For many of us, frequency modulation (FM) synthesis conjures up fond memories of the Yamaha DX7, with its bell-like pianos and gooey pads. The DX7's characteristic timbres were so varied and different from the analog synths of the day that it quickly became one of the most popular synthesizers in history.
Native Instruments' FM7 re-creates the sound engine of the DX7 and its siblings while adding a few new tricks. FM7 can run as a standalone synthesizer or as a plug-in within a VST, DX, or MAS host. Digidesign Pro Tools compatibility is available through DirectConnect, and MIDI support on the Mac includes OMS and FreeMIDI.
I tested FM7 using a Mac G4/733 MHz with 768 MB of RAM, a Digidesign Digi 001 interface, and an M-Audio Oxygen 8 MIDI controller. I had no trouble setting up the program in standalone and DirectConnect modes, and syncing the delays and envelopes to MIDI Clock was a piece of cake. With the Hardware Buffer set to 128 samples, FM7's performance was crisp and responsive, with no audio glitching.
The printed manual that comes with FM7 is exceptional. It provides complete step-by-step instructions for setting up FM7 within major host applications on both Macs and PCs. It also covers advanced features, such as how to use a bus to record the synth's output to an audio track in Pro Tools. In addition, the manual lays out the theoretical underpinnings of FM synthesis.
FM synthesis has been implemented in a variety of ways over the years. FM7 uses phase modulation, a fraternal twin of frequency modulation and the actual flavor implemented by Yamaha's classic synths. (For a detailed discussion of frequency modulation, see “Square One: FM Basic Training” in the April 1999 issue of EM.)
An FM synth's architecture is built around operators. In FM7, an operator is a module that contains an oscillator, an amplifier, and an envelope generator. The output signal of an operator can either be heard directly, in which case the operator is called a carrier, or be used to affect the behavior of another operator, in which case it is called a modulator.
Operators can function as both carrier and modulator, and they can even modulate themselves, which is referred to as feedback. The relationships between operators are defined by algorithms, and whereas a DX7 had a finite number of fixed algorithms to create patches, FM7 allows you to create an enormous variety of algorithms using a matrix (see Fig. 1).
One of the first things I did after installing FM7 was to turn to the matrix page and start cross-pollinating operators to see what sounds might ensue. In a mere 30 seconds, I discovered most of what I needed to know to program new sounds.
The operators are laid out on a grid. If you want a signal to travel from one operator to another, simply click and drag the mouse on the lines that intersect the two. You can control the amount of signal flow by dragging the cursor in the value box that appears at the intersection. Should you find this process less intuitive than I did, the manual explains everything you need to know in explicit detail. (For more information, see the master class on programming FM7 in the June 2003 issue of EM.)
As if this weren't already a big improvement over FM programming through the DX7's tiny display, Native Instruments has created a simplified programming interface that allows users to tweak sounds without ever seeing an algorithm or operator (see Fig. 2). The Easy Edit page offers 20 sliders that let you increase or decrease plain-language parameters such as Brightness, Detune, Vibrato, and Envelope Amount. For customizing presets, the Easy Edit page is all most users will ever need to know about FM programming.
If moving sliders up and down is more effort than you want to exert, the Library page allows you to randomize various aspects of a sound. Six parameters — Operators, FM, Envelope, Key Scaling, Modulation, and FX — can be randomized repeatedly until you stumble across something that interests you. You can even specify the degree of randomization independently for each parameter. This is typical of the kind of attention to detail you'll find in FM7.
Another example is a slider on the Master page labeled Digital, which lets you reduce the bit depth of the instrument to the original DX7's 12-bit word length or lower. Unfortunately, there is no indication of where 12-bit resolution is on the slider or what the resolution of the lowest value is. On the same page is a slider labeled Analog, which controls an emulation of the random variations that temperature and other factors introduced into early analog-synth circuits.
The Modulation Matrix lets you determine what gets modified by each controller. If you want pitch bend to move a carrier by seven semitones, simply click and drag at the appropriate intersections until the correct value appears.
An entire page of controls is devoted to pitch manipulation, including four different pitch-bend modes and microtuning. Up to 32 microtuning presets can be saved, including stretch tunings. The Pitch Envelope offers intuitive breakpoint manipulation of pitch over time. You can also loop a series of breakpoints and lock to MIDI Clock to create arpeggiator-like patterns that follow your sequencer's tempo.
FM7 has a handy Learn mode for setting up controller assignments. This allowed me to easily assign the Oxygen 8's knobs to parameters such as an operator's modulation amount, its detune value, and its pitch-bend range.
Countless DX7s have been collecting dust for years because their signature sounds were played out and they were difficult to program. Fortunately, FM7 can load DX and TX sounds, allowing you to breathe new life into your vintage patches using its straightforward programming interface.
The expressive abilities of FM7 are impressive, and the modulator-and-carrier architecture lends itself to sounds that undulate, pulse, or morph as you sustain a note or chord. In addition, the majority of the factory sounds, as well as those in FM7 Sounds, vol. 1 (see the sidebar “Fascinating Music”), respond in interesting ways to Velocity and mod-wheel changes. FM7 does a fine job of capturing the essence of the great FM synths while making the power of FM synthesis more accessible.
Brian Smithersis course director of audio workstations at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G3/400 (G4 recommended); 64 MB RAM; Mac OS 8.6; OMS or FreeMIDI
PC: Pentium III/450; 64 MB RAM; Windows 98/2000/ME/XP
FM7 1.1 (Mac/Win)
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE5.0QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.0VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Flexible sounds. Programming is easy yet deep. Extensive modulation possibilities. Supports VST, DX, MAS, DirectConnect, OMS, and FreeMIDI. Standalone mode.
CONS: Can't type numeric values into value boxes.
Native Instruments' FM7 Sounds, vol. 1 ($49.90) comes with 256 patches grouped into categories such as pads, loops, drums, and synths. Each category features 64 examples of what frequency modulation can do. All the sounds are of high quality, although your musical tastes and mood will determine which ones are most useful to you.
The pads tend to use the mod wheel to vary timbre, allowing you to shape phrases intelligently. Aquazoo, for instance, is an undulating pad with a swirl of bell-like sounds, and moving the mod wheel introduces a warbly component that makes the pad more active. Yed Prior uses the wheel to morph between sonorous and dissonant timbres, whereas Cinematica uses the mod wheel to fade in an interval of a fifth above the fundamental, which adds a dramatic sense of anticipation.
There are some interesting electric pianos among the synths, including the clangorous Bridges, the harpsichordish Dee Kay, and the toylike Lullaby. Not to be left behind on the modulation front, the EWI-7 Monolead goes through some very nice timbral changes when you use the mod wheel.
I found fewer useful drum sounds, but this is mostly a stylistic issue. I've never been fond of FM drum sounds, and this collection has not changed my mind. There are certainly some interesting variations, and the drums are as well programmed as any other instrument in this collection.
The loops do a great job of demonstrating the depth of FM7's programming capabilities. They sync to incoming MIDI Clock and provide a nice alternative to audio loops. FM7 Sounds, vol. 1, is worth having just to dissect its programming. On the other hand, if you're trying to avoid getting your hands dirty, you'll find lots of fresh sounds to spark your imagination. But be warned: touch that mod wheel once and you'll never leave it alone!