A unique instrument, the Novation Circuit Tracks is a sequencer, drum machine/sample player dual synth, mixer and FX unit – and it doesn’t even have a screen! Simplicity is the key here, which is both its biggest strength and weakness. Learn to work with it, though, and it could be a long-term love affair, especially for those who really don’t like the idea of using a laptop to make music.
First Impressions / Setting up
The Novation Circuit Tracks is a standalone music-making device that combines two synths, a four-channel drum machine, the ability to control two additional Midi instruments, a sequencer, a mixer, on-board effects, RGB pads that double as a built-in keyboard, and SD card-based storage to let you carry around a huge number of sounds and projects.
It’s easy to throw into a bag, and even has a battery built-in. Just add a pair of wired headphones and you’ve got everything you need to start making electronic music within seconds, anywhere.
Well, that’s the promise, anyway. For the last few weeks I’ve been playing with the Novation Circuit Tracks. I’ve experimented with adding a small Midi keyboard to it (it has two Midi Out/Thru DIN plugs and a Midi In for the keyboard), and hooked up both a Korg Volca Bass synth and a tiny sampler (the 1010music Blackbox) to test out those Midi ports. I’ve been trying to ascertain just how easy it is to make electronic music anywhere, anytime on this. Here’s what I’ve found out.
It’s a nice object. Almost square and slightly wedge-shaped, it is sturdy even though it’s a plastic build. It’s super light and easy to throw into a bag. It is just off-black in colour, and the central feature is 32 velocity-sensitive RGB pads in an 8×4 arrangement.
There are 18 more rubber buttons surrounding the pads and a row of 10 smaller buttons across the top of those. It has 10 knobs in two offset rows of five across the top of all that, the middle eight of which are endless encoders, the top left and bottom right knobs being a master volume and a DJ-style master filter.
Around the back are an on/off switch, a USB-C for power, a microSD slot, the aforementioned full-sized Mini sockets, an analogue sync jack socket, and all the audio inputs and outputs: Two 1/4″ jacks for audio out, a headphones 1/8″ jack, and two 1/4″ jacks for audio in (more on these later).
To get going, you insert the microSD provided by Novation which contains sounds and projects to get you started, and hold down the “on” button. The lights flash in a cycle as the currently selected “pack” loads, and you’re off and running.
The idea is that you load a “pack”, which contains all of your “projects” (these can be loosely thought of as “songs”), as well as synth patches and samples. You’ll start with the provided pack, which has 16 “projects” all ready for you to listen to and study, and 16 blank slots for you to make your own.
To start a track, you’ll probably want to choose a tempo, which is easy, then lay down a beat. You select one of the four drum/sample channels and use the pads to lay down a drum pattern. It’s easy to choose sounds, and you’re not limited to one sound per channel, just limited to one sound playing at any one time per channel.
You can change velocity and choose to have your audio quantised or not; each note has a number of “micro steps” so you can introduce swing using the built-in function, or put additional notes in-between the beats easily. There are built in macros for drum design, like tuning your drums. There are lots of drum samples to choose from, but you can add your own too, which we’ll come to later.
You can sequence a bar or two per “pattern”, and up to eight “patterns” per channel. Patterns can be of longer lengths if you’re happy to reduce resolution, and there are lots of settings for this – you can even have them in non-standard lengths.
To the synths. They come with a whole host of pre-programmed sounds, both mono-timbral and multi-timbral, and you can play up to six notes at once with the latter. To enter music, you can choose scales which “knock out” notes that don’t appear in those scales, or have the pads act as a pseudo keyboard with “black” and “white” keys. The former idea is cleverly implemented; the latter is a bit weird but easy enough to get the hang of. There are keys to switch up/down octaves when entering music.
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The knobs can be used to help you design sounds, as just one of their many functions. You get Oscillator, Oscillator Mod, Amp Envelope, Filter Envelope, Filter Frequency, Resonance, Modulation, and FX knobs, which usually control just what they say in the synth patches, although not always – it’s down to the patch designed how they’re used. Changes to these settings can be automated/recorded for sweeps within patterns.
For external instruments, it’s easy to choose the correct Midi channel, and I found it straightforward to play a piano sample on my sampler, and write basslines on my Korg Volca Bass this way – I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with external Midi though.
