Sonicware’s Liven Bass & Beats has a lot to offer, but you’ll have to work hard to get it.
Sonicware hope to bring the same intense attitude to wavetables as they did with FM synthesis on the Liven XFM I reviewed in SOS June 2022. This time, with the Liven Bass & Beats, there’s a fierce split between the dual‑oscillator wavetable engine and the sample‑based rhythm engine. It’s an in‑your‑face EDM machine that loves to bang out those beats and get you dancing.
The general idea is that Liven Bass & Beats is a portable and performance‑oriented groovebox with hands‑on control over the party that’s about to kick off. Deeper editing of both the Bass and Drum engines is available via some handy overlays which transform the front panel into a detailed synth or drum editor. It’s affordably priced for a groovebox and sits somewhere between a Korg Volca, Novation Circuit Tracks and Elektron Models, but is altogether louder, trashier and more exciting.
The hardware is identical to the XFM but with a different paint job and two function‑changing overlays. It has the same clunky, plastic, velocity agnostic, clangy piano keys and buttons, a range of knobs and an inadequate speaker for the full‑on sound that tries to escape through it. Sonicware still don’t include any batteries, power supply or any kind of guide and so the out‑of‑box experience is one of silent miscomprehension. However, like the XFM, there’s lots to discover behind the pink and blue facade.
Liven Bass & Beats has two independent wavetable oscillators fed by 64 wavetables. It has a sub‑oscillator and a noise generator with 16 different flavours. There are two LFOs and two envelopes for modulation, and a separate one for the amplifier. A unison function lets you stack and detune the oscillators, and a distortion effect adds some bite. There is a multimode filter, but it seems to take a bit of a back seat. There are no filter controls at all on the front panel, which seems very odd to me considering the intention and emphasis of this machine. However, there are a pair of assignable knobs that could take on that role.
We’ll get into the synth editing side in a moment but in terms of front‑panel, hands‑on access, anything in pink is to do with the Bass. You have six banks of presets with 16 sounds in each and like everything else in this machine the presets are fierce and intense. Two more banks are left for user presets and are currently all set to basic square waves, which gives you a good starting point.
There are eight central knobs that give you some control over the sound. Most knobs and buttons have a dual function that are run by the Shift and Function keys that you will definitely have to make friends with. The first knob does bank and preset selection. The next two are assignable and could be anything depending on the preset. They also take care of the range and speed of the quirky Sweep function, which is an adjustable glide that applies to every note regardless of the note that went before. The fourth knob offers Dimension control, which is essentially the width of the unison detuning. Its Shift function sets the note probability in the sequence.
The second row of four knobs offer pitch modulation, release and gate length, and then the Machine Gun effect, which is a kind of tremolo, ratchet‑type affair. That’s about it for the Bass. As I say there’s no filter to play with unless it’s been mapped to the assignable knobs in the Editor and that doesn’t seem to be the case for most presets. The bass presets are excellent though and really show off the potential of the synth engine.
There are two ways to record a sequence of up to 64 steps. In Step mode you select a step with the Value button and press a key to assign the note, or you can play in a sequence with or without a metronome and your notes will be pulled into the nearest step. There are many of the usual things you can do with sequencers like change the length, add some swing, adjust gate length, transpose and such like, but all the fun really starts when you engage the Parameter Lock.
With Parameter Lock on you can hold a step and change more or less any parameter and it will be burnt into that step. This goes as far as selecting a completely different preset, so each step can have its own sound if you wish. Your monophonic bass line can very quickly become filled with all sorts of changes, switches, and unexpected happenings. And this is not some sort of clever multi‑lane automation, it’s anything and everything recorded per step. Which also makes it less editable, but then Bass & Beats is all about the here and now and embraces the idea of the do‑over.
One note I should make about saving — you need to save. Also, make use of the Copy/Paste of patterns so you can have various stages and variations available along the way. Because there are many ways you can lose what you’re doing. Accidentally hit the Pattern button and your unsaved pattern is gone. Move to a different pattern and all the unsaved Parameter Lock data is gone. Step away for a cup of tea and Bass & Beats powers itself off losing everything you didn’t save. And because the workflow is quite challenging when starting out, it is really easy to go to a wrong function and lose what you’re working on. Some of it seems to be down to poor design, for instance, you can’t turn steps on and off. You can Clear steps to remove the note allocation but then the note is gone, and to put it back in you have to go into Step mode and re‑enter it. There are Undo and Redo buttons but they seem to be another way to lose everything you’ve done so far rather than just the last thing.
