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My first FM Synth (Hardware) Keyboard Synthesizers
Old 25th May 2018
  #1
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My first FM Synth (Hardware)

Hello friends,

I'm looking to add a dedicated FM synth to my lineup.

DX7 and SY77 seem amazing but also kind of intimidating, and also older. I'm not looking for more headaches at this time.I love the sounds of the FS1R but that's way beyond my ability level for now. Not really feeling the Elektron stuff as much as others, so not looking at Digitone too seriously. The Montage is cool, just not 3 grand cool.


For me, I think it's a choice between the Reface DX, Korg Volca FM, and Yamaha TX81Z. I think they all sound good, although from what I heard they are kind of distinct from each other despite all of them being FM instruments.

I've played the Reface CS and CP, both awesome, but wasn't able to try out the DX. Haven't tried the Korg or Yamaha yet either.

Given the prices of any of these, it's not a life and death choice for me but just wondering what might be the best HW FM synth to start with as a novice. I will listen to other suggestions as well.

Thank you for thoughts.

Old 25th May 2018
  #2
I’ve been using my TQ5 lately and really enjoying it. You can get alot of variety from changing the limited set of parameters and the grungy effects are pretty cool too. Very simple to use.
Old 25th May 2018
  #3
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FM is hard to manage. There is so much crap in between the sweet spots. I couldn't find a TX81z when I was looking for it and decided to build a PreenFM2 instead. It's pretty good in my opinion, it can make all the clangy basses and arpeggios, even some futurous pads you would expect + it has a digital filter/bit reduction algorithm. Plus it's a very compact instrument.

Last edited by coffee; 25th May 2018 at 05:06 PM..
Old 25th May 2018
  #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Hollowman9 View Post
I’ve been using my TQ5 lately and really enjoying it. You can get alot of variety from changing the limited set of parameters and the grungy effects are pretty cool too. Very simple to use.
Simple for YOU. That thing looks like an answering machine and I'd probably rage toss it in 15 minutes.

Thanks for the suggestion though.
Old 25th May 2018
  #5
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I think it’s a question of what types of FM sounds excite you most, and what balance of programming depth vs hands-on experience you want.

If you really want pads or piano type sounds, the Volca FM only has 3 voices so that might make it difficult to play chords with long release times. Reface DX too possibly since IIRC it has 4 voices.

That said the 81z, while it has 8 voices, has the least hands-on interface of the bunch, although I’ve heard good things about iPad editors.

If you’re looking more for basses and FX, the Reface gets good reviews for balancing real-time control with the ability to program everything from the front panel. The Volca is actually even more complex, I think, since it can load DX programs, but you don’t have access to as much depth from the unit alone I believe.
Old 25th May 2018
  #6
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I own a DX11 and TX81z. I'd go DX11 (it's the keyboard version of a TX81z and way easier to program) or a used Reface DX now that they sell near $200.
Old 25th May 2018
  #7
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if you don't mind little gizmos:
think you might find the VolcaFM a fun and accessible
way to discover FM. drawbacks are 3 note polyphony
and no velocity in - but on the upside you've got a good
sounding compact FM module with 32 memory locations,
and a 16 pattern sequencer to mess around with.
having 2 wouldn't be a bad idea.

after years of rack units that have to be set up, keyboard,
cables, it's a little gadget you just switch on and dive into.
editing is easier than button pushing on the originals, and
really, FM is fairly limited, the volca might give you what
you want from it. then try a SY77 for the next step.
the tx81z only has 32 user memories and a stereo out.
supposed to do 8 parts, but polyphony is too limited to
do more than mono on those. tx802 has all the outs and
is a great unit, but it's just a tone generator, doesn't have
the immediacy of the volca.

(we need a cz volca next, yep..)
Old 25th May 2018
  #8
Quote:
Originally Posted by Shadowkast View Post
Simple for YOU. That thing looks like an answering machine and I'd probably rage toss it in 15 minutes.

Thanks for the suggestion though.

Well at the very least it’s not any harder to use than an answering machine.
Old 25th May 2018
  #9
Yamaha DX200 is 6 op with a lot of features and fun to edit with the knobs. Much pricier now than they used to be..

I also like the cheap old Yamaha PSS keyboards with the little slider synth section. Super fun but too noisy and toyish for most probably.
Old 25th May 2018
  #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by krylenko View Post
If you really want pads or piano type sounds, the Volca FM only has 3 voices so that might make it difficult to play chords with long release times. Reface DX too possibly since IIRC it has 4 voices.
The Reface DX has 8 voices.
Old 25th May 2018
  #11
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I own the original DX7, TX802, SY77 and Montage. I've also used the TG77 and TX81Z quite a bit.

In order of ease of use I'd rate them:
1. Montage
2. DX7
3. TX802
4. SY77 / TG77
5. TX81Z

The Montage is the best: the parameters for each operator are split between two pages, frequency/form and levels, and jumping between them or switching operators is a single touch on the screen or a button press.

