Open Circuit – Mono Station reviewed

Analogue synthesis with 21st-century interface – is the Circuit Mono Station the perfect blend?

  • Two oscillator analogue synth realness
  • Intuitive and flexible Novation sequencer
  • Worth seeking out when it’s on sale

Novation Circuit Mono Station: £479/£239 (Novation web store)
Offers on Amazon UK

Just a few years ago the idea of genuinely useful analogue synthesizers for £250 was laughable. Moog’s smaller keyboards are crazy-expensive (though less crazy if you want that particular sound) and one of the best-value synths in the genre was the Novation BassStation II – itself more expensive than the flexible MiniNova and innovative Circuit.

You might even think that this intro is nonsense, because the Circuit Mono Station – most of a BassStation II (minus one envelope generator) grafted onto the glowy-lights sequencing of the Circuit – has an RRP of £479.

Novation Circuit Mono Station

Here’s the thing, though. Novation often puts a 50% discount on the Circuit Mono Station, bringing it to £239 new. That’s had a predictable effect on used values, which now dip below £200 regularly, and it also means that it’s throwing the gauntlet at Behringer’s clone factory analogues, with a three-year warranty, stunning software support and real innovation behind the design.

How it sounds

You’ve got a true analogue synthesizer engine here – no DSPs, no calculations, and depending on your perspective, the welcome absence of effects beyond distortion. So it sounds exactly as it’s programmed, without any samples, bit-rates, bandwidth or overheads to consider.

The Novation Circuit Mono Station's analogue synth section

As the name suggests, it’s monophonic, but actually paraphonic – you can play (or sequence) the second oscillator with a different pitch to the first, altering the interval between them. It’s not the same as playing two distinct notes, as the shape and duration is controlled by the notes played for the first oscillator, but it’s another tool in a very well-equipped kit for shaping sound.

With two DCOs and a sub-oscillator (creating an extra octave below the first), and a filter related to the EDP Wasp/BassStation II’s design, it’s more versatile than say, a Behringer MS-1 or Wasp Deluxe, and it offers a lot of flexibility as a pure sound module. It’s also rather more accessible than the countless DIY-ish things that ultimately cost more in the first place and are rarely as well finished.

Each oscillator has four waveforms to choose from, and as with all the parameters, the oscillator mix can be changed over a pattern with automation when recording. You’ve got more than just the DCOs on hand when shaping sounds – ring modulation, noise, external audio and the filter’s very powerful, controllable self-oscillation is all on hand. For further modulation options the LFO has four wave shapes and of course, there’s an ADSR envelope that can be assigned to destinations in the mod matrix.

At least, on a technical and price level, the dual-VCO or DCO analogues from Behringer are the closest rivals, though none offer the sound automation and control of the Circuit Mono Station. Outside of the in-house competition of the BassStation II, there’s really nothing else like it…

Circuit Mono Station oscillators

In spirit, it’s like the cyber-futuristic offspring of a TB-303 and SH-101 that’s collided with the Borg, been upgraded, and landed in a world where synthwave and filth are the norm. So it’s got some attitude in the form of fierce distortion and filter drive. Most of the 64 presets it comes with showcase that character, and Novation’s marketing pushes the synth ‘noise’ side too.

What you make it do is up to you – but it can do basslines, weird space-effects, hissing, swirling drones, traditional organs, almost-convincing ’80s electric piano (albeit one note at a time) and leads from mellow to screaming, with an added dose of fierce distortion if you’re really angry that day.

(Insert matrix pun here)

One of the nicest features of the Circuit Mono Station, from a learning/novice point of view, is the very straightforward mod matrix. It highlights, with coloured LEDs, what’s being affected by a given input, and the intensity of the effect is also marked by the brightness of the LEDs.

The Circuit Mono Station's mod matrix is very logical and easy to use

This seems like a good time to note that you can set the controls for direct action, or pick-up, where initial movement doesn’t change the sound until you’ve reached the preset’s value. Want to know how a preset is shaped? Just move the controls until the light changes, and leave them there.

