Wading through the complex world of music production – from software solutions like Ableton and Pro Tools to hardware-based studios filled with keyboards and drum sets – to find a compact, all-inclusive groovebox focused on jamming down those fleeting song ideas as fluidly as possible can be a project in itself.
Companies like Akai and Roland have long offered staples of this product category, but recent years have seen Novation, drawing on their deep catalog of synthesizers and MIDI controllers, venture further into the world of standalone studios-in-a-box, with their latest offering: the unassuming but powerful Circuit Tracks digital groovebox.
The original Novation Circuit, released in 2015, struck a resounding chord with music producers and live performers alike as a speedy and engaging musical scratchbook, and it saw many years of welcome updates to the units pattern and project management, hardware connectivity, and song arrangement toolbox. The new Circuit Tracks features a refresh of the hardware’s design language, which serves to reflect the added functionality of the numerous updates, while imparting a refined and utilitarian aesthetic reminiscent of Native Instruments recent overhauls of their Maschine and Traktor hardware.
The housing of the unit is also significantly sleeker and more portable than its predecessor, a design choice which hints at one of the most impressive features of the Circuit Tracks: the internal battery. While the original Circuit could function for a couple of hours on six disposable AA batteries, Novation’s updated offering houses a rechargeable lithium-ion power cell that promises four hours of jam time, perfect for a long bus ride or a few lattes at your local café.
On the Grid
The Circuit Tracks is built around an array of four-by-eight velocity-sensitive multicolor pads used for step sequencing, melodic note input, drum pattern triggering, and a variety of pattern and song arrangement controls. Surrounding the grid is an array of buttons which define the behavior of those pads, including functions for preset browsing, settings for notes and effects, and play and recording controls, with the row directly about the grid selecting instruments or drum tracks to sequence.
Finally, the eight encoders at the top of the device, like the pads below, are multifunctional, offering control over everything from synthesizer parameters to effects modulation to basic mixer duties. The color coding and variable brightness of the LED indicators under each encoder, a standout feature of the original Circuit, provides a direct and intuitive indication of the given parameter currently linked to that encoder.
Novation brought their established pedigree of virtual-analogue synthesizers to the Circuit Tracks with a pair of fully featured polyphonic Nova Synth engine lanes. Hitting the Preset button with either of these two synths selected brings up a pleasing variety of synth and bass patches which can be auditioned and tweaked live with the encoders. The sample-based drum machine offers four lanes of sequencing, with the ability to jump between different sounds within each pattern, enabling a more diverse range of percussion hits than the four slots initially indicate. Moreover, these samples can easily be swapped out using a new microSD card slot on the rear of the device or using the accompanying app via the included USB C cable (more on that later).
In a welcome addition to the workflow, Circuit Tracks provides two lanes of external MIDI sequencing through the full-sized DIN ports around the back – a marked improvement from 3.5mm jacks and adaptor dongles of the original Circuit. These are joined by a new Sync output jack to interface with sync-compatible devices like Korg’s Volca line of hardware.
These MIDI lanes, combined with the two new audio input jacks, enable comprehensive sequencing and integration of external synthesizers and other hardware, with audio passing back through the groovebox’s effects and audio processing. Particularly helpful is the ability to sidechain these audio inputs to the internal instruments and drum hits, a feature consistent with Novation’s dance music roots.
For such a diminutive device, the Circuit Tracks delivers a remarkably capable pattern arrangement workflow, encouraging the chaining of multiple sequences into larger song sections and even full session projects. The user can switch between these sessions live, while carrying over both track tempo and key for a seamless transition between songs. While most producers will likely export their finished projects to a software solution for a final mixdown, the live arrangement capabilities of the Circuit Tracks also make it an exceptionally powerful performance workstation, both on its own or as the hub of a larger hardware setup.
Within the core sequencing workflow, Novation also provides a variety of tools for musicians to spice up their beats and melodies. Features like polyrhythms and the “Micro Step” mode enable far more detailed and varied pattern sequencing than your grandpa’s 808, while the “Probability,” “Mutate,” and non-quantized recording functions allow for all manner of random and humanized pattern building for every instrument. A full suite of chord modes, scales, and arpeggiators keeps the melodic content of the projects flowing, while fully featured parameter automation and per-step editing equip the user with plenty of options to keep their sounds evolving throughout the arrangement.
Rounding out the sound design features are “Reverb” and “Delay” effects, called up as a variety of presets via the pad grid with the encoders functioning as sends for each instrument or sample track. The Master Filter knob, presented in the hi/low center detent style with which DJs will instantly be familiar, lends itself well to live performances, while a toggleable master compressor will help tie the final output together.
While the Circuit Tracks comes fully equipped to start building compositions straight out of the packaging, Novation also flexes the digital architecture of the groovebox with a comprehensive Novation Components configuration utility enabling a considerable level of user customization.
Here the Nova engine displays its sound design potential with a full set of parameters reminiscent of Novation’s dedicated synthesizer offerings, all of which can be mapped to the eight hardware encoders in any combination of macro controls for truly custom patches. This utility also acts as a portal for uploading sample packs, custom sound content, and firmware updates to the internal storage of the device, while the microSD card slot on the rear of the unit allows for expanded sample and content capacity.
Considering the digital nature of the device and Novation’s history of frequent firmware updates, there are undoubtedly plenty of additional features which the Circuit Tracks could see in upcoming workflow revisions. While effective, the “Reverb” and “Delay” units will hopefully be joined by additional sound design goodies in the future – ideally with onboard parameter adjustment via the encoders. With the welcome addition of the microSD card slot and USB C port, individual stems export and expanded integration with digital audio workstation software such as Ableton may also well be on the horizon.
The original Circuit established a loyal following of producers and live artists drawn to the straightforward instant-gratification of a device unencumbered by creativity-killing software settings and menu diving. With the newly minted Circuit Tracks, Novation continues their momentum in the dedicated groovebox workspace, offering a no-nonsense and capable musical sketchpad for musicians to get their songs from idea to composition with ease. The updated hardware offers some engrossing new features which will likely tempt owners of the original unit, also providing a great starting point for budding musicians and weathered producers alike looking to ditch their screens and try their hand at the compelling groovebox workflow.
Novation has confirmed that the Circuit Tracks will be joined by the Circuit Rhythm, a dedicated sampler model, summer 2021. The Circuit Tracks currently retails for £359.99/ $399.99 via Focusrite. More information is available on the Novation website.