Oldies but Goodies – FM8 by Native Instruments
Does Native Instruments’ powerful FM8 stand the test of time? We take a look at a classic emulation of a very popular synthesizer from the early 1980s.
by Rob Mitchell, Sept. 2017
The DX7 by Yamaha was a very popular 16-voice digital synthesizer that was originally released back in 1983. It might not have been the easiest to program, but the sounds it made were unlike many others at that time. It used FM (frequency modulation) synthesis to create its sounds. Its FM is a system of sine wave “operators” that can generate new sounds by interacting with each other. The operators can be either a modulator or a carrier, and they are aligned in various configurations that form the basis for the sound that is created. The 32 algorithms for the operators gave it a wide range of audio possibilities, along with a velocity-sensitive keyboard that also included aftertouch.
Now that you have some historical background on the original hardware synthesizer, I will move on to Native Instruments’ software synthesizer called FM8. I thought it would be a perfect candidate for our Oldies but Goodies column, seeing as it is a classic synth plugin that has been around for quite some time. It was originally released as FM7 way back in 2002. FM8 was released in 2007 with many new and improved features. It includes a powerful matrix for the operators, unison, sound morphing, an arpeggiator, twelve effects, and 960 presets. You can also import patches from the famous hardware synth. This is a complex synth with a wealth of options, so it is next to impossible to cover everything within a regular review. I will however try to cover the more important features. With that out of the way, let’s check it out.
The requirements for installing FM8 are easily satisfied. For the PC, you’ll need Windows 7 or higher (32 or 64-bit), Core 2 Duo CPU (or higher), and four gigabytes of RAM. On the Mac, you will need OS X 10.10 or higher (64-bit only), Core 2 Duo CPU (or higher), and four gigabytes of RAM. It does require an internet connection to download and activate it, but it can be used offline from then on.
Once you have it loaded, you will probably want to hear some of the many presets included with FM8. You can get to most everything you need by using the buttons along the left side of the display. After you select the Browser, you can switch between two different views by clicking the “Sounds” button. It will then show you the different directories of where the various presets are located. If you click the Sounds button once again, then it switches to the “Instruments” view. This display is divided up into columns, with the banks in the first column, and then Type, Sub-type, and Mode in the following columns. What you can do is pick a bank, such as FM8 Factory, then select a type (Synth Pad for instance). If you think you’d like another type of definition for looking up presets, you could select (for instance) a Sub-Type by the name of “Airy Pad”. All of these selections can narrow down your search and help you find what you want in a speedy fashion. You can of course skip over all of these, and just select the presets from the bank that you selected over on the far-right of the browser display. If you click on the “Attributes” button on the left, you will see all the attributes for each preset as you browse your way through them. These can be saved with your own presets, and it is a good idea to use them. They help to keep everything organized, allowing you to get the right sound in no time.
Operating in the Matrix
At the heart of FM8’s sound are the operators. While the original DX7 had six operators and 32 algorithms, with FM8 you have six operators to work with, and there are many more potential algorithms (via the FM Matrix). There are also two additional operators which are “special case” types that were not in the original synthesizer. Another advantage FM8 has is that its operators are not limited to sine waves like the DX7, as you can choose from any of the 32 waveform types that are included.
I won’t get into much detail about how FM synthesis works because it can get quite complex, but here’s a very basic overview. If you are using a simple two operator algorithm (one modulator and a carrier), it is enough to get you going and generate some decent sounds. The modulator does just that, as it “modulates” the carrier with its own signal, and it changes the harmonics that are output from the carrier. This harmonic change depends on the level and frequency of the modulator. There is much more to it than this of course, but I just wanted to give you a basic idea of what is happening behind the scenes. Also, feedback can be set up where an operator modulates itself. As you build up more complex configurations with the operators, you can end up with some very complex and rich sounding timbres.
If time is of the essence, there are over 60 algorithms in a dropdown menu to get you started. Then again, you can choose to not even modulate the operators and just have any of them go straight to the output.
Clicking on the “Expert” button over on the left brings you to a detailed configuration page for the selected operator. You can also switch to the other operators by clicking the A to Z buttons in the Matrix display. This Expert type of display is where you can set up the main settings for each operator: waveform selection, frequency ratio, retrigger/free-running, amplitude envelope, waveform inversion, key scaling and much more. I wanted to mention a few things about the Frequency Ratio. It can be set to the same frequency as the fundamental of the note you are playing (1.00), or any other combination you can think of. Basically 2.00 is the second harmonic of the note that’s played, 3.00 is the third, and so on.
The two extra operators (X and Z) work differently than the six main operators. If you want to add some noise or process your sound with some wave shaping, then the X operator is for you. FM8 also includes filtering, and it’s tucked away in the Z operator. You’re able to adjust its two filters with cutoff, resonance, and blend between low-pass, band-pass, or high-pass modes. These filters can be configured in parallel or series. Having the filters is really an added bonus, as the original DX7 didn’t have anything like that.
The smaller “Ops” button (below the Expert button) gives you an overall view for every operator at once. It lets you see important information without switching back and forth between the Expert views of the individual operators. Just the basics are here: Frequency Ratio, Offset, Waveform selection, Invert/Key sync/Pitch Env on/off buttons, and Velocity-Amp envelope amount.
