As part of a collaboration with Novation, we spoke with artists Shawn Rudiman and My Panda Shall Fly about how they’re working with Novation’s Circuit. Both artists got their hands on the updates to the Circuit hardware in advance – providing drag-and-drop sample loading and sample editing. They talk a bit about what that’s meant to them – and what they think about working with hardware in general.

Track ID, from the beginning: “Dark House” by Shawn Rudiman, appropriately from his Hardware Survival Techniques EP.

The video gives you some highlights, but I spoke to both artists to get more details about their rigs and how they’re using them.

I have to highlight this quote from Shawn Rudiman, about why playing matters (and which illustrates again why I love Shawn so much):

“You gotta play it – you gotta be a musician. You gotta own up to the instrument you’ve been given.”

Shawn Rudiman

Shawn’s hardware sets are legendary; he plays down-and-dirty techno on a sprawling table full of gear. So before we get to what he’s doing, we have to first examine that stage rig. I convinced Shawn to draw a sketch of that for CDM:

shawnstagediagram

CDM: You talked about the computer – I’m curious, actually, where is the computer in your workflow?

Shawn: The computer for me in my workflow is a recording device, peripheral for editing sounds and sometimes Library type functions. It’s also a sound source for a lot of my older Samplers. I’ll use soft synths and such to generate things and run them into my desk, then sample from the desk into the Samplers to start the process again. Now it will also be added to edit and change the samples and sounds on the Circuit.

How are you clocking things? (Especially since you mention the failsafe.)

The [Roland] TR-8 is Master Clock. It goes to a 2 by 8 Splitter. From there it is distributed to all others in some form. II in on the splitter is from the Future Retro Swynx. It receives its clock from the TR, then sends it back into the splitter after it has been altered timing-wise via its swing function. There it can be assigned to any MIDI output as well to clock anything else off the cuff. I use the Swynx to clock the [Arturia] MicroBrute and the DIN sync out of it to clock the engine sequencer. The Swynx has excellent MPC percentage style swing on a gigantic knob. So it’s perfect for impromptu swing changes to change the groove.

There are so many layers and so many pieces of gear here; what’s your approach to sequencing all of them? How do you avoid having too much at once, or things getting sort of out of control?

Sometimes it is difficult to keep everything from being a giant shitstorm of noise. It took a long time to realize that on a giant sound system, less is more. There’s a fine line between just right and too much. I try to limit that by making rounds on each machine of sorts. I let them each have their moment like jazz players. T

It’s not easy holding them all back and trying to keep the clutter to a minimum.

The Circuit fits in nicely since I use it mainly for its polyphonic synth and its mono synth — it becomes another horn section or another bass player or pianist of sorts. It also works as alternate percussion and for lying underneath as a very Snappy Punchy kick. It’s very malleable timing wise, and sound wise, so it’s very flexible to work a groove and milk all you can out of it with it… by shifting or nudging or changing sequence lengths.

Shawn Rudiman

Shawn Rudiman

Maybe a blasphemous question, but — obviously, at this point, some people are sick to death of Roland drum machine sounds, just because they get used so much in this genre. Do you have a sense of how to balance that? When are the times that those classic sounds can anchor a set? When is it time for something diferent?

I use the classic Roland sounds to underlay especially the kick. I double it with various kick drums from my [Korg Electribe] ES-2 and the Circuit to sort of change up the feel of the kick drum since … it is the canvas upon which we paint dance music. To get a certain sound or a certain feel out of things, changing percussion sounds on the fly is very important. It allows you to get a certain destination out of the sound. Example early Chicago. Or Detroit. Or Berlin. Those sounds can determine the style of the music. And the feel you can go for. Just as if you are selecting a record – except you are making it as you go. I load my ES-2 with a huge array of very essential drum sounds throughout dance music. So when I feel it’s time for a very rumbly muddy, sort of Basic Channel kick Drum, I can quickly know exactly where to go to get it and change anything that’s needed. Then that’s doubled or tripled sometimes with other kick drums for drum sounds.

I got to see some of the rough-cut footage with the crowd – everything I’d expect from you. How does it compare, making these kinds of live sets? There’s obviously a different feeling from the crowd who can see you when you’re playing live; they see something different is happening. But what about the back of the room? What’s really different playing live versus DJing?

Honestly, there should be no difference in how the club goer perceives the set between live and DJ.