To write a section of music, you come up with your parts, record them into patterns (as I say, these are usually one or two bars long, although I created four-bar patterns by halving the play length on things like synth sweeps), and choose the patterns that are to appear in your current musical section, or “scene” in Novation wording. You can save up to 16 “scenes” per “project” (song) and play them back individually or sequentially.
Any of the tracks can be sent to the effects, which are reverb and echo, of varying lengths/types. It’s one reverb and one echo for the whole project, though. You can also sidechain instruments, which is great, and there are plenty of settings to choose from here. There’s even a master compressor, which is a very simple on/off thing.
Next, you’ll want to mix your track. Here’s a clever part: the unit is a full eight-track mixer. The audio ins at the back are for your two external Midi instruments, and so you have two internal synths, two external instruments, and four drum tracks to mix.
Hit mixer mode, and the eight knobs above the channels become volume knobs. At the touch of a switch, they can become pans. It’s quick and easy to get a nice-sounding mix this way, and you’ll find yourself flipping back and forward as you compose your track as you naturally balance elements. You can mute channels, although frustratingly, mute state is not recorded with scenes.
When it comes to outputting your track, you can’t record it to the microSD or anything like that – you’ll need to record it to an external device from the audio outs. You can’t send the audio up the USB cable to a computer, either, which is a real shame – even a stereo mix out this way would have been good, but being able to output all the individual instruments this way to a DAW for a mixdown/developing the project would have opened up more possibilities.
Finally, while this is designed as a standalone device for the creative stuff, it works with Novation Components, a web app (there’s a desktop version too if you prefer) that is worth a review in its own right. Suffice to say it lets you build sample packs, collate synth patches, actually get inside the synths for sound design, and back up your packs. With Novation releasing sound packs regularly for free into Components, it’s a great cloud resource and companion to the Novation Circuit Tracks itself.
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There’s nothing else quite like this – the nearest thing being the original Novation Circuit which it replaces and improves on immensely.
Having two synths, a drum machine, a powerful sequencer that can work with two additional external devices (also I haven’t mentioned that the sequencer has cool “probability” and “mutate” functions), a mixer, and FX all in one battery-powered unit is compelling, for a couple of big reasons.
One, it is portable. I’ve taken this with me everywhere recently, and loved being able to work on things where I please.
But possibly more importantly, it is perfectly possible to write great-sounding finished tracks on this alone.
Possible, but not easy… and therein lies for me both the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of this. You can be playing literally in seconds. Over and over again I found myself wandering up to it not really in the mood to make music, only to be engaged and having fun a minute or two later. Try that with Ableton!
Likewise, if you get a musical thought, you can have it out of your head and saved for developing later immediately with this.
However, in case you hadn’t noticed thus far, it doesn’t even have a screen! This is a very different way of working, and won’t be right for everyone. There are lots of limitations, both technical (only three effects, with a single setting for the whole unit; a limited drum machine) and operational (for instance, it has a certain way of working with patterns and scenes that takes forward planning in your head, and can become confusing). There are plenty more examples of both types of limitations.
But that is clearly the point. Electronic music is a notoriously open-ended thing. Paralysis by analysis is real out there. By learning a unit like this inside out, and learning to work with its limitations, you can potentially get closer to the actual music. There comes a tipping point where you’re not fighting with it any more, you’re flowing with it. It can take weeks or months to get there, but slowly you do. And then you appreciate the creativity that such simplicity can trigger.
Producers happy with a powerful DAW probably won’t see the point in this. But it’s not for them: It’s for curious musical beginners, hobbyists and renegades wanting to dabble in electronic music without diving all-in with a computer.
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It passed the “kid test” in our household: My ten and eleven-year-olds are enamoured with it. And I can let them use it without them “breaking” anything – I can give them a copy of the “pack” it came with and they can make projects, scenes and patterns all of their own, with my “grown up” work happily saved away elsewhere on the microSD.
Also, anyone thinking of playing electronic music live – and now we’re talking DJs wanting to add their own beats and grooves to their DJ sets as much as bands – will find much to like here. It’s small, reliable, and sounds great, and could easily be the centrepiece of a live rig.
So, to sum up: The Novation Circuit Tracks is easy to love. Totally different from making music in a DAW, nowhere near as complex as the bigger and more expensive “music workstations” out there, it fills a niche all of its own. Pair it with a Volca or two or some other similar accessible portable instruments, and you’ve got a really powerful and great sounding little studio that is… finite. For some, that very fact will be the best bit about this.