As Novation splices together its Circuit groovebox and its classic Bass Station analogue synth, Andy Jones dives in to see if the Circuit Mono Station represents the best of both worlds…
Price £479 (street)
When I first saw Circuit Mono Station at Superbooth this year, I actually thought Novation had just simply welded two products to each other. Easy. Job done. Bass Station at the top, Circuit at the bottom. However, the concept is not quite that simple – it’s more of a Vulcan mind meld than an instrument welding, with the best bits of both mixing into each other.
Circuit Mono Station is actually capable of the joyous easy music making that makes Circuit such a popular computerless music producer, but combined with the Bass Station II sound engine and hands-on control.
So, I guess you should imagine this as a supercharged Bass Station II – the same sounds, combined with Circuit’s undeniably great and flexible feature set. And with Bass Station II selling for £359 (street), and the asking price for a Circuit Mono Station being £479, the extra £120 doesn’t seem too much to get your hands on all of that extra sequencing muscle.
But before we get carried away
Let’s just remind ourselves about the original individual pieces. The Bass Station was essentially born out of acid-house music and one of the many products of the 90s that made Roland TB-303 noises, because Roland weren’t releasing anything at that time to do it (and people were getting sick of paying through the roof for the original hardware).
It did incredibly well for Novation, shifting gazillions of units. The company made a software plug-in version and then bought it back in 2013 as a v2 hardware synth which many loved – particularly me. “You could spend that much on a plug-in,” I screamed of its almost ridiculous £399 price tag.
Then there’s Novation’s Circuit. I was the first person to review this all-in-one sequencer/synth/groovebox back in September of 2015 and only recently looked at the latest v1.5 version to discover the all-in-one Circuit music making experience has matured to being “better than ever”. Both are innovative in their own way and the Bass Station has some great sounds – their melding will be intriguing.
So, what have we got?
Circuit Mono Station clearly has an eye on the modular synth community. Novation has, perhaps wisely, decided not to release a bunch of Eurorack modules (yet) into a market that is becoming saturated and also a market where, very often, it’s a case of ‘the smaller the company, the cooler the company’ (even Novation might be considered too big). Instead, it’s just the appeal of the modular phenomenon – hands-on knob twiddling, sequencing, not needing a computer – that Novation is attempting to tap into with Circuit Mono Station.
Out of the box and this is a bigger, squarer version of Circuit, with the height obviously increased thanks to the Bass Station extras. There are connections galore compared to Circuit. The number of CV connections alone bears out what I just said about Novation aiming this at the Eurorack community. It’s not buss powered and (unlike Circuit) can’t be run off batteries, which is a shame.
The synth engine is based around two main oscillators (plus a Sub, Ring Mod and Noise) and a selectable high-, band- or low-pass filter. There’s also a four-wave LFO, ADSR, Distortion and Modulation Matrix section that I’ll detail more later.
First, though, let’s address that word ‘paraphonic’. Circuit Mono Station is both monophonic and paraphonic. Monophonic is easy; that is, you can play and record one voice at a time. However, when you have two oscillators, that surely means you can make it ‘duophonic’ – ie, play and record two voices simultaneously. Yes and no.
Actually, when those two voices or oscillators share the same filter and amplitude envelope, they can’t be described as truly independent voices, so the term ‘paraphonic’ has been used here and on synths like the (rather great) Moog SUB 37. So, you get all the rich fatness of layering two voices together, but you do get restrictions.
Otherwise, it’s all very… well… Novation. It feels well built and sturdy. Controls are equally solid and I like that the rotaries come in different sizes depending on popularity – the Mixer rotaries are smaller than the Filter and Master Volume, for example. If you’ve owned either a Circuit or Bass Station, it’s safe and perhaps obvious to say that you will be at home.