The original DX7 is nothing like as horrible to use as it's sometimes made out to be. The 32 program buttons double up for selecting parameters, so while some of them cycle round multiple values (e.g. the four levels for an envelope) there are no nested menus. But, if you're going to program it from the panel, you have to be able to keep track of what all the operators are doing.

Nested menus are what you get with the SY77/TG77. To give you some idea of how complex they are Yamaha gave each page a 3-digit 'shortcut' number that you could enter to jump directly to that page (assuming you could remember its shortcut ) so you weren't forever going up and down the hierarchy...

A software editor would make life much easier while you learn your way round FM because you'd be able to see what all the operators were doing simultaneously.
Old 25th May 2018
  #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Shadowkast View Post
Simple for YOU. That thing looks like an answering machine and I'd probably rage toss it in 15 minutes.

Thanks for the suggestion though.
Looks can be deceiving. The YS/EOS TQ series is the easiest yamaha FM to program intuitively. You don't get full access to each operator EG from the front panel, you need an editor for that, but they have more good presets to start from and you can do alot by tweaking what's available. With a memory card, you get 200 user patches and 100 factory presets. :D

Korg 707 and DS8 are similar, but the yamaha's come with more storage, better presets and efx (none on the 707 and delay only ond the ds8).

Of the choices you listed, I'd pick the reface. Tx81z are good, but rack mount and not as convenient. The YS/EOS/TQ series are like the tx81z without portamento but with a pitch eg, cleaner sound and efx.

The V50 is a good 4 op workstation.
Old 25th May 2018
  #13
Gear Maniac
 

A thing to bear in mind with the Digitone is that every parameter is "p-lockable" and each sequence in a pattern is polymetric.

This means that it's "simplified" FM engine does things that the more complicated FM synths cannot. The Montage has comparable modulation possibilities, but it also costs five times as much.
Old 25th May 2018
  #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by krylenko View Post
I think it’s a question of what types of FM sounds excite you most, and what balance of programming depth vs hands-on experience you want.…
The Volca is actually even more complex, I think, since it can load DX programs, but you don’t have access to as much depth from the unit alone I believe.
You actually have access to a ton of parameters right on the Volca FM, but it’s just such a mixed blessing. There are a few with dedicated controls, but then a ton of per-operator and global/LFO parameters that involve a bunch of menu diving with one slider for values, a knob for parameter select, and buttons for operator select.

And of course the “menu” is on a tiny 7-segment LED. So when you’re learning where the parameters are, it’s super fun and immediate. Then you realize there are a million little weird abbreviations for them, which you’ll never remember unless you are constantly programming the thing. But it sounds terrific and can make some beautiful sounds.

I was really hoping it’d be successful enough to inspire Korg to stick the same engine with twice the polyphony into the Minilogue form factor and give it a few more dedicated knobs and a nice readable display. Maybe one day! I think they could charge $400–500 for that!
Old 25th May 2018
  #15
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Perhaps, if you’re going to get an FM synth, then learn FM synthesis. Get a SY77 and a good PC editor. Follow the SY programming guide online, and then fly.

Every other option is something you might grow out of quite quickly.
Old 25th May 2018
  #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by yonatron View Post
You actually have access to a ton of parameters right on the Volca FM, but it’s just such a mixed blessing. There are a few with dedicated controls, but then a ton of per-operator and global/LFO parameters that involve a bunch of menu diving with one slider for values, a knob for parameter select, and buttons for operator select.
!
I've owned a lot of FM over the years and I would argue that the Volca FM is great if you dont have any interest in learning FM, as you can select presets and twiddle the knobs to cover a lot of territory. However, it's a real bitch to program without an editor(even moreso that any old school DX keyboard).

I think you best bet is to either get software, or get one of the classic DX synths and work your way through John Chowning's FM book.
Old 25th May 2018
  #17
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Digitone is phenomenal and doing things the Tx81Z cannot do. If you’re wanting to use it as a keyboard player’s module I would avoid it, but if you are wanting to make sequenced music the Digitone is the best option out there.
Old 25th May 2018
  #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Coleman Young View Post
A thing to bear in mind with the Digitone is that every parameter is "p-lockable" and each sequence in a pattern is polymetric.

This means that it's "simplified" FM engine does things that the more complicated FM synths cannot. The Montage has comparable modulation possibilities, but it also costs five times as much.
The only simplifications that the Digitone has to other 4op is fixed detune of modulators to a single knob, and one less envelope for the operators (modulators get two, carriers all use one envelope.) Add in two LFOs that can double as FM sources with “envelopes” (the fade in LFO feature with an FM rate LFO is basically a complete operator, if a simple AD envelope), a filter, and the crossfade, the Digitone has advanced FM options that make it capable of replicating DX7 patches.

