The Best FM Synths for Music Production
Looking for a way to get into FM synthesis? We’ve selected some of the best FM synths that offer both sound design and song-creation tools with built-in sequencers and effects.
From the get-go, FM synthesis was sold somewhat short by the approach used in the legendary Yamaha DX-7 back in 1983. To make matters worse, the DX-7 became famous for its factory patches rather than its synthesis capabilities.
Nevertheless, it became the standard on which many great hardware and software FM synths were based. Over time, more boutique and modular manufacturers entered the market with different design philosophies and features.
What is FM synthesis?
The Digital FM synthesizer was first prototyped by Yamaha in 1973. Its sound creation process uses two main components: a carrier and a modulator. The key concept is that the frequency of the carrier oscillator changes according to the modulator’s amplitude.
FM synthesis uses operators rather than the oscillators we’re familiar with in subtractive synthesis. These operators consist of an oscillator with an envelope controlling its amplitude and can function as carriers or modulators.
The fact that the relationship between the carrier and modulator can be either harmonic or inharmonic really opens up the scope of the sound creation possibilities of FM synthesis. So although it may seem obscure at first, it’s a very versatile form of synthesis.
Choosing the best FM synths
Everyone has different reasons for getting into FM synthesis. Perhaps you want sound design or sequencing capabilities, or maybe you just need some classic DX7 sounds.
We’ve selected a few options that offer a range of possibilities in different areas. From keyboards to modules, there is a variety of ways to approach FM synthesis, so let’s get into it.
The opsix gives you a DX-like sound and approach without too much menu diving. The 6 operators have 5 modes including FM, Ring Mod, Filter, Filter FM, and Wave Folder with a total 32-voice polyphony.
With the mod section, you have three envelopes and three LFOs plus a 32-step polyphonic sequencer and 30 chainable effects. Overall, opsix might be rather pricey as your first FM synth but it provides creative freedom in a fun-to-play instrument.
Twisted Electrons MEGAfm MKII
If the “MEGA” lettering looks familiar, it’s because the MEGAfm MKII uses chips modeled on the ones from the SEGA Megadrive 2 games console. What’s more, these Yamaha YM3438 FM chips are interchangeable.
So you have two slots with which to mix and match FM chips as you please. The MEGAfm uses 4 operators and 8 algorithms to provide up to 12-voice polyphony. In addition, you have 4 voice modes and 3 LFOs plus a sequencer and arpeggiator.
With only 4 operators and 8-voice polyphony, the Digitone might seem somewhat basic compared to other FM synths. However, the polyphonic sequencer provides 4 synth tracks and 4 MIDI tracks and the ability to create whole arrangements live.
You also have features like micro timings and the ability to edit sounds per step, which opens up a lot of possibilities. If you’re goal is to make music rather than simply play around with FM synthesis, this is the option for you.
Kodamo EssenceFM MKII
For those looking to go beyond merely tinkering with FM sounds, the EssenceFM MKII aims to make FM synthesis a fun and intuitive creative process. It’s a 16-part multitimbral synth with 300-voice polyphony, so you can create sounds by stacking them.
The multitouch display with 6 controllers makes it easy to navigate the interface and the extensive synthesis features like 6-stage envelopes and a multimode filter provide great sound design tools. What’s more, you’ve got 8 outputs and you even can load DX7 files.
Bastl Instruments Pizza
For creating FM synthesis patches in your Eurorack rig, the Bastl Instruments Pizza provides a great starting point. Purists may sneer, as this digital osc module combines both additive and subtractive methods rather than traditional FM.
However, one simply can’t argue with the sonic depth or quality possible, or the level of tweakability. So if your goal is simply to add digital FM-style sounds into your arsenal, this is an option worth considering.
Also worth checking out:
- Elektron Model:Cycles
- Korg Volca FM 2
More about FM synths:
- All about FM synths
- More polyphonic synths
- About sound design
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- Korg opsix: Korg
- Twisted Electrons MEGAfm MKII: Twisted Electrons
- Elektron Digitone: Elektron
- Kodamo EssenceFM MKII: Kodamo
- Bastl Instruments Pizza: Bastl Instruments
The DX7 and the MegaFM both use the modulator to vary Phase and opposed to Frequency.. this is probably true of other synths you have listed aswell
The modx 8 fmx engine rules..
If you want to go even cheaper, you could always try the PreenFM.
Some good resources on FM synthesis:
Why not MODX? The best sounding FM available today.
Your opinion or fact?
This is correct
Since FM is 100% digital there is no need to buy pricey hardware other than maybe for more hands on operation. Hardware will not sound any better as is the case sometimes with subtractive Synthesis. The DX 7 was 100% digital. The FM8 by NI is still one of the best instruments to get into FM. With it’s long history, ability to load all vintage Yamaha presets it is also offering a lot of routing and control detail including the macro ease of use that most other FM synths lacked.
I understand your argument but the fact it’s digital in no way negates potential benefits of hardware. The Yamaha chip is as integral to the sound of the MegaFM as the 3340 oscillator chip is to a Prophet.