Sound Design Using NI FM8

What's that? FM8 is one of the synths in Native Instruments' Komplete you've not played with yet?!? Drop what you're doing and follow this step-by-step sound design tut with the FM8 by David Earl...  

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.

Download the example file that accompanies this MPVHub article here.


Step 1 - Setting up the Matrix

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:

Setting up the matrix


Don’t play the keyboard yet! It’s going to be kind of loud with all of those operators on.


Step 2 - Setting the Lower Partials

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:

  • Operator A - Ratio = 1
  • Operator B - Ratio = 2.58
  • Operator C - Ratio = 2.59

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.

Lower partials


Now let’s add the top end.


Step 3 - Setting the Upper Partials

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:

  • Operator D - Ratio = 7
  • Operator E - Ratio = 10.025
  • Operator F - Ratio = 26.75

Now Control-click the other operators, and listen to how these partials are adding up. 

Upper partials

Ah, now we can hear some sci-fi goodness coming on!


Step 4 - Shaping the Sound

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’

Shaping the sound


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.

ADSR envelope


Step 5 - Adding FX

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.


Step 6 - Experiment with FM

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 : 

  • B -> 36 to C and 4 to D
  • D -> 51 to E
  • E -> Feedback 12 into itself, 14 to F
  • F -> Feedback 16 into itself

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.

With added harmonics


Step 7 - Routing to the filter

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:

Routing to the filter


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.

David writes music for all media including advertising, branding, movies, television, and games. He works for such clients as Sega, LucasArts, Microsoft Game Studios, Landor and Associates, Beyond Pix, Rich Pageant, and Nextel. He also teaches at an Apple Certified training facility in San Francisco called Pyramind and has long bee... Read More

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