Think you don’t need a hardware sampler? The Sonicware Liven Lofi-12 sampling groovebox says otherwise—and it makes some pretty convincing arguments.
Sonicware Liven Lofi-12
“A hardware sampler in 2023? Surely my computer is all I need for digitally manipulating audio.” For many, this will undoubtedly be true. It’s no longer 1989 and sampling is now as easy as dragging a .wav file into a DAW. But for some, this is missing the point, for the fun of it lies in working not only with hardware but with decidedly lo-fi hardware. Check out used prices of old-school samplers by Akai and E-mu. They’re through the roof, meaning there are plenty of musicians out there for whom the low-bit and muffled crunch of classic samplers is nothing but a good thing.
Japanese company Sonicware clearly knows this, for this time around it has laser-focused its attention on the hardware sampler market. Dubbed Liven Lofi-12, it’s the latest in the company’s Liven groovebox series which, like the Volcas, combines a sound-generating engine with a robust sequencer and packs it into a tabletop box for not a lot of money. This time the engine is a sampler and unlike its closest competitor, the Volca Sample, it can actually sample. Hallelujah. While the name hints at a courting of the lo-fi hip-hop crowd (and many of the presets bear this out) there’s no reason that it can’t have wider appeal, as we’ll see.
Design and Layout: Back To The Old School
With its beige colouring and grey and red accents, there’s no mistaking that this Liven is nodding to Akai’s classic S-series of samplers. Akai blew open the sampling market, after all, and made it such a phenomenon. If you’ve been in the market for one but can’t justify the cost, this will certainly scratch that itch. It has for me, and I even have an S2000 in my rack.
The layout reflects that of the other Liven units, with a variety of knobs across the top, function buttons in the middle, and the company’s signature keyboard buttons across the bottom for chromatic playing. Size-wise, it’s about the same dimensions as an iPad, although thicker, obviously. The thickness also allows for space for six AA batteries (nine-volt power adapter not included) and the built-in speaker. The size is an acceptable compromise between portability and having enough real estate to include all of the parameter controls, of which there are quite a few.
Sequencing: Locking Those Parameters
At heart, Liven Lofi-12 is a groovebox. As with the other Liven devices, there are four tracks, and sequencing can be done either live or via step recording. There’s also direct recording, which allows you to capture performances during playback. Each track can have up to 64 steps, with 64 patterns total. Step length can also be adjusted, from 1/32 all the way up to a full bar.
The sequencer in the Lofi-12 is fairly robust, especially given the low price, with parameter locking as part of the package. As with note recording, there are three methods to capture performance data. The first is direct input, which allows you to turn the knobs while pressing the step buttons. Next is real-time input, which behaves like motion control on Korg devices. Lastly, there’s sound locking input, which captures notes and performance data at the same time.
Additional sequencer controls include adjustable swing as well as laid-back for off-setting the timing of samples on tracks. This emulates the wonky (sometimes called drunken) timing used by artists like Flying Lotus.
Probability and random phrases and a stutter performance effect round out the sequencer.
Sampling: Catching Those Ones and Zeroes
Liven Lofi-12 comes loaded with five banks of 16 samples each in a variety of sounds, but the real fun is recording your own. (You get three user banks and samples can be exported via a SysEx librarian.) Capturing samples is exceedingly easy. Just plug an external device into the line in jack, hit record, and play. It uses a gain trigger to start recording automatically, and sampling can be done at a clean 16-bit/24kHz or a dirty 16-bit/12kHz. Sampling time is fixed at two seconds for 24kHz and double that when halved to 12kHz. For extra crunch, you can put the entire device into 12-bit mode with the push of a button.
Liven Lofi-12 offers all of the sample editing functionality that you’d expect, including truncating, loop points, reverse and basic attack and release envelope settings. There’s no time stretch (bummer) nor automatic loop chopping, although you can chop the old-fashioned way by copying the same loop to multiple sample slots and editing them individually. Sample editing is a breeze, and Sonicware has helpfully included a paper overlay to use when in sample edit mode. (Don’t lose this, as this information isn’t printed on the unit itself.)
Synthesis and Effects
Once you have your sample edited as you like, you’re free to further shape it with the onboard synthesis controls. This includes a multimode resonant digital filter with a variety of low-, high- and bandpass settings with envelope shape baked in, an LFO to modulate pitch and cutoff frequency, plus a unique sweep function for automated pitch rises or drops.
Along with sampling and sequencing, the Lofi-12 also includes a clutch of effects. These run the gamut from things like delay and chorus to distortion and compression. Each track can get its own effect, with 11 available, with a separate bank for the output bus. This is confusingly called Reverb, although it also includes tape emulation and a vinyl simulator. Perhaps calling this Global would have made more sense?
The effects are uniformly solid and go a long way towards giving your samples a real vibe. The inclusion of dirty effects like bit crush and tape emulation can really push the lo-fi experience into overdrive when combined with 12-bit mode and low-frequency samples. Filthy and lovely.
Who Is It For?
So, to our original question of do you need a hardware sampler in 2023? If you’re working in a lo-fi genre then the Liven Lofi-12 is an absolute must. Lo-fi hip-hop heads will absolutely love it for sampling vinyl. The fact that you can sample cleanly and then degrade it if you need to will appeal to producers of other sample-heavy genres like UK garage and jungle as well. Even synthwave and ‘80s retro musicians will find something to love. If you’ve never heard an analogue synth played back at 12 bits, you’re missing out. This is primarily how I use it. In fact, I’ve been waiting for a 12-bit sampler at this price point for seemingly forever.
Sonicware clearly understands the market. The Liven Lofi-12 is perfectly designed for lo-fi producers and others working in retro or nostalgic genres. It’s got great sound, a ton of features, plenty of connectivity (MIDI in/out plus Volca-style sync) and is incredible value for the money. You’d be hard-pressed to find something with this many features for the price. And speaking of features, Sonicware has recently updated the firmware to 2.0, adding resampling, two auto-slice modes to chop up breaks and loops, and a master beat repeater effect for glitchy performances.
It’s not all positives. With so many features, it can be hard keeping all of the buttons and functions straight. It’s not incredibly intuitive either. I found myself heading back to the manual repeatedly for the first week. However, once you become familiar with it this ceases to be an issue.
If you need more than what a Volca Sample can do (hello, chromatic playing) but aren’t ready to pony up for a Roland SP-404, this is the sampler for you.
Sonicware’s Liven Lofi-12 is available for around €320.
Sonicware LIVEN Lofi-12
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- Sonicware Liven Lofi-12: Sonicware
- The look is inspired by old Akai samplers: Adam Douglas
- Sonicware Liven Lofi-12: Sonicware
- Sonicware Liven Lofi-12 with sample edit overlay: Adam Douglas
- Sampling a Korg NTS-1: Adam Douglas
- Sampling analogue synths is fun and easy : Adam Douglas