There was a time when FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesis reigned supreme. It was called the 80’s. Classic analog synths were happily sold off for a pittance as musicians sought “that sound” they were hearing blasting on their boom boxes. Everyone was hopping on board from studio icons (Steely Dan being one of my favs) to key gods (Chic Corea comes to mind). In the game of synth thrones, FM was King!
The glory days didn’t last forever though. FM was extremely flexible and could mimic sounds that analog synths just couldn’t capture but it was extremely hard to accomplish. I imagine most synth players were so excited to get their first board only to quickly realize that venturing away from the stock presets meant harsh, brittle, and frankly often awful sounds.
Partially due to the complexity, partially due to new artists moving away from that quintessential 80’s sound (imagine Nirvana or Pearl Jam with a synth solo ala Frankie Goes To Hollywood…ha!) FM pretty much died in the mainstream. There were a few notable attempts at revival from manufacturing titans like Yamaha (i.e. the FS1R) but ultimately they too were being flung off the shelves at low, low prices.
Fast forward to the early 2000s
Electronica started to really break away from it’s caste of Techno, House, Drum and Bass, etc… An explosion of sub genres appeared that rivalled todays growth in Gender Identification.
With that explosion came more opportunities for experimental sound design. With it’s absolutely stellar flexibility, FM began clawing it’s way out of the cold grave of “dated” sound it lied in. My first real run-in was a VST called FM8 by Native Instruments. It was a strange beast and like I mentioned before, straying from presets often meant bleeding of the ears.
Eventually I got my hands on an actual hardware gem; the Yamaha Tx81z.
With an open mind and a fair amount of study I was able to wrap my heard around the basics and start crafting reasonably good sounds. However, the odd nomenclature, the ridiculous amount of menu diving and the capable but often complicated envelopes and algorithms still held me (and most likely many others) back from cooking with FM as much as I’d like.
All that has changed!
When Elektron announced their new Synth the Digitone, they brought to life a long-held dream of sound designers and synth enthusiasts; FM for the masses!
FM Synthesis with a Subtractive Facelift
No offence, but if you cannot grasp the basic tenants of Subtractive Synthesis, sound design is probably not for you. The point is it’s fairly simple. You have 4-5 components that are pretty simple to understand individually and collectively. I’m not knocking it, on the contrary I could happily spend the rest of my life with a few of my “desert island” synths which are subtractive. The point is FM is on a whole other pedestal… until you play with a Digitone.
Elektron has effectively taken the power of FM and merged it with the ease of Subtractive synthesis. Where complicated Envelopes existed, traditional ASDR envelopes now live. Where the propensity of awful, harsh tones lurked, the “fixed ratio” setting keeps you in sonically pleasing territory. Where tons of menu diving was the norm, Elektrons famous page/macro knob workflow squashes “where the hell is that parameter again” syndrome.
This all sounds appealing to most people in the synthesis world but I must admit, I wasn’t too hot originally on the idea of a restricted FM sandbox where a virtual nanny was making sure everything was safe. So despite my borderline “Fanboy” tendencies with Elektron gear, I steered clear (also because it lacked portamento which I can’t live without). Regardless, I was routinely blown away by the demos I was hearing and knew that one day, the insidious call of the “GAS Siren” would finally sing loud enough to tempt my ship into the Digitone cove.
Well that day came when I saw some demos by a well known PR musician for Elektron by the name of “Dataline” and also a lesser known (at least to me) musician; Ivar Tryti. The pads, wonky leads and thumping, metallic drums where just too much so I hunted online for deals and scored a brand new Digitone for $125 off retail…boom!
Then something really great happened. Before the package hit my doorstep Elektron announced an update; firmware 1.21. This included individual track scale, vastly opening up the pattern/sequencing complexity and one more thing; Ratio Offsets!! These essentially allow you to remove the “safety harness” of the fixed-ratio imposed on the oscillators and open up the full frequency range that traditional FM offers. In short, it could be difficult to make complex tones like bells, wood block percussion and others. Now the doors were wide open.
Guidance and Freedom
The end result of this package effectively makes the Elektron Digitone the best and most enjoyable FM synthesizer I’ve ever used (in fact it’s one of my favourite synthesizers of all time). By keeping the guard rails on but also letting you veer outside the lines, the ability to craft good, interesting and ultimately beautiful sounds is not only easy but extremely fun. So much so I ended up selling the Tx81z after trying to use it again. It was just too much work and time to get what I was getting from the Digitone.
To sum up, if you are looking for an FM synthesizer that requires very little knowledge of the complexities of that particular type of synthesis, the Digitone is for you.
If you want a synth with an extremely fun, sophisticated sequencer that offers amazing features like soundlocks, trig conditions and much more, the Digitone is for you.
Lastly, if you want all that from above that also has the fun performance feature of “Control All” (hold down the “MIDI” button and controlling one track’s parameter will effect all tracks) then yes, you guessed it, the Digitone is for you.
Check out these performances I recorded recently to see some of what this beast can do. Specs below