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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.


Plogue updates chipspeech to v1.032 – Adds Speak and Spell Circuit Bending

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Plogue has updated chipspeech to v1.032 – Adds Speak and Spell Circuit Bending. Plogue obtained the rights to redistribute the ‘Speak & Spell Program’ data files with chipspeech. These are [Read More]

Native Instruments releases Circuit Halo Expansion for Maschine

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Native Instruments has released Circuit Halo – a new Maschine Expansion that combines intricately-sampled vintage synths and drum machines with contemporary patterns. Circuit Halo’s sound set combin [Read More]

Puremagnetik releases Hyperbent – Circuit Bending Library for Ableton Live, Kontakt and Logic

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Puremagnetik has released Hyperbent, a library of circuit bent sounds for Ableton Live, Kontakt and Logic. Hyperbent includes over 80 circuit bent and electronics hacked instrument programs, over 200 [Read More]

In Free App, Circuit Bending Done with Bits [iPhone]

Thursday, September 12th, 2013
No rules. No presets. No idea what sound you're about to get. Oh, yes, this is good fun.

No rules. No presets. No idea what sound you’re about to get. Oh, yes, this is good fun.

It’s all been done.

Or maybe not.

Synthesis may not have so many unseen shores — unknown, wild beaches where you can plunk a flag in the ground and shout “I claim this for Spain!” or something to that effect. Instead, we find nuances of sonic possibility in details. We’re building on those colonies.

And freed from the dogma of “fidelity” or slavish imitation of instruments (remember, a lot of the synth business had its root in the conservative organ business), the sounds that are coming out delight with new variety.

Take this lovely free app, bent.fm. (Currently marked “lite,” in advance of a more fleshed-out edition.) At first, it looks like just another soft synth running on the phone, and maybe it does some edgier digital sounds.

But look again. With just its single FM synthesis operator, you can “circuit bend” the sounds generated via a big matrix, creating an array (literally) of digital distortions, mixing bits like watercolors into new timbral shades. They go as far as to claim that the idea itself is modeling the electronic bends of physical instruments, but in computer models — circuit bending with bits. Whether you agree with that description or not, the idea of short-circuiting the logical flow of bits through synthesis is one I always find appealing. And it, too, can be seen as something that makes sense in a digital age, one in which the modeling of components and filters need not have anything to do with acoustic instruments.

Here’s how creators Kurt James Werner and Mayank Sanganaria (of CCRMA) describe it:

On [the matrix] screen, you can control circuit bends via the bend matrix patch bay, fine & octave clock bends, & control word length decimation. The bend matrix patch bay lets you mangle the circuit to reroute signals, combine them through digital logic chips (NAND, XOR), decimate them through binary counters (CNT0/1), & create glitchy distortions, algorithmic chiptunes sequences, or something entirely new. Play with the bend matrix patch bay to modify bent.fm lite’s sound in crazy, unpredictable ways. Tweak the “fine” knob to subtly adjust bent.fm lite’s pitch with a classic circuit-bent clock bend, or the “octave” to underclock down to throbbing digital basses. Thin out noisy signals with the “nbits” knobs to expose hidden sequences in noisy signals. Explore factory presets & create your own!

The elements in that array are, again, not new techniques. But it’s in the combinations, the details of implementation, where some new possibilities emerge.

In practice, it absolutely feels like circuit bending. Some choices will make it crackle and stop making sound altogether. Others will produce completely and totally unpredicted results. You’ll want to keep some audio recording going for sampling.

And attention sound wonks and students: there are academic papers to go with this, too, so that you can steal these ideas and go create new stuff of your own be inspired by academic research. Papers and talks are linked on their site, where you can also learn more about the synth — or grab it yourself, for your new iPhone 5C.


Waiting for approval is a version in the App Store that brings bug fixes and, crucially, Audiobus support.

