The new Ibanez AZES or AZ Essentials line as they are calling it offers both a hard-tail and trem version of their already AZ models, but at a price that is hard to beat. Designed in conjunction with Tomo Fujita, these new models could be a winner for Ibanez.
I already own one of the Ibanez AZ series models and so I know they are great guitars, so when the news broke that Ibanez was now about to offer a new wallet-friendly version, well it certainly caught my attention. Their AZ Premium and AZ Prestige series are already very popular guitars worldwide and so this new AZES range could be a big seller.
Ibanez AZES31 in Ivory and check out that new all-in-one jack socket, a very nice touch!
Based around a poplar body with a slightly shorter maple 25″ scale length neck that has a Jatoba fretboard with nice clean white dot inlays. The fretboard itself is loaded with 22 medium jumbo frets and has a 250mm radius (roughly 9.5″). I think that the neck join will also please a lot of players, as it follows a nice ergonomic design, just like the AZ Premium and Prestige models.
The colours on launch include Purist Blue, Black, and Mint Green, for the AZES40 along with Vermilion and Ivory for the AZES31.
The Ibanez AZES31 neck and heel join is great
Hardtail or Trem
There is a hardtail version called the AZES31 with three single-coil pickups or you can go for the AZES40with the T106 tremolo bridge instead and an HSS pickup layout. Other nice hardware on offer includes the one-piece maintenance-free jack, so no more loose jack sockets. They also chose tuning pegs with a split shaft, to aid in getting them strung up easily.
Ibanez AZES40 in Purist Blue
Each guitar is fitted with Ibanez Essentials pickups which are single-coils with ceramic magnets for the AZES31 in SSS format, and an Ibanez Accord humbucker which is also ceramic, for the HSS layout AZES40 model.
You also get the dyna-MIX8 for the AZES31 and dyna-MIX9 wiring for the AZES40, both of which offer you extra pickups voices, so apart from your five-way selector switch. I’ve found this dyna-MIX system quite useful on my AZ model and so it is great to see it offered as standard on these new budget models as well.
This could be a great guitar for anyone looking for a well-made instrument and I love that Tomo Fujita was involved in the design as he is a phenomenal player. Check out the official demo video below to hear these new AZES models in action.
Update: After a leaky buildup, Microsoft Windows 11 release day is almost here. The new OS will be available as a free update for Windows 10 PC users, from 5 October. The roll out, according to Microsoft, is scheduled to last through into mid-2022. If you already own a device running Windows 10, you’ll have to a wait a bit longer to get it, as new computers are to receive the update first. Here’s what we know so far about Windows 11.
Windows brings a new multi-platform approach to the user interface. The new features intuitively adapt to your choice of device, depending on if you’re using a tablet, laptop, or multi-display setup. This is made simple with the new window management system and the ability to save screen sets and workflows. Some important developments also include a completely new app store and the capability to now run Android apps natively.
Windows 11 feels like home
As Microsoft CPO, Panos Panay emotively explained at yesterday’s Windows event, the user interface has been redesigned to make you feel at home. With a familiar feel, the cleaner more simplified environment relies on functions generally more associated with Mac OS X. The Snap Layouts feature is an intuitive workflow optimization tool that allows you to create customized layout profiles for each situation. Although the smart and seamless integration between devices is impressive, Mac users have enjoyed similar functionality with Expose and Spaces on OS X for many years so this is hardly groundbreaking.
A move toward productivity
What is far more promising is the move toward a more performance-focused system. Windows 11 claims to be more energy-efficient than ever, with improved security and cloud integration. Even the notorious Windows updates have been reduced in size considerably. Windows has always been favored by the gaming world as a superior graphics environment, so the revamped App store expands on this market. Integrating 3rd party and Android apps and allowing developers of games and software to run their own commerce engines are inclusive moves for Microsoft, but what are the benefits of Windows for pro audio users? If anything a cleaner, faster user interface with less bloat-ware is a definite improvement, so stay updated on DAW and Plugin compatibility. This could be a new era for Windows users.
The post-pandemic musical landscape presents a few challenges for independent artists and creators. Thankfully, a growing number of platforms and service providers have been hard at work, with aims to diversify and accommodate the ever-changing needs of musicians. After rebranding, the previously DJ-centric platform, Mixcloud has emerged with plans to take on audio culture. Mixcloud Live Studio now gives Mixcloud Pro account holders direct live streaming capability from your browser. This WebRTC-based system – also native to Google Meet and Clubhouse – means you’ll no longer need to go to third-party streaming apps like Streamlabs or OBS Studio. That makes for a straightforward interface without stream key sharing, providing a single-click solution for connecting with your audience.
