Featured Novation Circuit by Arthur Stone
What is the Circuit?
Starting this review I got stuck on how to describe the Circuit in just a phrase or sentence; it does so much that a paragraph or more is needed. Novation describe the Circuit as a hardware 'grid-based groovebox' – so let’s start there.
Circuit is an apt name for the immediate function: looped patterns repeat. The patterns (up to 16 steps) have 8 destinations in the pattern block, so effectively (within a Session) there are 128 steps available (per instrument) and the pattern can be changed, chained, repeated, rotated, looped and more. That is a good start for creating music/beats but there are also 32 session slots available, so the 'grid-based groovebox' description is apt.
In itself, with provision of more MIDI I/O, that would be worth the entry price, especially given the tactility of the buttons and visual feedback from the colourful display; however, the Circuit does a lot more. It incorporates 2 Novation polysynths and 4-part drum machine...and they sound very good too.
Current price is just north of £250.
How does it work?
The 32 front panel LED buttons turn notes on and off and the sequenced sounds (patterns) can be tweaked using the rotary dials and side-buttons. The created sequences can be pre-programmed or recorded on-the-fly along with parameter automation and FX. The Circuit can be used standalone with: in-built speaker, aux amp/speaker, or headphones - alternatively it can be hooked up to other gear via audio outs and MIDI in a studio or live/gig/band jam.
I need more than a paragraph or two to describe the Circuit: in the 1970's devices like this were purely in the realm of science-fiction, at least for mass-market audio. The principles of operation were there in modular synths that cost more than my (then) house and in mechanical/valve computers that were bigger than my house. Back then, if I had postulated a device like the Circuit, I would have got a clip round the ear from a teacher who would later tell my parents that I had 'fanciful ideas.'
But the future happens eventually. If they reached the moon with a Texas Instruments pocket calculator then, what could Novation do now. Where would the Circuit take me?
Somewhere over the rainbow:
One initial issue is my irrational fear of the colour pink – Rhodophobia...something to do with being traumatised by a girl in early childhood (so psychologists say). I do think pink is OK in a rainbow or on a tasteful villa. The pink-purple spectrum is well-represented on the Circuits colourful display.
I notice a few comments on Gearslutz referring to 'playbox' or 'crayon colours' in DAW's and the garish colours of some illuminated-button groovebox devices of the last decade. But surely that's just armchair chromophobia or 'colour-relativism'?
Probably more important is whether the colours help the workflow? Are they useful in denoting function and feeding back realtime info? Will the colours help you make better music or make your session easier?
Circuit arrived. I opened the box, took out the Circuit and power supply. Plugged into mains and mono jack out to a PA monitor. Hoping for some Troxler Effect to alleviate the pink I hit the green play button. BOOM. The kick immediately reminded me of a healthy 808. I whacked in a basic hiphop beat and Rob the Guitar (visiting musician) perked up immediately: “What's that then?” “Can I jam along with that?”
The Circuit had inspired him within seconds...and no manual, yet.
So that was my first impression of the Circuit; an instant, fun, creative tool that sounded great through the large monitor. It was eye candy too! Maybe pink was OK in context with the other colours?
Next I wanted to test the Circuit as controller for a hybrid set-up. This was less straightforward and I needed the manual and some of the many useful videos (Novation and 3rd-party/user) and Novations own excellent website. There's good user info already established and an excellent, informative peer-to-peer knowledge base. Anything I needed to know could be found within one search.
You might think I'd be automatically impressed with the electronic paradigm shift but really, whatever the instruments, whatever time period, it's all about the workflow.
I planned to use the Circuit as a central hub/timekeeper, sequencer, drum machine, MIDI maker and two synth instruments, one mono the other, polyphonic. Not bad for £250's-worth the size and weight of a thick paperback manual (e.g. Mastering Audio: the art and the science by Bob Katz. Other manuals are available).
The mono synth channel also fed MIDI to a Moog Subphatty; whatever MIDI data I programmed into Circuits pattern sequencer was implemented in the Moog (via supplied mini-jack>5-DiN MIDI).
After sussing the basics and arranging instruments and devices with the Circuit (for a later session) I unplugged the MIDI, audio and power cables (leaving them in position on the desk) and inserted the 6 AA batteries (supplied with Circuit). Now I was ready to hit the road and create some beats and sequences standalone outside the studio – monitoring via mini-jack on headphones.
Later I returned to the studio, reconnected MIDI, audio and power and played the session with a live improv over the prepared tracks. Linked below are two videos of standalone and hybrid use; for a first use, I liked the workflow and sonics and the Circuit fitted in well with other gear.
