Curious to know what FM synthesis is but never got around to figuring it out? No fret. In this post, I’ll explain in simple terms what exactly is FM synthesis, and how it is used in electronic music. All while keeping it from being too technical and complicated.
By the end of this post, expect that you should have a basic yet thorough understanding of FM synthesis, which will aid you in using it in your electronic music.
Read the other articles on audio synthesis:
Introduction to FM Synthesis – What is FM Synthesis?
Synthesis is at the heart of modern music production and modern music making. Learning how to use a synthesizer, whether hardware (like these great mini synths) or VSTi plugin, is an important part of your music production education. That said, it’s not difficult to learn, once you know the fundamentals of what you’re working with…
FM Synthesis Basics
FM Synthesis is short of Frequency Modulation Synthesis. It is a type of synthesis that produces sounds electrically or digitally by altering, (ie. “modulating”) the original generated sound wave produced by an oscillator. As an instrument, they can either be hardware or VSTi plugin variants. In either case, they work based on the same principle I just mentioned.
Yes, I know that that definition may practically mean nothing to you because of all that jargon I just dropped. One of the reasons why I created this site was to make things simple and easy to understand. Even if you’re advanced, it’s good to take some time to understand and explain things in stupid simple ways. We have, after all, mammalian brains…
How FM Synthesizers Work
To know how an FM synthesizer works, we need to review the basics of a synthesizer. For now, just know that a synthesizer is a device that produces sounds by creating sound waves. If the sound wave is between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, you will be able to perceive these sounds as “pitches”. The part of the synthesizer that creates these frequencies is called a frequency oscillator.
To illustrate, do you know middle C on the piano? On your DAW piano roll, it would be labelled as “C4.” That note, or pitch, produces an oscillation of 262 Hz because the string vibrates 262 times per second.
In even more words, let’s say that there is a spoon next you. You see this spoon and decided to take it up and suddenly you’re endowed with the superhuman power of speed. With that power, start banging that magic spoon on the table 262 times per second for a few seconds. The result of that superhuman high-speed banging would be that same exact note on the piano. Amazing, isn’t it? Let’s keep going…
A synthesizer, then, is just a device that bangs a spoon on a table so many times per second you get a pitch. Each bang, boom, or bust, is an oscillation.
Now, with that in mind, knowing that we can create a pitch by banging things at a super fast rate, with each bang being a “cycle”, these cycles of up “up-down-up-down” can be visualized into what we call “soundwaves.”
Knowing what a soundwave is, we can find ways of having some fun with that wave, and maybe, even accomplish some other sounds from that single sound wave or frequency we’ve created with our magic spoon banging.
How? you may ask. Well, let’s find out…
Frequency Modulation – Or, Let’s Modulate that Pitch
Imagine that you were able to slow down that superfast banging just a little and then speed it up again. That would be called “modulation“. In other words, you’ve modulated the rate at which you were banging your spoon against the table from fast to slow. The modulator, then, is a separate oscillator that changes the frequency in pitch created by the first oscillator.
Continuing with the magic spoon banging analogy. Imagine that you were first banging it at 262 times per second, then 130 times per second (which is the C an octave below the middle C, or C3). Let say you repeat that fast-slow rate over time, you’re now “modulation your frequency” a few times every few seconds.
Now, with that image in mind, let’s say, in another feat of superhuman awesomeness, you were able to modulate the rate of change at which you could bang it out fast-slow-fast-slow. Imagine that you could go fast-slow-fast-slow 20 times for the second. Guess what?
Still with me?
You’ve just created another frequency that is within the range of human hearing.
And you’ve done that by just taken your original frequency sound wave (tap-tap-tap) and used it to make another frequency sound wave by altering (modulating) the how fast and slow you tap-tap-tapped that table per second.
That is what FM synthesis is. It takes your original sound wave, modulates it over time at such a rapid rate that you have created another pitch.
This final pitch, note, or sound that you’ve created is an entirely new frequency from just a combination of the two frequencies we’ve initially created: the original being the rate of spoon banging, and the second frequency is the rate that we slowed and sped up our spoon banging.
See this example video of what I’m talking about. Our FM synthesizer starts out with a basic tone, then modulates the pitch of that tone high and low so fast we ended up with another sound. Play the video.
If you’re curious about the software used, it is the Thor synthesizer which comes standard in Propellerhead’s Reason.
Properties of FM synthesis – Frequencies and More Frequencies!
So now you know the very basics of how an FM synthesizer works. Now, time for a little more technical jargon to make you sound educated at your mom’s next dinner party…
The original frequency is called a “carrier frequency.” This was the sound created by banging your spoon so fast you ended up with the humanly perceivable note middle C. This sound can be originated using any other sound, as long as it is repeated over and over again over time at a super fast rate to create your first note which shall “carry” the frequency’s modulation.