Mixcloud Live Studio: Go live and direct from your browser
Still currently in its beta phase, Mixcloud suggests using Google Chrome as your browser for the moment, as all Mixcloud Live Studio features are currently optimized for it. If you are new to the world of live streaming this new service seems like a great introduction. Without technical settings menus, you’re able to easily select the mic and audio you wish to use. There’s also a useful offline mode with the ability to audition your stream before taking it live. The chat window is also active, so you can advertise your stream and interact with users pre-stream as the channel starts to fill up.
WebRTC, Google Meets and Clubhouse
The major difference between the WebRTC technology used in video chat apps and what was previously available is simple. Rather than simply streaming video across a platform in one direction, you have the power of two-way streaming. This allows a far more direct method, with more collaborative possibilities for your streaming content. You have the ability to migrate individual users from your chat to take part in the live video stream. Mixcloud Live Studio is available as a feature as a Mixcloud Pro subscriber, for 11 Euros a month. The free “Creator” subscription does not allow live streaming; however, you can upload prerecorded content. Mixcloud Live is still in its early phases, but according to Mixcloud, you can expect development and innovation further down the line.
More about Mixcloud Live Studio and live streaming:
Antares has released Auto-Key Mobile, a free app that tells you the key of any song. Based on the same algorithm as the company’s famous Auto-Tune plug-in, the iOS app listens to the music and tells you which scale to use. If you own Auto-Tune, you can even send the results directly to the plug-in. It’s like having perfect pitch in your pocket!
Antares Auto-Key Mobile
Antares Auto-Key Mobile is a free app for iPhone and iPod touch that’s meant to complement the company’s range of Auto-Tune plug-ins. Have you ever asked yourself which scale you should choose in Auto-Tune or another pitch correction plug-in to make sure that it fits the track? Auto-Key Mobile uses the developer’s pitch detection algorithm to find the root and scale of any track in seconds and display it on screen. You can even view the result on a virtual keyboard, so you know exactly which keys to play.
But that’s not all: If you own Auto-Tune, you can link the app to the plug-in and automatically transfer the result. This means that you don’t even have to choose the scale by hand anymore. It doesn’t get any more convenient than that!
Price and compatibility
Auto-Key Mobile is available for free in the Apple App Store. The app runs on iPhone and iPod touch and requires iOS 10.0 or higher. It only takes up about 40 MB of memory on your device. Antares plans to release Auto-Key Mobile for Android and Windows Mobile soon.
Thinking about switching to Bitwig Studio 4? There’s never been a better time! If you own another DAW and would like to try something new, you can now get 40% off Bitwig Studio 4 with this limited-time crossgrade deal.
Bitwig Studio 4 Crossgrade Deal
Switching to a different work environment can give your creativity a huge boost. Do you use Studio One, Cubase, Logic, Live, Reason, Pro Tools, Reaper, FL Studio, Samplitude Pro or Digital Performer and would like to try something new? Or maybe your current DAW needs an upgrade and you’re thinking about switching to another software. Bitwig Studio has quickly become a favorite thanks to its modular structure and creative workflow. And it’s never been easier to switch to Bitwig Studio from another DAW.
Bitwig is currently offering a crossgrade deal for owners of another paid DAW. If you qualify, you’ll get 40% off Bitwig Studio 4 when you purchase the DAW by September 13, 2021. Needless to say, you’ll receive the latest version of the DAW, including free updates for a year. The software includes a large selection of plug-ins, software synths, sound packs, loops and presets. If you’re still unsure, you can download the demo version and try Bitwig Studio 4 before purchasing it.
Prices and info about the Bitwig Studio 4 Crossgrade Deal
If you buy the Bitwig Studio 4 Crossgrade by September 13, 2021 from Plugin Boutique*, you’ll get the DAW for just USD 279.57. That’s 40% off the regular price.
To qualify, you must own one of the following DAWs:
MOTU Digital Performer 7 or higher
Ableton Live 8 or higher (Standard or Suite)
Presonus Studio One Professional
Apple Logic 9 or higher
Propellerhead/Reason Studio Reason 6 or higher
AVID Pro Tools 9 or higher (including subscriptions)
You’ve been playing guitar or bass for years, and have been playing with bands. You have some cash and want to invest in gear, but aren’t sure where or what. If you’re still using the first guitar strap you got, or have really skimped on the one you’re currently using, maybe it’s time you upgraded that.
Being a cheapskate, I never thought it worth investing in a guitar strap. I mean, when I started playing, I was tying up broken strings together because I couldn’t afford a new set, so a guitar strap was really low on the list of priorities. I’d buy cheap picks that would break and discourage me from buying more. So when I thought of a guitar strap, it was literally something to keep the guitar hanging on me.
