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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.


Learn electronics with the vintage Side Man drum machine

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

ENG_SIDEMAN_PREVIEW from Darsha Hewitt on Vimeo.

Darsha’s sound electronics class is in session — and it’s a little different to what you’d normally expect.

Rather than a bunch of animations of electrons moving about, sound artist and educator Darsha Hewitt has created a long-form video tutorial around the world’s first commercial drum machine.

Wurlitzer’s Side Man 5000 is hardly practical by modern standards. The pioneering 1959 hardware weighs some 38 kg, and is controllable only via push buttons and a speed fader, pre-programmed to happenin’ grooves like “rhumba.”

Inside, though, this gadget is an electro-mechanical wonder. And taking it apart and making it work again is an opportunity to understand how that technology worked, introducing ideas ranging from the basics of how a tube works to some novel ideas of how to use moving wheels to produce rhythm. You’ll be reminded both what a cathode is and how machines can produce music.


Darsha Hewitt leads with a friendly, patient style accessible to even those with no electronics background — but if you are interested in the intricacies of this hardware, there’s plenty of detail for you, too. The SideMan she’s got is one of only a handful left, to say nothing of the few in proper working order. That means that this is also the most comprehensive documentation yet of the Wurlitzer device’s innards.

The series is presented in episodes, with the teaser out today and the first episode launching on October 6. Or meet Darsha and celebrate the series in person, if you’re around Montréal:

03.10.16 — Advanced Screening and Q&A hosted by Jonathan Sterne @ Mutek_IMG Montréal
04.10.16 — Side Man 5000 Sample Salon Workshop @ Goethe-Institut Montréal

It’s great to see Darsha completing this project, having collaborated with her on a past MusicMakers Hacklab for CTM Festival. I got to visit Side Man in person; it’s an amazing machine.

Disclosure: CDM did publicity support for the launch of this series (and a little video editing), for which we were compensated. (Our coverage of the machine is not sponsored, though — we think it’s a cool project!) Additional funding was provided as part of the “Art and Civic Media” program — Innovation Incubator @ Leuphana University — Lüneburg. Further support provided by Foundation for Art and Creative Technology and Bauhaus-Universität Weimar.








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Sound Dust updates “Modular Chaos Engine#2.1” analog/digital hybrid drum device for Kontakt – celebrates with 25% off intro offer

Friday, September 25th, 2015

Sound Dust have released version 2.1 of its ‘Evolved’ Modular Chaos Engine drum device for Kontakt. New features: New sounds sampled from DSi Poly Evolver making a total of over 1500 samples. [Read More]

Sound Dust updates its ‘found sound drum machine’ Modular Chaos Engine#1 and celebrates with a 20% off offer

Monday, September 14th, 2015

Sound Dust has announced that Modular Chaos Engine#1.1 for Kontakt now has two powerful sequencing engines, Boom and Snap, which allow complex sequenced control of 9 parameters per sound for [Read More]

Adam Monroe Music releases AU Version of Adam Monroe’s Beats Drum Sample Library

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

Adam Monroe Music has released an Audio Unit version of Adam Monroe’s Beats drum sample library for Mac OS X 10.9 or later. The Audio Unit version functions the same as the VST versions, and [Read More]

This is now the iOS drum machine you want to jam with: Elastic Drums 1.6

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Remember when apps were novel toys for experimentation? Now, an app could give your drum machine a run for its money.

It’s the third wave of iOS apps. We’re now onto a moment where, cresting the wave of tools, a few are becoming simply invaluable to the right users. They can make an iPad feel a bit like dedicated hardware, perhaps even in a way that a computer can’t. And that to me makes them worth examining, even if you have no desire to use an iPad.

Elastic Drums has that feeling to me. On its surface, it’s just another drum machine app with a sequencer. But by tying together features you need for production and performance, it’s one of the few apps where I feel like I can really produce something serious. And its sound engine is unusual enough that it actually has personality.

When desktop and iOS software alike often sounds too clean, this gets dirty.

1.6 is a significant update, even despite the “point” release in the name, because of its focus on jamming. On the main screen — or on a MIDI controller, or even using another iOS gizmo as a “remote” — you get loads of options that aid in live improvisation (whether that’s how you want to work in the studio or in front of other people). With this functionality, it’s not hard to imagine an iPad nuzzled in with other synths and drum machines onstage. I covered this before, so it’s worth seeing again now that 1.6 is out:
Pads and triggers turn Elastic Drums into a killer performance tool

There’s more: 1.6 also includes two new synth engines — one for bass, one for drones.

