NI recently upgraded their FM Synthesizer, and HRC's resident synthesis aficionado, Paul "Noize2u" LaBarre takes a peek at it.
When I was asked to review the update for Native Instruments FM7 to FM8 I definitely jumped at the chance. Having owned several of the hardware synths this is based on, the Yamaha DX7 released in 1983 and later its big brother the TX802. I was more then interested to see how a software version would be implemented.
The original FM7 was a giant step ahead for FM synthesis, and now FM8 has taken it even further. They have added features one could only have dreamed of back in the DX7 days, and greatly improved the usability for even the novice to software synth programs.
This synth does not require the huge array of samples required by some software today, so it is an easy install from CD. Available formats are VSTi, DXi, and RTAS for windows and AU for Macintosh. I must give a huge thank you to Native Instruments for their excellent registration tool. I have griped for years about some of the hoops we had to jump through to register some software. NI has now made it absolutely simple. If your studio PC is online, it is a simple one click process. OK, well maybe 2 click's. But it is painless and greatly appreciated by those with several instruments needing to be tracked. And with the tool they provide, you can keep track of updates and everything right online. Simply click the tool, login and your brought to your page with everything you have registered.
New in FM8
Native Instruments has built upon the great foundation laid by the original FM7, yet kept all the original FM7 feature available. As well the new FM8 is backwards compatible with all the old FM7 patches.
Usability and programing.
Some people can be intimidated by the immense number of options available to tweak a software synth. Well, Native Instruments has helped greatly in that respect by adding something called the Easy page . (screen shot?) Even a complete novice can combine sounds here to create immense new sounds of their own.
The Expert page is of course the entrance to the deepest editing possible in FM8. You have access to all operator's for advanced programing. And they to mean advanced, although it is very well laid out it will take a pretty good understanding of synth programing and function to really get into the depths of FM8. Although I did get some very interesting sounds with simple random grabbing and dragging of several different parameters, so even a novice can head in and create different sounds without much trouble.
Another thing I must applaud Native Instrument's for is their Kore sounds implementation. All new instruments come with a unified NI Sound Browser. This makes finding sounds by genre, or category very easy. You can narrow down a search very well with several choices made in the browser. As well there is still the main sound selection page which simply gives you the name and type of instrument for the patch.
As for the available sounds, FM8 still contains all the original FM7 sounds as well as the FM7 sounds volume 1 and 2 from the Native Instruments sound line. There are about 200 new sounds that come with FM8 which highlight the new capability of the software.
Also there are 12 new rack effects added to the original arsenal from FM7.
All this is Kore ready, so if you are of the mind and love new toys you can add Kore to the bundle and have everything available and and ready to tweak with the Kore module and software.
FM8 has included a new and unique arpeggiator which is based on a sequencer type matrix of up to 32 steps. This allows for some extremely unique arps and is one my favorite additions. It includes many different modes, keyboard split feature allows different arps for different areas of the keyboard. As well there are many templates for those who just want to play.
OK, this is actually my favorite addition to FM8. You will find this feature in the Easy Page, but it not just for the novice. You can use this feature on any patch, but it is most useful for creating your own unique sounds. Simply drag sounds from the browser into the 4 morph squares and then drag the morph handle around the box to combine them into a sound you like. It can actually be set for automation as well, so your sequencer can run the morph between sounds to create a moving sound scape. It as well can be assigned to a midi controller with either joystick or sliders to run the X-Y control.
High Resolution Mode.
This mode will help reduce the aliasing of sounds which was so common in the original FM type synths. It allows a much cleaner more analog type sound.
Included in FM8 are a number of new effects and a rack to construct effect chains which can then be saved as a preset to recall later. The new effects include, Overdrive, Tube Amp, Cabinet modeling, Shelving EQ, Peak EQ, Talk Wah, Phaser, Flanger, Tremelo, Reverb, Psychedelay and Chorus/Delay. The rack allows for creation of some unique device chains. I don't think I have even scratched the surface yet in there.
FM8 at work
The main interface of the FM8 is laid out for easy use and navigation. The main control bar runs across the top and keeps track of the essential parameters of FM8. along the left side is the Navigator panel which allows access to all these areas of FM8.
