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Synth Sounds of the '80s - FM Synthesis

Synth Sounds of the '80s - FM Synthesis

Take on the digital heart behind the New Wave

Glossy, wooden, crystalline, and metallic, are all badges of honor FM synthesizers wear on their sleeves. From their introduction in the early '80s via Yamaha's wildly successful DX7 keyboard and FM's unreal realization via discovery from Dr. John Chowning, nothing quite ever sounded like a digital FM synthesizer before and since.

In our exploration behind the synth sounds of the '80s, today we go to the silicon-based source powering many of the hits from that era. Remember the bass lines to countless electro-pop hits by Thomas Dolby, Madonna, and a-ha? All FM synths. Who hasn't swooned to pop ballads played on the DX7's "E.PIANO 1" preset patch by Whitney Houston, Chicago, and Elton John? Others like Brian Eno deciphered its byzantine menus to come up with otherworldly tones for us to vibe to.

Countless electro-pop hits can't be wrong -- we want our FM synth!

For those who want an even deeper look into the story, science, and music behind FM synthesis visit the Synth Sounds of the '80s: FM Synthesis on the zZounds Blog!

Check out our tribute to the legendary digital FM synthesizer in this Synth Sounds of the '80s video:


Elektron Digitone Desktop FM Synthesizer

Elektron's Digitone FM synthesizer embraces everything that made the original FM synth such a hit but infuses it with Elektron's own unique workflow that makes building tones and songs far more intuitive. It's the star of our video using 4-operators to create the catching ear worms from the '80s.

From A-Ha's bold use of the classic [BASS 1] bass patch to the infamous [HARMONICA 1] solo on "What's Love Got To Do With It", all of these sounds are possible to create yourself (or import via sysex) within the Digitone FM. Just make sure to add a touch of gated reverb for the full effect!
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Yamaha MODX7 FM Keyboard Synthesizer

We can't talk about FM synthesis without mentioning Yamaha's MODX synthesizer. The MODX7 takes technology that was once on the cutting-edge and adds an even finer edge to it. First they beef up the sonic possibilities with an 8 operator-based FM engine vs 6 on the original DX7. Then they add a whopping 88 algorithms and 128-note polyphony. Finally, all MODX synths combine all these hefty FM updates with the sample-based sound engine found on their flagship Montage workstations and the lively expression of Motion Sequences. We didn't even bring up it's built-in touch screen which we wager many of you DX-die hards have to think is an upgrade from the original DX7's small LCD display.

While a decade ago many suffered through the archaic menu systems of first generation FM synths, Yamaha has written a few wrongs and made FM extra fun again!
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Arturia MicroFreak Hybrid Synthesizer

No other synth out there might take you quite as close to Dr. John Chowning's original discovery than Arturia's MicroFreak. A freak of sonic nature, Arturia's MicroFreak can take the role of various types of digital and analog synthesizers, giving you instant access to engines based on subtractive, additive, and vocal formant synthesis. Would you believe one of those types is FM?

Giving you access to a 2-operator FM synthesizer, just like Dr. Chowning you too can teach yourself the ins and outs of frequency modulation and discover myriad of sounds possible with such a seemingly simple algorithm.
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Korg volca FM Desktop Synthesizer

Do y'all remember how in the '80s cassettes shrunk the size of LPs until you could stuff whole albums inside your Walkman? So does Korg, as their volca FM synthesizer shrinks all the powerful technology found on classic '80s FM synthesizers into a 3-voice tabletop model.

It's all here: 6 operators and 32 algorithms, all just like the original. What's different is that Korg tricked out this pony with their own 16-step sequencer, pattern chain, and motion sequencing controls. Heck, they even managed to stuff in a built-in chorus effect -- a must for those playing an FM-based electric piano. In the end, it's another great way to dive into FM synthesis (or at least download and use all sorts of storied patches via sysex).
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