Novation Circuit Groove Box Complete Guide [2020]

Want to know the Novation Circuit inside out? Or just thinking of getting a Circuit? This Guide to the Novation Circuit tells you everything this groovebox can (and can’t) do.

Read the Guide, and you’ll be able to decide whether a Circuit is right for you.

Contents hide

What is the Novation Circuit?

Novation’s Circuit is a “groove box.” It’s a portable drum machine, synthesizer, and all-around fun-but-serious electronic music instrument. It’s used by professionals and amateurs alike, and it has an enthusiastic community of users.

Circuit is different from other products because it’s completely standalone. You don’t need a computer to make it work. It can even run on batteries and has a built in speaker. Its ease, versatility, and portability make it very popular.

Should I Get a Circuit?

Well, only if you like being able to make music quickly, on the go, in a format that easy to use and gives you great options!

Okay, I’m obviously a big fan. But there are over 13,000 happy Circuit owners across the globe, and they are full of love for the Circuit.

As for value, there’s really no better deal to be found. It’s a drum machine, sequencer, synthesizer, MIDI clock, and metronome all rolled into one.

You can take it with you wherever you go (perfect for musicians with itchy fingers on trips away from their instruments).

And it has a headphone jack, so you don’t annoy those around you on long car trips (and no one will lift your sick beats and make your millions…if that’s how you wanna look at it!).

10 Reasons Why Musicians Love Novation Circuit

The Circuit is used by professional and amateur musicians, and everyone in-between.

Circuit has 10 shining qualities that make it so loved:

  1. It is easy to use. As soon as you get it out of the box, you can start jamming away. Make a draft quickly, and save it for later.
  2. Circuit is a smart purchase. It can play 4 drum sounds and 2 synths at once. Some folks even sold their Novation Bass Stations because they didn’t feel like they needed it after buying a Circuit.
  3. It is reliable. Reliable enough that pros use them in live gigs. Novation was selective in the options they gave the Circuit: enough to make it very interesting, not so many to cause glitches.
  4. It is versatile. That means it grows with you. So it’s not uncommon to see a Circuit rocking alongside a synthesizer worth several thousands of dollars.
  5. The Circuit is portable. It can run on batteries and even has a built in speaker. Of course it also has a aux jack, so you can listen on headphones or hook up to a mega system.
  6. Excellent hardware. The Circuit feels solid. Its pads are sensitive. Its knobs are sturdy. It’s everything you’ve been looking for in a relationship.
  7. Novation has great support. Novation updates the firmware regularly for the Circuit. They also actually respond to messages and suggestions from the community.
  8. There’s loads you can do with Circuit for free! You get free use of Novation’s custom software (Components), and there are tons of places with free samples and patches that you can save to your Circuit.
  9. You can personalize your Circuit. Use your own samples for drums and synths. You can even have custom parameters for each of your macro knobs. Nice!
  10. Circuit plays well with others! While you can make some killer tracks on the Circuit by itself, many people want a small, basic piano keyboard (like the Arturia Keystep). You can even use Circuit to control a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) like Ableton or Logic. (Finger drumming on the Circuit is much better than finger banging your keyboard!)

Free Circuit Packs of Samples and Patches

First, check out the free packs of samples offered through Novation’s Components.

The monster list is on the Circuit Owners Facebook page. This folder has hundreds of free sample packs! (You’ll need to join the Facebook Group for access.)

The packs are of varying quality, but they are all labeled.

Quick tip: if you try out one pack and like it, check out the other packs by that author. They’re listed as by: Author Name.

My adapted collection of Princely Drum Sounds.

Should I pay for sample packs?

Although there are a number of free sample packs, you might also find a few that you don’t mind putting down some cash for.

Sample packs require a lot of time and expertise to make. They’re usually really cheap, and if they open you up musically, that counts as a sound investment in our books.

It’s also a great way to support other musicians.

What’s the difference between sample packs, samples, and patches?

Not everyone agrees on this terminology, but we can distinguish them this way:

Circuit Sample Packs: if someone is advertising a Circuit Sample Pack, that generally means that they have 64 different drum sounds and 64 synth patches (usually with customized parameters for the synth modulation).

Samples: samples are just files. These may or may not be formatted to work with your Circuit. In general, you want to find .wav, .aiff, or mp3/4 files that are 1 second or less in length. You can drag and drop these individually into Components Then you’re good to go!

Patches are generally synth patches. First, they have the sound file that is the foundation of the synth sound. But they also have the effects parameters already programmed.

So when you twist those 8 knobs on the top of the circuit, that will control effects for that synth sound as it has been programmed into the circuit.

(On analogue synths, you’d use cables to connect or patch together your different effects – like oscillators and LFOs. Even though you can now click using Novations’ Components software, they’re still called patches.)

Circuit as Synthesizer

Circuit has 2 considerable synths. Novation’s Components software allows you have great control over every element of Circuit’s synth engine.

(In fact, it’s now so good that Novation is competing with itself. Some folks have sold their Novation Bass Stations or Circuit Mono Stations now that Circuit’s synth can be controlled so well. )

Novation Components

Components is a software allowing you total control over Circuit’s synth engines.

It’s big, and a bit scary.

But here’s an excellent guide, written by Jonny Dutty Sanchez: Circuit – Synth Editor 101.

Circuit Macro Knobs

Circuits macro knobs are not always the same with each patch, but generally they follow this sequence.

Macro knobs1 & 2 Oscillator parameters
Macro knobs 3 & 4 Envelope parameters (Attack/Decay & Sustain/Release)
Macro knobs 5 & 6 Filter parameters
Macro knobs 7 & 8 Modulation and FX parameters
Semi-consistent across Novation’s factory synth patches

Circuit Piano/Keyboard Keys

You can play the pads on Circuit just like keys on a keyboard. You can either select the key and scale you want to use.

Chromatic notes from Novation’s manual to the Circuit

You can also just use a chromatic scale, which is like having access to all the white and black keys on a keyboard. You access that by pressing button 32 in Scale mode.

Scales & Modes on Circuit

You also have access to 16 scales and modes. In Scale mode, just press the button number (see chart above) to get any of these scales or modes.

17 Natural Minor
18 Major
19 Dorian mode
20 Phrygian mode
21 Mixolydian mode
22 Melodic minor (ascending)
23 Harmonic
24 Bebop Dorian
25 Blues
26 Minor Pentatonic
27 Hungarian minor
28 Ukranian minor
29 Marva
30 Todi
31 Whole Tone
32 Chromatic
Circuit gives you quick access to 16 scales and modes.

Controlling Drum Sample Effects

You have 4 different effects that are exclusive to the drum samples. These can be assigned to individual drum tracks.

They are adjusted by rotating the macro knobs, but only 4 will work for each track.

Drum effect macros (from Novation’s Circuit manual)

But remember that you also have the Reverb and Delay effects you can add to a track via the FX Mode.

Recommended Add-ons & Gear

You might need to make some additional purchases to do some things with your Circuit. There are some recommended items.

Two of the most popular MIDI keyboard/synths to pair with the Circuit.

These are both by Arturia. The Keystep is good quality, compact, and cheap (and that makes Sound-EconoMix very happy).

The MicroFreak is a synthesizer. Granted, you already have 2 synths in the Circuit, but have a look at the video below to see how well the Circuit and Microfreak play together.

Zoom Multi Stomp MS-70 CDR

If you want a more control and options over your reverb and delay, this pedal offers you 100 effects.
It’s also cheap, and works equally well with guitars. Win, win, win.

If you want a more control and options over your reverb and delay, this pedal offers you 100 effects.
It’s also cheap, and works equally well with guitars. Win, win, win.

Annnnnnd the latest word is you can hack your MS-70 and add Zoom’s entire effects library (but you didn’t hear it here): https://youtu.be/oG3KO1EbFd4.

Here it is at work along with some other recommended gear on a nice 6-minute jam.

Super sturdy, gig-ready case.

MIDI-merge box so you can run multiple sequences, synths, etc. together. Use your Circuit as the MIDI clock for them all.

These decks and stands are great for having space to work. Put your keyboard or laptop up top.

No cables? No Party.

You’ll probably want 2 cables if you’re running live sound (one for left/mono and one for right).

Apps let you control your Circuit with an iPad or Android apps. Be sure you can connect.

And, cuz Apple’s dumb…

Novation Circuit Manuals & Specs

Links to Manuals

Circuit Specs

(From https://novationmusic.com/en/circuit/circuit)

  • 32 RGB backlit velocity sensitive button grid
  • 28 RGB backlit function buttons
  • 8 Continuous pots with RGB indicator LEDs
  • Dedicated filter and volume pots
  • 1/4″ jack sockets for left and right outputs
  • Two MIDI sockets (3.5mm jack sockets with MIDI din break-out cables)
  • USB B 2.0
  • Front-mounted 3.5mm jack socket for headphones
  • Integrated speaker
  • Rubberised knob caps
  • Rotary controls secured to the chassis with metal nuts
  • Power supply connector
  • Power switch
  • Battery compartment for 6x AA batteries (included)
  • Kensington Security Slot

How to Update Circuit’s Firmware

Novation gets a standing ovation for the best easiest firmware updates around. This gets you any patches for glitches and all the best new tools.

