Native Instruments FM7 was a high-water mark among FM synths
Publish date:
Updated on
Image placeholder title

The Yamaha DX7 and DX9 frequency modulation (FM) synthesizers stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing subtractive, analog instruments of their day. FM promised crisp, bell-like tones; razor-sharp, punchy attacks; and, in some instances, almost sample-quality realism — difficult tasks for subtractive instruments. FM synthesis is now a staple in every electronic musician's cookbook, as evidenced by the inclusion of a free FM soft synth in a number of DAWs.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 1: One of FM8''s two Browser interfaces. You select attributes and see matching patches, or view patches with a file-tree display.

Native Instruments FM7 was a high-water mark among FM synths. The new FM8 sports a redesigned user interface, new effects, a hybrid pairing of step sequencer and arpeggiator, and much more. I will focus on what's new in FM8. (For a full review of FM7, see the July 2003 issue of EM, available online at

FM8 comes in standalone, AU, VST, DXi, and RTAS versions. It takes only minutes to install and authorize. Immediately after you type in a serial number and install the software, a dialog box pops up to install NI Service Center, a Web-based authorization application. I tested FM8 as a standalone instrument and in Ableton Live 6 and Cakewalk Sonar Producer 6 on my 3.06 GHz Windows XP notebook with 1.5 GB of RAM. On the Mac side, I used Live 6, MOTU Digital Performer 5.11, and Steinberg Cubase 4 on my dual-processor 1.42 GHz Power Mac running Mac OS X 10.4.2 with 2 GB of RAM.

Below the Surface

FM8 discards the predominantly dark green and yellow, DX7-influenced user interface in favor of cooler shades of pale blue and gray. The new color scheme is easier on the eye, but some parameters set in white against a pale blue backdrop are a bit tough to decipher. I would prefer a choice of color scheme, but the redesign of the interface goes way beyond cosmetic changes — it is immensely more efficient in every way. The Navigator section, located on the left side of the instrument, is a significant enhancement; clicking on any of the square buttons instantly reveals a new window to its right.

The Browser button opens FM8's patch browser. You can toggle between a typical file-tree display and a list of attributes that filter patches by category. Selecting additional attributes such as piano, synthetic, wooden, and percussive refines your search. Matching patches appear in the far right column (see Fig. 1). You click on the Attributes button to edit the current patch's attributes as well as to add search criteria such as authorship, ratings, color coding, and comments.

You click on the Master button for global instrument settings. These include output and input gain (you can process external signals through the effects as well as use inputs as carriers and modulators), polyphony, the number of unison voices (with dynamic voice allocation), panning, and detuning. The global parameters will be familiar to FM7 users, but the layout is more intuitive and consolidates a few controls from other pages, such as pitch-bend settings.

In Full Effect

Effects have a dedicated page in FM8 (see Fig. 2), and justifiably so — there are many more effects on tap. You click on an effect's name in the Effects Navigator to activate it. Its programming controls then appear in the effects rack to the right of the Navigator. You can save multi-effect settings; they, along with a hefty batch of factory presets, are selected from a pull-down menu. FM8 effects range from straightforward reverb, delay, and chorus to guitar-amp modeling and vowel simulations, and you can pile on effects until your CPU starts to smoke.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 2: The Effects page lets you apply any of FM8''s 12 effects. You can create your own multi-effects templates or choose from a generous list of presets.

The arpeggiator implementation is one of the most musical I have seen. It resembles a step sequencer, but instead of playing preordained notes, it draws its pattern from the currently held MIDI notes. Strictly speaking, the arpeggiator is more of a motif generator than a simple repeater of note patterns. It's very easy to create split points with one part of the keyboard arpeggiated and the other not. The Pattern Editor is very flexible, letting you specify durations, ties, accents, and note selection and transposition. You can dial in the amount of swing on the fly as well as set up playback to latch or to stop with each keypress.

Naturally, you can load preset patterns or create your own, which can then be saved for use in other patches. Some of the preset patterns are so musical and self-contained that holding down a single note is sufficient to generate a song-starter motif (see Web Clip 1).

Morphy's Law

The Easy/Morph section exemplifies the remarkable ease-of-use advances in FM8 (see Fig. 3). Sound designers will find plenty here to keep them busy without fiddling with carrier-to-modulator ratios or indexes. The Timbre knob controls overall brightness by increasing the output level of all modulators. To change harmonic content, you get a Harmonic knob. That produced results somewhat less predictable than a more focused adjustment of relative operator frequencies would, but the results were usually useful and interesting. Similarly, you get master ADSR timbre and amplitude envelopes as an alternative to tweaking the considerably more complex breakpoint envelopes of individual carrier-and-modulator systems.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 3: The Easy/Morph page greatly simplifies the FM sound-design process. The large Morph controller on the right is replicated in a smaller one at the top of all pages.