A strap of the cheaper variety
And so it was. I would walk in to stores and get the absolute cheapest strap I could find, to replace the other absolute cheapest strap that I had misplaced. Or sometimes, I would ‘splurge’ and get the second cheapest strap. You know the kind. You probably have one right now. The black nylon ones. Now that I’m trying to remember, I’m not sure why I kept losing straps that I had to keep buying new ones. I’ve definitely bought more of these cheap straps than guitars I’ve had. I guess when you get a £4 strap, you probably don’t look after it as much as you would a £40 strap.
I couldn’t fathom how much better a strap could possibly be. £40, maybe, I suppose, would get you a more comfortable strap. But a strap that cost £100 or more?! Some guitars cost that much!
Then, much later, after I got my first ‘non-budget’ guitar, I wanted to reward myself with a matching strap. I thought I’d treat myself to a nice, not dirt-cheap strap. I was checking out the Richter brand, that are made in Germany. There were two versions that caught my eye. There was a nice black and purple one, but, as mentioned above, I’m a cheapskate, so I went for the budget version. You can check both of them out below.
It really was an eye-opener! The strap was leagues more comfortable than the garbage junk I’d been buying! And the best thing was, it stayed put. The material wasn’t sliding around on my shoulder.
I liked it so much I had a second one made. And I’ve used this new one to death. I love it. I ended up putting Schaller locks on both straps, and the corresponding buttons on my guitars. If I need to change guitars, it’s an easy swap.
Don’t be a cheapskate
When starting out, I can understand that the guitar strap is not an expense that is on top of one’s list. You even get one free with most starter packs. But if you’ve been with the guitar for a few years now, and play standing up, I really think spending on a quality strap is a good investment. It’s much kinder to your shoulder, looks nicer, and will last you a long time. I’ve probably spent more money altogether on the crap cheap straps than I did on my current straps.
I suppose there’s also a lesson to be learned here. It’s often better to pay a little more and get something that is better quality and will last a long time, than get the cheapest thing on the shelf. That’s not to say that spending money guarantees a superior product, but it usually means less headaches. This goes for picks, strings, cables. It’s better to drop a lump sum, if you are able, than to drop little bits over a long time that eventually adds up to a considerable amount. You don’t have to spend a million dollars. Just don’t be like my friend who used a rope as a strap, and put a pillow on his shoulder to keep it from cutting in!
There are lots of great strap companies out there. Some make some fantastic custom designs too. Just make sure that it’s comfortable, and the length you need it to be.
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This week’s collection of free plug-ins includes an awesome tool that allows you to edit individual notes in your samples. We’ve also got an emulation of the famed Roland Juno chorus, and a cool lo-fi plug-in that emulates bad connections, power switches and other lo-fi goodness.
As always, head over to our archives if you’re looking for more free plug-ins.
Once in a while, we come across a free plug-in that’s so good and so useful that we can’t believe it’s free. Samplab detects individual notes in polyphonic audio samples and displays them on a piano roll, where you can change notes by dragging them anywhere you’d like. Press play, and the sample is played back using the new notes, which can also be exported as a MIDI file. Even though many DAWs now offer similar functions, Samplab makes the process very easy and straightforward. Thumbs up!
Samplab is available for macOS and Windows in AU and VST3 formats.
Developer Alex Bell has created an emulation of the famous Chorus effect from the Roland Juno series synthesizers of the early 1980s. Like the original, the interface consists of only three simple buttons: On/off, Chorus I and Chorus II. It’s also possible to activate both choruses at the same time for a third type of effect. He’s added a mix slider, so you can blend in as much of the effect signal as you’d like. You can’t go wrong with a Juno chorus, and this one’s a great free alternative for macOS and iOS!
J_NO Chorus is available for macOS (10.15 or higher), iOS and iPadOS in AUv3 and AUv2 formats.
Does your gear work too well? The Bad Contact vst concept is a great way to add all those imperfections like noise, knob crackling and transformer hum back into your audio. Turn the big knob for harsh crackling, hit the power button for a nasty pop sound, or add hum and dirt with the knobs on the bottom. Then crank up the voltage to increase the volume. You can use these effects creatively to create unique beats and effect loops, or add some tasty noises to your samples and recordings.
Bad Contact is a VST and VST3 plug-in for Windows.
Are you taking your first steps into engineering live bands? Maybe you’re already mixing bands live but you’re in search of a cleaner, better workflow? In today’s blog, I’m going to share with you two decades of engineering tips and advice. If you’ve got any questions or want to share your tips for beginners, let us know in the comments section below.
Last year I wrote a blog on Successful Soundchecks: 5 Essential tips For Bands. With live shows gearing up again in the wake of Covid I thought it might be time to revisit the topic, this time from the perspective of a Front Of House Engineer. Clearly, everyone’s definition of what a successful soundcheck entails may vary from person to person. You might, for example, decide it’s been a success if you don’t end up in a fight with the lead singer!
