In Praise and Defense of the Novation Circuits
Pretty regularly on the Novation Circuit subreddit, a question like this or a comment expressing the same general idea appears. I'm not familiar with any other music gear subs where the users are so often actively trying to get away from their chosen devices.
The Circuit OG/Tracks/Rhythm are very interesting devices. Novation took the success of the Launchpad, an Ableton clip launch controller, and expanded it into a standalone device that really isn't like anything else. There's no screen. The pad grid serves as the user feedback for every function: step sequencing, keyboard, pattern launching, mixing, even the tempo display. That makes it a device that sometimes needs a great deal of memorizing (or RTFM, initially). But it also makes it a device that absolutely nails what it means to be immediate and tactile — attributes that screen-poisoned musicians supposedly crave these days when they step away from the DAW. There's no clicking, no menu diving, no using a scroll wheel to name a pattern. There's you, there's the buttons and knobs, and there's the music. And trust me, it's extremely quick to get to the "music" step. Features of both current-gen Circuits include one-button "scene" launching, sequencer probability and random mutation, pattern chaining for very long variations, and really usable reverb and delay.
So why does everyone think they need to "upgrade" to an Elektron machine, an MPC, or god forbid a Roland MC-707?
Firstly, these things are not expensive. About $350 gets you a new one, and for better or worse this "gotta upgrade" attitude leaves Reverb stocked with them for much less. I think there's an attitude with all kinds of musicians that the more you spend, the better your stuff is. Surprise! That's bullshit. It's not that I'm that old blues lawyer guitarist insisting that "tone is in the fingers" — after all, these same people are connecting 1958 Les Pauls to Dumble amps via Monster cables.
What I mean is electronic musical instruments are very rarely apples-to-apples comparisons. They all have their strengths and their frustrations. And good stuff has never been cheaper than it is right now.
The second thing is that, possibly because of said price, no pros have decided that these things have a certain space. If you want to make hard techno or dancey industrial, people like NIN and Richard Devine have sold you on Elektron machines and their hyped, exciter-pumped sounds. If you make lo-fi or boom bap, you want an SP-404 because Madlib, J Dilla, Flying Lotus, and who knows who else used one to make their iconic material. Even doofy gear gets this treatment at times, like the really uninspiring Microkorg being anointed the "synth for an indie rock band that has a synth."
What is the Circuit's space? It doesn't have one. I wouldn't say it's a "master of none" because it's quite good at plenty of things, but looking at it you don't say "ah yes, this thing is for X."
Just like me.
What I can say about the Circuits, especially the Circuit Tracks, is that they are now my centerpiece for both performing and composing, and in 20+ years of making live electronic music I have not owned another machine that enabled my way of working so thoroughly.
Would I like more precise sample cutting onboard? Yeah probably. What about separate outputs? Always want those. But "missing" features like these imply that the very purposeful design of these devices somehow includes more mistakes than it actually does. And the sum of the features versus tradeoffs is unlike anything else out there for both utility and (gasp) fun. So I'm not sure that an upgrade would actually be one at all.