FM Synthesis: How Richard Devine Designs Sounds

Experimental electronic artist and sound designer Richard Devine shares how he creates synth sounds for music and sound design, and takes us through his own presets for Waves Flow Motion FM Synth.

By DJ Pangburn

FM Synthesis: How Richard Devine Designs Sounds

“When I design synth presets, I try to think of that synth as the only tool I'll be building an entire song with.” – Richard Devine

As with other electronic artists who made their starts in the early 1990s, Richard Devine has long straddled the worlds of digital and analog. And like the artists with which his music is associated—Autechre, Aphex Twin and other Warp Records labelmates—Devine made use of whatever synths were cheap and readily available at the time. While this certainly meant Roland synths and drum machines, he was also into FM synthesis in a deep way from the get-go.

Flow Motion FM Synth

Waves Flow Motion FM Synth

Early FM Adopter

“My beginnings with FM synthesis started in the early ‘90s, and it was probably with the Yamaha DX-100, DX-200, TX-802 and TX-81Z—all of which I still own today,” Devine says. “The reason for that was I was able to buy that gear from pawnshops and second-hand stores because it was cheap and readily available. I don’t know anyone who wanted them at the time, but that was my introduction to FM synthesis.”

Devine, who later got a DX-7—Yamaha’s flagship FM synth—was fascinated with how these synths could make cutting bassline and metallic drum sounds.

“When I got the DX-100 it had all these presets in it, like the ‘Lately Bass’ and these iconic sounds I’d been hearing for years on records, and I didn’t know where the artists had gotten the sounds,” he recalls. “It was me putting the pieces together, so I started using FM synthesis this way.”

Devine recalls taking the battery-powered DX-100 to the beach with his parents. It was on this synth, which he bought at 17 years old, that he learned the intricacies of programming FM. Back then, there obviously was no internet for learning FM, so Devine mastered this “mysterious” synth engine by trial and error. It was this lifelong association with FM synthesis that led Devine, a fan of the DX series factory sounds, to design over 100 presets for Waves Audio’s Flow Motion, a hybrid FM-virtual analog synthesizer and sequencer.

Why FM Synthesis?

For Devine, a major attraction to FM synthesis is its flexibility, which is built on sine waves. He often tells people you can do anything with sine waves, whether it be using resynthesis methods to stack 1,000 sine waves or inter-modulating them for more complexity. But when Devine started using FM synths, he quickly realized how he could make harsh metallic sounds and super smooth, glassy sounds, or even really textured sounds; all of it depending on how many operators he was using and how they were laid out.

“I was quickly seeing how versatile it could be in making a wide variety of synth sounds, but also percussion sounds, like kick drums, snares and hi hats,” says Devine. “I continue to use FM synths in my two roles as a music producer and sound designer.”

Sound Design for Google

“As a sound designer for Google and other companies, FM synthesis is what I used to create those sound effects because it cuts through the air more for these UX environments and different user interface sounds,” he adds. “I lean into FM synthesis for those sorts of sounds because they have the cleanest way of articulating pitch and envelope information. For me, it’s the clearest indicator for telling the user that some device or environment is in a specific state, whether it’s sounds for an electric car or virtual reality and video games. And most of my clients agree. When they choose, they seem to choose FM.”

Devine has done a lot of UI sounds for Microsoft Windows, many of which the company wanted to be based on the Gears of War soundtrack, for which he was a contributor. For these sounds, he used FM synths.

“I remember when Waves came up with the Flow Motion synthesizer, I thought it was amazing they were making it,” says Devine. “For those users just getting into FM synthesis, it can be daunting looking at a DX synth. It’s hard to wrap your head around it, and there is a lot of complexity with feedback and operators. With Flow Motion, the interface really simplified a lot of the mystery and made it more fun, which it should be.”

Designing Sounds & Presets

Ultimately, Devine notes that synth enthusiasts want to use tools that make great sounds and music. Whether the synth is hardware or software isn’t all that important. Users just want to have a better understanding and visualization of how the synth engine works and, even better, how they can manipulate it.

“You should be able to get to that point faster now and have an interface, like Flow Motion, that is easy to understand,” says Devine. “And then adding in extra features was cool, like the effects section and the Snapshot Sequencer, which is almost like parameter locking on the Elektron gear. With just a couple of clicks you can get some super complex sounds with visual feedback on how everything is working.”

Devine, who uses Flow Motion both for his solo music and sound design projects, says the creative process for the two overlaps. Sometimes the sounds he creates for sound design projects end up in his solo music projects, and vice versa. With Flow Motion and other FM synths, he just dives in and goes to the sound sources first.

Devine first explores the operators (FM-speak for oscillators) and their ranges as far as tuning. He starts designing the sound of the first operator, then a second, seeing what happens when he sends output modulation into the first, then playing with feedback, pitch ranges and other parameters. And he will play around with operators and oscillators before adding in other features like filters, envelopes, and so on.

“In Flow Motion, I like to see what happens if I play with all four oscillators at once. I also like to set the feedback knobs at different feedback ratios just to hear how quickly things get completely dirty and scrambled up to where it’s completely unrecognizable musically. Basically, what I’m doing is exploring the sound sources, and then I might add in an arpeggiator or note sequencer, then throw an envelope generator onto the signal paths, and then start adding in some LFOs to modulate the other parameters—whether that’s feedback, pitch, or whatever—just to see what happens.”

