Like the Novation Circuit Tracks, the Circuit Rhythm sampler is a small, lightweight, battery-powered device that eschews any kind of screen at all in pursuit of a more hands-on, intuitive music-making method. As a sampler to add to your DJ set up, or a device to start making sample-based music on, it largely succeeds – and if you like the Roland SP-404 or indeed any other Novation Circuit, you’ll likely enjoy this too.
First Impressions / Setting up
It’s pretty much exactly the same, physically, as the Novation Circuit Tracks, which we’ve also reviewed, just in a lighter case. Same 8 x 4 RGB backlit touch-sensitive grid, with 26 well-designed supporting buttons, and 10 knobs/endless encoders. The design is a small, lightweight, pleasing square “wedge”.
Round the back are the on/off switch and USB-C charging/computer connect socket, the microSD card slot to hold your samples and sequences, plus 1/4″ sample inputs and overall output sockets, and an 1/8″ headphones socket. There’s full-sized Midi in/out/thru, as well as a single 1/8″ sync socket.
Like the Circuit Tracks, the built-in rechargeable battery is said to last for around four hours, which we found to be about correct.
Essentially you have eight monophonic sample tracks here, although you can pack lots of different sounds onto each track – you just can’t have more than eight playing at any one time.
And yes, you can actually sample on this unit – it’s not simply a sample playback machine, although Novation does provide many stock sounds, which are good, and not only drums.
They can be arranged into 32-step sequences or “patterns”, which themselves can be built up into scenes and projects, and with “mutate” and “variation” settings, you can keep things organic. All is saved to the microSD, to be backed up etc on a computer in the Novation Components web app, a real bonus here.
The effects are more in-depth than the very simple effects on the Circuit Tracks (delay, reverb, filter and sidechain, which are also here). There are additional punch-ins including a very tasty vinyl effect, which DJs will love. Even so, they’re not exactly refined, and quite hard to tame.
Bear in mind that with no screen, you will have to commit a lot to “muscle memory” before you can use this unit without consulting the manual – good job the manual is clearly written and laid out.
The system-wide filter knob is particularly worth mentioning, because it is such a DJ-friendly effect, and means this unit will sit nicely alongside a DJ controller for people wanting to combine their own beats with a DJ set.
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We found that once we got past the steepish learning curve, we hit a groove, and we suspect if you’ve read this far, you too may well decide you like it more than laptop-based beat making – which of course is the whole idea.
Any sampler/drum machine like this is going to be all about the compromises, and here you’ll be dealing with editing samples without a screen “by ear only” as one of the big ones. But while different to all the competition in this way and some other ways too, the Circuit Tracks Rhythm holds up well against other devices out there.
Consider also devices like the Roland SP-404 MkII, the latest version of a classic (complete with screen – but more expensive); the Model:Samples (cheaper, but no battery and inferior “pads”); or even the tiny, limited but hugely fun (and mega cheap) Teenage Engineering PO-33.
Read this next: 4 Ways To Add A Sampler To Your DJ Set-Up
Ultimately, if you want a sampler to make beats on, to make sample-based house, or even just to perform alongside your DJ sets, all without using a laptop in the workflow, the Circuit Rhythm would be well worth considering.