And there are new swing settings. Watch the video, because that doesn’t mean what I initially thought it meant. You can actually use swing for rhythmic variations live — rather than a set it once and forget it option, it’s also a live performance tool.

And since it’s easy to combine apps on modern iPads, I think it’s worth noting again that Patterning, another drum machine app, makes an excellent generative sequencer. I could easily see combining its sequencing features with Elastic Drums’ unique synthesis engine (especially as Patterning focuses more on samples). That gives you conventional kits if you want to augment the further-out sounds of Elastic Drums, and it provides another way of thinking about the sequence that lends itself nicely to more complex polyrhythms.

And to celebrate, the app is on sale for US$ 7.99. Find it on iTunes or at MoM Instruments, the app “label” founded by Mouse on Mars. (Disclosure: an app I co-developed is also part of that label. But… yeah, I just want to play with Elastic Drums and WretchUp in my own music and when I’m in bed. It’s better than sleeping.)


The post This is now the iOS drum machine you want to jam with: Elastic Drums 1.6 appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Patterning on iPad is a circular, sample-savvy drum machine

Thursday, August 20th, 2015


We’re in a the golden age of the drum machine, whether it’s dedicated hardware or a computer or a mobile gadget.

Of course, that means it’s getting tougher to stand out.

Patterning is one of the most promising software entries yet. I’m already a huge fan of Elastic Drums for its rich approach to timbre — this could be my other fast favorite.

Patterning side-steps the two problems with most drum machines — boring, regular patterns, and boring, predictable sounds.

Patterning’s user interface is centered around a circle, as cycles of time repeat in futuristic rotating colored geometries. We’ve seen that before, but Patterning makes it both uniquely accessible and uniquely powerful. Finding four-on-the-floor is easy, but so, too, is creating complex polyrhythms.

For sounds, you can load up your own custom kits, to keep this from sounding like everyone else (well, unless you want some 909 action and you do want to sound like everyone else intentionally). There are deep effects, too, plus the complement of MIDI and audio routing features serious iPad musicians now demand.

Let’s take a look at the specs:

  • Yes, it does Euclidean rhythms — of course.
    1-64 steps, 1/32nd note to whole note with dotted and triplet options, 64-bit velocity.
  • Loop modes: forward, reverse, a specialized random feature (Urn), “pendulum,” auto-rotate.
  • Automation layers, draw and erase.
  • Repeat patterns with the “Pen Echo” mode.
  • Use built-in samples (63 kits there already), or import from Dropbox, Audioshare, iCloud, or iTunes File Sharing.
  • Samples: gain, start/end, attack, hold, decay, coarse/fine tuning
  • Two choke groups.
  • Mixer: per-track multimode resonant filter, plus delay and reverb sends, panning, mute/solo.
  • Effects: delay with feedback and optional tempo sync, 3-band EQ, distortion, reverb.
  • Per-track MIDI and clock.
  • Audiobus, Inter-App MIDI, Core MIDI.




There’s a song mode, too, in which patterns can become larger structures, with some powerful options (time signature, snap, jump, and so on).

Drum and sample kits look like a big part of how this thing will grow. You’ll be able to acquire new sounds via in-app purchase, and even bundle up kits to share with others.


And while you’re picking up Patterning, don’t miss the half-off sale on the lovely Ondes, which presents an expressive, Martenot-inspired way of playing instruments on a tablet.



The post Patterning on iPad is a circular, sample-savvy drum machine appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Bayou Media releases “Drum Gator” Noise Gate VST Plugin for Windows

Monday, August 17th, 2015

Bayou Media has released Drum Gator, a unique noise gate plugin designed specifically for drums and percussion. It is now available for Windows platforms in VST format (32-bit / 64-bit). Here’s [Read More]

Crypto Cipher releases “Solo Dholak – Double Sided Hand Drum of India” for Kontakt 5

Monday, August 17th, 2015

Crypto Cipher has released Solo Dholak for Kontakt 5. Features: 12900+ samples and 3 mic mix positions. One master patch with all controls on interface. Left Drum, Right Drum and Combo Drums [Read More]

Precisionsound releases Sun Drum for NI Kontakt & Logic EXS24

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

Precisionsound has released Sun Drum, a sample library for Kontakt of what is a modified diatonic version of a traditional steel pan. It’s a member of the Hang Drum family and was handmade [Read More]