I’m going to try and share with you the experience I’ve gleaned from two decades of FOH mixing. From working as the house engineer at a club in London, through to touring with stadium-level bands. Much of this may seem like common sense, but it’s a process that works for me from 200 capacity venues up to 8000 capacity stadiums (and everything in between).
Importantly, I’m writing from the perspective of a typical club level engineer. By the time you’re engineering festivals and stadiums, you’ll have people on hand to take over some of the roles mentioned here!
Ok, listen up, because this is perhaps the single biggest tip I can give you! Master your workflow and, provided you have a decent set of ears, you’re almost guaranteed a great show! Live sound has a very clearly defined “input-output” workflow. Once you develop a defined workflow and structure, you’ll soon find your soundchecks run smoothly and successfully.
Before performers arrive at the venue, there’s a whole load of things you can do to streamline your soundcheck. If you’re lucky, then you’ll have received a tech-rider. The tech-rider gives you a massive head-start, as it lets you plan in advance the equipment, channels and even mix techniques you’ll need.
Sometimes though, we don’t have the luxury of a tech rider, which can lead us to something of a guessing game. In this era of social media, why not jump online and see if you can find anything about the band? A couple of minutes on Facebook or Google could let you know whether “Dagenham Dustbin” is an acoustic folk-rock duo or, on the other hand, a 7 piece Ska-Punk band with a full brass section!
Get familiar with the PA rig
If you’re the house engineer, it’s your sole responsibility to ensure that the house PA is working to its optimum. That means powering up the rig, ensuring all speaker drivers are working properly, and that the system is properly EQ’d. Were you the engineer last night? If not, check everything! If you find a fault, report it and try and fix it before the show.
First up, start by playing a tune you know intimately, that’s impeccably well recorded, that’s free from any noise and has a wide frequency response. Use this opportunity to EQ the system to be as flat as possible to your ears, but by the same token, don’t be tempted to scoop out big bands of frequencies! This is your opportunity to balance the rig to the acoustics of the venue, although bear in mind venue acoustics will change when it’s filled with people.
If you’re also running monitors from FOH, send music down each monitor line and EQ the monitors out too. Set up a vocal mic, talk through it and see if any frequencies want to ring out badly.
If you’re not confident in your own abilities to EQ the system, then there are lots of tools available to help. Consider a handheld solution like the NTi Minilyzer, or alternatively software such as AFMG’s SysTune Pro coupled with a measurement microphone.
Set up mics/DI Boxes in advance of soundcheck
So you’ve done your research, checked the rider, or at least made best guesses regarding the artist’s setup. Now’s your chance to get ahead of the game by getting your mics on stands and plugged up in advance. If you don’t have a rider, or you don’t know the venue well, take stock of what mics, DI boxes and stands you do have available.
As a travelling engineer, I always carry my own mic box with various “get out of jail” mics of my own. It’s also a good idea to maybe carry a couple of DI boxes and stands too. This doesn’t have to cost a fortune, with Thomann’s Millenium stands being very affordable!
Channel allocation and desk setup
This is a crucial aspect of soundcheck workflow and one I’ve seen mucked up more times than I care to mention! As a general rule you’re going to want to plug up your channel sources in the order you want them to appear on your desk. If you’re using an analogue desk, how you plug up on stage will be directly mirrored on the desk. If you have a digital desk, you can re-patch internally but it’s still easier to do a 1 to 1 patch.
When allocating channels, think again about your workflow. For example, drum mics to the left-hand side of the desk with kick on channel 1, snare on channel 2 etc. Then comes bass instruments, then guitar, keys, miscellaneous instruments, then vocals. Now is also the ideal time to engage high pass filters (unless it’s a bass instrument high pass everything) and assign phantom power to sources that need it.
Label your channels up either using electrical tape and a sharpie or if you’re on a digital desk, programme your scribble strips. Do not be tempted to skip this step! Whilst you might know what’s on each channel, now, you’ll be in a mess when show lights go down if you have a fault on a channel and can’t identify it!
Assign Inserts and Groups
Now is also a great time to assign your inserts and groups. With experience, you’ll soon anticipate what inserts you’ll need on particular instruments before even listening to them. As a general rule, you’ll need gates on every drum channel. Bass and vocals will need compression and so on. If you’re on an analogue desk, you’ll be making physical patches with patch cables. If you’re on a digital desk this will be on software. Patch in your inserts and any effects before starting soundcheck. It’ll aid with your workflow and make you look pro at your job!
Assigning channels to groups will completely revolutionise the way you mix at FOH. No matter how many input channels you have, with cleverly assigned groups you’ll be able to mix a whole band with only a handful of faders. On analogue desks, groups are also a very useful way of preserving your outboard gear. Place a compressor over a drum group for example to fatten the whole kit!