With Drum mode engaged Bass & Beats becomes a drum machine. Your previously saved bass line will continue to play if you’re adding drums to the same pattern but none of the front‑panel controls will affect it. Knowing which mode you’re in is one of the secrets to success in these Liven boxes.
In the drum library we have 350 sounds carefully selected to be both modern and timeless. The six banks of 16 kits are infused with special effects, risers and tension smashing bangs, zaps and crashes. The vast majority are in‑your‑face dancefloor fillers, the intensity of which is emphasised by the lack of velocity on the keys and buttons and the non‑existence of any sample layers. Consequently, these are huge‑sounding kits that are enormous fun to play and will blow back any remaining hairs on your head.
With your kit loaded, the middle eight knobs give you some useful hands‑on control over the first four drum sounds and the first four sound effects. For kick, snare and hats you have level and decay, and then with the Shift button you get tuning on these four and the four effects.
That’s about it for the performance controls over the drums. Again, I’m feeling the absence of a dedicated filter and this time there are no assignable knobs to map to a cutoff. However, the effects engine does have a filter in its arsenal so perhaps all is not yet lost. Lots more can be done in the Kit Editing page, which we’ll get to in a minute. But first let’s look at programming drums.
To get your rhythms into the machine you can either play them in live or program them like an 808. The two modes are Pad for playing and Select for step entry, and if you find that the keys and buttons have stopped functioning on the drum track the reason will be because you’re in Select mode. Nothing tells you that you’re in that mode, you just have to know you are.
So, in Pad mode you hit record with or without a metronome, with or without your bass line, and bash the buttons until the end of the pattern. Quantisation is always in play and so you shouldn’t find yourself off the beat. If you do or you prefer the 808 style of note entry, then swap into Select mode and you get 16 steps displayed at a time. You can program each of the 16 sounds in the kit individually.
Parameter Lock works in a similar way but it’s only really the tuning, decay and level that you can change for each drum sound. You can’t seem to swap kits for different steps like you can the presets on the bass, but then you can make your own kits — more on that in a moment.
There’s a deeper side to the fun and games of Bass & Beats and that’s in the Bass or ‘Memory’ Editor. This is a whole other mode where the groovebox is stashed away and the front panel becomes a synthesizer editor for the wavetable engine. This is physically reinforced by a pink overlay that drops over all the knobs and buttons.
The editing is completely separate from the patterns, so much so that when you press the required keyboard combination to enter the Memory Edit mode, you find yourself starting with the default preset rather than the sound you were currently using and perhaps hoping to edit. However, it is all in there — you just have to learn a new interface to find out how to get to it.
The top four knobs become the ADSR amp envelope, the next row lets you select wavetables for each of the two oscillators and their Dimension, or unison width. Below the knobs we use the top row of buttons to select the part of the synth we want to interact with, and the second row gives sub‑sections and parameter choices that spill over to two pages.
The options are remarkably comprehensive with detuning, phase shifting, cross‑modulations, sync, oscillator shaping and blending, but some of the interface choices seem really odd. That top row of knobs seems completely wasted as an ADSR especially as it’s duplicated over in the envelope section. Sonicware allocate an individual knob to Dimension for each oscillator that does nothing until you dig into Page 2 of the oscillator sub‑section to enable it and increase the blend. The most interesting aspect of the wavetable engine, for me, is selecting the wavetable, morphing through it, detuning and modulating. Selecting the waveform is front and centre but the rest is buried under sub‑buttons. It would make more sense for those eight main knobs to be split between the two oscillators and give you wave select, wavetable position/morphing, detuning and shaper on each, because these are the most interesting and immediate sound‑design parameters. Similarly, there are no dedicated knobs for the filter and it’s off by default. And when you turn it on it’s still off because the filter type has a completely superfluous and frustrating ‘off’ type. But if you go to Filter / Page 2 / Filter Type and set it to an actual filter and go back to Page 1 to swap between cutoff and resonance, then you are in business.
These workflow anomalies and annoyances detract from an otherwise detailed and interesting wavetable synthesizer. You’ve got two LFOs and two modulation envelopes that are easy to assign and can be pushed at anything. You’ve got a sub‑oscillator with its own waveforms and detuning. You’ve got different types of noise you can mix in, a distortion effect, and you can assign as many parameters as you like to the two assignable knobs for use in the patterns.
There’s plenty to do, and plenty of sound design to be had in here if you can overcome the particular way Sonicware have set it all up. You can even import your own wavetables if you can work out how. The manual is your friend here, but while it lists every function it fails to tell what they are or what you might use them for. What are the Oscillator Shapers? I don’t know. There’s a list of their names in the manual like Squeeze, Level Comb and Threshold RT but no clues as to what they do. So, I would say there’s some room for a more tutorial‑orientated approach to the documentation.
