Great for the road
Compared to previous Novation synthesizers, this one is built to last, and it’s still small. You can always take it on the road, and you will want to do that as you can get it in your carry-on luggage. It can be powered with simple batteries, and it also has a built-in speaker and headphone output.
You can basically use it by itself if you really want to. Of course, the speaker is not really hi-fi, and it’s positioned on the bottom, but it’s there. Another advantage of this small speaker is that you can always pick up the Circuit synth and try some new things on it, even on your dinner table if you feel the creative flow right then.
With six AA batteries, you will be able to keep the synth going for up to five hours. You will, however, need a power supply to recharge the batteries, as the unit doesn’t accept USB connection for that. You will have to get a battery charger to make this unit work at its fullest potential but that’s no issue given how flexible it is. The USB port will let you use the device as a MIDI controller and sequencer.
Limited MIDI capability
While there are plenty of reasons to appreciate this device, there are some things that could have been improved, especially the features it offers. It doesn’t come with the ability to export channels separately, through USB for example. If you need to work on your creations more and want to take them to a DAW format, you will have to record everything in separate parts.
The company also doesn’t say too much about the MIDI capabilities – it just says that the synth has them. These capabilities could go further than one might expect, but with no tutorial, it’s hard to achieve that level.
Main features explained
This is the kind of unit that you can use to create larger sound entities from small, simple sequences. It’s not like the typical workstation or groove box, and its patterns are standardized in 16 steps. This sounds like it will limit your creativity, but that is not the case – instead, it will let you create longer loops and chain multiple patterns together.
Typical sound machines or drum machines have a laborious and rigid way of doing this, but you won’t have to get too complicated with the Novation Circuit. When using the Pattern mode you will find the grid divided into 4 separate columns, and each of them shows the eight separate pattern slots that you have available for each part.
From the pads, you can trigger different patterns individually if you are using the Live Session View. Probably the most impressive part is if you hold down two pads in a part, and this will cause the software to create a loop across the patterns in that range. Even when in these longer structures you can still playback, record, or use sequencing operations.
You might feel that you need more room for maneuvers, more flexibility, even if the device can give you a fluid arrangement of patterns. The loop lengths still allow you to create fast and on-the-fly arrangements that you can use in live events. But thankfully you will not be limited by the basic Session function.
Saving a copy of your session to a certain slot is an easy thing to do in the Session view. This will also allow you to free some space so that you can place new patterns and change any other aspect of other sessions. No matter where you want to modify these settings, you can always change the FX, the sound presets, the macro, Mix, and many others.
The synth settings
There are two synth parts that form this device, and they are both powered by the same engine. Furthermore, they share the same number of 64 patches. While Novation says that these synths are “Nova heritage”, these new models seem to represent a newer concept that the brand wants to achieve.
The Circuit is able to cover a wide range of analog-modeled sounds, and it also offers enough modulation, a wide range of oscillator syncs, and many others. This should give you the potential of deviating from the basic presets and create your own style. While the overall sound is one that has plenty of basses, you can also get some bright leads that sound great when you sequence them nicely.
Having been tried and tested for an extensive period, the presets that you can use in the Novation Circuit synth provide good starting points, and offer eight macro controls to allow you to shape the sound. This seems to be a proper compromise between a tool that is flexible enough with one that is simple to use.
While the knob usage is somewhat standardized, once you get to learn more about the synth, you will be able to use them to their full potential and get impressive modulations. Unfortunately, for the sound designer that prefers to tweak analog devices, this synth won’t feel as pleasing. However, if you manage to choose the macros well enough, you will create complex sounds that please the ear.
The Motion Sequencer made famous by Eletrcibe models was able to capture great parameter automation, and the Novation Circuit has pretty much the same feature. You just have to hit record, and then play with the macros – this will lead to the movements to be embedded into the patterns by themselves.
Not many synthesizers allow you to play drum patterns in real-time using just a few active pads. That’s the good part about them, but on the bad side, you will need to start the Step Sequence mode and then add some hits so that you can get a grid reference. That’s because the device doesn’t have a click option.
The drums will be split into 2 separate pairs when you’re using Step Sequence, and they can each trigger 16 of the 32 pads, splitting them in half. This seems like a limited feature, as you will only be able to create patterns of 16 steps max, but you will be able to create long loops. Stringing up to eight separate patterns for a longer loop will let you create the drum patterns you want. And you can do that for each separate part.
You can also overdub in live situations, and to do that you have to switch to the 4-pad mode and start the Record function. This will help you capture velocity and will quantize to the closest step all by itself. If you want to change that velocity you need to hold the corresponding pad in the sequencer zone, and after that on the other 2 rows choose a value of 1 to 16.
This seems a bit complicated and those that aren’t used with this sort of thing will have issues at first, but it’s something that you can learn quite fast. The same concept is used for setting gate length. When using the Drum presets you will find 64 different sampled drum sounds, and they can be found split into different categories.
Kicks, Snares, Claps, Percussion, and Hats are the most important of them. Most of them have a predominant hip-hop or electronic feel to them.
Although on the design aspect, the device doesn’t really shine, it makes up for that when it comes to the sequencer. On the surface, it’s only capable of offering a 16-step sequencer, and it does that for each of the 6 separate tracks. However, you also get a huge raft of workflow features that make the device intuitive, easy to work with, and a flexible machine to compose with.
Using the sensitive velocity pads, you can play sequences and record them, or you could input them step by step by holding a corresponding sequencer pad down. If you want to change between what you see – editing notes, gate, velocity, or others, you can use the buttons found down on the left-hand side.
You can also change to a view that allows you to slowly nudge the pattern forward or backward, in small increments, and you can also change the length of the sequences. However, you won’t be able to increase or decrease the drum sequence length. It’s a shame that the machine doesn’t let you do that, as it could have led to some very creative polyrhythms.
Borrowing a function from the Launchpad Pro, another Novation product, the Circuit uses the Hold/Touch setting to allow users to jump quickly to the editing view. The user can do that by holding down the corresponding button if he or she wants a quick view, or quickly pressing it for permanently changing to that view.
The Note view will allow you to play and record parts while using the top two rows of pads. With these, you can play a preselected scale that you can move up or down an octave with the buttons on the top row. You can also increase this playing area if you’re the kind of person with increased dexterity and you want to experiment more.