Novation Circuit Groove Production Station
By Team HC |
Professional Groove Production Station, or Just Another Toy?
by Matthew Mann
What It Is
Circuit is more than just a drum box or controller. It features 4 different drum parts at any given time plus two different synthesizer modules. Each of the synth modules are derived from Novation’s own MiniNova. They’re also polyphonic (6 notes each) as opposed to monophonic, which was a nice surprise from a machine this size. Additionally, it features 32 RGB-backlit, velocity-sensitive pads for grid-based step sequencing with plenty of visual feedback. There are also real-time effects which can be tweaked live or recorded as part of a pattern/song. The drums themselves can be selected from dozens of different patches based on the best electronic drum sounds and then tweaked to sit perfectly in your track. What’s more, you can assign drum or synth sounds to a pattern and then change a sound from one pattern to the next for tons of variety in your song productions. We’ll get into that more in-depth later.
Circuit ships in a nice box that includes a getting started guide, power supply (including adapters for other parts of the world), a USB cable for connecting to your computer, and some odd-looking 1/8” to MIDI breakout cables that plug into Circuit – allowing Circuit to control or be controlled by external MIDI gear.
I’ve said before that a lot of initial impressions are down to presentation. I think Novation got it right here. I was pleased as soon as I took Circuit out of its box (which was sturdy and pretty nice in itself). Aside from the very nice packaging and additional goodies found in the box, the unit itself is very sturdy and has a gum rubberized surface that feels nice to the touch. It also minimizes the potential for it slipping out of sweaty hands. One thing to note: If you’re using Circuit with its built-in speaker, you need to set it on a flat surface (or on your legs with a gap between). The speaker is in the middle of Circuit’s underside and it’s easy to accidentally cover it and not be able to hear it. If you're planning to plug into the 1/4” outputs or use headphones in the 1/8” headphone jack, then it’s a non-issue. I just had to mention it because this box was born to be taken with you for composing on-the-go.
Let’s take a look at Circuit’s layout.
Circuit measures in at 9.45” (240mm) wide x 7.87” (200mm) deep x 1.38” (35mm) high and weighs around 2 pounds, so it’s very easy to toss in a backpack and head to the beach or the park for some composing and beat-making fun. The layout is very intuitive. It starts with a volume knob at the top left. Next come 8 encoders that are surprisingly chunky feeling. These knobs do a lot depending on what function button is selected. There’s also a small LED just below each encoder that gets brighter the higher the value of that parameter is set. To the right of the encoders is a slightly larger knob labeled Filter. It is what it says it is: A filter. It filters the entire output of Circuit as either a Low Pass Filter (all the way to the left) or a High Pass Filter (all the way to the right).
The main section of Circuit is the 4 x 8 grid of pads. Each pad is velocity sensitive and has an RGB light behind it. This is cool because you can see relative velocities on each pad. Additionally, different colors mean different things, so the visual feedback is great. I have to admit that the colors seem a bit extreme (at least the choice of colors), but they certainly get attention! To the left and right of the pads are function buttons that give you lots of options (especially combined with the SHIFT button). On the left side you can find the Scale, Note and Velocity buttons for step recording functions. Below them are Gate, Nudge and Length buttons for patterns functions. On the right side, you have the Patterns, Mixer, FX, Record and Play buttons. Again, each of these major function buttons has additional functions that are accessed by using SHIFT.
There are 2 final rows of buttons on Circuit just below the rotary encoders and above the grid pads. The first row includes: Octave Up and Down buttons, Tempo, Swing, Clear, Duplicate, Save and Session…as well as the Shift button. Below this row are the “track” buttons. Let’s dig in to the different tracks and what they do.
The sequencer in Circuit has 32 session locations for saving your projects. Each session contains 6 tracks (2 synths and 4 drum tracks). Each track has 8 pattern locations. This means each synth and drum part can have up to 8 variations. Do the math and you’ll see there is room for lots of musical options. There’s also an Auto-quantize Notes to Steps function and the ability to record automation to 6 events per step. Velocity and gate can be recorded and edited on a per-step basis. You can also duplicate steps, patterns and sessions in order to develop longer songs. Additionally, the sequencer includes a swing function so you can adjust the groove and “lay back” on it as much as your track needs.
Synth You Asked
The synths in Circuit sound excellent. Any experience with Novation’s Nova line of synths will tell you that. The sounds are seriously made for electronic dance music and have character by the bucket full. Each synth has a sidechain attached, which is controlled by Drum 1. This is handy for getting that “bounce” between your kick and bass or for getting some nice choppy pads. The sidechain contains 7 types of sidechain effect as well as the ability to turn it off completely.
