Review of Native Instruments FM7 and FM8
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Review of Native Instruments
FM7 and FM8 Software Synths

True, yet improved FM Synthesis is back

by Rich the Tweakmeister

 

FM synthesis has made a resurgence over the past few years.  This was probably due, at least in part, to the popularity of techno-oriented music.  Those involved in these forms of sequenced music have long known that FM synthesis made great bass and FX sounds.  FM synthesis is at its core a process where sine waves (the most pure, bassy waveform in the sonic universe) are added together to come up with instrument sounds. It was not surprising that a company would try to make a software synth that emulated FM.  What is surprising is how well it would be done.  The FM7 Softsynth by Native Instruments is not only authentic and true to original FM, it surpasses what FM synthesis has been able to achieve dramatically.

 

Note that the FM7 is now replaced by the FM8 (below) which adds to the functionality of the original by adding an arpeggiator, real time morphing, FX and a preset browser.  

 

Pros
  • Unique, easy to learn interface
  • Great sound, Utterly authentic FM
Cons
None that I know of
Order info:
Native Instruments FM8 Software Synth (Macintosh and Windows)

 

Installing the FM7 was no problem As soon as it came up and I went down the 1st bank of patches, my first reaction was "What the?" The sound was warm, deep, steamy, full bodied and analog sounding.  That, as those of you know who worked with Dx7s and TX 81z and the many derivations of those products know, is everything that FM was NOT,  until now.  FM was thin, sterile, cheesy sounding, cold, and though hundreds of programmers tried passionately to get FM to sound analog, or even warm, it was generally a lost cause. Even when Yamaha tacked on an analog-like low pass filter with resonance to later FM synths like the TG77 and SY99, the results were far from "warm" though they were more interesting..  The FM7 can be cold and warm, thanks to the additional processing that is added. 

 

But the FM7 can do astonishingly accurate "old FM" sounds.  One of the supplied banks is the original 32 patch factory sound set of the Dx7, which I also have in my TX7.  Yep. "There's true FM", I said, sounding as awful as Yamaha's original presets ever did (with the exception of E.PIANO1 which is probably the most popular Electric Piano sound ever made).  I had to turn on my TX7 to check.  There was only one difference.  The original has a thin layer of hiss that becomes apparent as soon as you boost it a nudge over unity. The FM7 has no hisses.  One might argue that to be authentic they should have added the hiss that as it is in every DX sound ever made, but nah, that's being pretty picky, even for a purist. :)

So now I have the FM7.    You can, you know, load sysex files from the original DX and TXs right into the FM7 and they sound just like the original synth.  I had to test that to be sure, and it works. The docs say it will load DX7, DX7II and DX200 formats. (In Yamaha module-speak, that's the TX7, TX 802 and the TX 81z.) Am I going to load it up with all the public domain FM sounds?  Heck no, what a waste of a gorgeous sounding synth engine.  The FM7 is capable of not only tight sequencer basses and tinkly bell pianos, but of some incredibly deep and mysterious textures, incredible SpaceScapes, and  outlandish totally warped FX that the original could only do with a lot of extra processing gear like delays, reverbs, and other enhancers. I'll be keeping my TX7 and TG77, but their roles are reduced to, you got it, basses and tinkly bells, mallets and eps. The FM7 is going to be my wildcard for strange noise, space pads, wild evocative FX, and it might see some bass and synth duty too. 
 

Programming the FM7

FM synthesis is not as straightforward as Analog synthesis.  Analog is a subtractive process where you start with a rich sounding waveform and filter out frequencies to make instrument sounds,  FM is a process by which elements of waveforms, called "operators" are added together, some as carriers, others as modulators which shape the sound.  There are no samples in FM synthesis.  You're not going to find an 808 kit here or a good sounding acoustic piano (you can make several bad sounding ones, or better, download some).   It's pure digital electronics at it's heart.  Basically, one programs FM by defining what each of the 6 operators do then you try different structures to see which one you like the best.

First you assign the operator a waveform.  The basic one is the sine wave, but there are 31 more to choose from with varying harmonics.  Then you start tweaking the operators and their relationship to one another. Finally you work on envelopes, velocity response, lfos, effects and real time controllers.   If that sounds hard, well, it used to be in the days of one line 16 character LCDs, and it still is no picnic in the FM7.  The most intuitive editor for FM I've ever used was Emagic's SoundDiver.  There you could see all 6 operators on the screen at once.  The FM7 only lets you see one operator's frequency ratio/envelope at a time, but you can switch back and forth really fast. If there is a drawback to the FM7 interface, that is it. What they do provide, that you don't find anywhere else, is a screen called "easy edit", which provides a more familiar set of parameters similar to an analog style synth, and they provided some incredible matrix screens for operator routing, lfos, and real time controller modulation for those who like to tweak deep.

But people who don't know FM should not shy away.  You can get interesting results just moving sliders around even if you don't understand FM.  And hey, the point of an FM synth is these days is not to come up with the most convincing string section you ever heard now is it?  Its to come up with wild and evocative and cutting edge stuff.  Move some faders, you will find something that tweak's your head.  Don't like all this tweakin' stuff, then OK, use the Randomize feature.  This is one of the pure sonic joys of the FM7.  It's cool, because you don't have to randomize everything.  There are 6 different sections you can adjust in varying percentages.  I find using a range between 10-15% works best.  FM can easily take sound outside the range of hearing. 
 

Nice Touches

You can actually audition the FM7 sounds from your computer keyboard, which acts like a keyboard.  You can use the function keys to switch operators.  There are tons of programmer friendly items, like presets for envelopes, which really get one going defining your operators.  When it's time to put them all together, NI provides us with a very interesting solution with various modulation matrixes. If you ever wanted to explore the deeper reaches of sound synthesis, this is where it happens.  Having graphic representations of what is going on makes all the difference.  For those wanting to get beyond the excellent presets, NI provides excellent docs on FM synthesis and how to program the FM7.  Don't expect a picnic.  This stuff is not simple.  But you probably would not have read this far if you were looking for another simple analog-style soft synth. 
 

Real Time Control

Yep its here.  Pitchbend and Mod of course, aftertouch, breath controller (#2), 2 assignable controllers (any two you want), IN Envelope and LFO 1 and 2.  Really more than you need.  The two assignable controllers go a long way.  This setup works absolutely fantastically with the Korg Kaoss Pad.  It's almost like the Kaoss was tailor made for it as it will control 6 of the FM7's real time controllers simultaneously. 

There's more, like the nice sounding delay effect,  tempo syncing envelopes, microtuning, the noise generator on Operator X, that I could go into but I'll save those for you to explore.  Exploration is the name of the game with this synth.  The FM7 is a great soft synth.  I can't even imagine how NI managed to put together such a package.  But they did and FM synthesis is back with a friendly face.

The FM8

Note that the FM7 is now replaced by the FM8 which adds to the functionality of the original by adding an arpeggiator, real time morphing, FX and a preset browser.  The new features allow the FM7 to go places far beyond the FM7 and the old Yamaha FM synths.  However, the vintage like display of the FM7 was replaced by the colder looking grey on white of the FM8.  Too bad.  But the FM8 gives you much more control and programming ease.  The built in Kore browser allows you to find presets easily and they are all instantly accessible, unlike in the FM7 where you had to load and save banks due to the limited number or slots for presets.  I think it is a valuable upgrade. 

Yours in Tweakland,

Rich the Tweakmeister

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