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Necrox

FM Synthesis (FM8)

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I've been learning FM8 and understand modulator/carrier relationships, ratios/offset, feedback and the like but I'm having a hard time actually making workable sounds. I'm not looking for monster dubstep basses; I just want alien-sounding stuff I could use for ambience/effects. Using FM feels very layered and confusing.

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It's indeed pretty confusing. I'd advise you to look at existing presets and play with them a bit to see how they really work. On my experience it seems there's a lot of trial and error involved in the synthesis process... Like when figuring out how much feedback to send from one source to another, you just have to experiment!

You can also watch some YouTube tutorials that make patches. They can help you get ideas for your FM synthesis. I found this one where they make a pad for example:

 

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The ratios/multipliers follow the overtone series, which is a great point of reference. So if 1 is the base tone, then 2 is an octave, and on 3 you add a fifth, at 4 it's an octave again, etc. And then the intervals just gradually get smaller as the values get higher.

Modulator/carrier ratios corresponding to octaves, fifths, or fourths are going to have a neutral and clear character to the timbre, because we call those intervals perfect for a reason. If you have ratios that are much smaller, like 8:9 or something, then the sound will have a more dissonant character to it.

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With FM you have to be more precise in your editing. Listen to when the sound becomes too harsh, and dial it back until you get that sweet spot. Try learning how to literally fine-turn your knobs (except tuning, which generally works well on fifth and octave pitch differences between modulator/carrier), and that may help. lazygecko also has some good advice.

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use the presets. you don't have to learn FM synthesis for the alien bloops - many normal synths have enough routing and/or fx on board to do very strange sounds.

FM is not for everyone. i chickened out long ago. once you get better at subtractive synthesis and effects use, you will realise how much advanced synthesis you need for the sounds you like.

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