Novation’s groovebox has been steadily upgraded since its introduction last year. Greg Scarth finds out what the latest firmware updates bring to the table.
Released in late 2015, Novation’s Circuit has quickly become one of the most popular grooveboxes on the market. The Circuit’s firmware has just been updated to version 1.4, which gives us the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at some of the features added to the unit since launch. But first, a recap: what exactly is the Circuit? With that grid of buttons on the front panel, the obvious reference point might be Novation’s own Launchpad, but the Circuit is a self-contained unit rather than a controller for software. Essentially it’s a groovebox based around two of Novation’s Nova synth engines, a sample playback engine plus integrated sequencer and effects. In short, it’s designed as an all-in-one production environment: there’s no computer needed, the workflow is intuitive and it can be used for everything from sketching out rough ideas through to creating complete arrangements.
The first thing that strikes you when you unbox it is the fact that it’s truly portable. So many ‘portable’ instruments have grown bloated over recent years that it’s refreshing to find one which is truly fit for purpose. At 240 x 200 x 35 mm and only just over 1 kg with batteries installed, the Circuit is small and light enough to carry about and make music anywhere. There’s even a built-in speaker.
Aside from its compact format, the workflow is probably the number one selling point of the Circuit, based around a grid system which has become a mainstay of hardware and software thanks to the likes of Ableton Live, the Launchpad and numerous other sequencer implementations. This is a particularly well thought-out example, probably as a result of Novation’s experience with the Launchpad range.
Circuit combines synths, sample-based drums, sequencing and effects, with the key synth elements coming courtesy of a pair of Nova synth engines (based on current Novation synths such as the MiniNova and UltraNova, using virtual analogue technology developed from 90s synths such as the Nova and SuperNova). Earlier versions of the Circuit were fairly limited in terms of their sample and synth options, with just a few main adjustable parameters per sound. The development of the firmware has changed all that. The Circuit has now been on sale just over a year, but the instrument as it stands in November 2016 is significantly different to the original unit when it was released in October 2015. Most importantly in terms of the synthesis options, you can now access the full range of synth parameters via software and assign custom macros to the unit’s eight rotary controls. It’s way more versatile than when the unit was originally released, complemented by the ability to load custom samples into the four drum parts (which can of course be used for melodic elements and other samples as well as drums).
In an era when so many hardware units are released with promises of future firmware updates, it’s great to see Novation following through on their plan (some manufacturers aren’t quite so forthcoming with the promised updates, the prime example in recent years being the DSI Tempest, whose slow development led users to petition Roger Linn for new features). In the time since its initial release, Novation have actively upgraded the functionality of the unit.
We won’t focus too much on the earlier updates here, but OS 1.1 and 1.2 introduced key features including the Isotonik editor and librarian, plus the ability to import and export samples. The most recent couple of updates are where things have really started to get interesting. Most notably, version 1.3 introduced sample flip functionality, allowing you to switch samples over the course of a pattern, effectively allowing you to choose from all 64 samples as part of each drum pattern. Version 1.4 introduces custom pattern lengths for the drum parts, which allows for some interesting polyrhythms, constantly twisting melodies and pseudo-randomised percussive elements. Patterns can also now be switched in real time (the previous firmware only allowed them to be switched at the end of a pattern), which again makes things feel more flexible and versatile.
Cynics might suggest that some of these new features should have been included from the start, but I admire Novation’s approach to developing the Circuit as a constantly evolving entity, letting it find its own path as an instrument. One of the major focuses over the last few updates has been Circuit Components, a suite of software tools which expand the functionality of Circuit in a number of ways. Novation have chosen not to launch a dedicated Circuit forum on their own site, but there are active Circuit user groups on Facebook and various other forums – this is relevant because it’s clear that feedback from users has played a significant role in determining the direction of feature development. Novation’s own version of the Components story is surprisingly interesting, explaining how the updates have introduced a mixture of features that Novation planned from the start and ideas they come up with as they spent more time with the unit.
The version 1.4 firmware update is another genuine step forward for the Circuit. This is now a significantly more fully formed piece of hardware than it was when it was first released. The all-in-one approach doesn’t suit everyone, but Circuit works nicely alongside a DAW (with the Ableton Live integration particularly well thought out) and plays nicely with other hardware thanks to improved MIDI sync options introduced in v1.4. The Circuit is also very competitively priced, currently working out around £250 street price, significantly lower than the current Korg Electribes. Overall, the improvement since its initial release is impressive to see. Novation should be commended for their proactive approach to updating the Circuit. We look forward to seeing what else lies in store.
Purchase: Novation Circuit
The Final Word
A groovebox that keeps improving. Novation should be commended for their proactive approach to updating the Circuit.