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Hands-on with Novation Circuit, drum machine synth sequencer hardware all-in-one

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

circuit hands on 6

Novation has been doing things with grids and knobs for some time, but those have come in the form of gadgets you plug into a computer and use with software like Ableton Live. Circuit is different: it’s an all-in-one groove workstation with sequencer, drum machine, synth, and arrangement in control, and it doesn’t even need to be plugged into power.

We’ve got one of the first Novation Circuit units here, so in advance of our full review, here’s a quick hands-on.

First, Novation’s video shows off the idea:

I first saw Circuit on a visit to Novation’s London office in August — the place where they’re cooking up a lot of their ideas for attracting more people to music. (iOS apps were getting sketched there, too.)

And there, Circuit was immediately all about getting you going with music ideas quickly. (I suspect anyone working for a music technology company, finding their own leisure time severely restricted, appreciates personally the import of getting things started — and of course, that was the topic of the teaser campaign for this hardware.)

So, it starts with an 8×4 grid interface and encoders. Those are velocity-sensitive pads, and the feel of them and the entire build makes this clearly the sibling to the Launchpad Pro controller. The difference here is, you can untether from the computer and use this box on its own. (You can get an idea of what standalone hardware Novation likes in the teaser video, which features a Dave Smith synth, a 303, and an Elektron.)

From there, what do you get?

It’s a modeled synth. There’s a two-part analog-modeled synthesizer in there, which Novation describes as “Nova-heritage.” It certainly has that edgy, modern, somehow English Novation sound.

It’s a drum machine. You get four parts here — simple, but tweakable.

You can play chords. There’s 6-voice polyphony onboard, so you aren’t limited to mono synth lines. And there’s actually a very clever chord mode, which I’ll talk about more when we do the full review.

It’s tweakable — albeit blind. At first blush, this may seem like a preset machine and a bit of a toy. But those eight encoders are paired with a whole lot of parameters for changing the sound. You can switch oscillator types and wavetables, not just twist the filter (though that’s there, too, of course). And all of those encoder adjustments can be recorded and played back in real-time, if you choose.

circuit hands on 4

It’s a step sequencer and pattern recorder. You can play in live, or adjust one step at a time, or a combination (navigating between those modes is atypically easy, in fact). You get up to 128 steps, so you aren’t limited to the 1 bar-patterns you hear in the first demos. Also, if you’re not a fantastic musician on the pads, things do auto-quantize and can be restricted by key — handy for low-pressure live performance. You also get 32 sequence slots for playing live, making this a bit like the Poor Boy’s Octatrack.

It does effects, mixing. Delay, reverb for effects, each fully tweakable, and live mixing plus side-chain capability.

It works with your other gear. USB for the computer, MIDI for external devices. True to form, there’s still a copy of Ableton Live Lite in the box — a bit odd as the main draw here is getting away from your computer. On the other hand, Live (or something like it) is likely to be how you finish whatever you start on the Circuit.

The MIDI support for me keeps this from being overly limited or turning into a toy. You can receive and send MIDI notes and controls, and automatically sync to received MIDI clock (plus forwarding it to the Out jack). More details on that in our review.

It’s ultra-portable and works standalone. You can run on 12V DC power via an adapter, or 6x AA batteries. (I do sort of wish manufacturers would start using rechargeable batteries, though you could invest in rechargeable AA’s if you aren’t already buying AA in bulk for your music gizmos.) But with a decently loud (if tinny) built-in speaker, and a headphone jack, you can go to the park with this one. (Or, as our UK-based friends say, “to the bus” — yes, London will offer long Night Bus trips to start and finish songs.)

And incredibly, the whole package is US$ 329.99 (£249.99 UK or 349€ including VAT in Europe).

So, how does it feel?

circuit hands on 2

I was actually impressed: this doesn’t feel like a do-everything $ 300 box. The pads are nicely velocity sensitive and everything feels solid. There’s a blue anti-slip, grippy surface to the bottom. It’s an incredible dirt magnet, but it holds everything in place.