My time was limited with the Circuit and I wondered if it was possible to also send polyphonic MIDI on separate pattern/channel to the Waldorf Streichfett? Also, I could have explored controlling the Circuits' internal polysynths from an external controller keyboard. Much more to the Circuit than first appears.
I was quite rough with the Circuit – usual studio stuff; firm but careful. I'm not sure I would throw it far, or even drop it onto concrete but it feels 'bulletproof' for studio/live use. I researched about button cycle-life but no exact specs available; my only real reference was my Focusrite (Novations' sister and parent companies) Saffire Pro 24 DSP interface which I've used daily for over 10 years with zero hardware issues. Great design; very well-engineered. Circuit feels the same class.
The surface material is a kind of soft rubberised plastic, of good quality, matt black, greyish sheen in light. The surface does slightly attract small particles, dust, etc. (a quick brush solves that) but in general it looks smart and tidy.
Outdoors in strong sunlight the button and dial lights were difficult to see (shade needed) although I found them good, if a little bright, indoors in a dimly-lit room at night. No migraine potential IME; good quality soft light. Brightness level or custom colours would be nice but being hardware/electrical this might add to the cost and complexity of Circuit and in general, in most situations, the light and colours were clear and visible.
Apart from that I don't really have any real criticisms of the hardware/software, especially at the price.
Novation's Components website is the online hub/cloud using Web MIDI API for Circuit (and other Novation gear) software/downloads; you need to register (the product) and currently use Google Chrome web browser (or Opera) for operation but it works very smoothly and is perfect for remote access e.g. on the road, on holiday, in different studios...or in your worldwide mansions.
The Components site is where firmware updates are available, downloads (manuals, etc.), PC/Mac software editors, soundsets and also memory/storage of preset banks and samples – 'My Circuit.'. It's a bit faffy the first time but you get a lot of utility. To use the PC/Mac editor or Components site the Circuit connects via (supplied) USB cable to your internet device. Not sure about mobile devices.
In general, the software is more stable than many nuclear power stations, in my opinion, based on the facts.
Upgrades in the new firmware:
There were some criticisms/requests of the previous firmware that Novation have addressed: it is now possible to backup, load and save sessions (via USB) and also audition sounds more easily. The Circuit arrived for review with the v1 firmware installed and I updated to v1.5 and can confirm that the upgrade is easy, useful and assists workflow.
In addition, the v1.5 firmware enables new features: the fractional gate has 6x precision per step (cool for gated staccato FX or nuances in melody lines and hooks); and, more control over MIDI CC functionality (choose which MIDI data you want to send and receive to other devices).
Sound quality: 5/5
Very good audio output for monitoring and/or recording (of course, a bit of outboard will help most anything); headphone amp sounds OK too. The kick drums feel nice and punchy with a good impression of deep/sub bass. The onboard samples/soundset is 'urban/EDM-focussed' but there are some gems there (around 10% for my taste) especially the kick drums reminiscent of 808/909's. It's possible to load your own or 3rd-party samples and soundsets using supplied software and the Novation Components website; also there is a fair amount of tweakability of the factory sounds e.g. envelope, pitch, filter, etc. so it's possible to get great results even if the initial sound doesn't float your boat.
My first time with Novation synth engines; impressed, good sound, I'd probably need a few months to really dig in and get the best out of it.
Ease of use: 4/5
It's all quite intuitive if you've used any kind of pattern sequencer before; deeper functions (e.g. pattern-chaining or parameter automation) require the manual or online instruction video. After a couple of uses it becomes easier. Some buttons are labelled and require a two-button sequence to operate but many of the controls are unlabelled so need to be memorised through use.
In fairness to Novation there's a lot of functionality at the price/physical size, so whilst everything isn't laid out as button/label per function, it's compactness can be seen as an asset for portability, workflow or space-saving. It’s a similar situation with my Moog Subphatty; excellent capability but takes time to learn.
Whilst the MIDI CC out is great (e.g. controlling an external synth or VST instrument) it does share the MIDI data with the Circuit track – it is fundamentally tied to the same data. There is a rotary control to raise/lower (0-100%) the level of the onboard Circuit synth but in some aspects it is behaving as the same instrument. IME this forces the user to adapt and innovate e.g. send a bassline to an analogue monosynth over MIDI then use a polyphonic, high-pitch or percussive patch with a complex delay. This can work well in keeping 'groove elements' between the instruments whilst having different tonal/dynamics palettes in the mix.
Still, honestly, it takes some effort and learning to use the Circuit although this is a fun (and experimental) process and not a pain at all; but you might be flying blind for a while.
There's a lot of features packed in given the Circuit's size and price: physical and software. In practice, this multitude of capability affects the ease-of-use but you won't have a simple device that may lose utility or enjoyment in a shorter time. There are many roles for the Circuit.
