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 once you start sequencing. The filter, LFO and effects send apply to any sound coming from the FM engine and they don’t change as you change sounds. This seems really odd until you realise that the sound selection of FM tones should be seen as like choosing waveforms in an oscillator.
You end up with different saving configurations where Sound Memories store your FM tones; Tracks save the Sound Memories they use along with the filter, other bits and sequences; and then Patterns save the Track settings for all four tracks and include the tempo and global effects.
The X Factor
The Library sounds are decent enough, but all the interesting stuff happens when you engage Fusion FM mode. Hold the Function key and press step number 1 to bring up the sound engine options and then turn the Value knob to select between Library, X‑LAB, XFORM and X‑LFO. The idea of these Fusion FM modes is to take two sounds from the Library and blend them together in interesting ways.
With X‑LAB you can select two sounds and morph between them with the third knob. This is not simply mixing the tones; this is interpolated parameter morphing that can do very odd things to the sound depending on the lock settings. The pitch of the operators and the envelopes of each sound can be very different. With all locks off, the movement between the sounds becomes a fascinating place of FM stretching and clangorous tonality. It’s really quite delicious. If you enable the pitch lock, everything stays far more musical and switches the operator pitch whenever you pass through the centre point between the sounds. Locking the envelope retains the shape of each sound around this same point.
However, you can mess with where these switch points are. The fourth knob is labelled ‘Color’ and refers to the spread of operator pitch switching. There are seven colours to choose from with red putting the pitch switching of all four operators in the centre and the rest scattering them about to give a different sense of how the pitches morph as you turn the knob. It’s an unexpected level of nuance in a bold and brash FM groovebox.
XFORM is much like X‑LAB but where the turning of the morph knob is done for you. You can set the time it takes to complete the morph and add a delay to when it starts, giving you more time on the initial sound. It’s rather brilliant. The same locks are in and out of place giving you either a pleasant change in tone or the dissonant dragging of Operators from one position to another. This time you get nine colours to mess about with, and it’s far easier to hear the effect in this mode. You get this interesting movement and leaping of tunings over the development of the sound that’s really quite lovely.
X‑LFO goes another step beyond by connecting an LFO to the movement between the two sounds. Call me crazy, but this is what I would have assumed you can do in X‑LAB. All you need to do is map an LFO to the third knob and you would have this effect. In fact, all three modes could be one mode with a single‑fire or looping modulator on the morph knob. But anyway, here we have multiple LFO waveforms, and control over the rate and colour of the pitch switching. The results are at times gloriously chiptune and at others fascinatingly rhythmic with exciting moments of movements in tonal clusters.
Sonicware’s whole Fusion FM thing is surprisingly tremendous and gives you an entertaining way to pull new sounds from the box. If they’d made it a single mode with modulation it could have really flowed well, but some of the joy is lost in the levels of button gymnastics and shift‑knob turnings.
The second row of knobs surrounded by blue are the next stage of the regular synthesizer architecture for each of the four tracks. This consists of a filter, a single LFO and the release part of an envelope which also doubles as gate length.
The filter section can be found on the first three knobs of this row. You have a single knob controlling the filter cutoff, which then doubles up as resonance while holding Shift. There are separate controls over the envelope depth and time but the type of envelope itself is actually tied into the filter mode. Via a Function button combination you can choose low‑pass, high‑pass and band‑pass with three different associated envelopes; Attack, Decay, and Attack and Decay. I imagine this workflow decision was made because they’d run out of buttons to give the envelope its own function and run out of knobs to let you shape it yourself.
The filter sounds fine, with a nice smooth sweep and no volume drop when you increase the resonance. It’s not going to scream at you or find itself in self‑oscillation, but it’s appropriate to the task at hand. I would have liked the resonance to be on its own knob so that you could interact with it at the same time as the cutoff.
Next up, we have the LFO with knobs for rate, pitch, and filter depth. No other routings are available but you do get a nice selection of waveforms. It’s not particularly deep and doesn’t go up to audio rate but it’s perfectly suitable for the most common sweet spots. Finally, we have a Release/Gate knob that does exactly what it says it does and also doubles as an effects send to the internal effects engine.
The effects engine is global and you can run one effect from the included 12. All the usual suspects are here including chorus, flanger, delay, crush, distortion, filters, tremolo and reverb. Except for the reverb they are all quite fierce and seem to add inconsistent amounts of gain to the signal. Turning up the send amount quickly overloads the outputs and we revisit the bold and brash vibe that the XFM loves so much. In comparison to the synth filter, the effects filter is a gnarly, snarling DJ‑inspired beast that will rip your whole project apart. The reverb can be quite nice if you only send a small amount to it, but you can also overload it into feedback relatively easily which may or may not be what you’re looking for.
However, all this fiddling about with FM synthesis is distracting us from the main business at hand of a four‑track action‑packed groovebox, and this is where the XFM really comes alive.
The sequencer is a riot in the best sense of the word. It’s fun, instant and playful and offers a lot of scope for everything from finely crafting a series of modulated notes to remixing melodies on the fly during a performance.
The sequencer is a riot in the best sense of the word. It’s fun, instant and playful and offers a lot of scope for everything from finely crafting a series of modulated notes to remixing melodies on the fly during a performance. You have up to 64 steps per pattern, with 16 steps shown on the front panel at a time. There’s room for 128 patterns which you can chain together for playback or fire off whenever you feel like it. To get the feel and resolution you’re after you can sub‑divide the tempo down to 32nd notes or tie notes across several steps. The timing sub‑divisions can be set on a per‑track basis, which gives you a useful way to offset the timing of the tracks against each other.
