I remember just how blown away I was the first time that I got to use the newly introduced Yamaha DX-7. I was an intern at a NYC recording studio, and like interns everywhere, when there was downtime (and I had no critical tasks such as cleaning the bathroom to attend to) I was using anything and everything in the studio!
What made the FM synthesis based DX-7 seem so cool at the time were the electric piano and the bell/chime patches. Being a synth junkie (even at 16) I knew that there was no way sounds like that were going to be possible with anything analog, short of a full blown Moog system. It wasn’t until a few years later after all of the DX-7’s presets had been terribly overused by Madonna (and other great luminaries) that the charm wore off a little bit.
Over the years there have been other DX series instruments both keyboard and module based that expanded upon the promise of FM nirvana. While I am not sitting with Yamaha’s sales figures in hand, it is my impression that none of the later DX series synths were ever as popular as the DX-7, which was the top selling synthesizer of its time (introduced in 1983).
Which brings us to the present day. Germany’s Native Instruments (who have distinguished themselves with past offerings such as the Prophet-5 virtual instrument software Pro-52 and Hammond organ virtual instrument B-4), has recently introduced the newest member of its Vintage line, FM-7.
FM-7 is a software based emulation of the DX series synthesizers for both Macintosh and Windows computers. Not only does FM-7 emulate the sound of the DX synthesizers, it can actually read (and reproduce) patches that were developed for the DX-7, DX7-II, DX11, TX81Z, DX21, DX27, DX100, TX802, up to and including Yamaha’s newest FM synthesis module, the DX-200. This is a wonderful thing if you sold your Yamaha hardware, but still have patch information stored somewhere.
FM-7 may be utilized as a standalone program as well as a plug-in. Supported interfaces include: VST 2.0, ASIO, MAS, Sound Manager, and FreeMIDI. FM-7 also allows for the insertion of external audio which can function as a modulation source (or be processed by the effects section) by way of VST and MAS interfaces.
FM-7 can display a virtual 5-octave keyboard with pitch-bend and modulation wheels, and by clicking on the virtual keys you can audition sounds without the need to have a controller present. The virtual keys respond to any incoming midi information, and I had a few entertaining moments watching the screen try to keep up with my fingers. The virtual instrument window may be hidden if desired.
Patches are organized into four banks with thirty-two patches each. You get 256 preset patches, plus the original 32 DX-7 presets. Of course that is just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to the magic of the internet, there are literally thousands of DX series sounds that are but a download away. Compatibility with the entire DX library is one of FM-7’s greatest strengths. Some links to DX series sounds are provided at the Native Instruments website. One link leads to a 10,000 plus sound library that is yours for the taking.
The presets that were developed for FM-7 have about as much to do with the typical sounds of the DX-7 as a Razor scooter has to do with a Harley Davidson. The complexity of the sounds that are possible utilizing the power of FM-7’s ultra flexible algorithms are almost startling at times. It’s the kind of thing that makes you stop a moment and say “Is this really FM synthesis?” Many of them have a percolating quality that seems almost reminiscent of the Korg Wavestation. There are several excellent Rhodes/Wurtlitzer/Generic EP patches that are usable right out of the box. Surprisingly, some of the analog simulations (such as the monophonic minimoog-esque sounds) are very realistic, except that they are velocity sensitive (which is alterable, by the way).
One of the biggest weaknesses to the DX-7 (and the later DX variants) was the complexity of editing (not to mention developing new) sounds. Native Instruments has provided a dedicated editing screen that somehow manages to translate the somewhat impentitrable world of FM synthesis into simple controls such as brightness, decay, harmonic content (among others), and analog-like ADSR envelope controls.
Amazingly they work in a predictable manner, giving one the impression of analog synthesis overlaid onto digital synthesis. Very very cool! There are even controls to lower the bit rate down to match (or even go lower than) the original 12-bit operation of the DX-7 to add grain and grittiness to the signal, and a control simply called Analog simulates inaccuracies inherent in analog equipment.
I will not even pretend that I am capable of anything more than bashing around blindly when it comes to FM synthesis, but for those users that are, the algorithm programming and matrix modulation sections are far more flexible and deep than the DX hardware. On the other hand, seeing the operators configuration on-screen is a real boon to understanding what is actually happening to the signal flow.
FM-7 ships with a fairly detailed manual, which includes a primer on (of all things!) FM synthesis. Now is also a good time to note that the manual was written (at least in part) by none other than Craig Anderton. Some parts of the manual do suffer from some translation idiomaticgermanisticwording but on the whole, it is a readable and informative effort.
FM-7’s effects section provides four-tap delay line with optional MIDI synchroniztion of delay time. Nice chorus, vibrato, and echo effects are easily obtainable. Each program contains effect parameters that follow the patch, rather than being set globally.
FM-7’s polyphony is user definable, but maximum polyphony, of course, depends on your CPU. I managed about 10 voices out of my Mac G3/233 MHz machine (544 Meg of memory) which I didn’t feel too badly about considering that Native Instruments recommends the use of at least a 400Hz machine, preferably of the G4 class. I used a Mark of the Unicorn 1296 digital-audio interface in conjunction with my Mac and was very pleased with the quality of the sound eminating from within. I did need to lower the buffer time on the ASIO control panel to eliminate some glitching that occurred. This had the added benefit of lowering the latency of the software, which was not objectionable one the buffer time had been altered.
While the original DX-7 presets that are included sound dated and stale, (which could be an asset depending upon your needs) some of the included presets show that FM synthesis is far from dead. Fans of industrial music, as well as producers who favor cooler and less organic textures will love the vibe of FM-7. Check the Native Instruments for downloadable demos for both Macintosh and Windows. FM-7 is a winner!
NOTE – FM7 has now been updated to FM8!