The top 16 pads are the ‘keyboard’ for inputting or playing notes and the bottom 16 are the steps of the sequence. In expanded view, you have access to all 32 pads as keys. This ‘keyboard’ allows the selection of different scales for experimenting in different keys. Above these pads are buttons for selecting the part to work with. For example, there are two buttons for each synth…one for selecting the synth patch (of which there are 64) and one for selecting the sidechain effect for that synth. Synth 1’s keys are color-coded in purple and Synth 2’s keys are in green. This shows great foresight, since this should help minimize accidental editing of the wrong synth when in the heat of programming. The bottom 2 rows of pads are the number of steps in the sequence (except in expanded view). There are 16 steps for patterns, but this can be edited for longer synth patterns. There are two ways to record in Circuit – real time or in step mode. Real time requires use of the Record button and step recording works as soon as the Play button is activated.
The sounds are of the dance ilk and should provide plenty of options for Trance, Techno, Dubstep and numerous other electronic styles. Also, the rotary encoders become parameter adjustments for the synths. This is limited, but cool in that it allows you to edit basic parameters like filters and resonance. Novation calls them Macros and, as a rule, they follow a standard format as follows:
• Macros 1 & 2: Oscillator Parameters
• Macros 3 & 4: Envelope Parameters
• Macros 5 & 6: Filter Parameters
• Macros 7 & 8: Modulation & FX Parameters
There are exceptions to this layout for certain synth patches, and Novation calls them Macros because they can control up to 4 parameters with one knob, so the best thing to do is just choose a patch and play with the knobs to see what they do. At the time of this writing, a Max for Live and stand-alone patch editor has become available for Circuit courtesy of Isotonik Studios (https://isotonikstudios.com/novation-x-isotonik/novation-circuit-editor). Patches can now be tweaked, saved as a single patch, saved as a bank of patches, uploaded to Circuit, or saved on your hard drive for later use.
The drums in Circuit reside in the last 4 tracks. Clicking on Drum 1 or Drum 2 will bring up the bass drum and snare tracks at the same time. The first two rows of pads are the steps for the bass drum and the second two rows are for the snare drum (orange). Selecting the last two tracks (yellow) brings up the closed and open hi-hats by default. Although there are only four drums at any given time, the drum sounds for the individual tracks can change from pattern to pattern. Changing from a snare to, say, a clap from one pattern to the next can result in tracks that sound like there’s much more going on than there really is. This is where creative thought really comes in handy.
The drum sounds are very usable and endlessly tweakable with pitch, decay, distortion, and filtering and effects to make them sit the way they should in a track. They feature everything from standard 808 and 909 sounds, to cheesy 8-bit blips and hits, to massive distorted anthemic monster drums. One of the coolest things about this setup is that parameter tweaks can be recorded with the pattern. For example, one of the most famous sounds from the 80’s was Prince’s use of the pitch knob on the Linn LM-1’s snare and stick sounds. This sound is most obvious in songs like”1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy” where the pitch modulates up and down and gives the track exciting movement beyond what was previously thought possible. It could even record these pitch movements. Well, Circuit can do this, too! You can sweep the pitch or filter or add effects in real time and record those movements into the pattern – giving the producer some fantastic options for unique sound.
There are two send effects included in Circuit – Reverb and Delay. Neither of these effects is mind-boggling, but both are certainly useable. Each effect has several presets from which to choose (16 delay/8 reverb). The selected preset is backlit in white while the rest are dim. The send levels for each effect are controlled by the rotary encoders. Select a reverb patch and the encoders become send levels for reverb to each instrument – select a delay and suddenly the snare bounces all over the place. I like that you can send effects to each element of the drums rather than treating the whole kit. If I want a slightly roomy kit overall, I adjust the reverb for each instrument to taste. If I only want delay on the hi-hats or on the snare, I add the appropriate amount to those tracks only. As mentioned before, activating the RECORD button allows automation of the send levels for pattern-level clip effects. This is very cool because you could add a delay to the last open hi-hat of a pattern if you want or add reverb swells to the front of a pattern. Imagination is the only real limiting factor here.
Play With It
I could go on and on about all the features of this little beast, but I won’t. The real question is “Why do I want/need it?” The day Circuit arrived on my doorstep, my kids and I were home and we opened up the box. As soon as I turned it on, my 7 year old daughter’s face lit up almost as brightly as Circuit. She loved the colors (eyes rolling) and liked the sounds coming from Circuit as we tested each demo session…BUT…the magic really started while I was studiously reading the manual. My daughter asked me how to make sound. I selected a blank session and from there a blank pattern and showed her how to select a sound for each track and how to add steps in the pattern sequencer. A mere 10 minutes later, she had created a full track with drums, a squelchy, 303-style bass part, and a melody. A few minutes later and, with a little help from “Dad” and the manual, she had duplicated the patterns and made alternate versions of those patterns. Further exploration and she had chained the patterns together and had a full track – complete with effects and filters tastefully recorded into the patterns. Did I mention she’s only 7?
