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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.


Frank Rittberger updates Smidy MIDI Sequencer for Windows

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Frank Rittberger has updated Smidy, his VST 3 plugin hosting MIDI sequencer to a native 64-bit application. This enhancement is delivered with the newest build of the sequencer’s demo and full [Read More]

Arturia announces availability of “BeatStep Pro” Hardware Sequencer

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

Arturia has released the BeatStep Pro hardware sequencer. BeatStep Pro is an assignable MIDI controller, two analogue-style step sequencers, a drum programmer, and live performance tool packaged [Read More]

Renoise releases Redux – VST/AU Plugin Sampler and Phrase Sequencer

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

Renoise has released Redux VST/AU Plugin Sampler and Phrase Sequencer. Redux is a combination of a a sampler and performance-oriented phrase sequencer, and has inherited and expanded upon a unique [Read More]

Pyramid Polyrhythmic Sequencer: Ready For Preorders

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

05 Pyramid zoom
I remember using hardware sequencers in the Nineties, and then ditching them for a laptop. In the early 2000s for me, using a software sequencer on a laptop looked like an ‘obvious’ choice.
But what if we could look at hardware sequencers under a different perspective now? That’s what Squarp Instruments, a new French company, is trying to do with its first product, Pyramid Polyrhythmic Sequencer. You may have heard of it some months ago, but now the company is ready to accept preorders.

Welcome Pyramid
Pyramid Polyrhythmic Sequencer breakthrough — an advanced hardware standalone sequencer running proprietary PyraOs realtime processing firmware and boasting (multiple) MIDI, USB, CV/Gate, and (Sync48- and Sync24-configurable) DIN Sync connectivity, together with a host of fanciful features belying its compact form factor (its road-ready aluminium casing merely measures 268 x 206 x 44 mm).
The workflow is based around 64 tracks. Each track can be up to 64 bars in length and acts as a loop that contains polyphonic or monophonic notes, automations and effects, plays repeatedly and controls one of the electronic musical instruments connected to the MIDI 1, MIDI 2 +sync (DIN Sync), CV, and USB outputs. Of course, those instruments could be hardware (such as drum machines, synthesizers, and modular synth systems), virtual instruments (running on a connected computer or even an iOS device), or combinations thereof. The full flexibility of CV, G (Gate), and ENV — useful for sequencing any voltage-controlled parameter, such as an envelope generator or filter — connectivity will absolutely appeal to modular synth system users.

Pyramid Polyrhythmic Sequencer’s hands-on hardware user interface includes six accurate and clickable encoders, a wide, multi-finger touchpad, and an accelerometer — all of which can easily be assigned to an effect parameter, a MIDI CC message, or even the two CV inputs! Beautifully backlit, the white LCD clearly highlights all functions, fanciful or otherwise. One particularly noteworthy mention must go to the algorithmic euclidian sequencer engine available to each track to auto-generate atypical and rich rhythmic patterns… plucky users can change the number of total steps, the number of filled steps, the step width, and rotate the pattern — again, all on the fly!

Simple or odd stuff, you decide
Pyramid Polyrhythmic Sequencer is fully polyrhythmic, meaning different and unusual time signatures can be set for each of its 64 tracks to cleverly create shifted-beat sequences — set a track to 4/4 and add other tracks to simultaneously run with it in 5/4, 6/8, 15/8, or whatever — to bring stirring new musical flavours to productions.
I found interesting what Squarp Instruments’ Tom Hurlin said about Pyramid: “We felt that we had to create a machine that you could really feel — one that could satisfy any musician from any musical background. We wanted to have nice and playful controls, such as a multipoint touchpad, which was inspired by Korg’s Kaoss Pad and Kaossilator, and to be able to go from basic four-on-the-floor house beats to very experimental rhythms. Really, the important thing is that if you go from the computer to Pyramid then you don’t feel frustrated. The machine should enable you to do exactly what you had in mind when you started working with it, but also allow for some happy accidents along the way when tweaking!”.

Price and details

100 Pyramid Polyrhythmic Sequencers are available to preorder online for €699.00 EUR/$ 799.00 USD/£524.00 GBP (including VAT) from the Squarp Instruments Store here: http://www.squarp.net/store.html (Shipping is scheduled to start in June 2015, including free delivery to 28 European Union member states, with a second batch becoming available worldwide in early Q4 2015.)

For more in-depth info, please visit http://www.squarp.net


J74 releases BassLine – Max for Live MIDI editor and sequencer for bass-line progressions

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

J74 has released J74 BassLine, a new Max for Live MIDI editor and sequencer for bass-line progressions. This tool combines rhythm and harmony and generates bass-lines which automatically adapt [Read More]

Defective Records Software updates Cyclic Step Sequencer to v1.6 – Adds ReWire support

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Defective Records Software has updated its Cyclic Step Sequencer for Mac OS X and Windows to version 1.6. Cyclic is novel step sequencer concept, with six independent subsequences that cycle [Read More]

Watch 16 Rubik’s Cubes Turn Into a Visual Music Sequencer

Monday, March 16th, 2015

The future happens gradually — and then by the time you’re sequencing a Web browser using Rubik’s Cubes, you might barely notice.

But Sweden’s most inventive producer is back yet again with his latest novelty, this time turning one of the world’s best-selling toys (hundreds of millions of units) into a usable sequencer.