Here’s a talk they gave at Stanford’s CCRMA, in California:

CCRMA Colloquium. January 16, 2013

“We present a justification for computer modeling of circuit bent instruments, with deference to the movement’s aversion to “theory-true” design and associations with chance discovery. We introduce the technique of “bit bending,” a particularly fertile type of “bend” dealing with short-circuits and manipulations upon digital serial information. We also present a C++ library for the modeling of certain classes of digital integrated circuits, as well as a synthesis architecture (frequency modulation with numerically-controlled oscillators) which utilizes the library in a Steinberg VST plugin framework. Circuit bending, the process of creatively modifying or augmenting sound-producing electronic devices, occupies an increasingly important musical and cultural niche. Though the practice began in the 1960s (and traces roots to Leon Theremin’s experiments with radio tubes in the 1920s), it is still understudied.”

The post In Free App, Circuit Bending Done with Bits [iPhone] appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Sinevibes updates Circuit to v1.0.3 and adds two tutorials

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Sinevibes has updated its Circuit multi-band waveshape modelling Audio Unit plugin. Changes in v1.0.3 include: New LFO rate display design with “rotating arc” cycle indicator. Fixed LFO waveform sel [Read More]

Sinevibes releases “Circuit” Multiband Waveshape Modelling Mac AU Plug-in

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Sinevibes has announced the release of Circuit, its new Audio Unit effect plugin for multi-band waveshape modelling. Circuit splits the signal into three frequency bands, and passes each band through [Read More]

Sinevibes announces upcoming Circuit AudioUnit effect plug-in

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Read the full story @ KVR Audio
Sinevibes has announced Circuit, its newest AudioUnit effect plugin designed for multi-band waveshape modelling. Circuit splits the signal into three frequency bands, and passes each band through its [Read More]

TranceMidiSamples releases “Trance Behind The Brain” (Vol.1 and 2) for Virus TI and “Circuit of Sound” for ES2

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Read the full story @ KVR Audio
TranceMidiSamples has announced the release of several new soundsets: Trance Behind The Brain Vol. 1 and Trance Behind The Brain Vol. 2 for Access Music’s Virus TI and Circuit of Sound for Apple L [Read More]

Inventor of 555 Dies; Remember Him with an Atari Punk Console, Circuit You Can Make

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

The 555 chip, imagined as delicious chocolate-covered graham crackers. And it was indeed a tasty chip, a major landmark in electronics. Photo (CC-BY) Windell H. Oskay.

Hans R. Camenzind, the Swiss-born engineer who worked in the United States, is responsible for major advancements in electronics and circuit design, but perhaps none so great as the 555 chip. This single integrated circuit is one of the most ubiquitous ever created, but even more importantly, has been for many a curious youngster, electronics hobbyist, or musician a window into the world of electronics. It can be a key to a world where you make your own electronic creations, rather than just relying on some distant manufacturer to produce them for you in a sealed case.

And, oh yes, it can make a circuit that produces some significant amounts of noise — or, if you like, music.

Extraordinarily, the 555 was laid out entirely by hand, a remnant of an earlier time. But you can have at using it yourself in a simple circuit. Even if you’ve never picked up a soldering iron in your life, the Atari Punk Console circuit can be a terrific introduction to DIY electronics. Thank another brilliant mind, Forrest M. Mims III. It uses the 556 variant, which actually combines two 555s on a single chip.

My friend Collin Cunningham did a nice video walking you through the circuit for MAKE.

Mr. Camenzind, we salute you. And in a world where anti-immigrant rhetoric is popular among politicians, consider this: Camenzind has 20 patents to his name, all working in the United States. A recent study, in fact, showed that “immigrants played a role in more than three out of four patents at the [United States’] top research universities,” most often in areas like science, tech, engineering, and math. It’s simple: immigration policies that force out foreigners force out innovation with them. I’m humbled myself, like nearly all Americans the product of immigration, to find myself in another country, and even more so by the opportunity to be part of a global community of people spreading ideas in technology worldwide.

Let’s keep making noise — even the ones that scare cats and small children.

Hans Camenzind, 555 timer inventor, dies [via adafruit]