Review: Novation Circuit Tracks – Mixdown Magazine

Lyrics by Sam McNiece

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Novation’s new iteration of Circuit adds new features and a sleek enclosure to a compact unit that has the ability to be the center of your live setup, a small hardware studio, as well as a portable, battery-powered groovebox.

The unit features 32 velocity-sensitive performance pads, eight multi-purpose encoders, and two main knobs with loads of knobs to make sure everything is at your fingertips. There’s no screen on the tracks, which will be a blessing if you’re using it for live performance so you don’t get lost while diving into menus, but will require you to remember how to access certain of its deeper functions.

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In terms of connectivity, Circuit Tracks have professional inputs and outputs with two TRS inputs, stereo TRS output jacks, MIDI DIN In, Out and Thru, 3.5mm sync and headphone ports, USB port -C and a microSD card slot. For such a small unit, having all these connections is a blessing.

The microSD card slot allows you to expand circuit tracks to create 32 audio packs. Each pack can contain 64 projects, 64 samples and 128 synth patches. You can think of each pack as a customizable sound palette that you can create from. If you want to have more than one sound pack on your device you will definitely want to get a microSD card for that device and a 2GB card will fit all 31 of them.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Circuit Tracks is the ability to turn it on and start creating right away. For those familiar with other workflows, you will be able to create track foundations and grooves in minutes.

Tracks thrives on this immediacy, with the ability to select synth presets and master scale in seconds. I really like how when selecting synth presets it will automatically play the root note when auditioning sounds, making finding the one that matches your other elements simple and effective.

Circuit Tracks has a built-in rechargeable battery that charges via the USB-C connection with four hours of battery life available. I’ve had a few fun jams sitting on my couch watching movies with the sound muted – à la Mac Miller – making beats and exploring what this light and compact unit can do.

The sequencer itself is 16 steps by default and can be extended to 32 at the push of a button. You can make your patterns smaller or larger via the pattern settings knob and adjust each note’s velocity, gate, trigger probability, and even their placement in the grid (aptly named microstepping). Using the micro step function, you can add more than one note per step, allowing budding hip hop producers to create those hi hat trills that are essential to the genre.

For further track customization, you’ll need to use Novation’s Component Browser app or standalone software and connect via the USB-C port. I use the Brave browser, which is a fork of Google Chrome, and it was as easy as plugging in the device and selecting it on the webpage. No software download required.

The synth editor was deeper than I expected from just using the device. It is a two-oscillator polyphonic synth with multiple envelopes and LFOs combined with deep modulation functionality. For starters, each of the eight macros can control up to four parameters each, including one of 20 modulation matrices, allowing you to create patches that evolve and mutate over time alongside straighter patches. Combined with chorus/phaser plus distortion can result in very dense synth sounds. There’s even a mutation button on the device that will randomize the settings on the patch! Note that this feature is destructive, so it is advisable to save your project before using this setting.

Each of the four drum tracks can be programmed individually. They are monophonic, meaning they can only play one sample at a time, but each can play multiple samples as long as they don’t overlap. You can think of it as each sample muffling another sample as it plays, which can be to your advantage when programming long and short kicks to make sure you don’t end up with bass overhang.

For you finger drummers, don’t worry, you can still play live on all four drum tracks using the expanded view with the ability to quantize your playing to keep it in sync with everything else.

Every knob rotation you can think of can be recorded in real time and played back as automation on the tracks. Everything from distorting your kick drum to changing the frequency of the filter and effects on your synth pads is on the maps, which inherently allows you to draw your own envelopes.

There is a mixer section on the tracks, with level, pan and mute with the LED lights under each encoder indicating the sound/pan level of each channel, giving excellent visual feedback on what is placed where in your composition. Along with this, there are several reverb and delay effect presets that each channel can be sent to.

To ensure that the kick is the number one element of your tracks, Circuit Tracks features a side chain, which you can assign to one of the four drum tracks to dodge some or all of the synth inputs and audio to varying degrees. I had a lot of fun with it thoroughly, creating some interesting beats from buzzing synths when chained to a drum track that was muted on the mixer.

I haven’t even mentioned the ability to sequence and control external synths via the tracks. There are two dedicated MIDI channels that you can configure MIDI CC through Novation Components to automate and modify external gear. Send the audio output from these synths back into the tracks and you can use all the features of the mixer (including FX and Sidechain) to further enhance your productions.

Circuit Tracks lets you use eight different patterns per project (four per view) that store all automation settings. Once you’ve lined up different parts, triggering them here will allow you to play different iterations of your creation. Then, once you’ve found some you like, you can save them to the bottom of the mix page, allowing you to play them in order or trigger them as you wish.

On the projects page, you can switch between creations without skipping a beat, literally because it will load the next project and launch it if another one is already playing. This lets you play completely different songs back to back and performs like the portable live setup you’ve been looking for.

Overall, this portable groovebox is more feature rich than it looks. The ability to patch additional synths with full MIDI compatibility makes it expandable to fit your existing hardware while adding two dense synth engines and multiple drum tracks into which you can load your own samples. Pair that with a fully-fledged mixer, probability trigger and mute function, there’s plenty of music to make and fun to be had on this sleek, portable unit.

Visit Novation for more information. For local inquiries, contact Focusrite Australia.

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