Donner’s $199 Essential B1 Bass Synth just got a serious new firmware update. This apparent love child of a 303, a Casio, and a BeatStep now adds song mode and a performance-friendly feature called Live Random. But there are still a couple of catches that might have you looking elsewhere. Here’s a look.
Okay, first – I haven’t yet gotten to try the Donner bass synth, but I see why it’s been getting more attention. This cute little gadget is $199, with two-octave “silicon haptic pads,” saturation and tape delay onboard, MIDI I/O (so it doubles as a sequencer), and an onboard 303-style bass engine. It’s also got a USB C port and analog sync in and out.
Donner is a brand mostly known for cheap clones made in their factory and a corresponding large product base and sometimes confusing marketing – the product page for this one bizarrely lists specs for a digital piano in some error. I’ll also try not to snicker about the idea of a hardware manufacturer that does that which also has the name “Donner.” But the B1 is an outlier – it seems they did something original here.
Future Music did review this though oddly enough they got hung up on the looks and the fact that it doesn’t emulate the “303 workflow.” I think that kind of misses the point, as what this looks like is more a powerful step sequencer with a 303-ish bass engine inside, which is arguably, you know, a better idea.
No, the real issue is that as a 303 synth, this one is a bit lacking in sound – either the analog recreations or Roland’s ACB version sound more authentic. Then again, it seems like the 303 is an extra more than anything, and where you’d get creative is presumably with saturation and tape delay. (See videos below and judge for yourself.)
So what you do get is a simple acid sequencer, only with actually usable controls, modern features, and a two-octave keyboard, as in all the stuff early 1980s Roland left out because of the technology available at the time. The B1 already had substeps and a multi-pattern arpeggiator. It’s too bad it doesn’t have CV and gate, so analog fans will want to stick to the (excellent) Arturia BeatStep Pro and KeyStep Pro. But having another little sequencer handy is always welcome, especially one with a solid 303 emulation. Even Roland’s first-gen AIRA TB-3 worked decently well at that task, and it’s about time someone offer up a modern sequencer+303 at a budget price.
And that’s where this week’s update comes in – Donner writes to let us know they released a fairly major update, called 1.01. If you’ve got one, you’ll need to first update the unit with what they call Donner Control:
And then you get various enhancements and fixes, plus two big new features. Previously, you had to switch patterns with the up and down arrow keys. Now, you can chain up to 16 patterns, which also means longer patterns of 16-256 steps. Here’s an explanation:
Live Random generates random patterns while playing – hit PLAY/STOP + REC/EDIT. It doesn’t operate with Song Mode on, but no worries there – either just randomize a 16-step pattern, or generate the patterns and then save them and chain them later.
Blank patterns generate note, gate length, ratchet (sub-step), slide, accent, and rest.
If you hit Live Random on an existing pattern, it randomizes gate length, ratchet, slide, and accent.
So I’m in – this is an instant $199 acid generator in hardware form, which is worth pointing out. And you could easily pair it with your favorite synth – 303 or otherwise. That first release seemed a little too crude to really take seriously, but this one now moves squarely (or saw-ly) onto the radar.
For my money, I’m sticking with the BeatStep Pro. It’s got a more advanced sequencer, and you get CV/gate for use with analog gear. (I also really love the KeyStep Pro, which works more effectively as a keyboard.) But this is worth mentioning for folks really wanting an acid maker sequencer.
Get the party going with this synth, because there ain’t no party like a Donner party! Uh… wait, too soon?
A few videos of folks who did already get a hands-on: