self‑powered. This, and the super‑flexible Circuit family sequencing approach make a great addition to any mobile or live rig.
All the Circuits use the concept of a Pack as the main container for your work. A Pack has 64 Project slots, each of which share the Pack’s resources, which in the case of Rhythm is a pool of 128 samples and 16 ‘Grid Effects’. The original Circuit could only contain one Pack at a time, which you could only swap out using a connected computer. Rhythm and Tracks gain more independence, being able to swap Packs from an SD card. It takes about two minutes to transfer a full Pack to the Circuit from the computer, but only about 10 seconds to swap between Packs on the device.
As with most of Novation’s current generation of hardware, content management is handled from your computer using the Components app or web page. From here you can backup, load, and edit or create Packs. Samples can be dropped into a grid, and the grid effects can be selected, tweaked and auditioned. Components is clever, but the reliance on it can be a bit off‑putting at times. I wish I could just put all my samples on the SD card and load directly into a Project on the device. I guess this is where you feel the pinch from not having a screen. You need to get into the mindset of assembling your palette ahead of time, unless of course you are sampling from live sources.
- It can sample.
- Easy sample flipping and slicing.
- Performance Effects.
- Internal power.
- Limited sound tweaking.
- Can’t import samples without a computer.
If cable‑free portability and agile performance score higher on your requirements than sound design then this could be the drum sampler for you.