Most digital desks offer dynamics processing on every channel; if you’re on an analogue desk I’d recommend a bare minimum of a compressor on the vocals. Outboard processors aren’t expensive nowadays; used properly you’ll be amazed at the difference well-placed dynamics processors will make to your mix!
Communication is a crucial aspect to a successful soundcheck! Take a few minutes to introduce yourself to the performers and build a rapport with them. The more relaxed and comfortable you all are with each other, the better the show will be! My advice would always be to try and be as accommodating as possible. After all, it’s our role as engineers to make the band sound as good as possible!
Talk to the musicians, ask them how they set their gear up. For example, does the drummer have an unusual setup? How does the band like the vocals to sit? Is it a pop vocal or is it mixed in with the instruments?
You’ll note that soundcheck itself is right at the very bottom of this article; that should give you an indication of how important the prior stages are! If you’ve done all the above prior preparation, then from this point on, getting a mix together should be fairly easy.
Call up each band member a channel at a time and dial in each channel individually. If you’re running monitors from FOH ask each musician if they want their instrument in the wedge whilst you’re working on that channel. That way if you get feedback straight away, you know it’s caused by monitors and not FOH.
My personal routine is to ask the band to play and start by getting the main vocal as loud as possible before feedback. I then bring in the bass instruments (kick drum and bass guitar) and construct a mix from there; you may have or develop a different approach. Above all, try not to get too fixated on one aspect of engineering at a time and make sure to step back occasionally and listen. Does it sound good out front? Some mix booths are terrible bass traps!
Once you’re happy with the soundcheck, and the band’s happy too, save the scene and move on. If you’re on an analogue desk you’ll need to use a markup sheet.
Workflow and communication
I hope that this blog has been of use to you. Once again, I can’t emphasise enough how important workflow and communication is to ensure a great soundcheck.
Any questions? Do you have tips of your own you’d like to share? If so, drop us a comment and let us know!
We all have our favourite go-to software synthesizers – but what are the new breakthrough synths of the year so far? Here are five for your consideration.
Hyperion somehow manages to bring together a complex arrangement of modular synthesis, audio nodes and deep control into a very playable multi-layered and enjoyable synthesizer. It should be a lot more complicated than it is, I mean that interface is enough to scare people off, but once you start playing the presets you’ll find it’s astonishingly good.
The interface could be a barrier but actually, once you start peeling back the layers you’ll find it’s very logical and has an enormous amount of power. Each node has a familiar-looking synth panel for parameter adjustment and you can very quickly build up fascinating amounts of modulation and manipulation. And you’ll find every type of sound design tool you could possibly imagine in here.
Hyperion has sound generators ranging from simple waveforms to 4 operator FM, Soundfonts, multisamples and physical modelling. You can even add wave sequencing up to 32 steps. And if it all gets a bit boggling then you can spend time with the excellent range of presets or spend some time with the simple building blocks of synthesis and start there.
It sounds great, is in constant development and is a fascinating playground of synthesis and sound design.
Weird, strange and visually arresting is the wonderful world of Abyss. It uses a unique Tone Colour Gradient to visualise the sonic qualities of the synthesis and sound generation in a very interactive interface. It has a serious cinematic vibe going on while still giving the impression of playfulness and creativity.
The swarm of colour brings in 2000 possibilities that get manipulated and categorised through their hue as represented on the Gradient Bar. You then control movement along the bar which in turn morphs and modulates it’s way through the evolving textures. It’s quite fascinating.
There are waveforms to morph and sync, LFOs to patch in smoothly or in steps and envelopes that can change the game as you play. It’s marvellously organic and yet other-worldly.
Abyss is the most surprising synth I’ve seen this year.
Ok, so it’s two synths but they are based on the same engine but use different algorithms. They come together for free and are both stunningly good in a raw and juicy kind of way. They come from Noise Engineerings digital oscillator Eurorack modules which make them immediately quirky and a bit different from the norm.
Sinc Vereor is deceptively simple with classic waveforms and a handful of familiar synthy controls. However, there are different modes that have a habit of pulling sound apart and rebuilding it in deliciously animated and exciting ways. You’ll find noise, percussion, effects and a Super mode that adds 6 phase-offset oscillators for a big evolving sound.
Virt Vereor has a unique set of algorithms featuring Bass, Quadrature, SawX and Harm all of which found themselves in the Arturia MicroFreak V3 update.
The “Vereor” section of each synth builds in the dynamics that the original modules didn’t have. So the envelope, the VCA and an intense filter with a nicely wobbly chorus. It’s all wrapped up in a zany interface that can only add to the madness.
