Credit: Doug Eisengrein
The moonwalk. Hair gel. Pumas with fat laces. Leg warmers. Madonna, Wham, Run-DMC. Such things define the '80s, a decade of such sugary decadence that only then could the hallmark of digital synthesis, FM (frequency modulation), be concocted. Green cities. Intelligent Dance Music. Wikis and blogs. Stem cell research. Madlib, Luke Vibert, TV on the Radio. Those are the stuff of this decade, the conscious-raising first decade of this century. While the dawn of the digital age in the early '80s produced the classic sound and notoriously archaic user interface of the Yamaha DX-7, FM synthesis is still with us today, although vastly improved and best represented in Native Instruments FM8 soft synth ($339; www.native-instruments.com).
A typical classic analog synth structure is based on one or more oscillators that are typically fed into a VCA (amplifier); the oscillators' levels are altered by the VCA, which in turn is altered by an envelope generator (EG). FM synthesis builds on this basic structure by grouping these three essential components together and labeling them an Operator. FM is unique in that it makes use of one Operator to modulate another Operator, the former generally acting as a Modulator and latter generally acting as the sound source or Carrier, with the result being a totally new, unique waveform. This is not unlike the classic analog LFO (low-frequency oscillator), which is often below the range of human-audible frequencies and used as a modulation source rather than a sound source. The beauty of FM synthesis is that several operators (six in the case of FM8) can be mixed and matched on a matrix in an open-ended, connect-the-dots type of way. Beyond this grid, FM8 boasts a great array of other sound-sculpting tools that can further enhance your Dr. Frankenstein creations, such as an effects rack and a four-voice x-y axis that functions similarly to a Korg Kaoss Pad, mixing and allowing gradual shifts between the different voices.
It's useful to begin with one of FM8's presets that has a tone somewhat like what you want to hear, and then dive in and mash it up. In doing that, you'll discover not only how FM synthesis works, but I also guarantee that with enough playing around, you'll come up with new patches that are truly unique, satisfying to create and way off the charts from what you originally envision. After all, isn't that the point of synthesis? By entering the Expert tab on FM8's Navigator, you will access the Operator matrix. You may know how to make one Operator modulate another, but any Operator can also feed back into itself, or into any other on the grid. In other words, any Operator can act as a Modulator, a Carrier or both. To make an Operator feed back into itself, click on the junction directly above it and drag up to increase the feedback “volume” (amount). To feed one back into another, click on the junction above and to the right of a pair and perform the standard click-and-drag. Adding feedback in this way can impart some dirt to your patches. Which waveforms to choose for Modulators and Carriers is of course in the ears of the beholder, but I personally like to use the more traditional waveforms (square, sine, triangle) as the sound sources and the more complex waves (6th, 8th, 10th formant, 1+7, 1+8, etc.) as Modulators. But I also like to break that rule.
Remember that externally input waveforms also can feed into any FM8 Operator, further expanding the already endless sonic possibilities — take note of the In box in the lower right-hand corner of the FM Matrix. Finally, though it might seem like a tiny detail, inverting the Operator waveforms can really make a difference in the overall tone of your patches. Immediately upon choosing a waveform, click on the little Invert button directly below the drop-down list and listen to the results; in many cases, you may be surprised.
The next area worth exploring is the Modulation Matrix. You access it in FM8's Expert tab by clicking on the Mod button below the tabs. Two simple ways to make your patches more instantly dynamic are to add some modulation generated from either (or both) LFOs and to send Pitch Bend to one or more Operator. Pitch bend Up and Down are separately available via the PB Up and PB Dn junctions, and it's interesting to send Up to only one voice Operator and Down to only another. The beauty of the LFOs here is that they have the identical choice of waveforms available as the regular Operators. I've had very interesting results by assigning smoother waveforms (Parabol, Soft Square, Soft Tristate) to the LFOs and slower-to-medium Rate settings and medium-to-longer Delay settings. That can make for complex, morphing pads.
PEAKS AND Q'S
Our last stop on the FM8 road is the Effects tab. Laid out like a traditional effects rack, the coloring that FM8's various effects can impart at the expense of minimal extra CPU load is incredible. One of the most basic yet not-to-be overlooked is the Peak EQ. This can very simply dial in your patch to fill a frequency void in your song, give a lead or pad some real bite, or — if played in real-time — add a serious sweeping effect to a live set. As with any semiparametric EQ, setting the Q higher will affect a larger frequency span, while lowering it will narrow and focus the equalization. I recommend starting with just one Q point and only using the other if really necessary. Also, don't miss the obvious: Entire effects combinations can be copied from one patch to another. If a certain preset already has the effects you hear in your head, try punching the Copy button (above the effects list), opening your patch-in-progress and clicking on Paste. This is a simple way to quickly color your sound — again, before diving deeper and exploding it to your heart's desire.