There are different kinds of carrier frequencies. There are sine waves, square waves, triangle waves, and sawtooth waves. Each of these waves has their own kind of sound to them. Sine waves produce the purest and cleanest sound of them all. The other waves are buzzier in sound. Knowing the sounds of each helps you to determine what kind of sounds you’re looking for when sound designing.
Think of it this way. A cello is closer to having a sawtooth wave because the string is constantly being pulled and snapped back by the bow. This pulling and snapping back at a high rate looks like the form of a sawtooth wave, which produces a sounds similar in timbre to a bowed instrument.
The sound of a reed instrument, like a clarinet, is closer to a square wave, because the reed in a reed instrument goes up and down pretty evenly.
And a sine wave is like a human voice singing “Ooo“, because the vocal chords flap smoothly over time. This can be visualized as the wave shaped as a sine wave.
A triangle wave shape is like a combination of a square and sine, in other words, the combination of a human voice and a clarinet or sax.
The second frequency oscillator is what controls the pitch (high to low) of the carrier frequencies I just mentioned. This frequency is called the “modulator frequency.”
The modulator tells the synthesizer to make that carrier frequency dip and rise in tone, and to do it so fast that it creates an entirely new frequency, resulting what are called “harmonic sidebands.”
Harmonic Sideband Frequencies
When you start modulating the pitch of a sound wave over and over at rapid rates, you’ll begin to notice that at least one new sound splits off from the original carrier wave. These harmonic overtones are what we call sidebands. They can be higher or lower than the original carrier sound wave itself, and can also be either harmonic or inharmonic in sound.
The harmonic overtones and the complexity of them are what makes an FM synthesizer unique. You can get a wide variety of sounds by a combination of how many harmonic sidebands you create, as well as whether these sideband overtones are harmonic or inharmonic.
To illustrate, take a look at this video. As you hear the frequency modulate to new pitches, you’ll hear new frequencies breaking off into upper and lower sounds (harmonic sidebands), which are visualized using green lines on the spectrum.
You can control a number of harmonic sidebands as well as their amplitude (simply, their intensity of amplification) by changing the ratio of the carrier frequency to modulator frequency.
If the ratio is even, like 2:1 or 4:1, you end up with harmonic sidebands.
If the ration is uneven, like 1.314:1, you end up with an inharmonic sideband.
Why is this good to know? Keep reading…
What are FM Synths good for? Sonic Textures : )
Because you can create different sounds using at least two oscillators, and manipulate their harmonics via the ratio between these two oscillators (carrier frequency and modulator frequency), an FM synthesizer will be capable of producing a wide range of complex sounds that are tonally rich in timbre.
When you add to that the fact that you can actually modulate not just one carrier wave, but multiple carrier frequency waves at any given time, you can imagine just sound complex and rich the sounds that you could create.
So back to our magic spoon banging example, you and a friend could be banging spoons on a table at the same rate (two oscillators working together), and then one of you decides to change how fast and slow they bang it (that’s the modulation oscillator). Just as you would come up with complex rhythms, at a super fast rate, you’d come up with complex sounds.
Hence, FM synthesizers are often go-to choices for sounds like percussions, bells, metallic sounds, shocks, zaps, sizzles, crashes, noises, drones, you name it. This would otherwise be difficult or close to impossible to accomplish with other types of synthesizers, like subtractive synthesizers, for instance.
Quick sidenote: A subtractive synthesizer works sort of the other way around. It first starts with a wave with plenty of harmonic sidebands, then subtracts frequencies to achieve a particular desired sound. Since the end result is a more focused or definite sound, you’d need a tremendous amount of equipment and synthesis power to create the complexity offered in FM synthesis. Read more about subtractive synthesis here.
Great Examples of Virtual FM Synthesizers (Softsynths)
Included in a Digital Audio Workstation
- Sytrus by FL-Studio
- Operator by Ableton Live
- Thor Polysonic Synthesizer by Propellerhead Reason
- Mai Tai by PreSonus Studio One
As a Third-party Plugin
- FM8 by Native Instruments
- Massive by Native Instruments
- Dune 2 by Synapse Audio
- Nemesis by Tone2
FM Synthesis – Conclusion
And that’s what FM synthesis is.
In this post, you’ve hopefully learned by now the basics of how an FM synthesizer works.
From now on, when using an FM synthesizer, you should be able to make more educated decisions on the sort of sounds you want to use, and where to get them from, as well as how to use your synthesizer for sound designing your electronic music masterpieces.
You learned that FM synthesis requires at least two oscillators, one to generate the carrier frequency, the other to modulate the frequency variation of that carrier frequency over time.
You learned that, in doing this, you create rich harmonic textures, which makes FM synthesis the go-to choice for complex sounds like percussions, metallic, sound, bells, and so on.
I hope you enjoyed and found this information useful. Remember, if you want to learn more about music production and electronic music, including the best online tutorials on synthesizers of all kinds, check out my guide on online music courses.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to respond. Also, remember to share this post with your friends, or with someone you think will find this information useful.