  1. Connect the Circuit to your computer with a USB cable. It’s recommended to use the AC power adaptor instead of batteries. Turn the Circuit on like normal.
  2. Go to www.novationmusic.com/downloads
Select “Novation” and “Circuit”
  • Select Novation from “Pick your brand” dropdown list
  • Select Circuit from the “Pick your product by type” dropdown list. 
Click here to see latest firmware (and download Components)

3. Click on the latest version to download.
The new firmware downloads directly into your Circuit. This will have all the latest patches and newest options.

4. Circuit will automatically enter its normal state when the download is complete. You’re ready to groove!

What Are the Circuit Firmware Updates?

One of the best things about the Circuit is the firmware updates.

These include both patches for any problems in the previous version and some new goodies.

There are probably few companies that are as responsive to customers as Novation is, and the updates keep getting better and better.

Firmware updates are changes to the software that operates your circuit. While the hardware (the actual physical object) of the Circuit remains the same, firmware updates allow the groovebox to do all sorts of new things. 

“Like what?” you’re asking. Well, check out the complete list of all of the firmware updates below.

History of Circuit Firmware Updates

Novation has done a tremendous job of responding to its community with some killer firmware updates. 

Probably the biggest update was 1.2, which introduced functionality via Components. This allows users to change our samples, tweak synths, and so on. 

Following that, 1.3 allowed sample flip, so we can have new samples alternating in a track (instead of being stuck with one sound on Drum 1, for example).

Read below to see how Novation has responded to user requests. Then, in the comments, share what you would like to see next.


Version 1.8
  • Circuit allows non-quantized recording
  • Synth microstep editing
  • Per-note velocity tracking
  • Assignable MIDI channels
Version 1.7 
  • Tied / Drone Notes
  • Pattern Chain Sequences 
  • Sequence Banks 
  • Appending to a Sequence 
  • Synth Micro-Nudge 
Version 1.6 Sept 2017
  • Panning function added
  • Drum Micro Steps
  • Light Dim
  • FX Mute
Version 1.5: May 2017
  • Note lengths for synth tracks are now recorded more precisely with 6 gradations of gate length. 
  • Preview patches from the synth patch view (with variable or fixed velocity). Hold SHIFT to suppress preview. Monophonic patches play one note, polyphonic patches play a chord. Preview is suppressed while recording.
  • Added settings (orange pads) to toggle CC RX (left pad) and CC TX (right pad) separately to other MIDI messages.
Version 1.4 Oct 2016
  • Drum pattern length
  • Instant pattern switching
  • New patches and samples
  • Colour coding sessions without a computer
  • MIDI Clock settings
Version 1.3 Aug 2016 
  • Circuit sample flip
  • Sample audition
  • Sample decay
  • Sound management
Version 1.2 April 2016
  • Circuit Components
  • Sample Import
  • Isotonik Synth Editor
  • Circuit Librarian
  • Record externally inputted MIDI notes and macro information from external instruments.
  • Receive program change messages via external MIDI
  • Momentary record: hold the record button to punch in both notes and info from macro knobs. 
  • Step editing can record automation per step
  • Erase automation without deleting your whole track

Should You Update Your Firmware?

Firmware updates give you all the latest options and tricks on your Circuit and eliminate any previous glitches.

So firmware updates help your Circuit run faster, cleaner, and with more options. 

What’s better, none of these new options get in the way of that easy functioning that we love about the Circuit.

So even if you don’t have the new options with the update, you can keep using your Circuit just like you had been. 

Bootloader Mode 

Bootloader mode is a function of your Circuit you’ll hopefully (and probably) never need. You shouldn’t use this unless Novation customer support instructs you to. 

To enter Bootloader Mode: 

  1. Turn the Circuit off.
  2. Hold down the Scales, Note 6, and Velocity buttons simultaneously.
  3. Turn the Circuit on.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Circuit good for beginners?

You can pick up a Circuit and program a drum beat in 5 seconds with very little knowledge. 
You don’t need any other equipment to use it. 

Plug in some headphones if you want, though it has a built-in speaker. One simple cable to hook it up to your stereo or as big a system as you want.