It’s terrifically portable — it’s tough to say just how easy this is to toss in a bag.

Also, it’s clear that Novation has learned a lot from the Launchpad about workflow. You get all of that ready access, minus the computer. You can quickly add patterns, clear, duplicate, nudge, and change pattern length, plus easily get at effects and synth/drum sound parameters.

The oddest part about using the Circuit is perhaps that while all of the usability controls are well-labeled, you often don’t really know what twisting an encoder will do. Only the brightness of the LED underneath tells you the level, and you just have to learn what the assignments are. On the other hand, Circuit really feels like it’s about intuition, experimentation, and happy accidents, so the absence of a display doesn’t really kill the fun.

Let us know if you have questions about this, and what you think, in advance of our full review. Here are some unboxing pics in the meantime. (And yes, it does include the MIDI minijack connections that are fast becoming an accidental standard, plus breakouts and power and USB all in the box for you.)

circuit hands on 1

circuit hands on 9

circuit hands on 3

circuit hands on 5

By the way, this is a 13″ MacBook Pro — it really is small, the Circuit.

circuit hands on 7

The post Hands-on with Novation Circuit, drum machine synth sequencer hardware all-in-one appeared first on Create Digital Music.


NI’s Traktor S5 is a more compact all-in-one DJ controller; here’s how it stacks up

Monday, September 14th, 2015


The Traktor Kontrol S8 from Native Instruments is, let’s face it, the Cadillac Escalade of DJ gear. It’s loaded. It’s shiny. It’s powerful. It’s also expensive and hard to parallel park.

So, without much fanfare, NI last week gave us the S5. It’s roughly the size of the S4 — the two-wheel controller that was once flagship of the Traktor line. But in that space, you get the stuff you’ve probably envied on the bigger Traktor controllers (the S8, and its one-deck-at-a-time counterpart the D2).

It’s got color displays.
It’s got touch strips — no wheels, if you like such things, but at least something that lets you cue manually.
It’s got a built-in audio interface (even with some basic input).
It’s got mixing controls — quite a lot of them, in fact.
And it has direct access pads, knobs, and triggers, for use with effects and loops and so on, or if you’re a fan of such things, Stems and Remix Decks.

Cost US$ /€ 799. Ships October 1.

Let’s see how it stacks up.


Size and Weight:

I actually consulted with NI on this to get the stats. The closest equivalent to the S5 is the S4 — it’s slightly heavier, and slightly shorter. I wouldn’t describe the S5 as “mobile,” exactly — you’re going to need to ask for some space on your tech rider to fit this in. But what it is is a piece of hardware that does the vast majority of what you need from the S8, in a narrower and lighter package.

In fact, the S5 is so close to the S4, they both share NI’s own flight case.

I have been playing around with just a D2. There’s no comparison to the all-in-ones: you need some other gear for a mix control surface, it’s not an audio interface, and you have to swap between decks yourself. But it is a lot smaller, and I quite like it in hybrid setups — though that’s another story.


Depth: 32.2 cm, Height: 6,6 cm, Width: 50 cm, Weight: 3.7kg

Depth: 33.8 cm, Height: 7.2 cm, Width: 50 cm, Weight: 3.4 kg

Depth: 37.8cm, Height: 6.6cm, Width: 19.6 cm, Weight: 1.5kg

Depth: 38.7 cm, Height: 6.6 cm, Width: 58.5 cm, Weight: 5 kg


Control Functionality:

So, what do you give up on the S5 versus the S8, as far as controls? Well, the main space saving feature here is that you don’t have the four dedicated vertical faders on each deck for controlling volume of Stems Decks and Remix Decks. Instead, those map to the encoders on the top. Also gone are the S8′s second round of encoders.