What’s brilliant about them is how simple and perfectly poised they are. These are not huge enveloping synths that will wrap you in a blanket of sound, these are sharp, useful algorithms that’ll sequence brilliantly and cut through a mix. As a bonus they also come with a distortion plugin.
If you’re going to emulation a legendary old synthesizer then why not tackle the big one; the Memorymoog? With Memorymode Cherry Audio has attempted to capture the mother of all polysynths. They used a vintage machine owned by jazz legend Chick Corea as the basis of their analysis and spent a lot of time doing detailed models of the 3-oscillator architecture, ladder filter and overdrive.
You have 16 voices to play with, a selectable 12dB or 24dB/octave filter, tempo-synced LFO, detunable unison mode with up to 48 oscillators and an improved arpeggiator. They’ve expanded the modulation section to give you more movement and they’ve added studio-quality effects like phaser, ensemble, delay and reverb.
It comes with 600 presets in case you want to know what it’s supposed to sound like and the general consensus is that it sounds pretty darn good. Cherry Audio has added MPE support for expressive playing and done innovative things with the GUI to bring the bits you’re working on into focus. It’s not trying to be anything other than a homage to a great synth and there are hours of joy to be had in here.
Cherry Audio has produced a bunch of great software emulations over the past year and all of them sound great for a small handful of dollars.
GForce has an awesome reputation for capturing the essence of hardware synths in software form. So when they released OB-E to take on the mighty Oberheim 8-Voice, you just knew it was going to be something special. The 8-Voice was essentially 8 Oberheim SEM modules wired together to form an 8-voice polyphonic synthesizer. It was physically huge and uncompromising and came about before anyone had worked out how to use a single control to change all the parameters of a polyphonic synth. So you had to tune all the oscillators manually, change each filter for each module, each envelope and so on. It created a lot of work but also a very unique sound.
GForce calls it an “authentic sounding emulation” and it is completely magnificent. It captures the essential qualities of the SEM module and pulls it together into a fat and juicy synthesizer.
The beauty of software is that you can make things a bit easier. So while you can fill your boots with the individual controls you can also apply any changes to all the modules at once. The interface also zooms in to help you focus on a particular module. There are mono, poly and unison modes, an additional LFO, velocity, aftertouch and MPE. They’ve also stuck in an 8-step sequencer and stereo delay.
The OB-E is a beautiful instrument that is a joy to explore. The only snag is that it’s currently only available on macOS.
So there you are, 5 amazing software synthesizers covering all sorts of concepts with the bizarre Abyss, the complex Hyperion, the nutty and useful algorithms of Noise Engineering and the gorgeously warm and familiar tones of the Memorymode and OB-E. A good range of possibilities in these ones I think. What would have your choices been? Let us know in the comments.
News that Novation was working on a new box called Circuit Rhythm leaked out at the end of 2020, so when it was finally released in June, we knew what to expect. We took Circuit Rhythm out for a spin to see how easy the workflow is and whether this sample-based groovebox could open up a world of new beats for you.
Out of the box, the Circuit Rhythm is a lovely piece of hardware. It’s slim, tidy and really quite beautiful. It has a weirdly textured underside, the encoders feel superb, the pads and buttons are soft and inviting, and when you plug it in it lights up smoothly and elegantly with the softest of hues and warmest of vibes. Before knowing anything about it I hit Play and was treated to a very chilled and effortlessly cool piece of music. Anyone who has played with a Novation Circuit will feel right at home but just with a little fiddling you’ll find yourself launching patterns, mixing, glitching and hanging onto that filter. This is one classy piece of kit.
Right, before we get too smoochy over the handsome box let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about.
Circuit Rhythm is a sampler designed for making beats. While the form factor and some of the functionality mirrors the original Circuit, this is about sampling rather than synthesizing. It has 8 sampler tracks that can play the included content or you can fill it full of your own samples either by SD card or by using the sample inputs. Chuck in whatever you want and start making beats and tunes. Exciting stuff.
I was delighted to discover an inbuilt tutorial that appears after updating the firmware via the Components app. Once you’ve registered your device it takes you to some YouTube videos from Ricky Tinez who definitely knows what he is talking about. Unfortunately, it all sorts of trips itself up at this point because they don’t tell you how to stop the demo project from playing every time you press play. I decided to reload the Factory Pack in Components to make sure I’m running all the current content before seeking out the manual. It’s useful to have something to read because loading the Factory Pack takes about 13 minutes – good to know.
Novation Circuit Rhythm
The manual is available online and on page 25 we have “Starting from Scratch” which is exactly what I need. The trick we need is to press Projects and then select an empty one. Your standard view puts the first 16 steps of your pattern along the top two rows of pads and the first pack of 16 samples along the bottom two rows. All the sample packs remain loaded and you can cycle through them with the up and down arrow keys, but the sequencing has gone and now we can go back to Ricky and the tutorials.