Like any analogue synth, it’s at the mercy of the person programming it; the most expensive Moog will sound like a sad robot’s fart if you don’t have the experience or subtlety in programming.

Crucially – there’s no barrier here to learning, which is why the Mono Station is a fantastic analogue synth for kids. Plus it has a headphone socket.

Mono Station V1.2 – another flipping drum machine

With the V1.2 firmware – a free update offered when you connect the Circuit Mono Station to Components, the web-based editor and librarian – the CMS gained another feature from the BassStation II. Patch flip allows each step in the sequence to use a different patch, so you’ve got an instant analogue drum machine if you want.

It’s still monophonic – even if you could get your head around playing the two drum patches, a big part of how an electronic analogue drum hit sounds comes from the filter and envelope – but you can have as many patches as you have steps in a pattern, opening up the possibility of carefully crafted programs dedicated to a building, complex sequence. Once you’ve recorded the patch flips you can switch back to the note editor and set the pitch for each step, too; it’s entirely possible to have a bass note and a drum hit on alternating beats.

That’s a lot more than just some pitched electro-toms – you can squeeze a huge amount out of the Circuit Mono Station if you’ve got the patience, with complex pattern chains and clock dividers to really push the limits.

21st century Components

No, not the bits inside it, though I’m sure they’re all bang up to date. Components is Novation’s one-stop shop for nearly all of its current synthesizers and controllers.

Components for Novation Circuit Mono Station - sound packs

Unlike the Circuit, which gains a synth editor when hooked up, the Mono Station’s interaction with Components is limited to librarian and session management. You’re going to edit the sounds with the actual hardware, after all.

It’s an online, ‘cloud-based’ environment that works either as an app, or via browser (Chrome is most predictable), so your sessions and patches are always accessible once you’ve uploaded them.

Occasionally Novation drop sound packs into Components, which is nice; of more use is the ability to build a library of banks online. You can connect Components with the same account used to register the Circuit Mono Station (which often comes with some extra bonuses – Novation and Focusrite have monthly plugins, extra content and guides for registered users – one of my synths or interfaces even included a BassStation VST).

Unlike the normal Circuit, there’s no patch pool for the Mono Station, so you can only store banks. The patch pool is part of the Circuit’s editor, which of course, the analogue synth doesn’t have…

Performance artist – music theory ahoy

Chances are, you know more about musical theory than I do. There are small rocks attached to the side of asteroids flying through the uncharted depths of space that know more about musical theory than I do. But unlike those rocks, I have ears, and it’s pretty clear when playing around and creating sounds is going hideously wrong. Over time, I’ve learned how to avoid those notes. Mostly.

Clever people who paid attention in school tell me about scales, pentatonic this and major that, and no matter what, it never seems to sink in. Or at least, it didn’t – until I wanted to use my Circuit for more than silly noodling and reactive composition.

I know the words, but couldn’t play one of these mysterious ‘scale’ things, let alone tell you which ones are good for particular styles of music. Fortunately Novation’s Chief Scientist, Dave Hodder, displays the scope of Circuit’s paradigm beautifully in this article (which is actually about how Circuit owners use their synths, and the research Novation undertake when developing products).

From my perspective, it has a button marked ‘scale’. This, unsurprisingly, selects the scale (a subset of the 12 note-per-octave chromatic layout anyone who has seen a piano will know) and also, the root note, to get the most efficiently musical range out of those 32 pads.

Scales on the Novation Circuit Mono Station

There are 16 to choose from, including chromatic, and you can change the scale and root note for your pattern to explore how this alters the mood and musical feel of your composition. It even lights up the relevant notes within a chromatic scale, thus subliminally teaching you what that scale is on a piano keyboard.

You can still make some awful steps, but it’s harder to get it wrong, and if you want to talk Circuit from your piano lessons – don’t worry, it can do the full octave. Two octaves, in fact.

Chances are though, you’ve got a key and a scale to work in – in which case, it gives you FOUR octaves out of the 32 pads. They’re velocity sensitive, so can be played with feeling, and it’s got MIDI. Connect the Circuit Mono Station to a monster-sampled Grand Piano and you can play music that would need a span of 24 notes and the dexterity of a spider monkey to achieve on a traditional keyboard.

