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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

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circuit hands on 3

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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.


Starting music is the theme of a Novation product launch next week

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Novation are promising something new on the 1st of October. Let’s just say whatever [redacted] may be, we’ll cover [redacted] when the time is right. But what I find interesting is the way they’re introducing the message. Just as Ableton did with Push, the message is about “starting something” — about getting past that initial creative impulse.

I think we’re seeing a shift in the way we talk about music technology in general. The old way of selling was to make the process as mysterious as possible. Serious professionals would tell you how they had the killer tool that you didn’t — the thing you’d want.

Now, we’re saying the opposite. After years of those experts resisting the democratization of music, the people making the tools are talking openly about demystifying music making.

On one level, it’s risky. After all, if you demystify music making, who’s to say that any music tool is really so important, anyway?

On another, what are we doing if not making tools for people who love music for people who will love them? And then it’s up to us writing about these tools, and eventually you using them, to see if they’re something you care about.

There are a number of videos, but my favorite comes from FOXTROTT, aka singer-producer Marie-Helene L. Delorme of Montreal. It’s hard to even describe her genre, in the right way, but it’s hip-hop-influenced, internationally-flavored and modern Québécois pop. She’s an independent, unsigned, unlabeled artist.

And I totally agree with the cooking metaphor. Producers can easily get stuck in endless in-the-box tweaking; the key to starting off on the right foot is getting those initial ingredients. Oddly, this makes me flash back to a similar speech about ingredients and making a stew by George Tsontakis, a new music composer who’s about as far as you can get from FOXTROTT as you might imagine. But the metaphor is universal.

You can hear more here:

And then next month we’ll talk about what Novation are doing, and then we’ll talk about what music you make with what you’re using, and that’s how this is all meant to work.

The post Starting music is the theme of a Novation product launch next week appeared first on Create Digital Music.


J74 updates ISO Controllers desktop application to v2.0 adding support for the Novation Launchpad Pro and MK2

Monday, August 17th, 2015

J74 has updated the ISO Controllers standalone application for Launchpad controllers to version 2.0. The new version adds support for the newest Novation Launchpad controllers (the Launchpad [Read More]

Hack a Grid: Novation Makes Launchpad Pro Firmware Open Source

Friday, July 17th, 2015


Novation’s Launchpad Pro has just begun shipping, and it’s lovely, very flexible hardware. You can use it with Ableton Live. You can use it with other software, as a standard MIDI controller. It’s USB class-compliant, so it works with other devices and operating systems, like the iPad and Raspberry Pi. You can change how it works with Max for Live, or any software that supports MIDI. And it works in a variety of standalone modes, so you can use it to play hardware without connecting to a computer.

That’s a lot, already. But soon, the Launchpad Pro could do more.

Novation quietly released a special customizable firmware as open source code on GitHub. And, inspired by recent Head of Product Innovation Dave Hodder has even written a screed about hacking. Despite the Launchpad-specific headline, it’s actually more or less a love letter to the whole hacker / DIYer / open source community, generally:

Launchpad Pro: A Hacker’s Dream

Now, you’re not actually hacking the entire Novation firmware. That’d cause potential mayhem, and apart from being a support nightmare for Novation, it’d be more or less a nightmare for you, too — and wouldn’t really yield any interesting results.

Instead, you can think of this as an open API to the hardware itself. You can’t “brick” the device, or otherwise break it. What you can do is make new applications for the Launchpad Pro as a standalone device.

In your code, you can include messages to and from the hardware:

  • Receive events when you press the pads and buttons
  • Receive messages from the USB port or MIDI port (there are MIDI input and output jacks on the Launchpad Pro)
  • Send messages to the USB and MIDI ports
  • Receive tick messages — so your app can sync to an external source
  • Change the LED colors

Thanks to the Novation team for messing with our synth at a hack day recently!

Thanks to the Novation team for messing with our synth at a hack day recently!

