It’s tiny. It’s battery powered. It costs just over US$300 street. But Novation’s Circuit sample/drum/synth groovebox has been squeezing in a whole lot of functionality that makes it into a really serious tool, great for starting ideas or jamming or playing live. And we’ve been testing the latest build, version 1.3, for some days now. It’s available to everyone free right now, and it adds some significant changes that make this tool more flexible than ever. Let’s have a look.

First, for those who’ve just joined us, what is Circuit? Well, it’s a combination between a synthesizer and a sampling drum machine, all built around an 8×4 velocity-sensitive grid of pads that acts as sequencer. There are eight encoders at the top, which control different parameters in the synth and samples. You can connect to a computer via USB or hardware gear via minijack MIDI, and it works standalone without the computer. And you can get deeper into the sampling and synth engines by loading your own samples or editing synth presets. We’ve now done a complete hands-on guide; you’ll find

Here’s what’s new in the free 1.3 firmware update (and accompanying Web tool updates), available right now. In short: think samples.

New in 1.3 firmware

We loved the drum section’s custom sample loading feature introduced in 1.2, whether for drum sounds or melodic bits and pads or anything else. But it was pretty limited – you could only use four parts at once, and there was no way to play samples directly or audition them. That’s addressed in 1.3:

You can use samples per step, not just per part. Now each of the four drum parts can contain different samples. Novation calls this “Sample Flip” – but basically it just means when you change the active sample, you can do it per step and not just the whole part all at once.

There’s a lot of other functionality packed into the implementation. It makes sense to call this a “flip” in that it’s an event – you can record those changes as automation, you can duplicate them to other steps (even across paired parts 1/2 or 3/4), and macro and sample data are carried with the step when you copy.

Separating the samples from the sequence is fun, too. Start with a sequence, then change the sample on the fly. Or do it the other way round: start with a series of sample changes, then record in a sequence on top of it. And that all means some creative ways to generate and transform ideas.

You can play samples from the grid directly. Novation calls this “Sample Preview” or “auditioning,” but it’s really more than that — it’s the ability to play samples from the grid directly. So you can trigger one shots or play out of the confines of the step sequencer and you can play and improvise live, as well as, yes, hear what samples sound like on the grid before you record a sequence, etc. It’s something you’d expect of a sampling drum machine, of course, but it’s now available from the ultra-minimalist, ultra-portable Circuit, too.

Play longer samples. Up to all 60 seconds of playback can now be triggered without fading out, if you really want to do that.

Session triggering timing is improved. (Filed under “bug fix,” but a pretty particular fix.)

Novation’s Nick de Friez goes wild with the new software:

New in the Web interface (Components)

Colors! You can assign colors to sessions.

Download and backup sessions individually. You can back up and manage individual sessions, not just batch 32 of them at a time.

Backup now includes samples, not just sessions. Everything is up on the cloud.

Rearrange samples on the grid. This makes it easy to group samples and organize them so you remember where they are (which, without labels, is essential). So now, once you add samples via the Web interface, just drag them around to reorder them.

Save as new… Create variations of sample sets and backups quickly.

Samples are labeled in the UI. No more guesswork, finally. (actually, Novation didn’t mention this in the press release, but this tiny little detail may be the biggest headache saver in the whole update!)

A better, more consistent UI. Librarian and Sample Import each now have the same UI and workflow. And the UI has been improved overall. And there’s a new UI for managing backups and sample sets. The whole thing is far more powerful.

Components 1

Components 2

Components still requires Opera or Google Chrome / Chromium, and still requires an active Internet connection – I’d love to see an offline version for certain functions. But for now, I’ve been fine doing my management with the Internet on, then working with the Circuit without it off on a gig.

Also still not in this update is the ability to drag and drop multiple samples at once; I keep asking for that, and I hear it is on the roadmap.

But this clearly moved the Circuit from the pre-1.1 “ah, nice cool toy” to 1.2 “wow, this could become one of my main tools” to 1.3 “ah, wow, now I’ve almost no excuse not to use it as one of my main tools.” And seriously, I wouldn’t be saying that if it had just popped into my head; I’ve been talking to other Circuit users and been really blown away by how much they’re doing with it.

Let’s hear some music

And now, as part of a new CDM feature I like to call “Wow, many people are better at music than I am,” I introduce Dibia$e (Alpha Pup):

It’s actually a dark time in music technology. Once, this was the domain of people who had no chops, and now, sadly, through the force of “democratization” or whatever, people who have actual musical skills are invading our turf! 😉 (Damn, I better go and do something. What’s this word “practicing” mean again?)

Give it a go

If you’ve got Circuit, all you have to do is fire up Chrome (or Chromium or Opera), login with Facebook or Google, connect your Circuit, and install. (The login is necessary authentication for your cloud backup so that, say, Romanian or Russian hackers don’t start performing with your set – uh, sorry, too soon?)

  • mr math

    Is the recording still super quantized?

    • AQ

      16 steps is what you got, quantised to that. There’s no free-form recording like Korg has on some of it’s gear (e.g. Monotribe). That would be nice, but it is what it is, and it’s fantastic fun and a beautifully designed interface

      • kris keogh

        Yeah, the Flux function on the Monotribe is absolutely killer, makes that machine so much more versatile.