Getting in further and it’s familiar ground, particularly if you know Circuit (obviously). The main architecture of the sequencer is based around 32 Sessions, of which Novation has filled 16 (which you can overwrite) to give you an idea of the unit’s power. Within each Session, you can chain up to 16 Patterns together for Oscillator 1 and eight for Osc 2, to make up two of the sequencer tracks.
A third track allows you to record modulation, so you can have all sorts of movement recorded as you go. This track can act as a Source within the Modulation Matrix, so can be routed to control things like the oscillator pitch or filter frequency, and then the recordings of these will be stored in one of eight Patterns, too.
It’s a good idea to get used to the colour coding from the off: that’s purple for Osc 1, green for Osc 2 and orange for the Modulation track. Not only are they coded with these colours for selecting each sequencer part, but their individual notes are shown in these colours, too; as are the rotaries within the dinky little mixer session and as you increase each here, this colour pleasingly glows brighter.
Recording Patterns is as easy as hitting Record and playing notes as the sequencer cycles around. The notes are shown at the top of the 32-pad grid (as two octaves or a more traditional keyboard view) and 16 bars of your sequencer are shown cycling around the bottom half. You can choose different views, too, like having the keyboard for both Osc 1 and 2 at the same time so you can play each; or choosing an expanded view for either, to allow you to play a greater range of notes to access.
Step recording is done by holding the note within your sequence and selecting the note you want to play here simultaneously (both go red). Delete it simply by repeating that, or holding Clear and hitting whatever note you want to get rid of.
You can also alter Velocity (volume), Gate (length) and Glide (portamento) of individual notes very easily, simply by using the Velocity and Gate buttons on the left (and Shift-Gate for Glide). You hold down each button and then the part of the sequence containing the note and the its Velocity, Gate or Glide value shows at the top half of the screen as a value between 1 and 16, which you can then alter. Glide and Gate are particularly useful in the context of creating some very warped, acid-like basslines.
Returning to the Modulation Matrix, you use a similar process to adding Velocity to add Modulation to a sequenced note/part. Press Mod/Seq, then the amount of modulation from the 16 grid parts at the top. Make sure ‘Seq’ is selected as your source and the destination is then modulated with a Depth of modulation determined by the main rotary.
There is also a stack of Pattern options to edit things like length and direction and duplicate and chain them together. There is a total of 16 musical scales to choose from if you want to go worldly (including personal favourites Bebop Dorian and Todi).
Finally, features-wise, Circuit Mono Station has been added to the Components section of the Novation website. With the standard Circuit, you can use this suite of plug-ins to edit the onboard synth via your computer and change Patch and Session information. You can upload a set of Peak sounds, for example, or even load in your own samples, which is great.
Circuit Mono Station is an analogue synth, so it’s not possible to upload your own samples to it. What Components allows is to store any amount of patches that you create on Circuit Mono Station (over the 64 that the unit has), and recall them as and when. You can then share these patches with other CMS users, or load in those that have been made public.
Novation Circuit Mono Station overview
1. Oscillators and main controls
Alter the tuning of Osc1 and 2 here (select them below) and there are also main rotaries for selecting the master volume and tempo.
You can alter the volume of the two oscillators here plus bring in the Sub and Noise. Handily, the brightness of each colour increases the higher it goes. We like that.
3. Filter and distortion
Choose from three filter types and two slope types and then three rotaries allow you to alter Overdrive, Frequency and Resonance. The Distortion section really adds bite, with three types on offer.
4. Modulation matrix
You can take four sources (the Envelope, LFO, Modulation track from the sequencer and Velocity) to modulate eight destinations.
5. Section buttons
Here, you can select which oscillator, the Modulation Sequence, Session and Octave up and down, plus edit the note’s Velocity, Glide and Gate values.
6. Pads and main buttons
The 32 pads show note parameter and sequencer info, while the Transport, Patch and Pattern buttons are on the right.