Circuit is also great because you can use it on a simple level, or go deeper when you’re ready. You don’t have to know everything about it to do something.

So, yes, the Circuit is very beginner friendly. But it’s also a good investment, because you’ll never outgrow it. 

How do I set up my Circuit out of the box?

Novation provides great quick instructions for getting your Circuit set up to play:

Their video also has a quick overview of features.

How do you use a Novation Circuit?

Circuit is a drum machine, synthesizer, and step sequencer in one. 

In drum mode, each button can either 1) play a different drum sound or 2) set a beat down at a certain place in a sequence. 

In synth mode, each button can 1) play a different note or 2) set any note down at a certain place in a sequence. 

It works as a sequencer because each of the buttons represents one of the 32 divisions of 2 bars of music. So by selecting the 1, 5, 9, 13 buttons, you’d put a note on each of the 4 beats.

Here’s our favorite quick tutorial to get an overview of the Circuit:

Can you use Circuit with Ableton?

Definitely. You can MIDI map the buttons on the Circuit to correspond to anything you want on Ableton (or any Digital Audio Station).

That’s much better than composing on a computer keyboard (and better for your poor keyboard!).

Here’s a great step-by-step tutorial of the process:

Can you record to Ableton and DAWs with Circuit?

Yes, you can use Circuit with Ableton, Logic, Reason, or any other DAW. 

You have 3 ways of recording:

  1. Record the sounds coming from your Circuit as you would any live instrument. 
  2. Record the MIDI data coming from your Circuit. You can then assign this data to any MIDI instrument you like. 
  3. Use your Circuit as an external MIDI device in a live setting. For example, if you want to finger drum a section (and maybe clean it up later), you can drum on your Circuit.(It’s a lot better for your computer than pounding your keyboard!)

Here’s a tutorial of the process with Ableton:

Is Novation Circuit standalone?

Yes, definitely.

And you can also use it with synths, a DAW, or a whole band. That’s up to you.

Circuit also plays well with others. It can both take MIDI in and work as a MIDI output device. So you can use the pads to drum and the knobs to adjust sound with DAWs like Ableton and Logic.


How do you record a Novation Circuit?

You can record either using the headphone jack or the 1/4 inch output jack. Or you can send MIDI via the MIDI out.

See the section on Add-ons and Gear above for some recommendations.

How do you update Novation Circuit?

To update, you’ll need to download the latest firmware.  

How do you restore factory presets on a Circuit?

To restore your Circuit to its original factory condition, you’ll need to use Novation’s Components program

Can you load your own samples on Circuit?

Yes, this is a good thing about Circuit? But…

Can you load samples without a computer?

Sort of. You need

  1. Access to Chrome (preferably) or Opera to load samples to Circuit via Components (unless you want a very complicated workaround!). Or you can…
  2. Download Components Standalone. But you’ll still need a computer to use that. 

Circuit has no SD card slot, so there seems there will not be a way to load samples without a computer in the future either.

That being said, Components is very easy to use, and the flip sample feature gives you full access to all of your samples.

How many samples can I load in Circuit?

You can load up to 64 samples via Components to your Circuit. You can only upload 1 minute of material. You’ll see that being counted down as you work on Components.

Can I get more memory for my Circuit?

You can’t exactly get more memory for the Circuit.

But, there’s a great workaround to load up longer samples. You can still only load 64 samples, but edited them so you get longer than 1 minute of material when you actually use them.

Check it out: 

What comes for free with Circuit? Do I need to buy Ableton?

You get all you need to start grooving as soon as you buy a Circuit. This includes 2 massive goodies:

  1. Ableton Live Lite: this gives you 8 tracks to record on and a ton of instruments and samples. You can spend up later if you want it, but give yourself a few months digging into this free version
  2. Access to 1 GB of samples and loops from Loopmasters

Should I Buy a Used Circuit?

Circuits are built to last, so buying a used one should be safer than picking up some more fragile gear second-hand.

On the other hand, Circuits tend to retain their value quite well, so finding a huge reduction in price is not that likely.

You also have no warranty, which always makes me nervous with electronics. I buy used instruments – no problem. But I’m a bit more hesitant with electronics, especially if I’m not going to save a lot. 

You also probably won’t have that free Ableton Live and Loopmaster access. Ableton’s basic software costs $99 new, but it’s free with your Circuit. If you need Ableton, it’s definitely worth it to buy new.

If you do buy used electronics, I prefer using a service like Reverb that will at least back you up if you buy a dud. 