Browser Window, of course for navigating the patches for sounds and FX.
Attributes Window, this is the deeper version of the sound browser page, allowing you to refine or filter your search by genre, type and a few other attributes.
Master Window, which allows access to all the global parameters of FM8 as well as midi controller assignments.
Effects Window, which acts as the effects rack. Simply click an effect on the left and its controller page pops up in the main window. You can combine several effects at once for different uses. Your also able to save a custom set up as a user preset to recall later. All the modules have their own controls and can be automated as well. The effects range from the standard fair to the Psychedelay which can take your new sounds over the top.
Arpeggiator Window. This brings up a window that looks like an old school step sequencer. I have to say this is a great addition and has a lot of tricks you wont find on almost all your standard arp plugins.
Easy/Morph Window. This is a place for the novice, as well as the practiced programmer. With a few simple tools you can attain some very out of this world sounds. And using automation with the Morph Square you can really create some other worldly textures.
Expert Window. This is the heart of the beast of FM8. From here you have access to every single parameter available. 6 standard operator's plus 2 more specialty operator's that can be combined in just about any way you see fit. Here is were you can take FM synthesis much farther then it was originally designed to go. Each operator has its own set of controls. There is an FM matrix window with which you can assign where exactly each operator will go. Want to feed an operator back into itself, you can do it here and then feed that out to the other operators if desired. The controls can be used in simple form with the provided interface and you can go deeper with actually drawing out the controls in the envelope window. And this brings us to the control aspect of things. The Modulation Matrix window will allow you to simply drag in a control parameter to which ever operator or operator's you like. Nicely done there, not having to dig deep int multiple windows for simple things. And lastly there are the Keyscaling, Microtuning windows as well as a pitch window which also can access the portmento function. You will also find a handy scope view which I found great to not only hear but see exactly what you are creating. The special operator's I described are the X operator which will add noise and wave shaping to the signal. and operator Z which offers an analogue type multimode filter that includes a nice filter envelope.
There is also an added bonus with the FM8 synth that comes in handy for those with limited plugins for effects. You can use the FM8 as an effects plugin in your recording application. There are several presets found in the main menu, but also a pretty good number of templates which are accessible right in the FX page itself. You can also save your own creations as a template which can come in handy even using them as part of your synth patches.
In the manual
I must also applaud NI for writing a small but useful manual which is easy to get through. In there you will also find a perfect tutorial to get you started creating sounds in a matter of only a few minutes. Everything is straight forward and easy to understand. But there is also enough to get an expert going quickly as well.
My first thoughts of an FM softsynth were of the hours it took to program the DX7 to get anything good out of it. And thinking this synth is not for the faint of heart or those that have a fear of needing to look deep into an application for something new. I was definitely wrong!
After playing with FM8 for a couple weeks giving it a rather thorough going over. And digging in ever so slightly into the deeper functionality I have come to really like this synth. Having been exposed to the original FM synth the DX7 and newer versions I have to say that FM8 is true to the ideal of what FM synthesis is and much more. I managed to find or create a sound to suite just about any purpose with FM8. For some it is hard to give away the knobs and sliders of the hardware, but Native Instruments have definitely won me over with this softsynth version of one of my favorite hardware synths. And I have to admit, with a good controller at your fingertips you would really be hard pressed to want to go back to the original hardware version. With a little bit of work on my part this synth can sound just as good or better then the original. And as with all the Native Instruments synths, there are more then enough presets to get you going and then some.
For the sounds that come from this synth I expected a very heavy CPU use out of it. Definitely not true there, even after turning on the High Resolution mode and adding up several instances of the synth it really didn't tax the system too much at all.
Plenty of sounds to get going with, and the addition of the Easy/Morph function will allow even the newest user to get creating in no time.
The quickest and easiest registration I have seen yet.
Although the browser architecture is amazing, saving a created file seems to want to default to my Project 5 content folder no matter which application I run FM8 in. A little annoying, but can definitely be worked around. Other then that small problem, I cannot find much to fault NI on with this app.
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