Circuit is Novation’s first all-in-one groovebox, borrowing elements from its most successful products—the Launchpad line, most obviously—as well as its extensive synthesizer heritage. In essence, it merges these relatively disparate elements into a self-contained synthesizer, sequencer, and drum machine. While it’s easy to write the Circuit off as a limited box of presets for beginners, further engagement reveals a powerful, portable, and extremely fun little package of creative tools.

How It Looks
Circuit’s physical design is most reminiscent of the company recently-released Launchpad Pro. Its four-by-eight grid of LED-lit, velocity-sensitive pads are used to play and sequence parts, and the eight endless encoders on top control the synth engine and drum sounds. At a tad under 10″ x 8″ x 1.5″ (exactly 240mm x 200mm x 35mm for the metric-fluent), the unit is a great size and extremely portable; solid construction means you can put it in your bag and not worry too much, and the rubberized base keeps it in one place when you rest it on a table. The unit’s portability is buoyed by its ability to run on six AA batteries and, to a lesser extent, the built-in speaker on the bottom of the unit (which, though nothing special, will do in a pinch). It has a pair of 1/4-inch jacks for stereo output, a 3.5 mm headphone jack on the front, and MIDI In/Out via a pair of 3.5mm hardware jacks, as well as USB (which only sends MIDI, not audio).

How It Sounds
Circuit is essentially an exercise in creative limitations, providing two synth parts and four drum parts per session. The sound engine is reminiscent of the virtual analog synthesis found in the UltraNova and MiniNova; each synth part provides six-note polyphony. There are 64 preset patches available to choose from, and each has its own set of macros set to the rotary encoders up top. The fact that both the presets and macros aren’t labeled in any way can certainly feel like a limitation, but in practice proves surprisingly flexible: Sounds can be transformed drastically thanks to smart modulation mapping, and there’s something oddly comforting about sitting down in front of 64 presets instead of 6,000. (Each synth also has its own sidechain button, with controllable amounts.)

Likewise, each drum part lets you sequence one of the 64 available drum sounds, and the knobs control their pitch, decay, distortion and filter. Circuit provides reverb and delay effects, with the ability to control the send amount for each part individually. While each pattern defaults to one bar, these patterns can easily be combined to let you create eight-bar loops on each channel. The entire mix passes through a hi-pass/low-pass master filter, which has its own dedicated knob. (While it’s a smooth, clean filter for live performance, the ability to apply it to individual channels would be nice as well.) You can easily record your knob-twiddling automation with the touch of a button, too.

The Bottom Line
All of this makes the Circuit a surprisingly powerful piece of kit. It sounds fantastic, and its pared-down tool set feels thought through and designed for optimized creativity, rather than the “blank slate syndrome” that sitting down in front of a DAW can bring about. You’re limited in the number of tracks you can use, and the blind noodling of knobs with unforeseen effects can sometimes be frustrating, but the pros well outweighed the cons in my experience. It was taking the Circuit on a six-hour bus ride that really drove home its creative potential, arriving at my destination with a half-dozen sessions that both sounded great on their own and will make solid starting points for proper tracks.

Pricing: MSRP: $449.99; street: $329.99