At your disposal is the Launchpad Pro’s brain, an ARM Cortex M3 from STMicroelectronics. (72 MHz, baby!) To make life easier, they’ve even built a virtual machine you can install so your developer environment is ready to run. Then, you build on a command line or in Eclipse and upload via MIDI — fairly easy stuff.

You code in C — the app.c file shows you what’s going on. Even with pretty basic coding skills, it’s pretty accessible; that’s the advantage of them hiding away the nasty stuff you’d only want to touch if you were an experienced developer and Novation offered you a job.

With just those elements, you can do a whole lot. Fun hacks light light shows and games are possible, and might be an enjoyable way to learn. But you’ll also be able to create musical applications that aren’t already on the hardware, like chord generators, arpeggiators, or even a step sequencer.

This could be huge for Launchpad Pro owners even if you aren’t a coder, because it could mean a community around the device sharing this stuff and supporting one another.

To make things even easier, though, we’re talking with Novation about how some examples might be produced that will help get people started.

launchpad_pro - 1

I love the idea, though, as a musician as much as a hacker. It opens up the possibility of having standalone hardware in the studio you can use with or without a computer, ready to perform the tasks you want in your music creation process. And it means you can imagine something and get it working on hardware without the daunting task of trying to build something from scratch. I think it’s potentially a great companion to our open source, standalone, ready-to-play MeeBlip synth — you’ll spot one in the shot above, getting some use at the recent MIDI Hack in Berlin. And I don’t just mean as a product — it’s something I want to use with my MeeBlips, myself!

There really isn’t any direct comparison, either — grid hardware with velocity and standalone operation that you can hack directly on the device. Of course, the whole initiative from Novation does owe a huge debt, though, to the monome line, and the fact that that maker and its community really championed and popularized the idea of sharing open musical solutions around a piece of hardware. It’s difficult to overstate the impact Brian Crabtree, Kelli Cain, and the monome musicians have had on the industry, as well as all the people who have been organizing these hack days and producing creative ideas.

Stay tuned for more on where this is leading. And if you have feedback on that API or what you’d like to see, let us know in comments.


Photo: Sebastian Höglund.

The post Hack a Grid: Novation Makes Launchpad Pro Firmware Open Source appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Novation updates Automap to v4.9

Friday, June 26th, 2015

Novation has updated Automap to v4.9. Automap Release Notes: Now detects Cubase 8 and Nuendo 7 (Win and Mac). Fixed conflict with Launchpad MK2 and Launchpad Pro. Please note Automap has no native [Read More]

This Novation Synth Comes with Moroder’s ‘Stache and Shades

Friday, May 15th, 2015


The synth renaissance has led to yet another interesting wrinkle: the limited edition celebrity synth.

But before we get to that, apparently the first thing you need to know is that Giorgio Moroder really loves his Novation MiniNova. The little synth, with its vocoder and dial-up presets, has apparently followed him around on tour.

Making a special edition is a different take on the celebrity endorsement, though. So how did Novation go about it?

1. They’re only making 500, even with a “certificate of authenticity.” (A certificate of Moroderishness?)

2. It looks different: you get the “moustache and shades” logo — which looks adorable screened on the side, I have to admit — plus a silver/black color scheme.

3. You get dial-up Moroder presets — and, actually, this may be the best reason to get one. Team Novation have matched everything from the Donna Summer Giorgio sound to the Daft Punk Giorgio sound. (No sound samples yet; you’ll have to take their word for it.)



I think it’s worth saying how cool it is that Giorgio Moroder is starting his DJ career now — like playing his first gig at Deep Space in New York, supplementing that DJ setup with some licks on his (non-limited-edition) MiniNova. The man is 75 years old. Now, sure, he’s also Giorgio Moroder, but even so, it gives me hope should I ever be lucky enough to reach that age. And it says something really nice about electronic music.