        • Will

          Flux is on the Volca Keys as well. Criminally omitted from the Volca FM.

    • Yes, *but* – this thing they’re calling audition, now you can play that unquantized. And you can record MIDI outside Circuit and quantize however you like, too, of course.

      • kris keogh

        Would love the option to choose if the audion hits were recorded quantised or unquantised. This would add some serious groove potential. Also, being able to set the drum loop length to be something other than 16 would be great…

  • great music examples! must be a great device. mmm!

  • Onetwo

    How does this compare to Electribe Sampler? Seems like more features and more updates but not sure.

    • Will

      Circuit has fewer parts (though a ‘part’ seems more malleable with this sample flip update) and doesn’t actually sample.

  • VF-4

    You twice mention sampling drum machine. As in, it can sample line-in?

    • AQ

      No, it can’t. You can load samples into it from a cloud-based app. It would be fantastic if it could sample but you can’t pack in everything at that price.

  • That’s all great stuff, for sure. Again, it reminds me of a hardware version of Propellerheads Figure app (as in: 4 drum instruments and two synths), which I like a lot as a creativity sparking limitation concept. But Facebook or Google login? What? Not even the Novation login that I already need to create when I register one of their products? That’s a no go. What have Facebook or Google to do with my music?

    • Yes that is super strange!

      • Well, they need authentication for cloud storage … on the other hand, you don’t need cloud storage to upload samples to the device, so maybe they need to separate these concerns.

    • AQ

      My issue as well, but I’d also like this functionality in a local app, being in a part of the world where the internet ain’t always available or convenient, and being of the old school who wants to keep my data in-house and off the freakin’ cloud.

      • Yeah, no, I agree – and they’ve gotten this feedback. In my case, there’s not really Internet in my studio, so this isn’t even a hypothetical/philosophical question.

    • Will

      Ugh. I didn’t realize that about the forced social login. Terrible (he says via his CDM mandated disqus account).

      Would like the code to be open sourced so that I can run it locally if I needed to. Would also be dreamy if they sorted out a way to shim iOS Safari into supporting it (or you could transfer samples from the Launchpad iOS app…cough…). I only use a computer in the office these days.

      • Unmoderated comments would be really bad…

        Yeah, I still like the idea of local operation. Don’t know how they’ll fix this exactly. Might also be something we prototype for MeeBlip, in fact.

        • Will

          +10 for moderated comments; wasn’t poking at CDM or disqus—more at myself on how I’m loathe to use social logins for things yet for some…

          Local + Web based is still hard. LocalStorage (etc) works wonderfully but it has a persistence problem in that it’s very easy for a user to clear it all out mistakenly. Think I’d like to see something that ran locally, used local storage and also backed up to Dropbox. You could use it offline via LocalStorage but without the fear of clearing it all mistakenly. Dropbox adds the ability to load your stuff on another machine as well as do backups but it does come with some nerd/setup overhead.

    • 8 months later and we’re good to go offline!

  • Will

    That’s quite an update. Feel like they just opened the thing right up for hip hop production.

  • Kevin Bell Kearney

    I need a screen, no way I can memorize all the key combo presses.

    • FS

      my thoughts exactly.

    • AQ

      Dude, you can. It’s really super-intuitive. I threw it at my 7 year old and she was laying down beats in no time. It’s brilliant, and a screen is just something else to go wrong (I’m saying that from experience, with a couple of expensive touchscreens on my desk waiting for the day when I get around to installing them on failed synths)

  • Marty LB

    So.. this means I can make a beat with kick, snare, hi hat and only use 1 part?

    • I guess that’s it, as long as none of the three play on the same step.

  • kris keogh

    Wierd question…
    Does anyone know if you can record swing amount automation into the patterns on Circuit? I’m so close to buying one, but can’t seem to see anyway to get notes off the quantised grid. Being able to tweak the swing amount and have it play back as tweaked would be great for adding groove. Would also open Circuit up to anyone making Dilla style beats… Any info much appreciated!

  • chaircrusher

    It is often said that a good instrument is defined by it’s limitations as much as its capabilities. But a long weekend messing with a Novation Circuit gives me a wish list for a Circuit plus:
    1. Individual outs. A stereo pair is not enough for 2 synth voices and 4 drum voices.
    2. More sample memory. 60 seconds isn’t sufficient for a full live set.
    3. Grooves — The swing is OK, but why not a way to download grooves?
    4. A ‘drum kit’ voice, so that one voice can have 16 samples. The UI would be dead simple: The top row chooses the sample, the bottom row is steps for the current sample.
    5. Something that could happen with current hardware: A real time drumming mode, with 4 buttons for drumming, & holding a button down allows step entry on the bottom two rows. Other buttons on top row for flams.
    6. USB Audio. I asked about this on twitter and they said it wouldn’t work with current hardware. That seems ridiculous; even USB 2 can support 44.1khz audio streams alongside midi. And since a circuit is a computer in a box, what kind of USB interface only supports MIDI data?