Online Review: FM7, by Native Instruments (Mac and Windows).
    Addendum: FM7 Sounds CD Volume 1




Sounds say more than a thousand words. Online preview of FM 7 sounds and patches:

 
Remember that fabulous Yamaha DX 7 synthesizer, a true revolution in it's time? Sharp, crystal clear synthesis, aggressive attack. All thanks to the legendary FM synthesis. I never owned one, being a Roland freak at that time. But I loved the sounds anyway.

Basically you had two camps in those days: the Yamaha guys, who loved the aggressive character of this synthesizer, and the softies who loved the wonderful mellow string sounds Roland could produce. I belonged to the second group and stayed a Roland freak ever since. Even today, I have a lot of Roland hardware in my studio, so the old love never died.

But: if I want to bring back the FM synthesis in my studio, I do no longer have to go out and chase for expensive vintage hardware. I can choose the FM7 by Native Instruments, that brings back to life those good old vintage FM Synthesis. And even does more. It adds distortion and filter operators, a full bag of modulation capabilities, effects section, audio input. It is FM synthesis, NI style as the supplier describes it on their website.
FM7 is usable as a stand alone synthesizer, and
as plug in instrument in VST hosting software. After we listened to the samples NI had put on their website (www.nativeinstruments.de), the vintage feelings came up and we invited NI to send FM7 for an online review. NI sent us the Windows version, but FM7 now is also available for the Mac platform. So all we write goes for both platforms.

The first nice thing of FM7 is that you do not have to recreate the vintage sound modules. FM7 reads all programs of the vintage FM synthesizers it reproduces. To be exact: FM7 can simulate, DX7, DX7-II, DX11, TX81Z, DX21, DX27, DX100 end the TX802. Wow, many years of Yamaha's finest in just one software wrappings. Nice.

The classic synthesizers were somewhat limited in what they could do. Not so FM7: it combines the old FM synthesis with modern modulation and distortion techniques, mostly not available at the time the DX7 and its successors were born. This combination enables you to create totally new sounds. FM synthesis used to be very strong in creating sound effects. Lots of movies and commercials were "sounded" with FM synthesis, coming out of Yamaha hardware. Now you can revive that and adding your personal sound touch as well. This opens interesting possibilities.

OK, let's fire up FM7 and have a look.


* The main screen of FM7.

FM7 opens in the main screen, where you have mainly three blocks of information. The upper part gives you the general info of the patch you are using, just like the front panel of a hardware synthesizer. The lower part is the keyboard, where you can click the keys with your mouse to get the sound. Plus the modulation wheels at the left. The main middle part shows you all patches you can choose from, arrange in four banks. FM7 comes with a library of 256 presets, top quality sounding, each of them. This is enough to get you started. But of course, after having played these presets for a while, you will want to create your own stuff. This is where the easy graphical editing gets in. The screenshots below show you some of the editing screens.


* The Preferences screen.


* Easy Edit.


* The Master and Effect master settings.


* One of the Operator-screens.


* The Pitch screen.

What I like a lot about the products NI makes, is the good sense for details. Those of you who ever had a real DX7 under their fingers know what the green push buttons felt like. They were made of a kind of rubber, that gave way downward a bit when you pressed them. A soft click so to speak. When in FM7 you click a green button, you will see a similar effect as with the original hardware buttons: the bend. Very nice. A good eye for detail.

The green buttons form the operator selector strip. The buttons give you access to all functions built in the FM7. Following, we give you some screenshots of the programming section of FM7.


* Operators.

FM7 has 6 identical Waveform Operators labeled A to F which are the basis of FM synthesis. Each Operator is sensitive to velocity for highly expressive control over the sound. The Operators are controlled with 32-bit accuracy and their frequencies can be set with 6 digit precision. Each of the Operators A-F can have a different digital Waveform. The instrument contains 32 different Waveforms, including Square and Sawtooth, giving each operator a huge sonic potential even before it is Frequency Modulated by the others. It takes some time to learn, but after a couple of hours you control this section like you never did before, though some basic knowledge about FM synthesis could be useful.


* FM Matrix
 
In the FM Matrix, the signal flow between the Operators -the so called FM-Algorithm- is displayed and edited. Each Operator is represented by a box and the wires also show the connections. The output is the bottom line of the graphic. Each Operator can have a different stereo position to give a lively, spacious sound. Specially this last feature is very strong, as it delivers (when programmed right) a broad image. Very good.


* Envelope and Keyscale editing.

