Mark Jenkins goes around and around with a groundbreaking performance sampler
Novation is by far the best established UK synth manufacturer, and the parent company Focusrite now also owns Sequential. Apart from keyboard and module synths and a range of “Launchpad” hardware controllers for the Ableton Live software, Novation has a successful line in what you might call grooveboxes.
But the ways of using these instruments isn’t quite as obvious as, say, the Roland MC series. Novation grooveboxes tend to specialize, depending on how exactly you want your music to develop.
Novation has now added Circuit Rhythm to their groovebox range. It also includes Ampify (not Amplify), an iPad app; and Circuit Tracks, a hardware sequencer with two polyphonic synths and four drum tracks built in.
In a similar format to Circuit Tracks, a small but strongly constructed, square shaped desktop module, Circuit Rhythm is described as a “beatmaking performance sampler.”
That’s a slightly unwieldy description that barely fits across the box, but it more or less describes what the instrument does: samples (from any source or instrument you like), arranges your samples into beats, and allows you to build and modify the beats into patterns in live performance.
Ins and outs. Circuit Rhythm has stereo jack audio outputs and stereo sampling audio inputs. Although it actually makes samples in mono, you can pan these anywhere you want in the stereo output field.
Also on the rear panel are MIDI In/Out/Thru – full size DIN sockets, thank goodness, not these fiddly modern stereo minijacks that need external adapters. Circuit Rhythm also has a USB C socket for power and a Micro SD slot for sample memory.
Interface. The top panel comprises a 4×8 matrix of clear pushbuttons used to show sequence events. It also acts as a data display, with huge abbreviated symbols sweeping across the matrix. An outside surround of illuminating black buttons selects Stop/Start and many other functions.
At the top of the panel are eight data rotaries, and master controls for Volume and for Filtering with a center stop. A lowpass filter sweeps your sounds in the left half, and a highpass filter in the right half, at extreme settings reducing your sounds to silence.
So a master control for Volume, and a master control for Filtering. You may ask, where’s the master control for Tempo? This is so well hidden that it’s not even labelled on the panel. In fact to change tempo you have to hit the fifth control button along – Tap/Tempo/Swing – and turn data controller 1, labelled only Tune. The term “non-intuitive” comes to mind.
In fact there’s a more general problem in the Circuit Rhythm cosmetic layout, in that none of the button labelling is clearly visible until powered up, and then only in dim blue on a black background – which when selected changes to dim red on a black background.
Under stage conditions, maybe with some smoke and variable lighting going on, if you have anything less than pin-sharp eyesight, you are never going to spot this labelling – in anger. You’ll just have to learn the Circuit Rhythm controls until you can find them intuitively.
Speaking of which, placing the data controls above the display matrix is a bold choice. Reach across to alter (say) tempo, and your hand is obscuring the display of the very parameter you’re trying to adjust. Better to have placed the controls at the bottom and reach out to them more easily, leaving the display clearly visible.
This layout, however, Circuit Rhythm has in common with Circuit Tracks, and the two also have a working method more or less in common.
A Sound Sample. Circuit Rhythm has some factory sounds, but assumes you’re going to sample and save your own. Play an analog synth, for example, making a “thwipppp!” noise for use as an electro snare drum.
Arm the sampling function, play your sound, then you can edit the start and end and save it away. Edited sounds must be saved to a micro SD card if you aim to re-load them another time.
As expected, Circuit Rhythm has loads of built-in effects too. Filter your sampled sound to change its tone, then add tempo synchronized delay, reverb, distortion and so on, and there’s convincing Vinyl Simulation too.
You can reverse sounds, slice and gate them, so it’s straightforward to build up an interesting bank of your own (for example) dubstep percussion noises. Stutter effects are easily obtainable – although the labelling for Loop, Keyboard, and other modes is in an almost invisible black on grey background along the bottom of the matrix.
You can arrange samples in up to eight tracks (not just the four suggested by the matrix display) of up to 256 steps each. To achieve this you can chain up to eight 32-step patterns and play them in Forwards, Backwards, Ping-Pong, and Random modes – in fact there’s a Randomizer setting too, so you may come up with all sorts of interesting and unexpected beats.
Effects can be automated so they only pop up on specific beats. Once playback has started you can easily use the matrix of buttons to jump back and fore from one pattern to another – Circuit Tracks is very much designed for live improvisation.
You can also play pads manually to create a one-shot sample. Obviously your imagination is the only limit here – you could be sampling hits, synth sounds, or whole synchronized sections of songs and instrumental samples.
Circuit Rhythm also lets you take a sound and arrange it chromatically across several pads so you can play a tune with it.
Hub of all things. One major advantage to Circuit Rhythm is its portability, and it’s even independent of power supply – an internal battery charges for up to four hours of play. It’s also a master of synchronization – separate MIDI In and MIDI Out clock settings allow you to sync it up to a computer or another sequencer or drum machine (Novation’s own Circuit Tracks sequencer obviously coming to mind).
Novation runs a software hub called Components that allows you to download and arrange new sounds as well as software updates. An expansion pack included with the instrument already includes six extensive sample sets with names like Trap Hop and Neo Soul.
Who? So Circuit Rhythm is endlessly updatable. But who is it aimed at in the first place?
While Circuit Tracks is in fact a sequencer and drum machine, Circuit Rhythm, which sounds like a drum machine, is much more than this.
Its open plan nature as a multichannel sampler makes the player decide exactly how it will actually work: playing simple beats but made up of the player’s own unique sounds, creating tracks from a combination of loops from vinyl or CD sources, one-shot sounds played live, effected samples that play only once or twice in your song or repeatedly, and many other applications you’ll probably find as you go along.
Given the typical UK and US prices, Circuit Rhythm won’t be an impulse purchase. You’ll probably want to know that it offers techniques already in line with your workflow, and if making, processing and arranging samples is your thing then it’s probably more powerful than anything else in its price range on the market.
You might think that it probably wouldn’t be purchased by a lot of progressive rock bands, for example. But that’s unfair – if you want to trigger short or long orchestral samples, highly complex sections of songs, or unusual sound effects on stage, it can do all those jobs too – and not just from its own panel but from MIDI drum pads or keyboards.
Happily Novation has several Circuit Rhythm demos on the company website and on YouTube, and they’re well worth checking out. You may find that Circuit Rhythm is the one-step solution to musical workflow problems you didn’t even know you had.
Price: $399 (USA) £299 (UK)