The Making of The FM Collection

FM Synthesis

Here's a bit of trivia: I contributed nearly half of the presets that originally shipped with Ableton Operator when it was released back in 2005. Being intimately involved with the development of Operator before the first release gave me insights into its character that are often overlooked by designers. Features like looping envelopes, extensive routing options for the mod wheel, and the ability to fix an operator’s frequency at 0.00 Hz give Operator a range that’s unique among FM synths.

Over the years, I’ve also written quite a few FM tutorials for both newcomers and advanced users. For the basics, check out my recent sound design column for Keyboard magazine: Revisiting FM. If you’ve already got a handle on the essentials, my Synclavier Masterclass for Electronic Musician demonstrates what's actually possible with FM.

So, with the success of the first volume of The Analog Collection, it made sense to expand the Symplesound catalog beyond subtractive synthesis and into the realm of Frequency Modulation. With vintage FM synths like Yamaha’s DX7 and TX-81Z becoming a part of the retrowave and deep house movements – and Operator being a part of both Daft Punk and Skrillex’s sound – it seemed like a cool way to introduce producers to alternative forms of synthesis, beyond the current analog renaissance.

Thus, the summer was spent recording the DX7 and TX81Z, which wasn’t a trivial process as FM synths are incredibly dynamic – thanks to their creative use of velocity sensitivity. Skipping many of the “filler” presets from both of those synths, it made sense to focus on the iconic sounds that are immediately recognizable as essential parts of tracks like A-Ha’s “Take On Me” (DX7 Electric Bass) and pretty much every R&B hit Babyface produced (TX81Z Lately Bass). It took quite a bit of time getting the velocity multisamples right for both of those patches – and many of the other instruments in the collection – because without those dynamics, the sampled versions just wouldn’t cut it.

As for Operator, I really wanted to, um, push the envelope ;)

As mentioned above, Operator is deceptively deep and designing complex instruments can often be quite challenging. There are certainly other libraries that have some fantastic presets, to be sure. But if you want to tweak and customize them yourself, you have to know what you’re doing in Operator. So I came up with a system that lets users choose from a range of useful models in each category (bass, pad, lead and pluck). From there, it’s a consistent set of macros for all four sound types, so that users can dial in exactly the sound they’re imagining without actually having to learn all of the subtleties of FM itself. This way, once you get the hang of tweaking the bass instruments, that knowledge can also be applied to the plucks or pads, even if the core FM model is different. Basically, I wanted to use Operator as the basis for an idea of how FM synthesis should be presented, so even new users could feel confident learning it. And if you want to use the instruments as a starting point for becoming an FM ninja, all of the macros' FM functions are explained in detail within each library.

Once the sounds were in place, it was a matter of putting the Symplesound stamp on it – with integrated tutorials for all of the features and an array of royalty-free MIDI loops to use as starting points for either musical tracks or your own customized presets. There’s an emphasis on Push compatibility, too, because the macros make it easy to tweak sounds in meaningful ways on-the-fly (and they’re quite handy for other controllers too).

I know this is starting to sound like “marketing”, but in all honesty, Symplesound – as a company – is my way of contributing to the Ableton universe in a format that turns the DAW itself into an instrument, rather than just exploding an .alp file into your user library and sending you on your way. Speaking about the Analog Collection, Peter Kirn nailed it when he said “This a library tailor-designed so that when you open it, you have access to the brain of the person who captured the instruments as much as the sounds.” I truly want these libraries to be fun and inspirational, while keeping the prices affordable enough to make piracy even more dubious.

So, that’s the story behind these new synths. As for system requirements, the DX7 and TX81Z libraries will work with Live 9.5 standard, but the Operator library requires a copy of Operator itself, which can be purchased a la carte here, and also is a part of the full Live Suite package.

The free loop pack does a good job of showing off the design of the entire collection, as well as the integrated automation on several of the Operator instruments. So check those out if you want a better idea of what's in each library. A lot of work went into this and I'm really hoping you'll get some cool tracks out of the material.