Arpeggios, multi-octave intervals, fast transitions… It’s similar to working with a bespoke isomorphic keyboard, but a: affordable, and b: much less intimidating to look at.

Unfortunately, you will need to record those sequences into your DAW or MIDI sequencer – Circuit Mono Station might be a polyphonic controller, but it’s strictly mono when it comes to recording. Understandably so – it’d be really confusing choosing note priority for the monosynth otherwise.*

Step-by-step – Circuit Mono Station sequencer

Circuit Mono Station sessions

Great as those pads are to play, you’d get a bit tired doing a whole performance on them. Circuits of either flavour are for sequences, repetition and programming, and although it looks like the original Circuit, the Mono Station’s actually very different.

You’ve got 32 sessions – helpfully with user-assignable colours – to keep your sequences in. There are three sequencers, which operate in a similar fashion to each other. The first difference is that the primary sequencer – which controls the triggering of notes** – has 16 pattern slots per session, rather than 8 slots for oscillator two and the mod sequencer.

Pattern slots for the three sequencers in the Circuit Mono Station

Here is where you’ll find the biggest difference between the Circuit, and the Circuit Mono Station. These sequences all work together affecting the one synth engine, though Osc 1 and Osc 2 send on different MIDI channels, and the role of the mod sequencer is to automate effects via the mod matrix; it has another trick, though…

Novation Circuit Mono Station CV, MIDI and Audio ports

Those CV ports are for integrating the Mono Station with modular gear – or just other analogue synths. The mod sequencer automates over 50 parameters on the built-in synth, but it can also send CV note data. Now your external synth is under the control of the Mono Station – and look, there’s an analogue input, too… wonder what you could achieve with those…

There’s another difference – the Circuit Mono Station’s sequencer doesn’t include sub-steps, but it does include a clock divider and the ability to reverse and mutate patterns. The division makes it easy to achieve shorter or longer sequences as part of a MIDI setup, and also helps when using the analogue clock input. This can sync to 1, 2, 4, 8 or 24 ppqn.

Clock division and pattern behaviour settings on the Circuit Mono Station

Expanding the creative potential there, the clock division – relative to the tempo or an external signal – can be different for Osc 1, Osc 2 and the mod sequence, which makes for some really complex, evolving sounds.

* though as Novation’s demonstrated before, the Circuit’s pads can do a hell of a lot. A shift-step could allow players to choose a note out of a chord to play…

** compared to the other sequencers, which can’t trigger ‘notes’ – just affect pitch and automation

Not a toy – but a child-friendly synth

It’s probably one of the best affordable analogue synths dropped onto the market in the past five years; if it were always £239, there’d be no probably about it. At £479 many electronic musicians will be weighing it up against all manner of beasts – Waldorf Blofeld desktop, Shruthi, Zynthian, just buying another Circuit, a BassStation II – it’s a crowded and diverse place up there. Even at £239, there’s the Modal Skulpt and Korg Monologue to consider. Nothing has quite the same blend, though, or ease of use.

It’s a fantastic synth for kids, too. Accessible, robust and intuitive, most children from the age of say, six or seven should be able to get to grips with the basics, and if you’re keen for them to learn more than pushing flashing buttons there’s a real potential for it to partner with traditional music lessons as long as the teacher understands how to interact with the keyboard and scales. It’s immediate, inspirational and fun; in that regard its biggest rival is the regular Circuit.

So it’s actually fairer to say it’s a more enthusiast-suitable variation on the greatest affordable synth ever. Either way, I think it’s awesome, and this is my review.

When to buy a Circuit Mono Station

So far, Novation’s had sales for Easter (April), Black Friday, Boxing Day and New Year where the Mono Station’s been a real bargain – a 50% discount. Students would do well to explore Novation’s store, too

Buying used, you’re safe all year round. Before buying my CMS, I’d been watching eBay like a hawk for a sub-£200 ‘as-new’ one; fortunately another online sale came up!

Filter gain is one of many shift functions on the Mono Station