Review: Novation Circuit Tracks

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Review: Novation Circuit Tracks

circuit tracks review
Words by Sam McNiece

Focusrite Australia | Enquire for pricing

Novation’s new iteration of the Circuit adds new functionality and a sleek housing to a compact unit that has the ability to be the centre of your live setup, small hardware studio, as well as a portable battery powered groovebox.

The unit features 32 velocity sensitive performance pads, eight multi-use encoders plus two master knobs with heaps of buttons to ensure everything is at your fingertips. There is no screen on the Tracks, which will be a blessing if you’re using it for live performance as to not be lost diving through menus, but will require you to remember how to access some of its deeper functions.

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Connectivity wise, the Circuit Tracks has professional ins and outs with two TRS inputs, stereo TRS output jacks, MIDI DIN In, Out, and Thru, 3.5mm Sync and headphone ports, a USB-C port plus a microSD card slot. For such a small unit, having all these connections is a blessing.

The microSD card slot allows you to expand Circuit Tracks to create 32 packs worth of audio. Each pack can contain 64 projects, 64 samples, and 128 synth patches. You can think of each pack as a customisable sound palette from which you can create from. If you want to have more than one pack of sounds on your device, you’ll definitely want to grab a microSD card for this device and a 2GB one will be able to hold all 31 of them.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Circuit Tracks is the ability to turn it on and start creating straight away. For those familiar with other workflows, you’ll be able to build track foundations and grooves in minutes.

Tracks thrives on this immediacy, with the ability to select synth presets and a master scale in seconds. I really like how when selecting synth presets, it will automatically play the root note when auditioning sounds, which makes finding one that fits with your other elements simple and effective.

Circuit Tracks has a rechargeable battery onboard that charges via the USB-C connection with four hours of battery life available. I had a few fun jams sitting on my couch watching movies with the sound off – à la Mac Miller – making beats and exploring what this light and compact unit can do. 

The sequencer itself is 16 steps by default and can be expanded to 32 by the press of a button. You can make your patterns smaller or larger via the pattern settings button and adjust each note’s velocity, gate, probability to trigger and even their placement within the grid (aptly named micro step). Using the micro step function you can add more than one note per step, allowing budding hip hop producers to create those hi hat trills that are essential to that genre.

To go deeper into making the Tracks your own, you’ll have to use Novation’s Components browser app or standalone software and connect via the USB-C port. I use Brave browser, which is a fork of Google Chrome, and it was as simple as plugging in the device and selecting it on the web page. No software download required.

The synth editor was deeper than I expected from simply using the device. It’s a two oscillator polyphonic synth with multiple envelopes and LFOs paired with deep modulation functionality. For starters, each of the eight macros can control up to four parameters each, including any of the 20 modulation matrices, which allows you to create patches that evolve and mutate over time alongside more straight up and down patches. Pairing this with the chorus/phaser plus distortion can result in some very dense synth sounds. There’s even a mutate button on the device which will randomise settings on the patch! Note that this feature is destructive so it’s advised you save your project before using this setting.

Each of the four drum tracks can be programmed individually. They are monophonic which means they can only play one sample at a time, but each one can play multiple samples as long as they aren’t overlapping. You can think of it as each sample choking another sample when it plays, which can work to your benefit when programming long and short kicks to ensure you don’t end up with bass overhang.

For you finger drummers out there, don’t worry, you can still play live on all four drum tracks using the expanded view with the ability to quantise your playing to keep it in time with everything else.

Every knob twiddle you can think of, can be recorded in real time and played back as automation on the Tracks. Anything from distorting your kick drum, to changing the filter frequency and FX on your synth pads is on the cards, which inherently allows you to draw your own envelopes.

There’s a mixer section on the Tracks, featuring level, pan and mute with the LED lights below each encoder indicating how loud/panned each channel is, giving great visual feedback on what is placed where in your composition. Alongside this, there’s multiple reverb and delay effects presets in which each channel can be sent to.

For making sure the kick is the number one element in your tunes, Circuit Tracks features a sidechain, which you can assign any of the four drum tracks to duck any or all of the synth and audio ins to varying degrees. I had a lot of fun with this at full tilt, creating interesting rhythms from droning synths when sidechained to a drum track that was turned down on the mixer.

I haven’t even mentioned the ability to sequence and control external synths via the Tracks. There’s two dedicated MIDI channels which you can configure the MIDI CC via Novation Components to automate and alter external gear. Send the audio output of those synths back into Tracks and you can use all the mixer functionality (including FX and Sidechain) to further enhance your productions.

Circuit Tracks allows you to utilise eight different patterns per project (four per view) which all store automation settings. Once you’ve got different parts lined up, triggering them here will allow you to play different iterations of your creation. Then once you’ve found some you’re happy with, you can save them to the bottom of the mixer page, which allows you to play them in order or trigger them how you like.

On the projects page, you can switch between creations without skipping a beat, literally as it will load the next project and launch it if another one is already playing. This allows you to play completely different songs back to back and function as the portable live setup you’ve been looking for.

All in all, this portable groovebox is more feature-packed than meets the eye. The ability to patch in additional synths with full MIDI compatibility, makes it expandable to fit with your existing hardware while adding two dense synths engines and multiple drum tracks in which you can load in your own samples. Pair that with a fully fledged mixer, probability triggering and the mutate feature, there’s a lot of music to be made and fun to be had on this sleek and portable unit.

Head to Novation for more information. For local enquiries, get in touch with Focusrite Australia