Many software manufacturers have placed huge emphasis on re-creating the analog synth classics, but only Native Instruments (NI), creators of the ultracomplex (Reaktor) and bizarre (Absynth), would take on FM synthesis with such gusto. FM8 is the second coming of NI's original FM7 soft synth, itself a reinvention of the king of FM synthesis, the Yamaha DX7. For those with a dusty DX7 in storage, FM8 can import your original DX (and TX) patches to bring back the glory days of hair mousse, parachute pants and FM synthesis — with NI's killer new style.
I tested FM8 on a dual 2 GHz Power Mac G5 with 1 GB RAM and OS 10.4.7, Tannoy and M-Audio monitors, an Echo audio interface and an Evolution MIDI controller. FM8 was a breeze to install, as was updating and registering it on NI's Website. FM8 recognized the Evolution and Echo straight away and was available without trouble as an Audio Units plug-in.
WINDOWS TO THE FM WORLD
The basic premise of FM synthesis is simple: One waveform, called a Modulator, modulates another waveform, called a Carrier; the result is a complex new waveform. Though it seems basic, the original DX7 was famous for its revolutionary sound and difficult interface. With FM8, NI has expanded the first tradition while smashing the second. The sound possibilities are gorgeous and vast, as is quickly seen by window shopping through the generous presets — 960 in all, including FM7's Volume I and II. Before even opening the manual, the interface was clear to me. Four main sections — the Application Control Bar, the Navigator, the Editor and the Keyboard — occupy one window. The Application Control Bar provides a snapshot of the most common info and controls, such as the current patch name, CPU load and Open/Save/Import commands. The Navigator works in tandem with the central Editor section. Navigator is a tabbed interface that exposes the heart of FM8; each tab fills the Editor with a common set of controls. For example, click on Browser for a preset list, click on Effects for an effects rack and click on Expert to display the surprisingly noncomplex FM matrix. The Keyboard section can be visible or hidden to save screen space, as can the Navigator and Browser sections. Anyone familiar with Reaktor's clean, modern interface should be pleased. For those up to speed with NI's recent developments, FM8 uses the KoreSound format, so it is ready for full integration into the Kore platform. The one potential missing feature is different-colored skins.
FM8 has enough presets in its goodie bag to keep even the most programming-phobic users happy for some time. Sounds include crystalline, digital-sounding bells; breathy flutes and pads; crushing, distorted guitarlike tones; and '80s arpeggiated buzzing noises. To save preset searching time, it's simple to create custom folders and keep aliases of your favorites or store custom-built presets in any directory you design. Programming patches can be simple or complex; either way is straightforward. The Easy/Morph editor provides basic editing controls that even the most novice synthesist will recognize: two ADSR envelopes, global Output and Effects sections and an LFO and Timbre section with descriptive controls such as Brightness, Detune and Vibrato. The hip new Morph section can seamlessly blend four different sounds, and it can be mapped to MIDI — very cool. The Expert section is where FM synthesis freaks will go nuts. Any waveform (Operator) can act as a Modulator, Carrier or both, and each Operator can be any of 32 waveforms. An intuitive matrix houses the Operators, and any Modulator can be routed to any Carrier. The result is a dizzying array of infinite sonic possibilities, yet if you're not a techie, the manual does a good job of explaining the process.
An excellent new feature is the arpeggiator — fully programmable to a maximum of 32 steps. Arpeggios can play once or repeatedly. They can loop or sync-start to each key press, and sync-to-tempo can be turned on or off. You can manually program each note's pitch, accent, etc. What's really cool is that all parameters, including On, Tie, Accent, Note Order, Octave and Transpose, can be randomized across all 32 steps — hours of fun, for sure.
While there's much more depth in FM8 to cover, the synth is a cinch to get into. Whether you're deep into FM programming or just want to add a no-brainer sound module to your rig, check out FM8. The sound quality is superb, the presets are vast and interesting and the sonic possibilities are endless. FM8 will be a big presence in my own productions from now on.
FM8 > $339
Pros: Excellent sound quality. Large selection of presets. Powerful FM programming engine that's easy and intuitive to use. Well-designed user interface. Simple installation. Fully Kore compatible.
Cons: Extra skins would be an improvement, but there's little to complain about.
Mac: G4/1.4 GHz; 512 MB RAM; OS10.4.x; compatible VST, Audio Units or RTAS host for plug-in use.
PC: Pentium or Athlon/1.4 GHz; 512 MB RAM; Windows XP; compatible VST, DXi or RTAS host for plug-in use.