Yamaha's DX7 might have started the FM synthesis ball rolling in the '80s, but today's software instruments make it look like a toy… and a fiddly toy at that.
Here's our pick of the finest FM synth plugins on the market. For more on FM synthesis, pick up Computer Music 216, which is on sale now.
Native Instruments FM8
The sensational follow-up to the DX7-inspired FM7, FM8 is a powerhouse synth that transcends the limitations of its hardware inspiration with some awesome sound-sculpting features and effects. FM8 is a must for those who want to get the most out of frequency modulation synthesis.
FULL REVIEW: Native Instruments FM8
This semi-modular monster has oscillators with dedicated frequency modulation and phase modulation capabilities, plus innovative fractal distortion features. If you prefer your synths with hardware-style cable routing rather than new-school FM matrices, you’ll enjoy its retro interface, too. Oh, and it sounds phenomenal!
FULL REVIEW: u-he Bazille
Synapse Audio Dune 2
Not only does this insane hybrid synth offer you a choice of VA, wavetable or frequency modulation modes for each oscillator, but it also allows you to assign modes to individual voices! The matrix allows modulation to be applied to individual voices too. A patch-builder’s dream.
FULL REVIEW: Synapse Audio Dune 2
Combining frequency modulation, ring modulation, subtractive and additive synthesis, Sytrus is an almost unfeasibly capable synth. The price it pays for such power, though, is that it isn’t the easiest to get to grips with. Put in the time to learn it, though, and you’ll find Sytrus a truly exceptional instrument.
FIND OUT MORE: Image-Line Sytrus
Looking beyond its less-than-inviting interface, Dexed’s saving grace is that it’s freeware, making it an ideal starter FM synth. If its back-to-basics DX7-style approach is a little on the dry side, you might find Green Oak Software’s splendid FM/subtractive hybrid synth Crystal (greenoak.com) a better cost-free option.
FIND OUT MORE: asb2m10 Dexed
Native Instruments Massive
Massive’s FM-style phase modulation capabilities are one of its best-kept secrets. Assigning the Mod Osc’s Phase mod to an oscillator is actually extremely straightforward, and is an easy way to create some absolutely huge, subwoofer-worrying sounds!
FULL REVIEW: Native Instruments Massive
Image-Line Toxic Biohazard
It’s a whole lot cheaper than Image-Line’s FM flagship Sytrus, but Toxic Biohazard is still a beautiful-sounding instrument that’s relatively easy to program. With its FM matrix, choice of oscillator waveshapes and built-in effects, it’s much like a pared-down version of FM8, and it’s ideal for novices or those on a budget.
FULL REVIEW: Image-Line Toxic Biohazard
This Ableton Live exclusive is a throwback to traditional FM synthesis, eschewing new-school FM matrices for 11 fixed routing algorithms. Operator does offer some concessions to progress, though, in the ability to select a variety of waveforms, or even create your own with a simple additive synthesis engine.
FIND OUT MORE: Ableton Operator
Only available as part of the DCAM: Synth Squad bundle, Cypher is a three-oscillator synth that looks like a standard virtual analogue affair. On closer examination, it’s actually a hybrid FM synth capable of quite filthy sounds. It’s not the most intuitive instrument, though, so keep the manual to hand.
FULL REVIEW: FXpansion DCAM: Synth Squad
Despite featuring an astounding 11 synthesis types, Nemesis is probably the simplest of all the instruments we’ve looked at here. It boils FM down to its bare bones: pick a carrier and a modulator, detune the modulator, set an overall FM level and envelope modulation amount, and you’re done! It’s also got a modulation matrix for a more involved approach.
FULL REVIEW: Tone2 Nemesis