Here’s the weird thing: I think the simplified layout might actually be a bit easier to learn — or at least less intimidating to look at.

Everything else is there. Now, again, if you really want wheels, you should look at something else — though frankly I do wonder if you what you really want in that event is turntables.

But let’s assume you don’t care at all about either Stem Decks and Remix Decks. There’s still a lot from the S8 and D2 line you may find very useful. It’s really easy to trigger cues and loops, and use “freeze mode,” with those same pads. And the dedicated encoders are terrific if you’re using effects.

I can’t imagine missing the wheels. The S4 still has some other advantages, though, over the S5 and S8:
It works with iOS.
It’s USB bus-powered.
It has dedicated loop recording controls.


Mixer functionality:

Here’s where the S5 is a bit behind the S8 and even S4.

The S8 is really a full-featured mixer, with 4+2 channels, standalone operation, and a full four stereo inputs for turntables, CDJs, and so on. That’s part of what makes it overkill — maybe you just want to buy a separate mixer — but it is impressive.

The S5 itself is actually a bit of a step backwards from the S4. There’s one stereo line input instead of two, plus the same one mic jack. On the other hand, I think the use case for this kind of gear is probably most likely laptop plus output, and there, the S5 is just fine: you get XLR and phono (cinch) main outs, plus a stereo booth out.


First impressions

I like the S5 a lot; I think it may woo away some S4 users by offering up more dedicated controller features and those slick screens. And the screens are really everything, because they mean you can use the S5 without looking at your laptop. The S8 is the very definition of a flagship; it’s impressive. But the S5 is more likely to be the mainstay of the fleet.

With the S8 now at US$ /€999, it is worth considering the S8 basically for the added I/O. The S4 I think wins in almost every other case.

Of course, NI really wants you to use Stems. Now, the S5 completes the Stems-compatible lineup, joining the S8, the single-deck D2, the entry-level F1. But I think the S5 should be of interest even if you don’t care about Stems, because those controls remain useful otherwise.

That shouldn’t stop you from continuing to use an S4 if you’re happy with it, especially as it remains a nice piece of gear in terms of I/O, it works with the iPad app (which means you may not miss those new displays after all), and it’s bus powered. And you might already own it or find one cheap. So please, don’t throw that S4 away if you do update — find it a home.

Meanwhile, it’ll be nice to pit this against the Serato offerings. As far as compactness, though it doesn’t have displays, this Pioneer unit remains interesting.

Let us know what you think.


Comparison chart from NI (doesn’t yet show the S5, but does show the S8, S4, S2, and Z2)

Traktor Kontrol S5

The post NI’s Traktor S5 is a more compact all-in-one DJ controller; here’s how it stacks up appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Produce RnB releases Urban Complex All-in-One VST/AU for Windows and Mac

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

Produce RNB has released Urban Complex for urban producers looking to add the full range of top quality R&B/Hip-Hop/Pop sounds to their collection. From synths to drums to effects, Urban [Read More]

Blue Cat Audio releases Blue Cat’s Dynamics 4.0 – Fully Redesigned All-In-One Dynamics Processing Plug-In

Friday, June 19th, 2015

Blue Cat Audio has released Blue Cat’s Dynamics 4.0, a complete rewrite of its flexible all-in-one dynamics processing plug-in. Blue Cat’s Dynamics is a full featured dynamics processor capable [Read More]

FabFilter Pro-Q 2 review: an all-in-one surgical tool

Friday, December 5th, 2014


Equalization is one of the most important elements of treating sound — for mix and for effect. Any engineer or producer worth his salt will want a variety of hard and soft EQs for precision and color. FabFilter’s expansion on their original Pro Q soft EQ is a good contender for essential all-in-one EQ software for an engineer.
FabFilterare renowned for their workflow process. It’s a bit of a marmite workflow I think — you either love it or hate it. I find myself in the former camp, and thePro-Q 2 is no exception. The EQ is chock full of customization options, and you can choose how much you want to see at any one time — keeping the GUI clear in order to speed the work process.