If …and only if… the live performer’s doing a very good job! If it’s a very lackluster and kind of boring set, then people will notice. That’s how live sets have gotten their bad rap as being boring, the performers have been not really giving there best or phoning shit in. You can’t blame the machines. They only do what they’re told. Analog or digital makes no difference.

For that matter, is there anything you get from DJing you don’t get from live, or that informs how you play live?

Yes. DJing can really sort of show you how the flow should go live. When I do play records, there’s a flow that seems to happen from one song to the next. It’s the feeling of hearing a song you know you have with you as one is playing. That has to happen of sorts playing live… even though there is no next song; you’re creating it as you go. Or have absolutely no structure but a giant shitload of pieces. And even those pieces are alterable on the spot to fit the mood. From seeing and hearing DJ’s – I based how to play a live set around a DJ set. It needs to be dynamic, and needs to be a continuous flow and it needs to pull the listener and just as much as any DJ set – OR MORE!

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One issue with getting more live sets in clubs, it seems to me, is just getting clubs with good techs and tech riders and so on. Is there any hope that this situation can improve in those regards? How can we have more live sets and support more live techno, in particular?

I tried to depend as little as possible on any club, promoter or anything that does not come with me. I usually when flying asked for an audio mixer, power strips (unless I’m in EU or outside the States), and an Arturia MicroBrute – Since they are cheap and everywhere all over the world. Relying on sound people is a very bad idea. You should know how your stuff needs to sound. And relying on a club or promoters to get you important things is also just adding stress to something that doesn’t need it. I send the house system a left and right from the mixer. And I almost always go into the DJ mixer as another Channel. This allows me to mix into a previous set and blend or use any option the DJ has as well. Why not? May as well take every advantage we can!

My Panda Shall Fly

My Panda Shall Fly

My Panda Shall Fly

My Panda Shall Fly, aka Suren Seneviratne, is a talent to watch – hugely prolific, with releases on the likes of Project Mooncircle and Gang of Ducks. He’s one of those ninjas Shawn is talking about. So I talked to him more to understand how he thinks.

CDM: I’d love to hear a bit about how this fits into your rig. So we know Shawn has a rig that includes sort of every machine from the last couple of years. What’s your live rig look like? Your studio rig? How do they differ?

Suren: My studio is full of loads of stuff like old grooveboxes and 90s synths. That’s kind of the thing I’m into. I also have loads of other small modified bits that make noise, as well as a bunch of software. My live rig comprises a Roland SP404SX and [Korg] KAOSS Pad [KP3+], which works great for performing my music live without having to drag all my gear around. I’m able to store high-resolution samples and loops of my tracks across the banks of the sampler allowing me to perform my music in a semi-improvisatory fashion. The KP3 allows for extra fun thanks to its instant-gratification touch-screen FX. I’ve only had the Circuit for a couple of months now, but I can totally see how it could integrate into my live setup very easily – especially now that it doubles as a sampler.

One thing about getting more tangible is, I know it can be more demanding of playing. Is it something you practice; how do you work on your chops?

I do practice my live set before my shows, often switching tracks around and including new bits I’m working on. But I’ve been playing live with my current setup for a few years now, so I’m very used to how the gear works and what buttons do what. It helps me work really quickly this way, no matter what tracks I’m playing because the process is always the same.

I love this fader breakout box – how is it mapped?

I use the Kenton Control Freak which is a real powerhouse of a controller. It can send just about any type of MIDI message, and does other fun things like CV > MIDI conversion too. Configurations for all 16 faders are called ‘profiles’, and I have 4 profiles (giving me 64 faders) all mapped to control lots of parameters hidden inside Circuit’s synthesizer like Oscillator Waveform, Reverb Damping and Filter Type. When I saw the MIDI Implementation Chart, I was blown away by the amount of fine control that was available inside this thing. There’s over 35 LFO shapes!

You have a really lovely melodic sample in the video. How are you playing it? Obviously, we have these four parts to work with – are you re-pitching from the knobs? Triggering different samples on the fly?

It’s totally possible to pitch samples using the macro knob. You just have to use your ear to find the note you’re after as there is no visual indication of what pitch you’re on.

Suren's Circuit, in the studio.

Suren’s Circuit, in the studio.

You talk about using Isotonik’s editor – what does that mean for your fader box, will you keep this mega fader setup?

