Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Novation Circuit Tracks is the worthy successor of a popular groovebox

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Novation Groovebox circuit is a popular entry-level piece of music creation equipment. And with good reason. Its two polyphonic synth tracks and four sample-based drum tracks give it surprising flexibility for something that costs just $ 329. But it’s also getting a bit long in the tooth. That’s not to say that it has lost its charm – and Novation has done a great job in providing frequent feature updates. But the world of economical grooveboxes has exploded since its beginnings in 2015. The Circuit tracks is a direct descendant of the original. It essentially takes the same basic set of features, adds some high-demand features, and sticks them into a slightly more user-friendly box.

The heart of Circuit Tracks is still two polyphonic synth tracks, based on its Nova engine, and four sample-based drum tracks. The general layout is also the same, with a grid of 32 velocity-sensitive pads at the bottom, framed by a bunch of buttons to control its various features, and 10 buttons at the top. The buttons are all labeled this time around, as are all of the shift functions that should make it easier to navigate the interface. The only problem is that the labels are all specifically for synths and don’t really apply to drum tracks or other parts of the workflow.

That being said, it’s not this hard to understand what’s going on. The LED indicator under the buttons will light up to match the color of the different tracks in mixer mode so you know who is controlling what. And they’re all aligned vertically with the different tracks, so when you adjust the effects levels, you know that knob five (filter frequency) is controlling the send for Drum 1.

However, it will still be useful to have the manual handy, as you begin to explore some of the more advanced features of circuit tracks like sync speed and playing order in pattern settings or links. note in the Micro Step view.

Having never touched an original circuit, I can’t say whether or not the tracks are an upgrade in the build quality department. But I can say for sure that it looks a lot better. The original was square with some sort of cheap blue plastic accents and weird round buttons along the edges that looked very out of place. The Tracks is much cleaner and more stylish. And this despite swapping out TRS MIDI mini-jacks for full-size five-pin DIN MIDI ports and the addition of a rechargeable battery (lasting four hours0. The tracks sacrifice the built-in speaker, this which is a bit disappointing. The built-in speakers of portable synths almost always sound like garbage, but they’re great for impromptu jams around the house. This also moves the 3.5mm headphone jack to the back, instead to leave it at the front where it is probably much more useful.

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

The material itself is pretty cool. It really feels worthy of its new $ 400 price tag. The body is plastic, but it has a nice matte texture and soft to the touch. The knobs are all firm and have a nice travel and the endless encoders have surprising resistance. They even react differently depending on how fast you turn them, making them really useful for live performance (something that endless encoders are usually pretty terrible at). My only gripe is that they could be a bit too sensitive, especially for delicate tasks like adjusting the levels on the mixer.

The pads are… okay. They’re better than what you’ll find on budget competitive grooveboxes like the Model: Samples. But they’re definitely nowhere near as good as what you’ll find on Akai. MPC, MPD or MPK lines. You can do light percussion on them, but they are definitely better for going into your sequences step by step.

Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

The main sequencing features haven’t changed much. There is a 32-step sequencer with eight patterns per track that you can chain together in various “scenes” to create complete songs. You can add “Micro Steps” to strum chords or play hi-hat rolls, or push things off the grid. You can also, still record live and unquantized to get the feeling of a real performance. And ladder mode makes it easy to stay put no matter what. And the drum tracks have what Novation calls “Sample Flip”, and Elektron calls sample locking – basically each step can have a different sample. So you can get the most out of your patterns by combining, say your bass and snare on a single track.

The most interesting features are borrowed from Novation Launching ramp line of controllers and sequencers. Individual patterns can also be set to play faster or slower than other parts of the song and can even change their playing order. So you can create a synth line that plays back and forth, or even just insert a bunch of notes into a scale and have the sequence play randomly. Probability and Mutate, also allow you to create a sort of controlled chaos. Probability defines the probability that an individual note will be played, while Mutate “intelligently” remixes your sequence to create a new one. Mutate is a great way to generate new parts of a track when you’re feeling a little light on ideas.

Novation circuit tracks

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

One of the most important additions is the pair of MIDI tracks and dedicated audio inputs. The simplicity of Circuit’s sequencing features have made it popular as the nerve center of small and affordable synth rigs. But the addition of two dedicated sequencer tracks exclusively for controlling external hardware makes it even more viable than the brains of your music-making setup. The inputs then allow you to route those external instruments through the delay, reverb, side chain, and compression effects of the circuits to help keep everything together.

The reverb and delay are nothing fancy, but I love them. They have a very lofi digital vibe that sounds like it would be perfect for an industrial record from the mid-90s. The built-in synth and drum sounds are a bit mixed up though. The drums are samples, and once the Novation’s Components app is updated to support the tracks, you will be able to craft the drums however you want. The basic pads and bass patches supplied with the tracks are strong enough. But some of the keys and leads left me on my back. Of course, once again, when the components get updated, you’ll be able to load synth sound packs and create your own. It’s just that the selection of out-of-the-box sounds can be a bit of a let down.

Novation circuit tracks

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

I only spent a few days with the circuits, so I reserve my judgment. But during the short time I spent with him, I was quite impressed. And I’m starting to understand why people love the Circuit so much. The Tracks faces fierce competition, however. Elektron Model The range is $ 100 cheaper, and I think it has a slightly more powerful sequencer. However, they have their own limitations when it comes to sound design. Something like the Polyend Tracking offers a similar ability to take a track from a musical nugget to a refined track and has many more sample manipulation tools. But it also has a heavier workflow, and the price tag is higher at $ 599.

If you have an OG circuit, chances are you like circuits. If you have been groovebox curious, it should almost certainly be on your candidate list.

Tours will be available February 12 for $ 400.


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