FM8 from Native Instruments is quite the powerhouse FM synth. Many people have utilized it for sound design, and used its futuristic synth sounds for science fiction buttons, knobs, and other creative bleeps, bloops, shzoooooms, and the like.
I’d like to first explore using the FM8 as an additive synth for ‘UI’ sounds. User Interface sounds are very common. Think computer terminals, elevator buttons, and the like in a video game. We are going to start off exploring using the FM8 as an additive synthesizer, then move into adding a bit of FM in.
First, we need to open up FM8, and choose File > New Sound to get started. Click on ‘Expert’ in the Navigator section.
The FM Matrix will appear on the right hand side of the screen. We need to activate the operators there. Control-click on operators ‘A’ through ‘F’ to activate the operators.
The matrix is a grid that allows us to adjust the amplitude of each operator, and how that operator is going to influence other operators. For now, we are going to set each operator to go directly to the output of the FM8. This way we can hear all of the operators at once.
To do this, click and hold in the boxes in the grey row second to the bottom. Set the volumes to 100:
Don’t play the keyboard yet! It’s going to be kind of loud with all of those operators on.
Now let’s focus on operators A, B, and C. We are going to enter ‘Ops’ mode in the navigator.
The ‘Ratio’ is shown for all of the operators. We only want to listen to operators A, B, and C... so let’s go back to the matrix and Control-click on the operators to deactivate them.
Now, let’s adjust the Ratio of each operator. Each of these operators is currently generating a sine wave. A sine wave has no harmonics. It is a pure tone. All complex sounds that we hear can be broken down into what are called ‘sinusoidal components’. This means that sine waves are literally the building blocks of all sound.
Adding sine waves together of different frequencies can then theoretically create any sound that we hear in the universe. I think that’s kinda cool.
I’d like to go into this further, but you should look up Joseph Fourier.
So back to our operators. we want to create the lower harmonics of our sci-fi button. Let’s start with:
The first Operator is the fundamental pitch. Operator B and C are calculated as twice the fundamental, plus a little over half. For example, if the pitch we are playing is 440 Hz, then Operator B is 1135.2 Hz. Operator C is very close to the pitch of Operator B, so it is going to create an effect called ‘beading’ or ‘beating’. It is a slight interference pattern between the two operators.
Now let’s add the top end.
Now that the lower, more beefy tones of our sound are properly created, let’s add the upper harmonics.
Control-click on operators A, B, and C To deactivate them. Control-click on operators D, E, and F to activate them.
Now, let’s get some higher, brighter partials in our sound. These sounds are going to offer glassy textures to our sound, and offer clicks or metallic pings to the sound we are creating when we start shaping the envelopes.
Set the following:
Now Control-click the other operators, and listen to how these partials are adding up.
Ah, now we can hear some sci-fi goodness coming on!
Now we are going to shape how the different partials present themselves. We are going to have the topmost partial be a Decay and Release envelope (DR).
Click on ‘Env’ in the Navigator. Select ‘F’ in the operator area between the Matrix and the Navigator. An envelope presents itself. Click the pull-down menu next to the ‘save’ button, and choose ‘DR’
This is going to be the ‘attack’ of our sound. Grab the release node and bring it to the left to create a percussive sound.
Now for envelopes D and E, we are going to use Attack and Decay envelopes (AD). Use the decay node to line the envelope up so that it is not too long. If you click and hold in the background of the grid where the envelope is, pulling left and right will send you forward and back in the timeline. Pushing up and pulling down on the mouse zooms. It can be a bit hard to follow sometimes.
For A, B, and C, create ADSR envelope shapes, and experiment with the nodes until you get a sound you like. Remember: The shorter the attack, the more percussive the button.
Now let’s add a little sauce to our little UI sound. Go to ‘Effects’ in the Navigator. Turn the light on next to ‘Reverb’, and ‘Flanger’. Tweak the reverb to your heart’s content... but the flanger’s dry/wet setting should be no more than 20 or so.
Now let's start applying the influence of these operators to each other’s FM input. Back in ‘Expert’ in the navigator, let’s apply the following in the matrix by clicking and dragging in the appropriate space in the FM Matrix :
Now we have added more harmonics into the sound, making it even more rich and complex. Try lengthening the envelopes now so that we can hear the different partials moving from timbre to timbre.
We can also choose some of the partials to run through a filter (Operator Z), which has its own dedicated envelope. Just be sure to Control-click on operator Z to activate it and send an operator output to it. Here’s an example of a filter routing:
Enjoy playing with this idea for creating UI sounds purely out of synthesis! I would suggest trying out different ratios, and try playing more than one note at a time to hear how the partials stack up!
Discover more about the potential of FM8 here.