The Isotonik editor is superb and allows to really get inside the device, and is great for assigning macro knob controls – something I can’t do on my Control Freak. But I like to have the Control Freak nearby for computer-free operation 🙂

Can you talk a bit about what you’ve been doing with the editor, actually? Any patches you want to describe?

The best thing about the editor is being able to play around with what you can’t do on the Circuit itself. Each patch on the Circuit (factory or user) has its own macro knob assignments – so you can’t tweak Ring Mod Level unless one of the macro knobs have been linked to it, for example. But what makes the macro knobs super-powerful is that they can control up to four parameters at once! So if you wished, you could get stuck in and assign 4 parameters for each of the eight macro knobs and end up with 32 editable parameters per patch. That’s an awesome amount of sound tweakability, using what appears to be just eight knobs on the unit itself. I also love the modulation matrix. Any synth that has one is welcome in my studio. A trick I like for giving the impression of having three synth parts is laying down recorded parts on Synth 1 and 2, and then playing a lead melody over the top of one of them on a higher octave.

You have of course some fantastic productions. What’s your production process like – where do you start, and how do you know you’re finished?

Good question! I’m afraid I don’t have a definitive answer to this. I wish I did, as sometimes I could spend a few days on something and be happy with it and then there’s times where I’ve had a track lying around on a folder on my desktop for years before it finally makes it onto a release. I think knowing when something is finished comes from a feeling that everything makes sense. Or when you get bored.

I love getting hands-on with my gear which is why I have so many knobs and faders in my studio. Sometimes I find inspiration by creating strange loops using one piece of gear, other times I might find a gorgeous sample of something I’ll find on YouTube that I’ll cut up and go from there.. I’ve recently finished a sample-pack of over 350 sounds and loops which gave me a reason to spend some quality time with almost all my bits of gear and coax cool sounds from each bit of kit I have.

https://global.novationmusic.com/circuit/circuit

Disclosure: this story was produced in collaboration with and with support from Novation.

  • I got this email from Novation from describing the Firmware update and realized that this turned the Circuit from a cool toy (that I didn’t need), to a must have cool tool. now, granted the money I spent on this could have been better spent on getting the ENGINE Sequncer (and that may happen) but for now the Circuit really adds something to my workflow that I didn’t realize I was missing. Can’t wait to do a live show with in my rig.

  • NRGuest

    I wonder, does this make the circuit a better value proposition against the Electribe 2? I’m looking into both of those, and the recent updates to the Circuit make it seem much more competitive. Any thoughts?

    • TBH for Little more money I think the Electribe is a more capable machine (longer sample memory, KAOSSilltaor style FX). But “for me” it was the User interface workflow of the Circuit* that makes it different. In some repcects the Circuit is more like a micro Ableton live in hardware. I also like the Lack of traditional Menus/screens and the “Tactile-ness” of it. especially Since I use a lot of Roland AIRA gear I found that is has a similar hands on aesthetic that I just didn’t get from the Electribe. However your mileage may vary. I do recommend getting some hands on time with it, to see what I mean though, for 323.00 it is Hella-fun.

      *After the Firmware update- I really didn’t even really consider Circuit until it became a “Sampler” and you could create new sounds and record External Midi Input.

      • I hadn’t even thought to compare the two, oddly enough… because the workflow is so different. What William said, basically.

        The synth engine is kind of insanely deep… so this editor, while a funny solution for hardware, suddenly changes what it becomes. If you dial in some sounds you really like, you can hack the Circuit into something really portable and playable.

        I need to spend more time with the Korg, too, though.

      • NRGuest

        Thanks! That kind of lines up with my suspicions. I’ll have to see if I can find some place to check them out.

  • Holmes

    The updates look good, but there still seems to be a glaringly obvious musical problem that bizarrely enough no one seems to mind – it auto-quantizes everything and therefore doesn’t capture any of the timing feel of the user. Is it just assumed that everyone will be making quantized techno type stuff with it. Even in more more heavily quantized styles it’s still good to have some stuff played in with feel. So it seems rather silly to be talking in the article about having to be a ‘musician’ and the notion of ‘playing’ when the machine you’re using doesn’t even capture any of the timing of said ‘musicianship’. Even the old Yamaha qy20 sequencer from years ago offered this basic midi sequencing, sequences of any length, etc. Does this not seem like a rather significant musical limitation?

    If you don’t have any feel you’re not a musician. And if you do have feel, wouldn’t you want to have that in your music?