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by Anders Johanson November 16, 2020 9 min read
Following the world of synthesizers over the last decade or so has been a rollercoaster. You have companies like Dave Smith creating high-end products that look, feel, and sound incredible but would definitely not fit into the budget of most people. You have Behringer cloning classic synthesizers from the 70s and 80s, with seemingly no end to their madness in sight, but also dropping sleek, modern products like the Deepmind. You have Teenage Engineering creating an entire line of pocket-sized synthesizers that can be programmed and sequenced like drum machines, while also creating two of the most innovative products in recent memory - the OP-1 and OP-Z. Then you have companies such as Korg, who, for the longest time, were only on the high-end of the spectrum with their Kronos and Krome workstations, but not a whole lot else to fill out their product line. Their MicroKorg is one of my favorite synths, and it even gave way to a second version that offered some tweaks and variations compared to the original. Then they introduced the Monologue (monosynth), Minilogue (polysynth with mini keys), and Prologue (16-voice synth with full-size keys) line of synthesizers that they released over the last few years. Their most recent release, the Wavestate, put them smack in the $800 range of modern synthesizers, a budget range that hasn’t seen too much action but seems to be picking up steam lately. Consumers weren’t entirely convinced that a product at that price point could sound good while also boasting features that met modern specifications and studio needs, but Behringer’s Deepmind was one of the first truly quality synthesizers to land in that range and check those boxes, and it seemed to have opened up a door for other companies to sneak in and compete.
Korg’s newest release is one that has people pretty excited. The world of frequency modulation (FM) synthesis seems to take a while to comprehend, not just from a consumer standpoint but, seemingly, from a development and manufacturing standpoint as well. One of the last truly great FM synthesizers to hit the market was the Yamaha DX7, and that was in 1983. You can still find DX7s on eBay and Reverb, but they will most likely be in various states of damage and disrepair. FM synthesis sort of made the jump over to the modular world for a while as that form factor combined with the patching and routing world of modular seemed to be a match made in heaven. When Yamaha released their Reface line they included a mini version of the DX7, but it was the “mini” aspect of it that turned a lot of people off and caused that specific product to not catch on quite like Yamaha may have expected it to, especially compared to the other keyboards in the line. Korg dipped their toes in the water with their FM synthesizer in the Volca line of products, and despite this product’s small size it was the approach and sound capabilities that made it one of the more successful products in the Volca series. The success of the Volca FM may have been the nudge Korg needed to commit to producing a full-size FM synthesizer, and their new OpSix is bringing frequency modulation back to the world of keyboards.
Frequency modulation is a concept that has tripped up quite a few people over the years, myself included. The vast majority of synthesizers are what is called amplitude modulation, though AM synthesis is not a term that has caught on, and people probably wouldn’t know what you meant if you said that. The sounds that come out of those synthesizers are built around the ADSR format - attack, decay, sustain, release. Nearly every component is tied to some part of that formula, and by adjusting different parameters and sending them through the amplitude section, you get your synthesizer patch. That was by no means a comprehensive explanation of how those synthesizers function, it’s just to establish some understanding. With FM synthesis the programming and the sound that comes out of the synthesizer is determined by how many operators there are and how you make them interact with each other. With the Korg OpSix, as you may be able to guess, there are six operators and the menu will allow you to mix them and run them in whatever order it displays. The dials and faders on the face of the unit let you dial in exactly how much of each operator is included in the patch you are working on. There is so much more to it than all of that, and it would take many articles to break down the intricacies of frequency modulation, the math behind it, ratios, and everything else that goes into it, but that should get you through.
As familiar as we all are with synthesizers and what they have to offer these days, FM synthesis takes that and flips it on its head. Due to the nature of programming a frequency modulated synthesizer and what all goes into each patch, part of the beauty of one of these machines is the somewhat fleeting nature of your patch. Sure you can save and recall patches, just like any other synthesizer, but a couple of changes to the parameters on a FM synthesizer could drastically change your patch, more than it would on a regular synth. The customizability and the interaction between the operators of a frequency modulation synthesizer make them perfect candidates for sound design and film scoring. Oftentimes the patches that you can create border on non-musical and morph into eerie sounds or noises, and those can be sampled and further processed in post-production to create a variety of sounds that could be useful for a film or television project. Using synthesizers to underscore sound design or the actual score itself is a trend that is becoming more popular in film composing. Hans Zimmer makes use of it a lot, combining traditional orchestral music with modern sound design to develop a more full sound. Cutting through the strings and brass with a synthesizer, or pushing a distorted sub bass track through a beautiful arrangement as a scene quickly devolved from positive and happy to conflict, we’ve heard it a hundred times. That is not to say that just because everyone else is doing it so should you, but having the right tool in your toolkit can get you to that point if your project calls for it, and a FM synthesizer has more flexibility in that department than any other option out there. I have a feeling the Korg OpSix will make its way into the studios of many composers and engineers around the world. Whether you are making use of its functionality to compose for a score or to create crazy sounds, it can do both and do both with ease.
