Novation Circuit Mono Station Review

The Novation Circuit Mono Station is a paraphonic synthesizer with two analog oscillators, an analog multimode filter, a modulation matrix and a built in sequencer. As the name suggests, it’s sort of a “crossover” between the intuitive but powerful sequencer of Novation’s Circuit with an analog synthesis engine related to the Bass Station 2.

FIRST IMPRESSION

The chassis is all plastic and rather lightweight, but it sits tight on the desk thanks to the rubberized yellow bottom. The Circuit Mono Station is as wide as the Circuit, but a bit deeper to fit the synth section. The machine is compact and portable, but does not run on batteries, so you will need a power bank to jam on the bus or in the park.

The rotary knobs sit tight and have a nice touch thanks to their rubberized coating. On the review unit, all of them turned smoothly with equal resistance, as did the two rotary encoders of the mod matrix and tempo. The faders run smooth as well, but naturally have a slight wiggle to them as faders do. In order to save space, Novation went with mini-potentiometers in the mixer section. While there are certainly more glamorous ways to tweak levels, the mini-potis do their job and were placed in the least performance-critical section of the synth. Most controls on the panel are illuminated to allow visual feedback of the set values, which is especially useful when loading a new patch. The pads have a smooth touch and offer just the right amount of grip. The only thing not quite as solid – at least on my review unit – are the transport buttons. These small rubber pads are connected under the chassis and when one is pressed, the others move along. It’s not a big deal and can be seen on many controllers and synths with similar buttons, but I would prefer not to see it.

The first impression of the Circuit Mono Station is pretty decent. It doesn’t feel as premium as Novation’s flagship synthesizer Peak, but the flashy led color scheme and the metal insert knobs will certainly look nice on your desk or live rig.

THE OSCILLATORS

The Circuit Mono Station sports two identical analog oscillators with switchable sine, triangle, saw and pulse/square waveform. They share a set of dedicated knobs for range, coarse, fine tune and the square’s pulse width. The oscillators can be played in monophonic or paraphonic mode and also be synced. In the mixer section, a sub oscillator (one octave under Oscillator 1) can be added as well as ring modulation and noise.

As the two oscillators share one set of switchable controls, sound design with the Circuit Mono Station can be a bit inconvenient at first. The color coding makes things quite lucid though: When you switch between pink Osc 1 and green Osc 2, all shared controls change colors as well.

THE FILTER

The state variable analog filter comes with three switchable shapes (low-/band-/high-pass) and a 12/24 dB slope. The drive adds pre-filter distortion to the mixer output and beefs up the sound. The filter is self resonating and features key tracking, so it can be tuned and played chromatically as a third sine wave oscillator. bypass switch excludes Osc 2 and/or noise from the filter section and routes them directly to the output.

The Circuit Mono Station inherited only the OTA filter design from the Bass Station 2, not the diode ladder filter. OTAs or operational transconductance amplifiers are used in many classic synthesizers such as the Roland Jupiter-8, Juno-60 or the Korg MS-20. While they are generally known to sound rather clean and warm, there are some gritty and aggressive sounding exceptions like MS-20 – an the the Circuit Mono Station.

DISTORTION

The synth section offers three types of analog distortion. Type 1 is similar to the distortion found in the Bass Station 2. It adds a noticeable amount of overtones to the sound. It boosts the odd harmonics while lowering the even harmonics, resulting in a sharper, more dystonic sound. The lower frequencies appear less dominant because the boosted lower mid frequencies mask them, so in extreme settings it feels like you’re loosing a bit of low end. Type 2 is a classic fuzz overdrive. It sounds less aggressive and boosts the fundamental to catch up for the perceived loss of loudness, resulting in warm and thick sounds. Type 3 is a combination of both, so you get the more aggressive overtones of type 1 and the warm bass boost of type 2.

MODULATION

Modulation sources include an LFO, an envelope generator with four sliders for attack, decay, sustain and release and optional legato mode, pad velocity and a dedicated modulation sequence. The modulation matrix can assign them to up to six destinations: individual pitch and pulse width modulation for both oscillators, amp level, distortion level, aux cv and filter cutoff. The LFO offers four wave shapes: triangle, sawtooth, pulse and sample&hold. The frequency ranges up to about 200 Hz, so well it’s in the audible range and can create some interesting FM effects. 

While not awfully complex with 4 sources and 8 destinations, the mod matrix is fun to use and can create a range of useful effects like tremolo, vibrato, filter/amp/pitch envelope, pulse width modulation, sync envelopes or fm sounds.

THE SEQUENCER

What truly sets the Circuit Mono Station apart from other synthesizers is the integrated Circuit sequencer. It features 3 separate tracks for Osc 1, Osc 2 and modulation. In sequencer mode, the upper 16 pads represent two octaves of a scale (or one chromatic octave), while the lower 16 pads represent the steps of the sequence. Programming a sequence is as simple as holding a step and pressing a note; note length and velocity can be set in a similar fashion for each step with dedicated layers. In paraphonic mode the two oscillators can play separate sequences at the same time. Adjustable time division, length and play direction allow for evolving variations and polyrhythmic sequences.

The dedicated modulation sequence can be routed to any of the 8 destinations of the mod matrix to control parameters like distortion or filter cutoff. On top of that, the Circuit Mono Station can also record any knob or fader movement directly into the sequence, just hit record and tweak the buttons. Automation of any parameter can also be programmed step by step.

Sequences are stored in sessions. A session can hold up to 16 Osc 1 sequences, 8 Osc 2 and 8 modulation sequences. There is no real song mode, but sequences for Osc 1, Osc 2 and modulation can be chained and freely combined on the fly. The root note and scale as well as the patch of the session can be changed anytime, so you can match your existing sequence with a new track. 

Since version 1.2 of the OS, the sequencer can also load a different patch per step (“patch flip“), which potentially turns the Circuit Mono Station to an analog drum machine (with one voice per step).

CONNECTIONS

Thanks to the audio input, external signals can be routed to the analog filter, amp and distortion section, so the Circuit Mono Station can act as an analog effect/sound processor. The MIDI trio (in/out/through) is laid out as mini TRS, but includes a set of DIN adapters. Clock in/out syncs the Circuit Mono Station to external gear. The 3 CV outputs allow integration with a modular setup. The USB port is MIDI class compliant; it transports MIDI data, updates and patches, but no audio or power.

CONCLUSION

The Circuit Mono Station sounds great, is fairly fast and easy to use (once you grabbed your head around the Circuit sequencer’s workflow > RTFM) and delivers dynamic, lively sequences faster than most tools in your arsenal will. It’s an inspiring idea spawner in the studio and a powerful hands-on instrument on stage. If you are mostly after a synthesizer for sound design but don’t have a need for the integrated sequencer, you might want to consider something more powerful and flexible like the Novation Peak or more budget friendly like the Bass Station 2. But once you fully utilize the sequencer, the Circuit Mono Station is definitely worth the money.

PRO:

  • Great sounding analog synthesis engine
  • Powerful, flexible sequencer
  • Good live performance features
  • Monophonic drum machine (Patch Flip)
  • Audio input to use filter & distortion with external signals

CON:

  • Oscillators share one set of controls
  • Only one envelope and LFO
  • Some functions hidden behind shift keys/pads

Buy the Novation Circuit Mono Station: smarturl.it/circuitmonostation


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