Sonicware promise no menu‑diving in their creative take on FM synthesis.
The Liven XFM comes out of the box with an attitude. It’s unapologetically bold, brash and plastic and declares itself an FM sound monster wrapped up in an action‑packed groovebox. It’s chunky, takes up a fair amount of desk space and is far too cool to bother including things like batteries or a power supply, forcing me to run off and steal one from a less imposing piece of gear.
Reading the feature list you’d be tempted to place it somewhere between an Elektron Digitone and the Korg Volca FM, but I imagine Sonicware would scowl at such comparisons. The Liven XFM not only feels more edgy and dangerous, it’s also reinvented FM synthesis through the cunning use of the letter X. The XFM has three Fusion FM engines: X‑LAB merges two FM sounds to generate new tones, XFORM morphs from one sound to another, and X‑LFO modulates continuously between sounds using an LFO. This could get interesting.
The front panel is covered in knobs, buttons and a great deal of written information. Every control seems to have at least two functions, and there are a lot of them. There are 16 knobs, two rows of 16 buttons and a 27‑note keyboard that’s clackier than a bag of castanets. The keys are triggers with no velocity or expressive possibility, and while they are not great in any sense of the word, the size and positioning make them relatively easy to play.
In terms of connections, the XFM has 5‑pin DIN MIDI in and out, sync in and out, a line input, line output and a headphone output. There’s also a little speaker that fits nicely with the battery‑powered jam‑on‑the‑go angle that Sonicware are going for. The speaker is about as brilliant as you imagine it is and doesn’t disengage when you plug in the Line output, although, after a bit of exploration, I found that it can be muted manually. Once connected to some decent speakers, the XFM has a big, bold and brassy fixed‑velocity sound.
Sonicware claim that the 16 knobs provide intuitive access to all parameters. On my initial approach, I would say this is the least intuitive box I have ever played with. Everything feels confusing, the labels don’t always appear to mean what they say, and you never seem to know which mode you’re in or how you change that. The sounds have a habit of being completely different to what they were last time the knob was turned. The manual feels like a list of function definitions rather than something that could help you understand how the device flows. The hardware follows the same form as the other Liven boxes, and I wonder whether a one‑size‑fits‑all approach is conducive to a smooth workflow?
However, over time you start to click into it and realise there’s a bit of a formula at work here. While Sonicware are keen to point out the lack of menu‑diving, what you have to embrace is the use of the Function and Shift buttons to get to the multiple aspects that each control has. On day two with this box, all sorts of things that I just couldn’t see before opened up to me. For instance, I discovered the Fusion FM modes — they are fabulous, and I’ll get to them in a moment. Initially, I could not work out the sound selection, couldn’t find the Fusion FM banks and was confused as to what the sound selection knobs were doing. It turns out that the default sounds are the Library ones, but they are the fourth line of functionality on the main four knobs whose labels are obscured by the knobs beneath them unless you are looking from directly above. So, I feel it’s important to suggest that you may encounter an unexpected level of obfuscation when first delving into the Liven XFM — and we haven’t even got to the really deep stuff yet.
Armed with renewed confidence, let’s get into the basic sound engine. All the sounds are created with a 4‑operator, 6‑voice FM synthesizer. There are two approaches on offer. The first one is relaxed and groovy, where you explore the library of presets and have endless fun with the Fusion FM modes, which you then inject into a four‑channel groove engine. The second is a more cerebral dive into the FM synthesis itself, where you can explore all the FM parameters “without the conventional menu‑diving and head‑scratching”, which would be nice if it was true.
Sound selection is done with the top row of four knobs and varies depending on the synth mode. In straightforward Library mode the first two knobs become Bank and Sound select, with knob three being Attack and knob four handling the Tone. A quick note on the Tone knob, because you might make certain spectrum‑related assumptions about it when, in fact, what it does is lower the feedback on all the operators. Attack, on the other hand, is Attack.
Sonicware’s whole Fusion FM thing is surprisingly tremendous and gives you an entertaining way to pull new sounds from the box.
There are over 300 presets covering leads, keyboards, strings, basses, pads, brass, percussion, sound effects and chords. There are some decent electric pianos here, along with bells and metallic noises to remind you that this is a 4‑operator FM synthesizer. Plugging in a MIDI keyboard improved the playing experience and brought back the joys of velocity, although I couldn’t get my sustain pedal or mod wheel to work.
The architecture is split up into distinct parts. First, you have your FM sound engine with two parameters controlled from those top four knobs. The selected sound runs into the filter section with an LFO that can control the pitch or filter. From there, it runs into the effects section. Everything is held inside a Track, of which there are four that become important...