While a lot of synthesizers are able to be split from a mono output to a stereo output, and I would encourage you to do that whenever possible because it is truly a beautiful sound, this is an area where a frequency modulating synthesizer really shines. The way that the effects interplay between the right and left channel can create an incredible soundscape that simply cannot be replicated by other synthesizers. Routing a FM synthesizer to outboard effects, like guitar pedals or rack-mounted studio gear, will really push them into another stage of sound that will make you want to sit on the floor in front of your studio monitors, or with a pair of headphones on, and just listen to the sound bounce around the stereo field. That’s what they make me want to do, but I might just be weird
In a nutshell, deciding to purchase a frequency modulation synthesizer will expand your understanding of sound design whether you are aware of it or not, but mostly it will give you the ability to create sounds that other machines just cannot make. A Dave Smith Prophet or something along those lines might be able to come close, but something that isn’t designed with this functionality in mind just can’t touch what a FM synthesizer can do. With the OpSix’s six operators it gives you a wide array of combinations that can take you down roads you may not have even known existed, and adding those layers to your electronic music, film score, or whatever other application you need it for could really help you to stand out amongst the crowd. .
The Korg OpSix will list at $799 when it releases, putting it on the more affordable end of the scale considering what it is able to do. Even though you can find vintage Yamaha DX7s for a similar price, sometimes left, as I said earlier they are likely to be damaged in some capacity, and the ones that aren’t will be a little more expensive. While the OpSix might not offer much in the hardware department, only coming equipped with MIDI in and out, USB, sustain pedal input, left and right output, and a headphone output - still enough for you to get where you need to go - it more than makes up for in sound capabilities. One can only write so much about a synthesizer as intricate as this before stepping aside and letting videos take the lead, showing off the actual sounds and functions of the instrument. One of YouTube’s premier synthesizer demonstrators, a man by the name of Cuckoo, puts the synthesizer through its paces in a video showing off some of its sound design possibilities. If you’ve never seen Cuckoo before, don’t be deterred by his presentation style or his personality, he is a synthesizer and sound design wizard, and his musical ability is charmingly unique.
Another incredible keyboard and synthesizer demonstrator is Sweetwater’s Daniel Fisher. Daniel is often the go-to presenter before people make a decision on whether to make a purchase on something or move on to something different. His knowledge of the functions of synthesizers and keyboards is unmatched, and he has the musical ability to show off pieces of hardware in such a way that makes them all seem so easy to program and play.
In this third and final video we have another well-known YouTuber, Red Means Recording, with his entry into the OpSix demonstration world. Known in certain circles as Jeremy Blake, Red Means Recording is a YouTube channel that often uploads tutorials and patch walkthroughs to assist people in figuring out how to operate their new synthesizer, often starting the process from the very beginning and working through it in real time. Whenever he does reviews of new hardware he’s usually one of the first places I go to see what it can do in a more practical fashion, rather than dabbling around in quirky sound design or showing off grandiose patches. Red Means Recording will show you how to use your synthesizer in a musical way, no matter what.
You may have gotten to the end of this and decided that the Korg OpSix, or any other FM synthesizer for that matter, just isn’t for you. And you know what? That’s okay. On the other hand, you may have gotten to this point, watched the videos, and decided you absolutely cannot wait to have one in your studio. I have a feeling that with the price point, capabilities, and form factor, many people will fall on the latter end of the scale. The synthesizer is simply too good to pass up, and can either be the star of a project or it can be scattered throughout, making appearances to say hello or holding up the foundation without people even realizing what is happening. With its six operators and menus upon menus of in-depth programming, the OpSix will take some time to figure out and even longer to master, but once you get to that point where you can sit down, tweak a few knobs, and incorporate it into the rest of your workflow with ease then the feeling will be so rewarding. Regardless of whether you’re a musician, a composer, a sound designer, or just someone looking for something new and “out there”, the Korg OpSix should be one of the staples of your studio when it finally hits the open market. It will be interesting to see how other companies respond to this. There are software versions of FM synthesizers but, as anyone knows, they don’t have quite the same sound as hardware instruments. That may matter to some people, and to others it may not, and to whoever is left who won’t care either way it must be nice to be you.
Don’t be surprised when you watch studio tours down the road and start to see these pop up in the workspaces of big-name composers and producers. The Yamaha DX7 is still a household name (if your house makes synthesizer-based music) for a reason. I’m not predicting that the Korg OpSix will hit quite that status 30 or 40 years down the road, but I am saying that its arrival on the scene could mark a new era in hardware synthesizers and we could see more and more FM synths pop up, with the OpSix to point back to as the one who picked up the torch the 1980s left behind and carried it into the modern age. What an iconic picture. Can someone paint that for me?
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