Modulation Matrix, Envelopes and Pitch
Clicking on the “MOD” button brings you to the modulation matrix. From here, you can set up various mod sources and targets. You can use two different controllers as sources, pitch bend, mod wheel, aftertouch, and several other sources are here, as well as two LFOs. These LFOs have several varied waveforms from which to choose (the same choices as the operators). The waveforms can also be flipped using the “Invert” button. Rate and Delay controls are here to adjust the speed of the LFO and the amount of delay before the effect of the LFO kicks in. The Key/Velocity Scale controls adjust how much the notes you play and/or the level of velocity will affect the speed of the LFO. For example, if you play higher notes on the keyboard the LFO rate can go up, or if you hit the keys with more force.
As I mentioned earlier, there is an amplitude envelope for each operator. These can be quite complex if needed. You’re able to see them on one screen (after clicking the “Env” button), and then switch between them for editing. The envelopes can also be linked together, so if you make a change on one, it can affect another in the same way. Adjusting the envelopes shape is accomplished by dragging nodes around on the graphical interface. You can add additional nodes by right-clicking on the envelope. If you click in the window for the envelope and drag the mouse, it will zoom in or out. The mode can be switched from SLD (SLiDe) to FIX. SLD means that the envelope will slide over to compensate to your edit (dragging a node to the left/right), and FIX means that the overall envelope time will not change. Some handy numerical data is also displayed to show time values between the breakpoints. Key-scaling is also on board for every operator, and the envelopes for key-scaling can be configured in much the same way as the amplitude envelopes.
The Pitch window has many controls for pitch bend, overall pitch (semitones and cents), and portamento. An amount of drift can be added using the “Analog” control. The Pitch envelope works in much the same way as the other envelopes, but it just modulates the pitch (i.e. instead of amplitude). Microtuning is available in FM8, and it can easily be adjusted using sliders to adjust the note values. Many varied types of tuning presets can be loaded in, and you can save your own creations as well.
FM8’s built-in arpeggiator lets you configure up to a 32-step pattern. The steps in your sequence can be tied and/or accented, and different modes can be used such as One-Shot, Key Sync, or Hold. It can also be synced to the host. The Repeat mode settings are for when you’d like it to cycle through notes in certain pattern. It can be set to play in this order (where each number is a different note in a chord) 1, 2, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3 or 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, and there are several others to choose from. For instance, “Last” means it will play in an order like this 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3 and “First” is setup this way: 1, 2, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, and so on. There are nine different Repeat modes in total.
The Pattern Editor is where you can set up your sequence. There are six rows you can use in your pattern, and each of these affects the sequence in different ways. They include Note on, Tie, Accent (velocity boost), Note Order, Octave and Transpose. To the left of each of these rows are handy buttons to clear or randomize the settings. The keyboard can also be split so you could use an arp pattern in a lower octave and play a regular lead or chord in one of the upper octaves. Note length and Shuffle settings are available and can easily be adjusted using the dials at the top of the Pattern Editor.
Morphing and Effects
FM8’s Easy page has controls that let you jump-start the manipulation of sounds without having to know exactly where they originate from. If you aren’t into programming your own presets, you may really like this section of the synth. Some of these handy settings include LFO controls, velocity/envelope settings, quick access to effects, and more. Another cool feature that is on this same page is the Morph Square. Existing presets can be dragged on to the square located at the top of the display (one preset for each corner), and then you are able to smoothly morph between those same presets. The envelopes, effects, and modulation settings are not morphed, but most everything else is.
There are many effects within FM8, and it will only load the controls for whichever effect you’ve enabled. This keeps the effects display uncluttered and much less confusing. Why display what you aren’t using? After you’ve enabled one of the twelve effects, then the controls for it will be displayed. If you enable another effect it will appear below the first one you selected, and so on. Some of the effects that are included: Overdrive, Tube Amp, Phaser, Flanger, EQ, and Reverb. Effect templates can be loaded up with certain effects preconfigured, and you can save your own templates as well. The only thing I didn’t find was a way to put the effects in the order I’d like, e.g. EQ after reverb.
FM8 might be an oldie, but it sounds great and it’s definitely worth checking out. Just go ahead and set up a complex array of operators, give it some unison, add a couple of effects and you’re in FM heaven. Of course, you can just browse through the 900+ presets and you’ll easily find a selection with which you can work. I appreciate how you’re able to minimize the display by removing the keyboard, or shrink it down even further to show only the bare minimum parts of the display. The only thing I’d like to see added is a way to resize the full display for higher resolution monitors. I just bought a 24″ monitor and FM8 is a little small on it, but I can fortunately still read the menus and other items. One other added bonus is FM8’s Spectrum and Waveform display. These update when you edit your sounds and can help you manage the frequencies and see how the waveform is affected.
FM8 retails for $149 USD and it is part of the Komplete collection from Native Instruments, which retails for $599 USD and includes 44 other products. Native Instruments does have sales now and then, so you may find it for an even better price if you’re patient. You can get additional information and a demo version of FM8 from their website here: