Native Instruments’ FM8 is monster of a synthesiser capable of a vastly broad palette of sounds ranging from brutal Skrillex transformer-type bass to searing pads and leads to late 80s/early 90s rave sounds and beyond. One thing I think it really excels at too, is expressive ambient pads, and that’s what we’re going to have a look at today.

FM8 is based on Yamaha’s DX7, which was released in 1983. Polarising the music production market and arguably changing synthesisers forever, the DX7’s architectures was based on frequency modulation (more on this later) and could create incredibly complex sounds with ease. Renowned as being a sod to program though, many users were confined to its trite classic sounding presets.

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Here’s what the FM8 manual has to say about the DX7:

Boasting aftertouch, velocity sensitivity, a new type of synthesis that was very different from analogue subtractive synthesizers, a new protocol called “MIDI,” and a shockingly low list price, the DX7 was an instant hit and went on to become the best-selling synthesizer of its time.

Ambient overlords Brian Eno and Ulrich Schnuass famously used the DX7 as workhorses in their music, the former on many of his eighties albums. Here’s an extract from a 1987 issue of Keyboard Magazine where Eno himself details four of his DX7 patches:

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Ulrich owns one of the few external DX7 programmers, giving a slightly more sympathetic view to the complex matrix and cross modulation capabilities of the beast.

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Image via GearSlutz.

Luckily FM8 is far easier to manoeuvre. Yes, it’s not a walk in the park to program compared to standard subtractive synthesisers, but it’s capable of producing the same detailed timbre sounds as its forefathers, and going further in the process. So without further ado, let’s start with some background…

Frequency Modulation

The term FM is probably (or at least until not that long ago) a household term which you would have come across through radio (see also AM, or Amplitude Modulation). It’s been around for years to transmit radio signals. As a concept, I struggled with it for years until I had a eureka moment – I was unsure how it different from standard pitch modulation. Let’s first think about and LFO.

LFO stands for Low Frequency Oscillator, and would ordinarily function between about 0.01 Hz and 20 Hz. This range is sub-sonic, sub meaning below and sonic meaning audible. So LFOs are below the human hearing range – if we plugged one into a speaker you might feel some change in air pressure or hear a click, but as an oscillator it’s inaudible. These make them useful for changing other parameters such as filter cutoff or amplitude, or in the case of vibrato: pitch.

Vibrato is a technique employed by singers and many instrumentalists (including guitarists, violinists, trumpet players etc) that slowly fluctuates the pitch of a resting note. The great blues and soul singers such as Ella Fitzgerald were masters at this, a gentle undulating swell of vibrato on certain notes makes phrases sound beautiful.

In a synth this is easy to achieve, we just use an LFO to slightly modulate an oscillator’s pitch. What’s happening, is the pitch (an audible frequency) is being modulated by an LFO (an inaudible frequency). So what happens if we modulate the pitch by another pitch? This is what frequency modulation is – we no longer hear the original pitch being shifted slightly, but we hear a complex set of tones and harmonics, useful for creating bells, weird pads, punchy basses and a whole plethora of sounds.

Today I want to focus on just pad creation, making something that deceptively complex sounding, yet still ethereal and angelic. Here’s what we’re working towards:

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