When Devine fully grasps all parameters, he starts designing sounds. Since he also grew up with modular synthesizers, Devine likes to break the task of sound design down into modular components.

“I absorbed one thing at a time before I began patching out to other modules,” Devine explains of his experience on modular synths. “That’s a very similar approach to how I explore virtual instruments and other hardware synths.”

Devine’s preset design workflow is to think of the synth as the only tool he has to build an entire song. With that mindset, he initially works on musical presets like pads, leads, and bass presets, then moves onto percussion patches.

“Right away, when you start doing that you will see very quickly the strengths and weaknesses of that synth engine,” says Devine. “Can I write a whole two-minute song with this synth? I make an ingredient set, and I might find that it’s great for making kick drums or a nice, clear Rhodes piano-type sound. It’s an exercise I do many times with my other synths.”

“I see what things I can do, saving stuff as I’m creating it,” he adds. “I made a little track with Flow Motion, and I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to make varieties of sounds fairly quickly. Percussion was part of that, and you can tune that easily to the key of your song.”

Making Beats, Ambient Pads and Dynamic Basslines

When programming beats on any FM synthesizer, Devine first looks at the number of oscillators. He then looks at the list of algorithms to find out how many operators the synth has, before seeing how many envelope (ADSR) controls there are for each voice/operator.

Beats

“With programming metallic percussion, I tend to use operators that can be routed in any combination, and I play around with modulating one operator into another and using the feedback levels to create different timbres of noisy modulation,” he explains. “I also experiment with different pitch intensities, and with modulating one operator into another, while at the same time using the ADSR controls to adjust the attack and decay of each sound.”

Devine’s metallic beat-making also involves diving into a synth’s modulation matrix to assign different parameters to velocity, the mod wheel, and so on. If a number of LFOs are available, he will make use of them.

“It's hard to explain this, but this is more or less the approach I take when creating FM based percussion sounds,” says Devine. “I also take this approach to make percussion sounds in Flow Motion using the built-in parameters to create sounds. It’s really about finding the sweet spots and creating an interesting palette of sounds to make a song with.”

For those looking for metallic percussion presets, Devine recommends his DR Crash Percussion preset, as well as DR Snap Snare and DR Zap Tac. And if you want to learn how to create similar sounds, be sure to look at these presets’ settings, and experiment on your own.

In the audio clips below, we used Richard Devine’s DR Snap Snare preset in Flow Motion, as well as Ambient Lo Kick and DR Groovy Hat. These and the other audio clips below will all combine to create a demo track made mostly of Richard’s presets.

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Pads

When designing lush ambient pads and presets on an FM synth, Devine opts for super slow attacks and long decays in the envelope settings. He also likes creating multiple pitched layers of harmonics. For instance, if one oscillator is set to -1 octave, then the second one will be set to +2 octaves. From there, Devine sets a subtle ratio, like x3 to x1/2 on others for a “hint of modulation” between the oscillators. Devine’s PD Afternoon pad, PD Blissful Lights, and Imperial pad feature these approaches to sound design.

“My favorite is mixing sine with triangle waves,” he explains. “I might add a 4th oscillator to the mix to add a bit of white noise as an extra layer of texture. From there I love using tons of reverb and delay, and long decay times here are fun.”

In the two audio clips below, we used Richard’s Blissful Lights pad in Flow Motion to create two ambient melodies. One in a lower octave on Flow Motion, the other in a higher octave to create some ambient counterpoint.

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Basslines

For basslines, Devine prefers using sine waves cross-modulated into each other at ratios of x1/4 to x2 between the first two oscillators. He then adds a third oscillator into the mix, which runs as a pure low bass tone beneath it all.

In the following audio clip, we used Richard’s BS Stark Bass to create a mellow acid techno bassline.

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“This creates a sound that has a modulated top timbre that can cut through a mix really well,” Devine says. “The third oscillator runs as a pure sine tone to give the patch a nice clean bottom end weight.”

Devine’s Stark Bass and Stately Bass presets are good examples of his approach in creating basslines with Flow Motion and FM synths, in general.

In this audio recording, three of Richard Devine’s Flow Motion presets come together to form a slow but groovy ambient techno track.

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The Joys of Presets

In some quarters, presets are frowned upon. But Devine thinks musicians should use whatever sounds are at their disposal, whether they are presets or original patches.

“Whatever it takes to get to the point of creating a piece of music that is emotionally moving and engaging, I think that’s the ultimate goal,” says Devine. “I’ve never shamed anyone for using presets. I’ve used my own presets many times. I will use a $1 toy to a $10,000 compressor, so it doesn’t matter how expensive or cheap the tool is, or how fast or difficult it was for me to get to the point. As long as I get to that point, that is what’s most important to me.”

When Devine is given prototype or beta synths, there are no presets. As a result, he has no idea what it can do apart from the prototype specs.

“I’m working in very difficult and challenging conditions that users would never have to deal with just to make sounds on these instruments,” says Devine. “I’d love to get a synth that was filled with a hundred different sounds and know it can do this, this, this, and this! But I’ve got to figure out what the voice of it can do.”

“I feel presets are a really wonderful thing because they really show users what an instrument is capable of doing,” he adds. “My goal as a sound and preset designer has always been that; to create an inspiration springboard that gives a person an idea. You want to inspire them to make music with that instrument, and you do that with the content you create.”

Want more on FM Synth with Richard Devine? Watch Richard tour through the FM Synth here!.

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