- Originally released in 2015, the Novation Circuit was a simple, 16-step groovebox that was well made and easy to use. It wasn't exactly packed with features, but that was the point. One interesting decision was the choice to leave its eight macro knobs unlabelled. The specifics of editing synth parameters and sample playback were kept from the user in a deliberately vague and exploratory gesture. Novation were keen for Circuit to be seen as an inspirational instrument and an ideas machine. Limitations have a positive effect on creativity but, for some users, the initial iteration of Circuit took this a little too far.
Yet over the past 18 months Circuit has been subject to a number of significant software and firmware updates. These introduced features requested by the Circuit community (the Facebook group Circuit Owners is a buzzing hive of advice, feature requests and feedback) and new tools from the team at Novation. This once simple offering is now a deeply editable synth, a complex polyrhythmic sequencer and a powerful sampler. It's become a qualitatively different instrument, so we felt it pertinent to take another look at Circuit.
The biggest change to Circuit's overall usability came from a new web-based piece of software. Circuit Components allowed users to load their own samples into Circuit and play them across four drum tracks. The name of these tracks is now a little misleading—it's possible to load in a chord or synth sample and write melodies using pitch automation, a feature introduced as part of the new Sample Flip function. Sample Flip also makes it possible to assign and play multiple samples on each track, although only one sample can play on any given step. This makes complex melodic structures and glitching, IDM-style sequences alarmingly easy to put together.
As the updates rolled in, the Components software gained more features. With v1.5, Circuit shed it's web-based skin and became completely standalone. Packs were introduced as a means of bundling together all of your sessions, patches and samples as well as custom-made collections made by Novation. The Editor, developed in conjunction with Dunstable-based Isotonik Studios, built two Nova polysynth engines into Circuit. The Editor is a little overwhelming at first, with almost every one of its controls visible on a single page. Users with small screens might struggle with the sheer size of the thing. It wasn't possible to view the whole interface at once on my 13-inch laptop but if you're alright with a little scrolling it's not too much of a problem. The eight macro knobs can control up to four parameters at once, making it possible to put together interesting patches even if you have little or no experience with synthesis. It's super easy to pick a preset, change a few of the controls, map them to the macros at random and see what happens. Should you wish to dive in further, Isotonik have developed a pro version that plays nicely with Ableton's automation controls, as well as providing intelligent randomisation and the ability to morph between two patches (not unlike Snapshot morphing on the new Maschine Jam). That something like the Editor caters so well to beginners and synth-heads alike is a key part of Circuits continuing appeal.
Sequencing is Circuit's main method of pattern creation and the updates have broadened its scope considerably. First came the ability to set the length of the synth engine sequences to any step between one and 16. Then this was extended to the four drum tracks in v1.4. Things can get messy pretty quickly as soon as you start straying into odd-numbered sequence lengths. But with some careful sound selection, it's possible to generate some wild polyrhythmic patterns, which could always be recorded into a DAW and edited to restore some semblance of order. Step automation was also improved, with the option to clear macro automation on a per-step basis, allowing for more refined results should you go a little too crazy during recording. Unfortunately, you're still stuck rigidly to those 16 steps when it comes to quantisation. Velocity and the global swing control can only help so much—the ability to nudge individual notes either side of their assigned steps would be a welcome addition.
As far as plain-old useful improvements go, the ability to preview samples and patches is very welcome. This naturally goes hand-in-hand with Sample Flip and opens up the Circuit to live-input pattern creation. This does make me yearn for a similar function regarding synth patches. It's possible to do this via external MIDI input using program change messages but it would be great to have this available when using the Circuit in standalone mode. Being able to individually colour Sessions within components or from the hardware itself is also very handy, turning what was previously a sea of blue squares into something much easier to navigate. Improved MIDI and fractional gate functionally also means Circuit integrates better with DAWs and outboard studio gear. It proves itself to be a very capable sequencer for synths or drum machines.
There are a still a couple of omissions I'd like to see rectified in future updates. Panning is one, as being able to place samples in the stereo field would really help bring drum patterns to life. It would also be great to assign the filter to individual tracks. Only being able to use it on the master output renders it almost completely useless during the music making process in my experience. It's also not possible to automate between the different effects presets, though a workaround can be found by switching between Sessions that have different presets applied. In terms of the components software, not being able to drag in batches or folders of samples makes loading in your own sounds a somewhat tedious process, while you may find yourself coming up against the 60 second total sample time should you wish to drop in a few loops or longer pad sounds.
Despite the numerous additions to Circuit's basic infrastructure, it remains an incredibly easy to use device. I've never been much of a melody-maker when it comes to music, preferring to let drums do most of the work. But with the Circuit I felt somehow compelled to explore strange, improvised melodic ideas almost constantly. This ability to push users so easily out of their comfort zone while coming up with exciting new approaches in the process makes Circuit's place in any studio seems like a bit of a no-brainer.
Ease of use: 4.6