I’m not sure I necessarily need an artist edition of my favorite synths, but it’s nice to see some creative marketing. And there’s a lovely Giorgio Moroder minisite with the synth. For now, you’ll have to be satisfied with an email notification when it becomes available:

The post This Novation Synth Comes with Moroder’s ‘Stache and Shades appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Novation updates Launchkey with RGB Velocity-Sensitive Pads

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Novation has announced the updated Launchkey, now with RGB velocity-sensitive pads. Novation’s Launchkey keyboard controller offers a quick and easy way to produce and perform electronic music [Read More]

Novation announces Launchpad Pro – Grid Performance Instrument

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

At NAMM Novation has announced Launchpad Pro, which they describe as “the best and simplest way to create dynamic, expressive musical performances”. This professional grid instrument gives the [Read More]

Novation Launch Control XL

Monday, October 13th, 2014

Read more about Novation Launch Control XL at MusicRadar.com

A member of Novation’s Launch range of dedicated MIDI controllers for Ableton Live, the Launch Control XL expands on the original Launch Control – which featured a rather meagre eight pads and 16 knobs – to make a more fitting companion unit to the Launchpad S.

The two are the same size, and the XL does for Live’s Mixer what the S did for Clip launching, offering plenty of hands-ons control in a straightforward, compact unit.

First impressions are great: the Launch Control XL’s roughly 9.5″ square plastic casing feels surprisingly rugged, and its natty orange rubber base should help defend it somewhat from the rigours of life on the road.

“The sturdy design makes it ideal for live performance, but it’s quite at home as a mixing tool in the studio too.”

The face of the unit features 24 knobs, eight faders, 16 pads and ten buttons, and the build quality throughout is absolutely top notch – although the knobs might be a touch stiff for some. You also get a USB cable in the box, as well as 1GB of Loopmasters samples and Ableton Live Lite.

Being a class-compliant device, installation couldn’t be easier: simply plug it in. The XL is divided into eight channels, each with a volume fader, knobs for Pan, Send A and Send B, a Track Focus button and a Track Control button.

Pressing Track Focus on a channel selects that channel’s strip in Live, as if you’d clicked on it, while Track Control has three modes of operation, selected using the buttons on the right-hand side of the unit: Mute, Solo and Record Arm – it’s all very straightforward.

My selector

The Track Select buttons jump the whole controller between banks of eight channels in Live: 1-8, 9-16, 17-24 and so on. The Device modifier button switches the Pan knobs into Device mode, under which they control eight of the currently selected plugin’s parameters.

Further parameters can then be accessed by holding down the Device button, which turns the Track Control pads into Device Bank selectors, each with its own Pan/Device knob assignments.

In the case of EQ Eight, for example, the first bank sees the knobs controlling each band’s on/off state, the second band frequency, the third band Gain, and so on.

This setup would be much better if the Send A and Send B knobs could also be used for device control, but as it stands, the only way to get access to all of the controls is to create a user template – see Template of Dreams.

When held, the Device button also turns the Track Select buttons into Device Select buttons, which cycle through the instruments and effects on the currently selected track. So, once you’ve got the hang of how the modifiers work, you can select any device on any track and tweak its parameters without touching your mouse or keyboard. There are also two Send Select buttons for selecting which sends in Live the Send A and Send B knobs control.

The Launch Control XL is a very well thought-out controller that packs a lot into its relatively tiny surface area. The sturdy design makes it ideal for live performance, but it’s quite at home as a mixing tool in the studio too.

It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity that the Send knobs can’t be used to control device parameters like the Pan knobs can, but that’s certainly not enough of an issue to prevent us giving it our wholehearted recommendation.

Read more about Novation Launch Control XL at MusicRadar.com


Novation updates V-Station to v2.3 and Bass Station to v2.1

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Novation has updated V-Station to v2.3 and Bass Station to v2.1. Changes in V-Station 2.3: Fixed a problem where plug-ins can incorrectly require re-authorisation (Mac). Fixed crashes with large [Read More]