You can access FM8's morphing capabilities from any page by using a small Morph controller in the Application Control Bar at the top of the interface. The current morph position is indicated by a red square, which you can click-drag to change the morph. You drag-and-drop patches from the browser to quadrants of the Morph controller to set up morphing. Morphing applies to timbral parameters only: FM Matrix and FM Operator settings along with overall effects amount. Morphable controls are indicated by a small Morph controller icon next to the control. All nonmorphable settings are taken from the first patch dragged to the Morph controller.

The larger Morph controller on the Morph page allows more-accurate onscreen morphing and shows the names of each quadrant's preset. Sliders along the top and right of the Morph controller introduce a random element to each morphed parameter; that is depicted by a cloud of dots surrounding the morphing handle. A Normalize Timbres button captures the current morph and applies it to all four quadrants, effectively creating a new patch in case you've found a sweet spot you'd like to keep.

Everyone's an Expert

The Expert section contains multiple pages, and you can jump directly to any page by clicking on a small button in the Navigator. This section is streamlined and informative, with all of the instrument's deeper features available to the experienced FM programmer. The Envelopes page is a particularly fine example. That is where you set up FM8's multistage, breakpoint envelope generators. These resemble the envelopes in Native Instruments Absynth; you can insert breakpoints anywhere between the attack and release stages and loop the sustain portion. It's easy to alter the slopes between breakpoints — just grab the small circle on the line connecting them. You can adjust breakpoints independently (Fix mode) or have all subsequent breakpoints adjust as you move a breakpoint in time (Slide mode).

Image placeholder title

FIG. 4: The Envelopes page lets you edit any envelope as well as link it to other envelopes. The FM Matrix section at the right shows the arrangement of carriers and modulators.

All envelopes (one for each operator and one for pitch contour) are stacked vertically on the Envelopes page. Clicking on any operator expands its envelope for editing (see Fig. 4). You create envelope groups by clicking on link buttons to the right of the envelopes — linked envelopes have identical shapes.

In the Operator window, a drop-down menu presents the familiar DX7 sine-wave fodder along with 31 additional waveforms. You can invert any of the waveforms, multiplying your sonic options. The Spectrum and Waveform windows now have a dedicated page. Although you cannot edit them directly, the expanded visuals are much more useful than those of FM7, especially when morphing.

One of the most difficult aspects of programming FM sounds is maintaining context. Because the Expert section always displays the arrangement of operators in the FM Matrix window, it's easier to keep track of the signal flow. The only exception is the Modulation Matrix section, which simultaneously displays MIDI and LFO modulation routings for all operators.

Sine Qua Non

Kudos to the FM8 preset programmers — they have provided a broad representation of the instrument's new capabilities as well as FM-synthesis mainstays. You'll find plenty of the more conventional presets: sweet or clangorous bells; electric pianos; and hard, punchy basses. More interesting, however, are sounds that are characteristically FM in origin but much more animated and livelier than earlier FM instruments could achieve. I auditioned creamy, evolving pads; wave-sequence-style percussive patterns; smoky, cinematic-sounding backdrops with skittering harmonics in the upper frequencies; gritty leads; and some very thick analog-type timbres. The preset collection is generous, encompassing the new FM8 sounds, the original FM7 factory library, and the FM7 Sounds Volumes 1 and 2 aftermarket libraries. FM8 is backward compatible with the vast library of DX and TX (including the TX 81Z) SysEx data floating around the Internet.

At its core, FM synthesis will probably never be completely intuitive. That said, Native Instruments has created an outstanding user interface that greatly facilitates FM's most important sound-design tools. FM8 gives more-experienced FM mavens an unobstructed path to more-abstruse parameters. The FM8 Operation Manual (provided in hard copy and PDF) is an excellent reference and manages to explain the basics of FM synthesis in the context of a guided tour of the instrument.

FM simply does things no other synthesis method can do. FM8's enhanced sonic capabilities combined with real-time control are tremendous. I can't think of a gentler introduction to FM synthesis. You'll find a downloadable demo on the Native Instruments Web site that functions for half an hour at a time without unexpected noise or dips in output. FM8 is an easy choice, and I recommend it highly for FM novices and experts alike.

Marty Cutler learned FM programming with a Yamaha TX7, a Commodore 64 Editor-Librarian, and a huge book of patches from Valhalla. That was probably before your time, youngsters.

FM8 1.0.1

software synthesizer

update from FM7, $119



PROS: Elegant redesign of user interface. Browser and attributes make patch selection easy. Musical and sophisticated arpeggiator section. Patch morphing. Generous library of great-sounding presets.

CONS: Color scheme can make certain parameters difficult to read.


Native Instruments