The one thing I was surprised to find is that there are no bags or cases on offer to protect Circuit. It seems like an oversight to me since it’s obviously meant to be portable. Circuit is well built (as I mentioned before), but not indestructible. I really hope Novation comes up with a bag specifically for Circuit (or even a little case similar to the one the Roland PG200 came in), but there’s nothing at the moment, so it’s up to you to protect your investment yourself.
One thing I almost forgot to mention is that Circuit can be used as a MIDI controller. Connected via MIDI to a hardware or software synth, it can play parts from its sequencer and control those synths. The MIDI data in a sequence can also be recorded into a DAW for further manipulation and assignment to a soft synth (or hardware). The one thing to note is that the MIDI notes for all tracks are recorded onto one MIDI track in your DAW unless you turn off the other parts and record them one at a time. There may be a way to assign different MIDI channels to the parts to separate them in your DAW, but I didn’t discover how to do this.
Novation Circuit Editor from Isotonik Studios:
Isotonik Studios, in collaboration with Novation, have released the free Novation Circuit Editor. This software package adds much flexibility to Circuit in the form of a full-fledged patch editor/librarian. While the user guide provides minimal information on its use, connecting Circuit to the software yields a window filled with editable parameters for the 2 synths built into Circuit. The layout is very logical and lends itself to experimentation. There are sections for assigning parameters to each macro control as well as sections for the synth engine controls and the modulation matrix. All parameters are available in separate tabs for each synth. The cool thing is that there are so many parameters available, that old school synth design (including synthetic drums) can be done on the screen. Remember when I talked about creative ways to add more drums to your production? Well, this is one of those ways. Create additional drums with Synth 1 and Synth 2 and save them in Circuit. Then, they can be stored in the pattern. Additionally, patches can be changed in Circuit, but they are still saved with the pattern, so new patches can be saved over original patches, but those original patches are still there….in any patterns already created.
If you’re thinking of getting Circuit, make sure you get this application! It’s currently available in Max for Live and standalone version. It’s also available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
The Bottom Line
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying Circuit is a toy for kids. And with a list price sitting at around $449 and a street price around $349, it’s not something I would run out and buy for a kid (although the build quality was certainly rugged enough). The sound quality is very good. I found that most of the patches were inspiring and led me down creative pathways. I never felt like this was a toy in build or in sound quality. What I am saying, however, is if a 7 year old can create entire tracks on Circuit, then anyone can. Music creation is immediate and fun. The addition of MIDI I/O means you can integrate it into your studio and control outboard MIDI gear or sync Circuit to your DAW. Speaking of the computer – Circuit is not chained to it. Yes, you can record your MIDI tracks from Circuit to your DAW. Yes, you can use an outboard controller or DAW to control the sounds in Circuit. But, no, you do not need to have your computer handy to use Circuit. While Circuit comes with a 12V DC power supply (a feature that some companies have made an optional accessory for their controllers lately), it also runs on 6 x AA batteries. That means you can take Circuit to the park…or the zoo. That means you can take Circuit to a coffee shop or a museum. That means you can introduce Circuit to your friends at a party and Circuit will have plenty to say.
I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of groove boxes. I had drum machines back in the 80’s that worked in similar fashion - with pattern creation and duplication and chaining to make songs, but I typically prefer to program drum tracks in linear fashion in my DAW. With that said, I have had a lot of fun with Circuit. It’s been quite some time since I really thought about composition from a completely loop-based standpoint. And I didn’t have to troll through thousands of samples and loops on a computer screen. Circuit took me down some rabbit holes that I wouldn’t have ever thought about on my own. I may not have created what I intended to when I sat down with Circuit, but I ended up with the pieces that were nonetheless fun and interesting. My eyes have been opened to this grid-based music thing and, if Novation offers me Circuit for a good price (finger’s crossed), my kids and I will have lots more fun creating tunes in the future.
Novation Circuit ($449.99 MSRP, $329.99 "street")
Novation Circuit product web page
Novation Circuit Editor from Isotonik Studios
You can purchase Novation Circuit from
Matthew Mann (Editor, Studio-One Expert) graduated Berklee College of Music with a Master Certificate, Music Production. Matt has been in bands and run studios for over a decade. He had a 3 year stint as a Sales Associate at GC Pro and has more recently been working in technical writing. As the picture shows, Matt rarely takes himself too seriously.