Elektron’s Fascinating Interview with Father of FM Synthesis John Chowning
Elektron just posted a long, deep, and fascinating interview with John Chowning who originally discovered FM Synthesis. The interview covers a lot of ground including his thoughts on:
- Explaining FM synthesis to a child
- The history of his work at Standford and how they helped productize his research
- Yamaha’s development of the DX7 which took over 8 years with 100s of engineers
- How limitations like constraints in computing power – as in not having the power for real time computing – aided in the discovery in FM
- His time studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger
- His advise for bold sound explorers
- Some interesting math behind all FM
- Some comments on Elektron’s new Digitone
- And other topics and philosophical discussions
I recommend you take some time to read this if you even remotely interested in FM synthesis or music technology. You can read it here.
Do you think the time and environment was crucial to your discovery?
Yes I do. I’ll tell you why: Let’s say the computers I was working with had been powerful enough for me to do my experiments in real time. I’m not at all sure that I would have made the discovery! Because the condition under which I was working, on a time-share machine, a few seconds of sound might take me nearly two hours. So the time it took, perhaps specifically the time between experiments, I had to think. These were discrete times: I would generate a sample of a sound that was 20 Hz, with a modulating frequency of 20 Hz and a deviation of 100 Hz. Then I would wait. Then I would listen. Then I would increase to another. If I’d had continuous control, I think I probably would have missed it.
Elektron Digitone Overview
Digitone was announced this week for NAMM 2018. In a nutshell it’s a 4 operator FM synth plopped into a synth OS framework that is similar to the Analog Four but with the sequencer and hardware design aesthetic and build of a Digitakt. It supports multiple FM algorithms which can be automated per step in the sequencer!
- 4 Synth FM Synth tracks
- 8 voice polyphony including dynamic allocation supporting multitimbral and per step trig patch changes
- Multiple FM algorithms (which can be automated with trig conditions per step)
- 1 × multimode filter per voice
- 1 × base-width filter per voice
- 1 × overdrive per voice
- 2 × assignable LFO per voice
- Trig conditions
- Send & Master FX
- Panoramic Chorus send effect
- Saturator Delay send effect
- Supervoid Reverb send effect
- Overdrive master effect
- Same form factor and build as Digitakt
- Audio in for FX processing
- Will support Overbridge
Pricing and Availability
US Price is $739 and unit is already shipping. Elektron web shop and has already sold out and Sweetwater has them on pre-order.
PDF of Manual Online
@CUCKOOMUSIC awesome 30 minute interview with sound engine designer Simon from Elektron
After seeing Elektron’s Cenk talk about the Digitone in the videos above, it’s clear that Elektron’s goal was to make of FM synthesis more approachable, fun, and more performance and improv friendly.
Chowning’s take on the Digitone from the interview is:
What you’ve done (with the Digitone), from what I can tell, looks like a rich palette of possibilities. There are fine guided decisions that have to be made in FM synthesis, and this idea of letting the FM units be sound generators and then processed in normal ways that synths process sound sources seems perfectly reasonable. It eliminates the part where you have to know anything about the theory of FM.
That’s the idea, making FM real-time, hands-on and musically useful. That, I guess, was your intention when you made the discovery, too! Reading your original description makes me realize the sheer power of the method: what enormous musical potential and power of expression you can have with just eight parameters.
It seems to me that the metaphor for the instrument (Digitone) is to give the user kind of a ball of re-formable plastic that, with the FM, can be pulled and stretched in many different ways. Of all the hundreds of sub-sets of what FM can do, yours seems to be a very useful sub-set! It leaves out many of the sub-sets but lets the user intuitively explore this re-formable, shapeable ball of stuff, then put that through the normal processes of synthesis that we know and love, band-pass filters and low-pass filters and so on.
The Digitone in the smaller Digitakt form factor at a lower price point than the larger boxes seems like it’s right in the sweet spot for many artists – as evidenced by the fact that it’s already sold out on their web site.
I look forward to trying one out some day.
Thanks for reading,
Synthesist, Electronic Musician, Producer