Sonic features are good too. The sidechain adds a little mojo. The scale and time signature variations are flexible and lead to trial and experimentation. The swing feature works great. I really liked the FX; delays in particular. The filter sweep is a nice feature too.
Couple of ways to quantify this: first, as a creative tool and, secondly, as a functional part of a set-up. The Circuit also goes a long way as a standalone, all-in-one track creator: IME one could easily make a decent track or live performance with the Circuit alone (obviously with some recording gear and PA, etc.)
As far as I'm concerned the Circuit would be great value as just a MIDI sequencer for analogue synths. It doesn't feel cheap at all but it's kinda funky and encourages play and tweaking.
The Circuit is a good-buy for mobile creativity, jams and more serious studio integration. I'd advise checking the hardware specs and OS system compatibility (below) to ensure Circuit will work in your particular set-up; coverage seems good. I don't really think the 4/5 for ease-of-use should be a negative consideration when purchasing; don't let a bit of learning and tweaking put you off. It's got a lot going on inside.
The Circuit is great gear at a great price. It's much more than a grid-based groovebox: standalone, portable, hybrid, connecting gear, producing and manipulating sounds, track creation and management. Maybe other products do the same or more but the price, quality and build seem just right on this.
Sonically, the Circuit is capable of stellar performance. With time, skill, or talent you could move a room with this box alone...or even inspire a guitarist! Long-term, once the samples and nuances are mastered, this makes a great studio instrument too.
Despite Circuits brilliance I still think pink is a look best worn by flamingoes. Humour aside, it's obvious that a lot of intelligent planning has gone into the Circuit design and manufacture, and it shows. Novation should be commended for this – especially at the price.
Based on my Rhodophobia and novelty-bias I didn't want to like the Circuit but I do. It crosses the information-function threshold and becomes a learnt intuitive device; it melds with the future seamlessly...with a bit of user effort.
Credits and references:
Circuit photos used with permission of Novation.
Additional photos by Arthur Stone.
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Product Hardware Specifications:
32 RGB backlit velocity sensitive button grid
28 RGB backlit function buttons
8 Continuous pots with RGB indicator LEDs
Dedicated filter and volume pots
1/4" jack sockets for left and right outputs
Two MIDI sockets (3.5mm jack sockets with MIDI din break-out cables)
Front-mounted 3.5mm jack socket for headphones
Rubberised knob caps
Rotary controls secured to the chassis with metal nuts
Power supply connector
Battery compartment for 6x AA batteries (included)
Kensington Security Slot
2 Nova synths
4 Part drum machine
6 Note polyphonic per synth
64 Synth patches
64 Drum patches
8 Synth macro controls (Control up to 4 parameters with one knob)
4 Drum parameter controls (Pitch, Decay, Distortion, Filter)
Mixer view with levels and mutes
Master FX with individual track sends: 16 Delays, 8 Reverbs
Sidechain effect (7 types and off). Triggered from Drum 1
Hi-pass / low-pass master filter
6 Tracks per session (2 Synth and 4 Drum)
8 Patterns per track (Synth 1, Synth 2, Drum 1&2, Drum 3&4)
16 Demo sessions
Real time record (notes, with velocity and automation)
Auto-quantise notes to steps and automation to 6 events per step
50 Automation parameters (up to 4800 events per pattern)
Internal tempo range 40 - 240
External synced tempo range 30 - 300
Swing 20 - 80%
Real Time Performance:
Full range velocity scanning and record. Editable to 16 levels
16 Scale types and chromatic transposition
Synth expand view doubles playable area
Drum expand view allows real time drum record
Octave (input) and pattern octave (edit)
Pattern length and nudge
Configurable pattern chain
Session instant switching and queued switch
Velocity and gate per step
Multiple gate lengths per step (via real time record)
Automation edit per step
Clear step, automation parameter per pattern, pattern, session
Duplicate step, pattern
Ableton Live Lite 9 is included
Circuit will also work as a standard USB-MIDI controller.
Power Requirements: Circuit can be powered using 6x AA batteries or a power supply (both included). It can not be powered via USB
Maximum power consumption: 12V DC 600mA
Product Dimensions: 240mm width x 200mm depth x 35mm height
macOS Sierra - Yes
The Circuit itself is fully functional and supported with macOS Sierra however there is a known issue with the standalone Isotonik editor. Find out more at https://support.novationmusic.com/hc...cles/212322925 .
Mac OSX 10.11 - Yes
Mac OSX 10.10 - Yes
Windows 10 - Yes
Windows 8 - Yes
Media links (video):