Add in the fact it’s far easier to program than any other FM synth and it’s a perfect set of features/limitations. A SY77 or Max/MSP are for when someone would want to get experimental.
Old 25th May 2018
  #19
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FM has been my favorite form.of synthesis since the 1980s

I have a bunch of FM Synths in my collection, my advice for newbees is to start off with with one of classic Yamaha boards that can be found so cheaply these days

Then use a graphical editor for them. If you have an iPad I can't say enough good things about an app called Patchbase. I use it on my TX7, DX100, FB-01, and Volca FM in FM land

Having everything on a screen that you can interact with is amazing because you can see what everything and how it all interacts with each other
Old 25th May 2018
  #20
Kja
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My reface dx is and has slowly become the "meat" of all my productions.. I love it honestly as much as I love my prophet 6, from nin style distorted holes of filth to almost perfect Rhodes jazz to transient sonic pads of glass and small sonic booms.. It can do it and do it in style.. Analog fills in the bottom and the top.
Old 25th May 2018
  #21
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I'd have look at the FS1R, a very capable FM synth.
Old 25th May 2018
  #22
Here for the gear
 

+1 for the Reface DX.

I don't like the mini keys. I also don't like using the touchpad to edit the envelopes. But even with my dislikes, it's a good value at $300 or less.

You can use Soundmondo, or Ctrl to load, save or edit patches.

It's battery powered and light. You can make patches while lying in bed or sitting in a chair.

I may get a DX7 down the road just to have "the original", but they are heavy and I have a large midi keyboard I can use with the Reface.
Old 26th May 2018
  #23
Gear Nut
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Coleman Young View Post
A thing to bear in mind with the Digitone is that every parameter is "p-lockable" and each sequence in a pattern is polymetric.
Every clear knob on the Volca FM (besides tempo) can be recorded for its 16 steps as well. When you start applying this to the arpeggiator and divide the 16 steps into 4 low-res bars, you start to tap the power of this little gizmo. Decent 6-op FM synth, but doesn't handle glide/portamento and no conventional velocity. Programming patches is possible and the face provides some nice "cheat knobs" to make it feel more analog, but I believe these don't touch the actual variables, so programming a DX7 patch is still a complete motherbitch with a single slider for values, a knob for variables and buttons to switch between operators+global.

Still, I was able to bang out some new stuff on a tight plane ride, so I like it. Digitakt (even if it's only 4-op) looks like a great option too as Coleman said. DX200 isn't really worth considering at current going rates due to how limited its engine access can be.
Old 26th May 2018
  #24
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I’d personally go Digitone for a dedicated hardware FM, but my second choice would be the PreenFM. Best solution? iPad. FM4.
Old 26th May 2018
  #25
Gear Head
 

While I'm a fan of buttons and knobs on my synths.. I dont know
of a hardware FM synth that I would consider to be easy to program.
Personally I would recommend no matter what you buy, make sure you
can get a software editor for it to visualize the settings. Or just use
Dexed.
Old 26th May 2018
  #26
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by thehighesttree View Post
Every clear knob on the Volca FM (besides tempo) can be recorded for its 16 steps as well. When you start applying this to the arpeggiator and divide the 16 steps into 4 low-res bars, you start to tap the power of this little gizmo. Decent 6-op FM synth, but doesn't handle glide/portamento and no conventional velocity. Programming patches is possible and the face provides some nice "cheat knobs" to make it feel more analog, but I believe these don't touch the actual variables, so programming a DX7 patch is still a complete motherbitch with a single slider for values, a knob for variables and buttons to switch between operators+global.

Still, I was able to bang out some new stuff on a tight plane ride, so I like it. Digitakt (even if it's only 4-op) looks like a great option too as Coleman said. DX200 isn't really worth considering at current going rates due to how limited its engine access can be.
Another thing to remember is that the Volca FM actually has a pretty decent midi inplementation for a $159 synth. You can do a lot of "plock" tweaking with a sequencer that spits out midi CC's.

Download the VFM midi chart and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.

I'd never use as an FM learning device or a deep programming synth, but I still think it's a really cool synth(and possibly the best retail budget Swiss army knife synth out there ATM).
Old 26th May 2018
  #27
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Dx7II FD. It was my first FM (bought it for $600 used) and I still have it after 28 years. It's that good.

Old 26th May 2018
  #28
Wait this thread isn’t done yet! We still haven’t listed every FM synth ever made
Old 26th May 2018
  #29
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If you are looking for easy, get the Reface. It was designed that way. If you are looking for classic but not basic, go DX7II. If you are looking for compact and interesting, go DX-11.
Old 26th May 2018
  #30
Gear Maniac
 

I'd say the DX-5 and TX816 are very powerful FM synths you'll want to look into. I started out on a TX816 and learned a lot.
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