The original Circuit groovebox developed something of a cult following thanks in large part to Novation’s relentless updates. So it was no surprise that the company decided to give it a proper sequel earlier this year. What was a surprise, though, was that along with the Circuit Tracks, Novation also announced the Circuit Rhythm, an entirely sample-based instrument. The Rhythm combines the simplified, screen-free workflow that made the Circuit so popular with a full-featured sampler and performance effects that clearly were inspired by the SP-303 and SP-404. The big question is whether or not what makes the Circuit so compelling when playing and sequencing synths translates to chopping up loops and capturing oneshots.
Physically, the Circuit Rhythm and Circuit Tracks are nearly identical. The faceplate is light gray instead of black, and some of the labels on the controls are different, but they’re built on the same core platform. The front has the same 32 RGB velocity sensitive pads, along with 28 buttons for switching views and tracks, plus eight endless encoders for changing various parameters, and two knobs dedicated to volume and the master filter. Around back you’ll also find five-pin MIDI In, Out and Thru ports; USB-C for power and connecting to your computer; a 3.5mm sync jack for connecting Volcas and the like; a headphone jack; and ¼-inch stereo ins and outs. Oh, and of course there’s a rechargeable battery that Novation says should last up to four hours. In my testing I haven’t quite hit that mark, but I haven’t been too far off either — about three to three and a half hours.
- Solid sampling and slicing features
- Workflow is simple and intuitive
- Portable and battery-powered
- Grid FX are underwhelming
- Advanced features take time to memorize
- Thin line between subtle and over-the-top on effects
Then the core of the Rhythm is its eight monophonic sampler tracks. And, even though there are only eight tracks you can use “sample flip” to place multiple samples on a single track. For instance your kick and snare, so long as they don’t overlap.
All of this is pretty impressive considering the Circuit Rhythm’s $400 price tag and portable size. But what seems great on paper doesn’t always translate to the real world.
That being said, Novation did do a lot right. For one, it’s important that the company saw fit to build an actual sampler and not just a sample-based groovebox, like Elektron’s Model:Samples. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Model:Samples. But if you’re looking to spontaneously sample something you’ve been jamming on, or to chop up soul loops, it’s not gonna help you. The actual workflow for sampling and then doing basic editing, chopping, etcetera is pretty easy to wrap your head around too. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it fun. I’ve definitely been in a creative rut recently and stepping out of my comfort zone to slice up samples from YouTube and make some lo-fi and boom bap-inspired beats has helped me get back to enjoying making music again, even if what I’m making is objectively not good.
The 32-step Circuit sequencer also remains a strong suit. It’s simple, intuitive and deceptively powerful. You can program a beat manually or play it in “unquantized” (in reality this is simply quantized to the microsteps — of which there are eight per step, but it gets close enough in most cases). You can automate most of the parameters across a pattern, then chain patterns together to create longer progressions. Beyond that there are scenes, which consist of different pattern chains, which can themselves be chained together to create full arrangements.
When creating patterns you can also introduce variation and unpredictability by using the probability parameter. This sets the chance that a particular step will be played. It’s not quite as robust as Elektron’s trig conditions, but it can keep things from getting too stale. And, if you’re feeling a bit stuck, you can “intelligently” remix a pattern with the Mutate function. It scrambles up your sequence to make something new, though the results aren’t always great and there’s no undo, so make sure to duplicate your pattern first. In general the Mutate felt more useful on the synth-based Circuit Tracks than on the Rhythm, but anything that can introduce a bit of randomness is good in my book.