So, in terms of features, we’re bang on with what we get with Circuit – a lot! Sound-wise, though, this is, of course, based on bass – so is a very different beast from a ‘standard’ Circuit. No drums, just two parts (okay, ‘para’ parts) of squeals and drones. You might think this is limiting, but over 64 Patches, you do get a surprising range of sounds. Bass synths are generally great at tearing leads, too, and there are plenty on offer here. The paraphonic engine also gives a lot of flexibility for massive detuned stabs and hits, great for impact in any tune.
Yet while the sounds are probably more varied than you might imagine, they are perhaps not the main point of Circuit Mono Station – it’s what you can do with them that really counts, and how you can vary them over time. Obviously, there are all of those knobs to turn and variations to record over Patterns, so you’d be missing one of the most important points of the unit if you didn’t at least explore these.
And in this regard, Circuit Mono Station doesn’t just make putting patterns and tunes together easily, it positively encourages each and every one of them to be a moving, lively, shifting beast. I’m almost surprised it doesn’t punish you for just leaving notes alone, as there’s just so much you can do to each via the synth controls, the Modulation Matrix and with the drama that Glide and Gate introduce. I should also make note of the Distortion section in this regard. You get three types and a level control, and it really adds variation, grit and filth to your sound over time.
With my previous Circuit reviews, I felt that I was only really scratching the surface of what the unit could do, as Novation has built in so many extras beneath the surface. Here, though, these extras are perhaps more obvious and even more dramatic.
The synth, Modulation Matrix and note-parameter adjustments offer a total of 53 automation lanes that you can record and are right there in your face and almost demanding that you use them. So you will get a varied and flowing sound out of Circuit Mono Station, but it has to be said that it really is aimed at dance heads more than anyone else.
However, that community has exploded since the acid-house days that spawned the original Bass Station and I’m happy to say that Circuit’s addition to it here has made the sound of the synth more vibrant and heady and completely updated it to make it relevant for today’s dance producer, whatever fine strand of it they are producing within.
The extra connectivity puts Circuit Mono Station at the heart of a Eurorack system, too, with the Aux CV Out being one of the eight destinations of the Modulation Matrix – this means you can assign any of the Matrix sources to it and therefore introduce it to your modular world.
I’d also say it is a great partner for the regular Circuit, too – as that nice chap below is demo’ing. Get your best bass and lead bits from Mono Station and the rest from Circuit. A great unit that brings a lot of fun and energy to that great Bass Station world.
You can make a good argument for the original Circuit being an alternative. It’s cheaper (£265), and load it full of bass samples and you might get close to Mono Station, but I see it as more of a complementary unit and the two will work well together. Similarly, you’ll pay less for a Bass Station II (£359 street), but then you won’t be getting all the fancy Circuit sequencing features, although a nice keyboard is a bonus.
A more direct alternative that I tested recently is the Pioneer Toraiz AS-1. At £479, it’s a competitor, to the penny – and it utilises a wider scope of Dave Smith sounds as its source. I had a great deal of fun with it and preferred its broader sound, but Mono Station has the edge in terms of features, pads and hands-on controls.
Circuit Mono Station key features
- 3-part sequencer, mono and paraphonic analogue synth
- 64 synth patches
- Two oscillators plus noise
- Hi-, lo- and band-pass filters
- 3 distortion modes
- 4x 8 modulation matrix
- Mixer for Osc 1, Osc 2, Sub Osc, Noise, Ring Mod, Audio In
- Sequencer: 32 sessions, 2 tracks per session
- 32 RGB backlit grid buttons, 18 function buttons, 8 pots, 6 RGB mini pots
- Connections: 2x 1/4-inch audio in and out; 3 x 3.5mm MIDI in, out and thru; 2x 3.5mm analogue clock in/out; 3x 3.5mm CV. gate and aux CV; USB (no buss power), headphone
- Includes Ableton Live Lite and 4GB Loopmaster samples
- Size (mm): 240x250x54
- Weight (kg): 1.45