Swapping to the blue overlay we enter the Kit Editor. This is all about samples and where you want them. The step buttons represent the 16 sounds in your kit and for each one you can choose one of the many samples from the library of Kick, Snare, Hat, Cymbal, Perc 1&2 and SFX 1&2. Despite each step being labelled as part of a kit you can put in whatever you want and build your own custom kit. So, if you want your kick to be a cymbal, that’s no problem.
There’s quite a lot you can do to the sounds in the kit and Bass & Beats likes to treat them all as individuals. The main eight knobs give you a Total EQ section which contains cutoff and resonance, and then a three‑band EQ which is decent enough to give your samples a bit of character. You have controls for tuning, decay, slope, panning and level. You can also reverse the sample. Each sound can have its own effects send amount but the effect is the same across the whole kit.
The kit editing does the job nicely and is probably the most straightforward thing I’ve found on this machine. Sadly, you can’t import your own samples.
Once you’ve designed your sound, customised your kit and have your Bass & Beats pattern or chain of patterns written then you are free to let loose with some performance features. The eight central knobs can be tweaked during playback to add variation. Just remember to hit the Bass or Drum button depending on what you want to do. If the button is red then that’s the one that’s engaged, if it’s green or orange then it’s on but not currently in use, or something — it’s different for other buttons but you’ll get the hang of it.
The Stutter effect is good fun: you hold a step and the step repeats until you release. This is separate for the bass and drums, which works really well although I’d quite like the option for it to be both. There’s also a Random option on the same button which will activate a randomisation of the pattern dependant on another setting you’ve set elsewhere. This is something you really have to set before you start getting into it, which doesn’t lend itself to improvisation.
For drums you can mute the individual channels, but there’s no mute for the bass, you have to turn it down. They do have separate level controls and there’s also a line input for external sources.
The fun in any groovebox is not in the editing of sounds or the programming of beats, it’s in the sheer joy of what comes out of it when you press play. Liven Bass & Beats delivers that in spades. It’s bold, brash and gives you just enough to fill a dancefloor and have a really good time.
Only after careful reading of the manual, identifying button combinations, a lot of mistakes, lost patterns and perseverance does Liven Bass & Beats start to open itself up to you.
However, it’s going to take a while to get there. When I reviewed the Liven XFM I mentioned how I didn’t find it very intuitive. Bass & Beats has a similar level of impenetrability. The first thing you do when starting up a groovebox is press play. Normally, on other machines, you’d fiddle with knobs and buttons, things would happen, and you find your happy place. With the Bass & Beats nothing appears to do anything very much on your first visit. Only after careful reading of the manual, identifying button combinations, a lot of mistakes, lost patterns and perseverance does Liven Bass & Beats start to open itself up to you. Once you’ve got the hang of it then you can very quickly bang in a bass line, drop in some drums and happily go to town on the Stutter button. But it will take you a while to get to that point of ease.
Liven Bass & Beats certainly fulfils it’s brief of being a portable, affordable, bold and cool groovebox. It comes with an exciting library of drum kits that perfectly match its EDM vibe and plenty of in‑your‑face bass presets. Behind the scenes the wavetable synthesizer is deep, interesting and has a wide scope for clever sound design. The workflow can be odd in places and as much as I’d like to say it’s just a bit quirky it has a tendency to become frustrating and annoying until you have memorised the way it functions. There’s nothing wrong with having deep and complicated functions but I wish it was more immediate out of the box. Sometimes you have to work at it to get to the fun part.
There are 13 types of effect covering your usual chorus, flanger, delay and reverb, plus bit‑crushing, distortion, Isolation (which is compression, I think) and a Tilt EQ. We also have a low‑pass and high‑pass filter, which makes me very happy. However, they don’t have much in the way of control. You have a send amount, and you have an FX Amount — that’s it. The FX Amount knob varies in what it does from effect to effect. So for low‑pass filter it’s the cutoff control, but that’s all you get.
The effects do certainly add something to what you’re doing but seem to work best as drop‑ins during performance. You can only run one at a time and that be quite limiting.
- Enormous fun once you get the hang of it.
- Comprehensive wavetable synth.
- Excellent collection of drum kits.
- Good value for money.
- Steep learning curve.
- Challengingly unintuitive.
- Odd workflow.
- Clacky and velocity-free keyboard.
Liven Bass & Beats delivers frantic bass lines and in‑your‑face beats with depths hidden behind a challenging interface.
£262 including VAT.