Each operator has its own Envelope and Keyscale. The high-resolution display can be switched to show the Envelope or the FM Matrix. The Envelopes are exceedingly powerful, with up to 32 stages, an adjustable curvature in each stage, and sustain looping. The Envelopes can also be synchronized to the song tempo. This is one of the sections where you lay down the basic "color" of your new sound. Editing is easy: just pick a handle with the mouse and drag. Presto. No typing of annoying figures. That's the way we musicians like to work: simple and the intuitive way.

I could go on for a couple of screenshots or so, there are is enough to show. But that would become annoying, right? I think the message is clear: FM7 has tons of parameters to create just the sound you need, be it an original vintage FM synthesis, or a more modern modulation based upon that good old vintage sound. It is all possible with FM7.

One more feature (of a lot) I liked very much: the Unison mode. In this mode, you can assign more than one sound to one key. So, pressing one key gives you any combination of sounds you want. Using Unison, you can build awesome fat sounds, that give you goose pimples. Very good.

This review is too short to walk through all features and settings. So to finish this review, we look at the software asking: of what use could this software be in our studio? Well: if you are working a lot with older material, or want to create vintage atmosphere in a production, FM7 is the one you will need. If you do a lot of productions for DJ's, FM7 is of good use too. FM synthesis gives exactly that atmosphere most DJ's and Dance Masters like very much. Maybe your studio is more specialized in effects for video production or cartoons. In these areas, FM7 will do a good job too. But if you're in the more orchestral or classical audio business, FM7 might be less useful. Might be: we didn't try a production in this area.

Conclusion.

So. Looking at the overall performance, the nice combination of vintage FM synthesis and more modern modulation gear, I think NI made a masterpiece of software. In this respect, NI deserves a high ranking. Very well done. We rank software not only to it's quality and ease of use, but also to its usability in the digital studio environment, because that is what DAW's (Digital Audio Workstations) are all about. In this respect, FM7 might be very useful in some studio's, but maybe is not in others. It certainly is software of high standard, but at the same time not applicable to all studio environments. Let me put it this way: if you run a studio using midi, FM7 will be worth a 9 to you. If you run a studio environment, where midi and VST instruments are of non importance what so ever, FM7 will be less useful and would get a lower rating. We stick to the 9, being a combined midi and digital audio environment. FM7 makes it possible for me to go back in time and play the Yamaha I refused to buy in those years, but who's sound I learned to love over the years later. Tnx guys at NI for this nice vintage opportunity ;-).

More detailed product info can be found at the website of Native Instruments.

Update to FM7 v1.02: http://www.nativeinstruments.de/index.php?updatesfm7_us

Addendum: FM7 Sounds CD Volume 1.


NI came up with an interesting enhancement for the FM7: the FM7 Sounds CD Volume 1. With this CD you get a total of 256 new FM7 presets, divided over two sound bank files. These files are installed in a new folder within the FM7 program folder, from where the new sounds easily can be loaded from within the program. The new sound banks contain two main groups with two sub groups each: "Pads & Loops", and "Drums & Synths". All four sub groups bring you the best FM7 can produce, programmed by sound designers Peter Krischker, Eric Young, Steffen Mueller and Thomas Krarup. The groups contain stuff like electronic drums, tempo synchronisable loops, exotic pads, synths and more.

We browsed through all 256 patches and found most of them very nice and useful, but not all. The drums stuff is very good usable in dance and the like, and further on in productions where the retro sounds of Yamaha DX7 generated drums from back in the 80's are needed. In an average production you probably will grab to other drum sounds. But when you have a use for the Volume 1 drums sounds, you have a nice bunch of stuff at hand.

The broad layers of sounds are really beautiful and are to our opinion -among other things- very good for film effects or broad layers behind projections, animations and the like. Very nice. Listen to the sample nr. 2 on the NI examples page (see link below), and you'll get what I mean.

We did a short production with some of the 256 patches, not edited, just as they come on the CD. Just to give you an idea.


FM7 Sounds Volume 1 small trialproduction. (mp3, 1.2 Mb)

Conclusion.

When you're in love with the DX7 sounds period, and you already own FM7, see that you get this CD asap. It contains enough stuff to give large extra value to your FM7 program. And of course, all stuff is editable, as described in the review above. Good stuff: this CD gets a well 9.

More detailed product info can be found at the website of Native Instruments.
NI gives you some examples on the website (upper right corner of the page):
http://www.nativeinstruments.de/index.php?fm7sounds1_us


All reviews in AudioMac.net are written by Peter J. Bloemendaal. All rights reserved.

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Review: 26.02.2002
Addendum: 06-08-2002.