In the first 40 seconds, he has me recording multiple flipped samples onto the sampler tracks. Flipping samples lets you swap samples on tracks so that each step can have a different sample. Hit Record and start tapping away on the pads and the beats simply pour out of the machine. Different tracks can be selected from 1 to 8 along the top and each track is visually represented by a different colour. This is initially confusing because colour on a Circuit usually represents function but you soon get the hang of it.
There are two views to worry about when recording patterns. In Sample view all the samples are laid out along the bottom 16 pads and you can trigger each one with a tap. Either select a sample and enter the steps in the 16 pads at the top or hit Record and tap away to fill the pattern. In Note view the bottom 16 pads become a single octave piano keyboard and you can record a pitched sample like it’s an instrument. It’s all monophonic, you’re not playing chords or anything. If you want chords you’ll have to sample them.
With 16 steps, 8 tracks and a bunch of Factory samples making beats, bass and melody lines is ridiculously easy. And we haven’t really scratched the surface.
The 8 encoders are macro knobs for the track and contain tools for shaping the samples. I initially thought these were applied per sample when actually they hang over the top of the track so that any sample within that track is affected by the same parameters. This can be useful with things like tuning so that the samples all follow the same pitch within the track. It’s not so useful if you wanted to edit a sample so that it’s the same regardless of the track being used. Maybe it’s better to see them as track shapers rather than sample shapers.
Novation Circuit Rhythm Macro knobs
In any case, you get tuning, start point, length, slope (envelope), distortion (which is deliciously crunchy) and then a high and low pass filter with resonance. All of these can be recorded as automation in the pattern simply by having the Record button on. The Master Filter is always available over the whole output with low-pass to the left and high-pass to the right.
The workflow of dealing in tracks rather than samples follows through on the Sample playback modes. If you double-tap the Sample button you can choose not how a sample plays back but how the selected track deals with the playback of any samples on that track. It usually amounts to the same thing but it’s an important thing to know because if you’ve used multiple samples on one track then they will all be transformed by the Sample Mode. The options are One Shot, Gated, Loop, Reverse, Choke and then there are options for Keyboard or Slice.
There’s a single Choke group shared between the tracks where when enabled the next sound from a track in the group will mute one that’s currently playing.
Keyboard mode is the default and lets you play the last selected sample from the keyboard layout in Note mode. With Slice mode enabled you can choose to split the selected sample into 4, 8 or 16 slices so that when you go to Note mode you get those slices laid out rather than a keyboard. This is perfect for when you’ve sampled in a drum loop and want to play hits within the loop. Start and endpoints can be adjusted with the Macro knobs and if your recorded sample doesn’t quite fit in evenly with the slices then you can make adjustments to tap in where you want the slice to be. While you can change the start point and length of individual slices all the other controls like tuning, slope etc. apply to all slices.
I’m slowly getting my head around how the Circuit Rhythm works. We’ve established that everything happens to the track, not the sample, but also there’s also a step where you select a sample before using it on the track. So the steps are; tap Sample and then choose your sample, then tap Note to play the sample on the keyboard or slices. To choose a different sample go back to the Sample view. And remember that any mode settings, Macro knobs, velocity and gating apply to whatever sample you’re using within a track.
Novation Circuit Rhythm
Drum Pads and Note Repeat
The Drum Pads view is slightly hidden under the Sample Rec button but it’s a really cool place for banging out 8 tracks of beats and note repeats. On the bottom right you get your 8 tracks on 8 pads all coloured and looking lovely and each will play the last selected sample on that track. On the top left, there are 8 pads of various note repeat timings. Press Shift-Clear to enable the Click, tap Rec to enable recording and tap Play to set the thing running. You can now record to all 8 tracks at once. You can also bring in the Macro knobs as they brilliantly follow the colour of whatever track pad you pressed last and then affect that track.
If anything else gets complicated then this is the place to come and relax and just make some beats.
Right, time to sample. There’s no built-in microphone or mic input so you’ll need to go through something else if you want to sample your voice. On the back are two jack inputs for recording the output of your device, your phone, your record player, mixer or whatever it is you’re hoping to sample.
Tap the Sample Rec button to enter sampling mode and you’ll find it looks nothing like the manual or the tutorial. That’s because the Factory content fills up the entire memory so you’re going to have to delete some of those to make room for your own. The current bank of samples takes up the first 2 rows of pads. Try as I might I can’t find a way to clear more than one pad at a time. You’d think you’d at least be able to hold the Clear button and tap as many pads as you like but sadly it will only let you clear the currently selected pad.