Håkan Lidbo (concept and sound design) teams up with Per-Olov Jernberg (programming & visual design) and Romeo Brahasteanu (game board). The clever conceit here is to swap black for one of the colors, thus creating a foreground and background. Make a 4×4 grid of these cubes of 4×4 each, and you have a very usable sequencer — in fact, one more flexible than a lot of hardware sequencers out there, I might add. (It also bears some resemblance to my favorite drum machine of the moment, iOS’ Elastic Drums.)

The design is simple. And the functionality, like other computer vision-powered sequencers, is reasonably straightforward.

A camera and led lights are mounted over a game board painted in matte black.
A color recognizing algorithm built in a web sequencer for Chrome playing back sounds. Each color represent one musical instrument, totally 6 different instruments. Each position horizontally represents a beat in a 4/4 loop. Each position vertically represents a key from low pitch closest to the player and high pitch further up.

But, wait a minute — remember that what made Rubik’s Cube so popular is that it’s a puzzle. As it happens, making this work as a sequencer is intentionally, and possibly entertainingly, challenging:

The setups can be any sound you put into the sequencer but in the demo film, this is the set up: White is drums, green is bass, orange is percussion, red is synth 1, yellow is synth 2, blue is synth 3.In order to compose, the played have to place the right cube in the right box and then twist the cube to get the desired combination. This is quite complicated as it is but when changing one instrument it effect other instruments. So composing music becomes a puzzle. A very difficult puzzle. But why does it have to be easy? Most of today’s electronic music tools have a low learning curve. But the Cube Sequencer is not easy. Just like learning how to play the violin or chess – or to solve the Rubik’s Cube, this takes time to master.

Welcome to the game of sequencing.

Fun stuff.



More on the project:


If this all seems too mechanical for you, check out Hakan’s last project, which tends in a different direction entirely — tunnels that sing back to you, based on pitch recognition.

The post Watch 16 Rubik’s Cubes Turn Into a Visual Music Sequencer appeared first on Create Digital Music.


Korg SQ-1 Sequencer

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Read more about Korg SQ-1 Sequencer at MusicRadar.com

Sequencers are all the rage again and surprisingly Korg hasn’t made a dedicated sequencer for a long time. In fact, the last sequencer it made that anyone got excited about (Electribes aside) was the SQ-10 in 1978, so it’s great that it’s back in the game!

The SQ-1 is a cute little unit and coming in at £106 (street price around £79) it offers a lot of bang-for-buck. You’ll be glad to know it’s actually built like a tank with a fully metal case and chassis, a solid MS-20-style mode selector knob and 16 Volca-style translucent backlit knobs with red backlit rubber sequence step/function buttons.

Underneath is the battery compartment where two AA batteries reside, though it’s a shame this is held down with two screws rather than having a more easy access opening tab.

“All things considered, the SQ-1’s power really impresses for the money”

The SQ-1 can also be powered via its USB port (DAW/USB buss power) or via a USB power adaptor. Interface-wise, the SQ-1 is simple on the surface so as not to get in the way of performing/ programming but there’s a lot of functionality provided.

On the front you have two independent sequence rows (Channel A and B), each with eight sequence buttons. These rows can run alternately (per step), in parallel (forwards), in parallel (forward then reverse) A then B (up to 16 steps), in random mode, with CV outputting on A and slides on B, with CV outputting on A and Duty (note length) on B and finally with random CV on A and Duty on B.

You can also set the CV output voltages (1V, 2V, 5V V/Oct or 8V Hz/V options) for interfacing with different equipment by holding function and specific step buttons, so even more eclectic CV/Gate gear is accommodated.

Further to this, the SQ-1 works as a MIDI>CV converter. You can send MIDI notes from your DAW to the USB input on the SQ-1 which then converts the incoming MIDI to CV/Gate data to send to whatever equipment you like. The beauty here is you can address two connected instruments independently (or the two oscs separately on the MS-20M for example).

The timing under MIDI clock is also tight and it’s great fun controlling DAW software instruments from the SQ-1 too. Note that when first powering on the SQ-1 you might think that the speed control doesn’t go fast enough but, under the global settings, you can set the resolution of each step globally to quarter, eighth or sixteenth notes.

The ins and outs of it

Connection wise there’s also plenty to work with. There’s a connection for interfacing with Little Bits modular gear, MIDI out (via a mini jack to DIN breakout cable), CV/Gate outs for each channel and Sync in and out for interfacing with Volcas/Monotribes – and all outs work simultaneously.

In use, it’s all very intuitive when programming and, when playing back sequences, there are plenty of lights for keeping track of active steps and levels in dimly lit environments.

Also the performance controls taken from the Volca range are a godsend for spicing up sequences and live shows, so you can use Step Jump to instantly trigger steps manually, Active Step to change the length of sequences, Gate on/off to add/remove steps and Slide mode for smooth transitions between notes and 303-style workouts.

You don’t even have to worry about being able to program well as, if you want, you can let the SQ-1 harmonically quantise the pitches of each knob/step to the nearest chromatic note or to major/minor scales.

All things considered, the SQ-1’s power really impresses for the money, though it misses swing and song mode, plus there’s no apparent way to transpose or store favourite sequences currently (all software updateable hopefully).

At least for now you can use Korg’s SyncKontrol IOS app for swing and, missing features aside, it’s a capable little sequencer that’s well-built and won’t break the bank.

Read more about Korg SQ-1 Sequencer at MusicRadar.com


Monoplugs updates B-Step Sequencer to v2.1 on Windows, Mac, Linux and iOS

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

Create your own Styles. Download Presets, im- export Projects. Embedded User Manual Browser. Monoplugs has updated B-Step Sequencer to v2.1 on Windows, Mac, Linux and iOS. B-Step [Read More]