Every parameter available on the front panel can be individually recorded and automated across every step in Parameter Lock. This can be anything from fluid sweeps of filters across looping step counts to every step having it’s own sound, filter settings and modulation. You can build percussion ensembles on a single track by swapping out sounds on different steps, or pump up the effects send on a single note, throw in sweeps and glides or change how much Fusion FM morphing is going on. There doesn’t appear to be a limit on what you can throw onto a step.
When in the step‑record mode you can select a step and it will sound continuously while you dial in exactly what you’re after. The Latch function can be helpful here, where the parameter remains unchanged until you hit the previously held value while turning the Value encoder. You can switch the Parameter Lock off and on for a track and you can also clear the automation independently from the notes. What you can’t do is turn notes off and back on again. You can clear a step but then whatever you had going on in that step has been vaporised and you’d have to re‑enter the note and all the automation on that step.
During playback, you have a couple of performance tools to play with. Random will switch on the Random Step option that you have to set up on another button for some reason. You can choose from randomisation happening every note, every two notes, four notes, eight or 16 notes. The Stutter mode is a note‑repeat function that will loop whatever steps you get your fingers on. These modes add a lot of variation and some nice performance elements to your sequences.
With the pattern chaining and ability to have a different sound on every step, four tracks is plenty to get a whole load of music and noise going on. You could write whole songs on this box and perform them live with a good degree of real‑time interaction once you’ve mastered the Shift/Function buttons and learned where everything is.
The Liven XFM is a box of two halves. On the one hand you have this lively, performance‑oriented groovebox with exciting sounds and per‑step automation, and on the other you have a fully editable FM synthesis engine. While you can create sounds in one mode to be used in another, they feel very separate from each other. You can’t, for instance, go into FM Edit mode with the sound you’re currently using just to tweak the operator algorithms. Well, you can, but you’ll have to load that preset separately in the Edit page; there’s no flow from one to the other and that creates a bit of a disconnect. There are limitations that hamper XFM’s ability to act like a synthesizer, like the lack of sustain pedal response, playable velocity or how, as the keys all have alternative functions, you can’t play while trying to adjust a parameter that needs the Function button held to operate. So maybe it’s just overly ambitious within its form factor.
FM synthesis is complicated and labour intensive, which is in complete contrast to the instantaneous fun of the Fusion FM method of smashing together a pair of library FM sounds. Using the sounds in this way gives you a lot of variation and creative sound design without having to dip into any of the FM‑ness behind the scenes. The other synthesizer elements then build on those sounds to give easy and familiar filtering and modulation. If we didn’t know about the deep FM editing I don’t think it would be any poorer for it and actually, it would help the XFM come across with a bit more clarity and purpose.
However, since it has an FM engine, why not open it up to use and abuse? The inclusion of the FM Edit overlay is a superbly optimistic decision made by Sonicware and could elevate the XFM well above its £$199 station, perhaps only at the expense of baffling a few people who would rather take the machine at face value and get grooving. But in either case there’s a lot of fun to be had in Liven XFM.
For the foolhardy adventurer Sonicware have left a door open to the full FM synthesis engine. An Edit Mode transforms all the front‑panel functions into something approximating a Yamaha DX100. There’s a front‑panel overlay that you drop over the top of the knobs and buttons to make this more plausible, and you now have a completely different experience.
It’s a two‑page system where most of the focus is around the central 12 ‘Quick Edit’ knobs. With Page 1 selected you have control over the level of the 4 operators and then pairs of ratio and fine‑tuning. With Page 2 these become operator feedback depth, level and detuning.
The two rows of buttons hold the functions for deeper editing and are active for the selected operator. You can set up the level of each operator running into each other operator as well as feeding back into itself. While there are 16 algorithms on hand to get the ball rolling, Sonicware say that you don’t have to worry about all that and can route and arrange the operators in any way you wish. Some of the Quick Edit controls are also duplicated on the buttons, I guess so that you can remain focused on the one operator and take a more methodical approach. The remaining controls cover velocity and gain scaling across the keyboard, pitch fixing, and the volume and pitch envelopes (both time and level).
Essentially the FM engine is open for you to play with although none of it is particularly intuitive. The layout across 12 knobs and 16 buttons with two pages of functions is comprehensive and far more readily accessible than what you’d find on something like the Korg Volca FM. The XFM has the potential for some exciting sound‑design possibilities and extensive FM fiddling. However, a couple of things strike me as strange. First of all it’s a shame that the keyboard isn’t velocity‑sensitive as there are several velocity parameters that affect the way the operators interact that can’t really be experienced on the device itself. And secondly, the lack of sustain pedal support over MIDI hampers the ability to feel like a DX synth. So while the sound design is there, it isn’t easy to take full advantage of it as a synth.
- Fusion FM sound morphing is excellent.
- Lively and fun four‑track sequencer.
- Everything can be automated per step.
- Good library of FM sounds.
- Deep FM editing.
- No velocity in the keys.
- No pedal sustain.
- Every control has multiple functions.
- Inconsistent effect levels.
- You’ve got to learn it to love it.
Sonicware have come up with an interesting take on fusing FM sounds together in a lively groovebox that’s bold, brash and a little rough around the edges, with full FM editing available for synth adventurers.
£199 including VAT.