Sampling is very easy. Select an empty slot and hit the Record button. You can set a threshold and turn monitoring on and off to help you capture at the right moment. The bottom 16 pads light up dully to represent the recording time and glow brighter as that time fills up with each pad representing 2 seconds. Hit Record to stop recording and pause while the Circuit Rhythm takes a bit too long to absorb the sample into itself. Use the macro knobs 2 and 3 to trim the start and end of your sample and you can then go off and slice it, play it, reverse it or whatever you want to do with it in a track. Sampling is dead-easy and a lot of fun. You might have to do a bit of setting up to make the best use of it. You’ve got to consider connections and whether sync is important to you. There’s no sampling on the fly so the sampling happens in isolation. The alternative is to do the sampling on your computer and import it across on the SD card or via the Components software – but where’s the fun in that?
The actual amount of time you have seems to be a little bit confusing. The documentation says that you have a maximum of 32 seconds per sample slot but in my sampling it appears to be 32 seconds in total, or at least for a track which is perhaps what they mean. By Clearing one sample I found I had about 4 seconds of time for recording shown by having only 2 dully lit pads. Once I had cleared the entire bank of 16 samples I found I could sample for about 12 seconds and when I nuked the second bank of 16 I had about 24 seconds available to me. If I then record for that whole time there’s no time or space left for any other samples. While I accept that the Circuit Rhythm is designed for hits and loops rather than massive samples, the manual is a bit misleading about this. There’s also no way to check how much time is left without actually recording something. However, provided you keep your samples short or you keep the memory empty then you’re golden.
Patterns and Scenes
Each track can have up to 8 patterns with up to 32 steps. In Pattern view they get stacked vertically in two banks of 4 and you can launch them like clips in Ableton Live. You can chain them up simply by pressing a couple at a time. You can very quickly build a track and remix your patterns in any way you choose and it all drops into sync beautifully. Patterns can be grouped together into Scenes which you can access in the Mixer view. Simply select all the patterns and chains you want in your Scene and allocate them to a free slot. Then you can launch all of it from the Mixer view.
Mixer and Grid FX
Once everything is running and pumping along then dive into the Mixer view to take control of levels and effects. The first row of pads become mute buttons for each track while the Macro knobs become level or panning controls. Muting only mutes the sequence, not the samples so you can still play along.
Novation Circuit Rhythm playing with the Grid FX
In regular Mixer view the bottom 16 pads are for launching scenes. In the alternative Shift-Mixer view they become Grid FX which are a whole barrel of fun. They affect the output of everything that’s playing so it’s useful having the Mixer controls available in the same view. You’ve got a bunch of beat repeats, reversers, gaters, phasers and some rather delicious vinyl effects. Just hit a pad to apply the effect and you can run different types at the same time. You can spend all day in here feeling like a proper glitch-hop producer.
FX Section and Side Chains
In the FX view you get to play with Delay and Reverb. There are 16 delay presets and 8 reverb presets and the 8 knobs are now send controls for each track – easy.
The alternative view for the FX button is Side Chains. This lets you use the hits of one track to duck the audio level of another track. You could use a kick drum to play with the throbbing of a bassline or synth hit – that kind of thing.
I’ve covered most of the main features but there are other bits and bobs like probability, micro-steps, recording unquantised, swing and the fabulous Mutate function which messes about with your patterns, but that’s enough for now.
Gathering our thoughts
From the get-go, Circuit Rhythm is a lot of fun to use. The Factory pack of samples is useful enough to introduce you to beat making and messing around with the performance tools. Ricky’s tutorials are ridiculously slick and sometimes baffling where he pulls off extraordinarily cool things in 40 seconds leaving you with no idea how he did that. Perhaps they are less tutorial and more inspirational videos on how cool this thing is once you’ve got the hang of it. And get the hang of it you will because it’s brilliantly simple. The simplicity does mean that there’s a lack of depth in places but only those people who make music on MPCs or Maschine would really notice. For the rest of us, it’s fun all the way.
The lack of screen or display forces you to use your ears and to explore more inventively than you would if you were scrolling through menus. You’re encouraged to play rather than edit or worry about the details.
While sampling is very easy the issues with space and length can get frustrating. It also takes the Rhythm a long time to save a sample once you’ve recorded it so it doesn’t lend itself very well to taking a bunch of loops off a spinning piece of vinyl. Although you just have to be patient.
Circuit Rhythm is a cool and enjoyable music-making machine. It’s lightweight in terms of both form and complexity which makes it easy to get into and gives you a fast route to enjoyable beat making. It has a rechargeable battery inside so you can take it on the bus, sample loops from your phone and have a really good time. It’s not trying to be a serious sampling workstation but if you want something fun and accessible that has a relaxed and easy vibe then this knocks it out of the park.
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