Opening the plugin gives you an empty GUI. Clicking creates a node or band. You can have up to 24 nodes in a window. Depending on where you click in the window automatically selects one of 6 different types of filter — bell, shelf, notch, cut etc. If the wrong curve is picked, it’s a simple click on the menu that pops up under the node, to select the correct one. There is a couple of new EQ curves, the bandpass and tilt. Bandpass is as expected, but the other, tilt shift, I found particularly engaging. It’s very simple — you tilt the EQ towards the bass or the treble frequency. It shifts the character of the sound, from dark to bright. Very easy to use, but can quickly change the feel of the mix or sound. I was also impressed with the filter slopes. Not only do they vary from smooth and subtle 6DB, but they go up to cliff-edge 96DB. Amazing. You can also apply any slope to all of the various filters.

There are plenty of useful presets to get you started, and you can create a new default that opens whenever you load an instance. I quickly had a default that had a simple 6 band EQ mapped to my controller with the intuitive midi-learn feature, and so every time I needed an EQ — there it was set up mapped to hardware. FabFilter’s attention to workflow paid off well here.

Natural sound
FabFilter have worked hard on the foundational algorithms for Pro-Q 2 — and have come up with a plugin that uses half the CPU per instance, and contains brand new emulation algorithms. Alongside improvements on the zero latency and linear phase algorithms, the Natural Phase is supposed to give the EQ a more analog-style character. At the cost of some inevitable latency, the natural phase is the cleanest, most accurate sounding of the EQs — capable of mastering quality EQ. To me, the sound quality was exceptional. I couldn’t hear artefacts in pretty much all situations.


FabFilter have gone the usual route of adding as much as possible to the plugin, without bloating it out into complex uselessness. There are so many excellent elements to this plugin it’s hard to list them all, but I’ll give a list of my favorites:

  • Full Screen
    For those with two monitors, or those who love precision EQ’ing — this plugin can be expanded to fill the screen.
  • Freeze the frequency
    You can analyze the sound you’re working with, hover the mouse over the frequency you wish to change, and a node forms where you’re hovering, effectively freezing the analysis window. You can then lower or raise that frequency immediately. It’s a very effective way of using eyes and ears together to find problem frequency areas, and then deal with them efficiently.
  • EQ match
    Loads of software EQs have this feature now, but FabFilter do it slightly better — it’s a case of two clicks to match the EQ, for super-fast workflow again. The analyser menu at the bottom of the plugin gives the options for pre, post and sidechain spectrum views. One click of the EQ match button and the EQ starts processing the incoming signal and overlaying an EQ to bring the current signal to similar areas. This is all tweak-once the processing is done.
  • M/S EQ
    Mid side processing is becoming the norm nowadays, and I find it extremely useful especially when working on mixes. Being able to work on the centre EQ without affecting the sides or vice versa, can really clean up the overall sound.
  • Check the volume
    Sliding over the output controls at the bottom right of the window gives you several options, including phase inversion and clickless bypass. But the Autogain function was of interest to me. When working with EQs, as the ears get tired or used to the new boosts or cuts, and it’s annoying to keep A/B’ing with the original signal to ensure that you’re not just preferring the sound because it’s louder. This auto-gain function, hopefully, speeds the workflow somewhat by removing the A/B check, so you can concentrate on the sound without having to worry about volume changes.

Here’s an excellent video put together by the FabFilter team walking you through the basics of the plugin.


FabFilter Pro-Q 2 is already my go-to plug-in for most EQ requirements. A 3rd party EQ might be something you wonder whether it’s worth spending hard cash on, when there are serviceable EQs already contained in your DAW. But consider that the creator of the plugin has probably spent a lot more time thinking about the particulars of equalisation, and has dedicated more time to the algorithms, the CPU usage, and all the bells and whistles. Pro-Q 2 is far and away better than all DAW EQs, and probably outruns most other 3rd party parametrics. The only lacking element is character and color from emulating vintage hardware. But really the only reason to walk on by is if you’re completely broke.