How to save to Circuit? Why won’t my circuit save?

The Save function does not work when your Circuit is shipped (so you won’t overwrite the presets). In order to save your own sessions, you have to enable the save
function.

To do this, hold down the Shift and Save buttons at the same time. Then turn on your Circuit. The Save button will now be blue, meaning it’s operational.

Circulating Circuit Rumors

Will there be a Circuit 2?

Right now there is no indication that Novation will be making a Circuit 2.

The company seems much more interested in making improvements and new options within the current hardware, and for the most part Circuit users are really happy.

The improvements happen through their firmware.

For example, you can now substitute samples, pan, and nudge your synth lines. 

What would Circuit 2 include?

A Circuit 2 would not just include small changes to the Circuit. These can be done by firmware updates.

If we do see a Circuit 2, here are some predictions:

  • Increased memory: this has been a continuing complaint even among those who love the Circuit. As of now there is no way to add memory; that requires new hardware.
  • Use of SD cards: slip your own samples in and out quickly without a computer. Count on that one!
  • A (non-touch) screen: to go the next step, Circuit 2 would need a screen. Minimally, this shows the names of samples and give visuals for any parameters being adjusted.
    It is doubtful that this would be a touch screen, which is fine for us. A touch screen would drive the price way up, introduces glitches, and distract from the knobby-physicality of the Circuit.
  • Live sampling option. Going the extra mile, we’d love to be able to work with live samples.
  • Vocoder Live voice manipulation. Arturia recently revealed that this has always been available for the Microfreak. We’d love another reason not to have to buy more gear, so add Vocoder to the Circuit 2!
  • More sample-specific (not just track-specific or master) EQ.

So would a Circuit2 be in the clear?

Circuit vs the Roland MC-101

A formidable opponent for the Circuit2 would be the Roland MC-101.

In fact, it ticks many boxes we were looking for with any Circuit2.

Specs:

  • accepts SD card
  • 4 tracks and 64 clips (16 clips per track) [same a Circuit]
  • 90 Multi-Effects
  • Track EQ
  • 9 types of chorus/delay
  • 7 types of reverb
  • Master compressor and master EQ
  • 128-step Step Sequencer

Like Zoom’s ARQ-48, the MC-101 looks great on paper.

But, due to functionality, ease, versatility, and many other reasons, we think the Circuit is the sounder choice than the MC-101.

The MC-101 doesn’t offer much in terms of individuality. Unlike the Circuit, where every patch has independent functions for your macro knobs, that doesn’t change on the MC-101.

This is a bit of a trade-off, because some users don’t like the fact that the synth parameters on the Circuit aren’t consistent for different patches.

On the other hand, the complaint with the MC-101 is that the parameters are too consistent. You get a set of presets with comparatively little customization allowed.

On the other hand, the MC-101 does give you independent outputs for each track, unlike the Circuit.

For the price, we don’t see enough advantages in the MC-101 over the Circuit. If you’re going to spend up, we’d advise saving up and going for one of the two deluxe groove boxes below.

Upgrading from a Circuit? Consider Roland MC-707 or Electron Digitakt

If you’re wanting to do more than your Circuit allows, let’s look at two other great groove boxes.

The Roland MC-707 boasts these features:

  • 8 tracks
  • 128 clips (16 clips per track)
  • 90 Multi-Effects
  • Track EQ
  • 9 types of chorus/delay
  • 7 types of reverb
  • Master compressor and master EQ

And the Digitakt offers even more memory (64MB Sample Memory, and 1GB+ Onboard Storage).

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Some specs on the Digitakt:

  • 8 internal audio tracks & 8 dedicated MIDI tracks
  • 1 × Multi-mode filter per audio track
  • 1 × Overdrive effect per audio track
  • 1 × Assignable LFO per track
  • Delay and Reverb send FX
  • Sampling capability
  • 64 MB sample memory & 1 GB +Drive storage
  • Headphones output
  • 2 × ¼” balanced main output and 2 × ¼” input

Conclusion

As for today, Sound-EconoMIx’s advice is that the Circuit is the box with best bang for your buck.

  • It’s easy to use.
  • It’ll grow with you.
  • It’s dependable.
  • It’s compact.
  • It’s pretty cheap.

In short: for what you get, it’s an intelligent musical investment.

Examples of Circuit at Work

AKA SiCkFoRM is using Circuit along with Native Instruments’ Maschine Studio, Korg KP3 , and Roland SE-O2.

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