Synth review: The Head-Exploding FS1R

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.

17 thoughts on “Synth review: The Head-Exploding FS1R

  1. Supposedly…. “Sync sounds is easy to achieve with Formant operator”

    From the link:
    Algorithm = 1
    Feedback = 5

    OP1 = Formant
    F.Coarse = 66.87
    Freq Scaling = 99
    Transpose -12
    Skirt = 3
    Output Level = 99

    Init Level = 48
    Attack Level = 10
    Attack time = 54
    Decay time = 0

  2. Also, a neat trick I learned for generating PWM sounds on synths that don’t offer variable pulse width is to put two sawtooth waves out of phase with each other and put an LFO on the frequency of one. The difference between two out of phase sawtooth waves becomes square (the ramps cancel out) and the LFO on one makes the pulse with change.

    Now… you just need to figure out how to genearte a sawtooth wave using FM. It can be done!

    Based on Thomas Gruber’s analysis, it seems like you could find a way to use the formant algorithm to spit out a sawtooth wave since it uses a sawtooth internally for generating the formant output:

    “The principle is simple. The sine wave is played, and amplitude-modulated by the window function. The window function looks like a sawtooth wave, except that it is reset to the beginning in regular time intervals. That is, the saw is going up, and reset to zero before it reaches its maximum, if the reset frequency is higher than the saw frequency. If the reset frequency is lower, then the sawtooth wave stays at maximum until the next reset. “

  3. Nice. Here’s an mp3 with three flavors of FS1R “sync”, the first type is the settings he specified: fs1r_sync_attempts.mp3

    The pitch envelope normally modulates the operator’s pitch. But I didn’t know that when it’s used on a formant, it modulates the formant frequency. (I forgot to mention that a few of the FS1R’s parameters are idiosyncratic; this is one example of many.)

    There’s probably some way to generate a sawtooth wave, or at least a wave with an equivalent spectrum. Some combination of feedback, skirt, algorithm and waveform should do it, but I can’t find the magic combination. It’s hard because the waveforms are derived from a sine wave lookup table, and you can’t just run DC offset through a formant window, as far as I can tell.

    My real complaint is that the waves don’t sound bright enough, like the high-end rolls off too quickly. I don’t need a pure sawtooth wave, I just want that high-end punch more than anything.

  4. We need a FS1, not a FS2r. I hate modules, but I love FM sythesis. A keyboard version with more than 4 knobs could be an awesome gear!

  5. @Alberto: That would be amazing! I have limited studio space, I’m actually grateful that the FS1R is a rack module. I love my AN1X too, but that thing takes up most of one wall ;)

  6. Agree w/ Alberto… a keyboard version with controls for every parameter, plus a programmable randomizer and full format sequence control… that would be a serious machine! I don’t think Yamaha would ever go there though. :(

  7. Ya. I’ve been waiting for a DX7III for years now!!!
    Everything the FS1r has but in a board with a big screen and lots of knobs.

  8. excellent posts here on the FS1R. Just purchased one locally last week. Already very impressed with the sound of this instrument. “Secret Weapon” is also how I view the colours and morphing textures. Will be a tricky unit to customized, but well worth the hours and late nights spent tweaking and programming.

    I guess to me ~ these FS1R sounds are ones I originally heard in my mind when the DX-7 first came out. Kindred sounds to Synclavier or other advanced computer music systems from the late ’70s or early ’80s. Thinking along the lines of what Barry Truax was doing with granular sounds.

    The DX-7 was obviously a hit, but never quite hit the potential of what FM could do. The FS1R is the logical conclusion of where FM should next go.

    It’s a great blend – FM with Formant. This instrument should have been an optional board that went inside the Yamaha EX-5 or even into the Motif series. That would have changed everything.

    But it’s okay the way it stands – a slim rack module easily added to a small rack of powerful synth engines.

    Everything you read about the FS1R is true. If you are a fan of FM or Formant, this is worth seeking out.

