When it comes to synthesis, whether you’re a sound designer or just looking for a good preset to work into one of your tracks, it seems there are hundreds if not thousands of options out there. Logic Pro X alone comes with 23 software instruments. Native Instruments’ Komplete 12 comes with 13 synths.
Ableton Live Suite ships with an impressive roster of versatile and innovative synth plug ins. There’s a lot to be said for using third party synths for your productions, such as NI Massive, or Reaktor for example, but you can also achieve professional quality results using Ableton’s built in synths. Many people will gloss over the stock plug ins, ditching them in favour of flashy third party options.
Surely if you’ve had to buy it separately it must be better than stock synths right?
A number of Ableton’s synths and plug ins are extremely powerful units. See our recent comparison of Simpler and Sampler for a look into two of these in action!
Mixing Ableton’s trademark simple interface with truly powerful capabilities, Ableton’s stock synths have a lot to offer when you’re composing your own music or creating your own synth patches. Mixing usability with depth of functionality, Ableton ensures that even the most complex sounds can be created with ease with their synths.
So today with Top Music Arts, we are going to explore Operator, Ablton’s powerhouse of an FM synthesiser. Read on to find out everything you need to know about how it works and what it can do!
First of all, let’s take a detour.
What is FM Synthesis?
As previously stated, Operator is an FM Synthesiser. This stands for Frequency Modulation, a form of synthesis that is often dismissed by many as overly complicated and difficult to grasp. While this is certainly true of the theory behind FM synthesis, the actual implementation of it using modern soft synths is a relatively easy concept.
Frequency Modulation is a type of synthesis that produces an overall sound by altering or ‘modulating’ the original generated sound wave, which is produced by an operator (or oscillator)
I wonder where Ableton got their name for this synth from?
As opposed to AM synthesis for example, which stands for Amplitude Modulation, FM synthesis uses a secondary wave to modulate the Frequency of the first -called the carrier- instead of the Amplitude as in AM.
The difference here is that in AM synthesis, the modulation of the Amplitude is heard as a Tremolo effect, whereas the Frequency Modulation is heard as a Vibrato effect.
Quick tip: Remember that, though they’re often confused, Tremolo and Vibrato are subtly different. Vibrato creates a sense of movement by modulation of the pitch of a sound, whereas Tremolo creates a sense of movement by modulation of the volume. So a Tremolo arm on a guitar -for example- should actually be called a Vibrato arm!
With us so far?
AM Synthesis is modulting the volume to create a new sound, whereas FM modulates the pitch. This is where FM Synthesis gets its signature sound, as the modulation of the carrier signal’s pitch can create some unique and fun results. Whether you want to create evolving synthetic textures, rich expressive leads, gritty percussion, rhythmic atmospheres or anything in between, Operator is able to do it.
It’s considerable that you can use it just as easily to create a synth pad as you can to create individual drum sounds from Snares to Kicks! The versatility of Operator is one of its huge selling points.
How Operator works.
Hopefully now you have something of a grasp on what FM synthesis is, so let’s take a closer look at Operator itself.
Operator combines the basic concept of FM with both Additive and Subtractive synthesis. Additive synthesis uses harmonics to add to the sound, and Subtractive synthesis uses filtering to ‘subtract’ from the sound.
Bear in mind at this point, that Operator is only included bundled with Live Suite, if you’re an owner of Lite, Intro or Standard, you’ll have to purchase it separately.
Operator greets you with what many may consider an initially imposing interface. It consists of a display in the middle, and the ‘shell’ on either side of it. The display will change, based on what parameter in the shell you have selected, to give you detailed and relevant information about what you’re tweaking.
The Shell is split into 8 sections, on the left, there are 4 sections for the Oscillators. Labelled A-D and displayed from the bottom up, these give you Toggle Controls, as well as Level, Fine and Coarse.
On the right side of the Shell, you have an LFO, the Filter Section, the Pitch Section and the Global Parameters section.
This means that you have control over the above mentioned parameters for each individual Oscillator, as the display will change to show the information selected for whatever Oscillator you check on the left side of the Shell.
Operator’s oscillators are each capable of outputting its own signal directly, or using its signal to modulate another one of the oscillators. There are eleven preset Algorithms located in the Global Parameters section that determine how the oscillators are connected, and where they output their signal to, so experiment with these to see how the different routing of Oscillators affects your sound.
Usually, FM synthesis uses pure Sine waves, but Operator’s oscillators can use a range of waves, such as Saw, Square and Triangle, as well as Noise and even a User defined wave where you’re able to input via drawing exactly what harmonics of the wave you want to include. Each of these come with a variation of harmonics and 8bit and 4bit options for Sine.
This creates a variety of more interesting sounds when it comes to the Oscillators modulating each other.
You can adjust the frequency of the Oscillators by using the previously mentioned Coarse and Fine controls. The frequency is usually that of the played or inputted note, but some scenarios benefit from setting an oscillator to a fixed frequency using the Fixed control. There is also a function to allow you edit the Oscillator's frequency as a function of the velocity.
Operator’s LFO can almost serve as a fifth Oscillator, running at audio rates and modulating the frequency of other oscillators, and you can toggle it on or off for each of the 4 individual Oscillators, You can also select classic LFO waveforms using sample and hold, as well as noise.
Operator comes with 7 separate envelopes. Each Oscillator has one, as well as additional envelopes for the Filter, Pitch and LFO respectively. All of these feature a looping mode, which due to the power of FM synthesis, allows you to create incredible endless looping sounds.
Loop Mode is triggered in the lower left corner, and if an envelope is in Loop mode it means the sound will be retriggered if it reaches the sustain level of the envelope. The fact that envelopes in Loop Mode can Loop very quickly means that you can create some really unique sounds that aren’t usually achievable with an envelope.
There are also Beat and Sync modes for the envelopes, which are useful for creating percussive sounds.
Operator’s Filter allows you to implement Subtractive Synthesis techniques to the already rich timbres you’ll be creating using the Oscillators. There are the standard filter types included - lowpass, highpass, bandpass, notch and a Morph filter.
There are a variety of Circuit options, emulating various types of famous filters from synths through the ages.
Perhaps Operator’s most daunting looking screen (if the rest isn’t complicated enough for you) is the Global Controls section.
This controls the overall behaviour of Operator, as well as an overview of the modulation routing controls. It features MIDI mapping, Volume and Pan Controls, Velocity, Key, Aftertouch and Pitch Bend as well as a Mod Wheel. All of these parameters are able to be modulated by various sources.
Operator is designed to appeal to both the sound design enthusiast and the inexperienced among us. Don’t let its multitude of controls intimidate you, because there are a lot of results you can get with Operator without having to dive too deep into the rabbit hole.
As with all Ableton’s stock synths, Operator comes with a range of presets, allowing you to experience the various possibilities of the synth without having to create your own sounds from scratch. There is also extensive coverage in the trusty Ableton manual to help you out, as well as a tonne of tutorials online for creating any sound you can think of!
Operator is a versatile and powerful addition to your synth arsenal. It’s got huge potential, and you can create a huge range of sounds. I’ve even known producers who created most (if not all) sounds used in one single track with Operator. You can create booming kick sounds, snappy claps and snares, as well as bass, pad and leads.
It can’t be overstated how useful it is to learn how to use all of Ableton’s built in plug ins, and Operator is one of the standouts. See what you can create by messing around with the various controls, as often experimentation can yield the best results!
Thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts once again, for this overview of Ableton’s Operator. As always, hit us up in the comments below if you have any favourite tricks in Operator, and check out the rest of our site for more great production resources!