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FM Theory & Applications

By Musicians for Musicians

Article from Sound On Sound, June 1987

The long-awaited book from John Chowning and Dave Bristow comes under close scrutiny; Martin Russ dons his white wig...

Martin Russ swaps his bedtime novel for this new FM book...

Unless you have been away on a different plane of existence for the last year (and if you have I would love a postcard next time!), you must have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the 'Bristow and Chowning FM book'. Your wait is over - it is here at last! Judging by the great number of people asking about this book at last year's British Music Fair, it should prove very popular amongst FM users - of which there are many.

The book's two authors come highly recommended: John Chowning invented FM synthesis; and Dave Bristow is acknowledged as one of the world's finest exponents of FM programming (as well as being a remarkable product demonstrator for Yamaha). I am confident everyone knows about FM's reputation for being impossible to programme, and so this book should be invaluable reading for any aspiring FM programmer or user. If you can't get to grips with Operators yet, and don't know your Algorithms from your elbow, then this is the book for you!

Rather than bore you with quotable quips like "Bristow and Chowning's style is both humorous and informative, with a charming, dry wit...etc," I'll concentrate instead on telling you what you actually get for your money. The answer, of course, is a book! Almost two hundred A5-sized pages in all, with a hard back and full colour dust cover - and very nicely bound too. This is the sort of quality finished book you don't usually buy in these paperback days! (Unexpectedly, although the book is printed and bound in Japan, there are only a few mis-spellings.)

Unlike most books on technical subjects, there are a lot of diagrams - occupying more than half the book, in fact - and I could only find about ten pages with pure text on them! The many diagrams are clear and informative, although the use of colour is very limited, with DX7 turquoise being the only additional colour in most of the diagrams. More importantly, for those of us who haven't looked inside a textbook since leaving school, there is no complicated maths - no integrals or sigma notation at all. The equations that are used are simple, straightforward expositions of the ideas in the text, and any unfamiliar terms are explained when they occur.

"For those of us who haven't looked inside a textbook since leaving school, there is no complicated maths..."

The book gives a very comprehensive description of Frequency Modulation (FM) synthesis. It takes you from simple foundations up to complex examples of real applications in synthesizing instrumental sounds and effects. There are many practical examples for you to try out yourself, using the idea that 'learning by doing' is far better than just reading about it. You are actively encouraged to explore the basic ideas further by yourself, extending upon the principles given.

"Unlike most books on technical subjects, there are a lot of diagrams..."

You can carry out most of the large number of examples on any FM synth, although a DX7 is recommended for some of the more advanced applications. Unlike some books which persist in giving instructions for only one synth, this book does almost the exact opposite - Chowning and Bristow actually go out of their way to help you apply the examples to other FM synths, and they apologise when your synth won't perform an example for some reason (they even tell you what that reason is!). There is a clear bias to Yamaha products (it is, after all, a Yamaha book!), and so the Elka EK44 and Korg DS8 are not mentioned, but you should still be able to apply the principles to any FM synth.

"If you can't get to grips with Operators yet, and don't know your Algorithms from your elbow, then this is the book for you!"

The text is clear, and it explains any technical terms before using them, so there is no danger in getting bogged down in a plethora of jargon. I found absolutely no references like "make sure to maximate the divergent discombobulated widget flanges" or any other obscure techno-speak. Best of all, it isn't written in the 'Let's make a really rad synth sound using two Operators!' style which has been known to infest some much-touted American FM textbooks. Overall, file it under clear, readable and well paced - very important in a book that is hardly bedtime reading.

"There is a clear bias to Yamaha products... but you should still be able to apply the principles to any FM synth."

Who should buy it? Everyone! There should be something of interest to everyone in this book: Yamaha collectors get a Yamaha book; Dave Bristow fans will find two pictures of him (a smile and a serious, meaningful expression); FM-Phobics should find some invaluable help and guidance; and FM-Technos should find the Bessel Function Graphs and Tables useful, along with the Advanced FM section.

Did I understand it? Not a fair question! Instead I showed it to my wife - "What Open University course is this for, dear?" she asked at first, idly flicking through the pages. This soon changed to, "Hey, I can understand this bit!" In fact, I reckon that if I was to let her near my DX7 I could lose it permanently! So have no fear, even our two cats were interested - but don't you go scratching the cover! (Don't new books smell wonderful!)

The book costs a mere £24.95 and is available direct from Yamaha-Kemble UK Ltd, (Contact Details). Members of the X-Series Owner's Club (which used to be the DX Owner's Club) can obtain further discounts on this price - ask about joining when you call.

(I would like to thank Yamaha-Kemble UK and especially Martin Tennant and Sue Wright for their invaluable help and assistance with this review.)

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MIDI Matters

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Studiomaster Series II Mixer

Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
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Sound On Sound - Jun 1987

Review by Martin Russ

Previous article in this issue:

> MIDI Matters

Next article in this issue:

> Studiomaster Series II Mixer...

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