$ 199

Product page


Digital Brain Instruments releases “BCast Mixer” – all-in-one solution for events broadcasting for Mac and Win

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Digital Brain Instruments has introduced BCast Mixer, a dedicated standalone software mixer developed for events broadcasting, including conferences, meetings, speeches, podcasting or radio. BCast Mix [Read More]

Classic KORG Polysix, Reimagined for iPad, Becomes All-in-One Workstation

Monday, November 26th, 2012

In designing for Apple’s mobiles, KORG has again turned to equipment from their past. Having reinterpreted the ElecTribe and MS-20, their newest target is the versatile, classic Polysix. The 1981 original brought programmable polyphony to keyboard lovers, with analog oscillators, memory storage, six-voice polyphony, and various effects and modulation. For iOS, Korg models that sound (having done so already with the desktop Legacy Collection), and mimics the front-panel. But even more so than on the DS-20 rendition (iMS-20), they pack in modern features that make this a production tool as much as a synthesizer. That should be welcome news for people who want to use this tool away from their computer.

The iPolysix also has an advantage in skeuomorphism (read: fake knobbery). Whereas the iMS-20′s elaborate control panel left some people’s fat fingers stumbling for parameters and eyes squinting at their display, the cleaner original Polysix layout translates nicely here.

And KORG follows a trend I’ve seen in a number of tablet developers: they describe the app as being “for iPad mini” as well as iPad. In technical specs, that’s effectively meaningless: the iPad mini is more or less a shrunken iPad 2, in display resolution and horsepower. But in practice, it’s good to see developers target readability and usability on the portable iPad — especially as, at a lower price point, the new Apple devices seems destined for success, especially with the oncoming holiday. (You can also add this to Japan’s fascination with portability, minimalism, and small size, a fascination I … share, in fact.)

Also, in keeping with KORG iOS launches, this is 50% off at launch. You want it now, in other words, not after the sale ends December 31st.

Let’s check the specs, shall we?

  • Polysix sound emulation, modeled at the component level — actually, two Polysix models. (In a virtual studio setup, KORG gives you “two” virtual Polysix units.)
  • All-new “Polyseq” step sequencer. (Looks like a fairly conventional affair, but nicely fit to the iPad’s screen.)
  • Integrated six-part drum machine.
  • Integrated mixer, inspired by the vintage KORG KMX-8.
  • Two integrated virtual KAOSS Pads for X/Y control of the synths — including chord support. (Makes sense to me; X/Y control is still ideal on iPad, since for keys, you’re likely better off plugging in a keyboard.
  • SoundCloud export, which they’re dubbing “Polyshare.” (Will be interesting to see if they do extra social activities around this.)

The original Polysix stacked up nicely against other synths from the same era — here, literally, stacked against Roland. But on the iPad, it is a whole heck of a lot slimmer. Photo (CC-BY) musicamang / moni / man pikin.

Marketing keeps emphasizing that this will transport you in time back to the early 80s. I’m perfectly happy to live in 2012, thanks — complete with a copy of iPolysix.

KORG recommends an iPad 2 or better. I’m finding the original iPad is good for older apps and control apps, but it seems the sound heavy lifting will be an iPad 2 or later or iPad mini.

on the iTunes App Store

The scoop here goes to the wonderful blog wire to the ear, run by one passionate (and talented) iOS fan:
korg ipolysix


Xenos Soundworks releases “FX-Only” and “All-In-One” Soundsets for Rob Papen Blue

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

8th March 2011: Xenos Soundworks has released FX-Only and All-In-One soundsets for Rob Papen Blue. FX-Only contains 64 special effects, FX stabs, transitions and other atonal abstract sounds which work well with any…