  9. PS

    As far as controllers – sure, a keyboard version with knobs would be nice. So let us make our own. Maybe an interface with Ableton Push would work. Maybe one of the Edirol PCR-series keyboards would work as a controller – loads of assignable knobs there.

    I’ve already stumbled across various FS1R sounds that I now know were used for movies – such as Chronicles of Riddick or other films. Once you hear them you will know what I mean. Great synth.

  10. Hey KJX! Four years after writing this, I still love the FS1R, and continually find new uses for it. Thinking about patches in terms of frequency bands helps. Instead of thinking with waveforms, think about what density/texture you want in each frequency range.

    I made a track called “Deathwish” which uses the FS1R for the snarling bass instrument: … I used formants and the all1/all2 waveforms to target specific frequency ranges and fill them in. Then I was able to play any notes, and it always sounded good!

    It’s still a hard box to use, and requires technical thinking. I throw away 80% of the patches I start. But the remaining 20% are incredible.

  11. Yeah I would love Yamaha to update the FS1R, maybe a 2 octave FS2X with step sequencer and arpegiator, also maybe 4-5 lfo’s, would be great,,with the nice silvery green colour of the motive xs rack,, come on Yamaha, please, please, please. i will send you my left arm all in the post lol!

  12. Amazed by the info on this beast on your page. Good info on the sync sound for the fs1r. I stacked it, detuned it, loved what I heard!

    Wouldn’t mind a FS1R that combines the TG and DX series, including the vector synthesis on the TG33, featuring all the features found therein. Make it an 8 part synth rack in 3U space, a 61 keyboard, and a workstation with 16 part multitimbral.

    I think that digital will make a comeback big time!

    I would like some help on the unvoiced operators, like making use of them. Any thoughts?

  13. For the unvoiced operators, I feel like the old cliché “less is more” holds true… I tend to use between 0-2 unvoiced operators per patch.

    It’s been a while since I worked with the FS1r, but I remember using these tactics:

    • If a frequency range sounds hollow, grainy, or “digital,” add a soft amount of unvoiced noise in that range to make it sound more dense and organic. This may also make it sound “distant,” or “hazy.” Your mileage may vary.
    • For nice percussive attacks, add a momentary burst of unvoiced noise at the beginning of the sound. Try modulating the unvoiced frequency with the freq envelope, this adds life to the sound and is surprisingly awesome.
    • Ultra-secret: unvoiced operators are epic for bass. Use a very narrow bandwidth (0, 1, or 2). Set the frequency to follow the pitch of the key press. Tune it down 12 or 24 semitones. Rumble rumble.

    My other ultra-secret technique is using the highpass filter with resonance, at a very low frequency (50hz or so). This fattens up the low end, and sounds great!

  14. Hey Guys, In order to learn the FS1R in depth I wrote a programming manual for FM which covers the FS1R, advanced waveforms, and formants. The guide also shows you how to duplicate a recorded sound using FM so you can begin constructing a custom sound from a known starting point. Understanding what’s going on under the hood helps you so you can modify a patch and get what you want. FM isn’t obvious, it’s as complex as they come. A little help goes a long way. You can download the programming guide off my web site.

  15. New to the FS1R party but thanks for holding the torch for fans of this amazing machine. I wanted one since it originally came out, all I can say is I wish I had grabbed one sooner. Big thanks to Thor and Zach for making their thoughts and software available.

  16. I have one in perfect condition. Never moved out of the studio and barely used. New battery and manual. Have to ship in the U.S..Price, to be honest I want to purchase an Apple IPad so, $950. $200 less than eBay. I’ve been a musician for over 40 years and use a Kronos, Machine and N.I. Software with Komplets Kontrol keyboard I really know a lot about instruments and was keeping this one as a magical collector instrument. I think only 900 were made. Shipping would be extra. If you live in North Carolina, you could see it, play it and take it home, but for security, I need to know who I am dealing with. I have the manual, ac cord and like I said mint condition!

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