Creating a new synthesizer is a long journey full of challenges, deadlines and pressures. We talked with Japanese boutique instrument company Sonicware about the process behind the making of their new synthesizer, Liven 8bit warps.
Your new synthesizer arrives, fully formed and ready to be played. It’s a modern marvel of engineering, science and—depending on your understanding of electronics—perhaps even magic. We adore them so much, even the act of unboxing has become a ritualised event. That a mass-produced product could inspire so much creativity, so much joy, is testament to the amount of work that must have gone into its creation.
What of the creation process? For most of us end-consumers, our relationship with these instruments begins when the box opens. Bar a few in-progress updates from social-media-savvy manufacturers, the actual day-to-day of synthesizer creation remains a mystery. What really does go into the making of a synthesizer from scratch?
We ourselves were curious about this process so we got in touch with Sonicware, a boutique synthesizer company based in Tokyo, Japan. We wanted to find out how their latest, the performance-based Liven 8 bit warps, came to be. Founder and CEO Dr Yu Endo granted us a behind-the-scenes look.
Liven It Up
Liven 8bit warps is, as the name suggests, an 8-bit digital synthesizer. It’s a spin-off of sorts from Sonicware’s previous ELZ_1 but aimed more at the performing musician. There are four 8-bit voice modes, including three borrowed from the ELZ_1 (Warp, Morph, and FM) and one new one, Attack, which lets you split a sound between two waveforms using an envelope. There are 128 waveforms to choose from and these are run through a multimode digital filter and a comprehensive effects section. As it’s performance-focused, there’s a 128-step pattern sequencer, four-track looper, parameter locks, and a dynamic sequencer mode with slice, random, and stutter effects. It also has a built-in speaker, a keyboard with 27 keys, and can run on batteries or a power adapter.
A Brand New Instrument
Before we go any further with the Liven though, we should back up and talk about the ELZ-1, as that’s where this story really begins.
Although founded in 2004, Sonicware didn’t develop its first synthesizer until it had already been in business for a full decade and a half. Until the release of the ELZ_1 in 2019, the company cut its teeth writing code for other manufacturers. They also wanted to take their time, with their stated goal being to create a brand new instrument that no one had ever seen before.
“In our opinion, there haven’t really been any brand new instrument inventions used around the world since the birth of the synthesizer”, said Dr Endo. “Not in the last 30 years. That’s why we started Sonicware, to invent a brand new instrument.”
Quite a tall order, that. However, they are also realistic. “Instead of jumping straight to the brand new instrument, we wanted to start with synthesizers and go from there”, he expanded. “Our first rule was to definitely not use PCM sounds. If we used sampled violin sounds or piano sounds, that would just be copying a piano and not making a new instrument. With this in mind, we tried to make a digital synth that was one step ahead in evolution. We were also inspired by the old Nintendo Entertainment System and the kinds of sounds it could make. Then with the Liven, we went with the 8-bit engine from the ELZ_1 and tried to make it affordable.”
Starting With A Concept
Affordability was the key to the Liven 8bit warps. Although the ELZ_1 is not an expensive instrument when compared to some, at $450 it’s also not at the kind of price point that encourages mass purchasing. As a new and small company, Sonicware decided that they needed to increase brand awareness. Having a low price on their new instrument was key to this, so they settled on $199.
Along with affordability, the other concept they decided right from the start was performance. “For Liven, the concept was to express yourself in live performance. For that, we went with the 8-bit sound engine (from the ELZ_1). If it were just 8-bit it would be a little boring. We lowered the sound engine specifically to 8-bit but the filter, effects, reverb, envelope, they are all 32-bit floating-point DSP. This gives it a modern and nice sound. We wanted to reconstruct 8-bit into a modern approach.”
Sketch It Out
Once the concept of affordability and performance had been set, the next step was to figure out how it would look. In April 2019, the company started working with a product designer to realize this. As it was to be based on an existing product, the ELZ_1, they were able to borrow some elements, including the keyboard.
“Starting in April 2019, I did some sketches and set the specs, and started working with the designer”, Dr Endo explained. “We took the keyboard from ELZ-1. That set the width of the face. The distribution of the knobs was also important. We needed to leave a space in the upper left for the DSP (chip) under it. We also wanted the device to be relatively small. With these things in mind we decided the size.”