In 1998, the Yamaha Corporation unleashed a product that was convoluted and bizarre like no other: The FS1R Synthesizer.
Like the era-defining DX7, the FS1R is an FM Synthesizer, but it boasts a massive 8 operators per voice, compared to 6 in the DX. And the FS1R sports a new toy, Formant Synthesis, capable of mimicking voices, human and otherwise! Waves and formants can modulate each other in 88 different configurations. Top that off with LFOs, filters, on-board effects… It’s so flexible, and so complicated. So much power.
The FS1R was the last of Yamaha’s FM synthesizers, and that’s no accident. Even by 1998 standards, this thing dwells in a deep abyss of user-unfriendliness. Without a GUI, you must program 1,000+ parameters using 15 tiny buttons on the front panel. Fortunately, K_Take has developed FS1R Editor Software which lets you load/save patches, and twiddle the internals in real time (thanks K_Take!)
The unit sold poorly and was discontinued after 2 short years (long before a proper GUI emerged). I didn’t know the FS1R existed, until Tavvv of the Braindead Monkeys mentioned it might be something my brain would enjoy — Weird vocal effects! Technical crazy-sauce! Aural blasphemy!
Thus, the hunt was on. After two months, I had a single nibble — a unit appeared on eBay, and I became its adoptive parent. (These units are scarce; only two units are listed on eBay at the time of this writing, and they’re not getting any cheaper.) Was it worth it? Good question. If I had to describe this thing in one word, it would be: “Uhnnnhhhhh … !!!”
After three months of use, I’m starting to comprehend this beast. With 8 operators (waves/formants) per voice, you must choose one of 88 algorithms. Here’s a screenshot of a few (in K_Take’s application):
Each operator has a zillion parameters: pitch and amplitude envelopes, a “skirt” (which makes the sound fuzzier), and wave shapes (sine, sawtooth-esque, square-ish, formants) which have another zillion parameters of their own. Also each voice has 8 “unvoiced” operators, which generate pitched noise. These imbue its “speech” with sibilance, and thus, consonants; A zillion more parameters.
Everything I just listed is actually quadrupled, as you control 4 voices per program. And you can use “formant sequences” to make the operators fly around and “talk”, morphing into vowels and phonemes.
Yeah, it’s pretty hectic. This is a saturation point of some sort. This must be what happens when synths fly too close to the sun. Here are some sound samples that demonstrate the madness. If you’re brave, here’s a medley of my FS1R creations spanning 3 months, oldest to newest.
What the hell can you do with this device, then? I tried using the FS1R in a “lead” role for months; carrying the melody, or standing in front of the other instruments, snarling aggressively at the listener. That’s not what the FS1R excels at. It sports an impressive collection of waveforms, but compared to other synths I’ve used, the waves sound soft, and clean. Even with the “skirt” maxed out, the FS1R can’t produce a sawtooth wave, or a square wave, or anything big and phat that resonates your rib cage. FM synthesis can sound harsh on other platforms (the Yamaha TX81Z; the Sega Genesis) but the fidelity of the FS1R is apparently too good. You can’t make this thing scrape, or scream.
This leaves you with a few options — you can use it as a “background” instrument, or as a smooth pad. This is where the FS1R shines. It produces excellent textures that liven up a mix if they’re used ornamentally. The FS1R could become my “secret weapon”, adding that undefinable something to my sound universe. At least, I hope so. FM synthesis is hard to program because you don’t really know what will happen when you twist that knob; little tweaks can send a patch spinning. The FS1R constantly surprises me, and that makes it cool. My best sounds come from building a patch using one algorithm (out of 88), and then clicking the other algorithms, arranging the operators into something that I couldn’t have premeditated.
It has filters and on-board effects, too. Honestly, I’ve barely touched these, I’m still internalizing the other stuff. The filter seems unexciting; it’s transparent and color-less, although it does offer three lowpass slopes (12, 18 and 24 db/octave), which is nice. The effects include several flavors of chorus & reverb, delays, dynamics processors, and two distortions (although they’re soft too, and neuter the sound more than give it teeth).
My wish list for a sequel (the “FS2R”?):
- New modulation types between operators — ring modulation and hard sync. That way, “the kids” can play it in “the clubs”.
- More LFOs. You get 2 per voice, and 1 is reserved for the filter. More are needed!
- Formant sequences should be editable, or better yet, recordable. The manual states that sequences cannot be edited, but of course they can if you’re willing to hack it a bit.
Meanwhile, the FS1R will keep me busy with its steep learning curve. At this point, I have rare moments of clarity where I can plan, and (mostly) construct the sound I want. What will I produce after 3 more months? I have no idea, none at all. We shall see.
P.S. Thomas Gruber explains how the FS1R’s DSP works, and it’s spiffy.