NFM review – new iOS FM synth app with AU support from NS1 developer

Download from iTunes App StoreI reviewed Nikolozi Meladze’s NS1 synth back in February of 2016 as it was released. NS1 was (still is; it’s been regularly updated since launch) a very solid virtual analog synth instrument with some very cool sounds and, while programmable by the user, the control set was not so complex that synth newbies would find it too intimidating.

Of course, the other key element for NS1 which, at the time it was launched, was novel was that it was designed with AU support from the ground up. Indeed, the compact, 2-page, control set was, in part, a reflection of that design decision; KISS so that it ‘worked’ in the compact screen real-estate offered for AU plugins under iOS. And, for my money, Niko got that balance spot on; easy to use but enough sonic features to keep folks interested.

Well, if NS1 gave us ‘virtual analog’, Nike is now also offering ‘virtual FM’. His latest iOS synth is NFM and, while the synth engine is built around a six operator FM design, in overall concept, NFM slots in right beside NS1. It offers a compact, two screen, control set, it’s programmable (but not mind bending), there are some great sounds to be had and, yes, it is designed to be used as an AU plugin….  although a stand-alone version is also provided and that works just fine.

NFM – like NS1, Niko’s new app delivers a compact control set and AU plugin support.

The app requires iOS10.0 or later, is iPad-only, a tiny 17MB download and is currently priced at UK£14.99/US14.99. However, if you don’t own Niko’s other iOS music apps – NS1 and MIDI Sketch (a cool MIDI sequencer for creating new musical ideas) – then you can by all three at a ‘bundle’ price and save a little on the overall deal.

Of course, in the 18 months or so since NS1 was released, we have seen a decent crop of iOS synths either adding AU support or being launched with AU support. NFM therefore enters a somewhat more competitive marketplace….  although, in a massive pool of iOS synth apps, AU synths are perhaps still novel enough for that to be a selling point in its own right.

NFM reception

As the app attempts to emulate an FM style synthesizer there will be no prizes for guessing the sorts of sounds that you can create. Perhaps the hardware synth that best defined the whole FM thing was Yamaha’s DX series; this was the sound of some pop music made in the 1980s. The DX7 was perhaps the classic model but others in the series were also widely used. The basis of the engine was not so far removed from the phase modulation found in Casio’s CZ synths but Yamaha used the term frequency modulation (hence the FM tag) and there are differences in the details involved. I’ll leave the detailed explanation of the differences (such as they are) to a better brain than mine but, while often thought of as quite a challenge to program, the DX series certainly sounded great.

Software based emulations of that FM sound have become fairly common on the desktop and iOS also has a few (for example, FM4, TF7 or CZ for iPad although there are others) but perhaps not so many when it comes to options that currently include AU support.

NFM’s control set is spread across two screens…. the Operators page….

The control set is shown in the various screenshots included here but is spread across two main sub-pages of controls – Operators and FX & Output – each of which are suitably sized to work well even within the confines of a smaller AU windows within your host. You get six stereo operators (think ‘oscillators’ or ‘sound building block’; FM terminology is somewhat different from more conventional analog-style synths) – labeled A to F – in total and the Operators screen is, itself, split into two parts. To the left, you define the FM algorithm and, essentially, this allows you to configure a matrix of how audio is routed through the six oscillators and the contribution (level?) each oscillator contributes to a specific connection.

… and the FX & Output page.

I’m not sure I fully understand what’s happening in this matrix just yet (!) but it is very easy to experiment with. Niko has a manual for NFM that’s due to become available soon so those who like to RTFM (that’s usually me!) rather than just relying on instinct and skill, will soon be able to get their hands on that.

Tapping on one of the operator labels on the left side of the screen then brings up the controls for that operator on the right side of the screen. You get a very nice amplitude envelope with very goor touch-based editing options, pan, self-feedback, pitch plus controls for determining the influence of LFO, velocity, note (key tracking) and time on the amplitude envelope. You can also set the mode of the operator from a pop-up menu with Ratio, Fixed and Noise options. Anyway, as mentioned earlier, there is enough here for things to get interesting without the more novice user feeling to intimidated.

The LFO can be set to operate in a number of different modes.

Flip to the FX & Output screen and things do perhaps look a little busier….  but, in fact, this screen is also subdivided into a number of sub-sections and each of these is actually pretty straightforward. The bulk of these screen is taken up with the LFO settings, the pitch envelope and the delay and flanger effects (this has a nice XY pad for real-time control). You also get a vibrato section and a very effective FM Drive knob. Use this is combination with the separate Distortion control and you can warm things up very nicely….  or go OTT and get some fizz going (although this depends upon what your done tonally in the Operator section.

This screen also includes a master volume knob and the Voices section. You can set the polyphony here and there are both mono and a very nice legato option here. The Glide knob works great when used with these latter two modes.

The only other controls can be found in the Settings menu and, background audio aside, there is not too much going on here. There is no Ableton Link support as far as I can see….  but, frankly, used via AU, I guess the app gets tempo information from the host anyway. The LFO section includes a ‘sync’ button and the delay time is set using musical divisions rather than msec….  so tempo information is presumably being received in some form. The delay effect certainly responded to tempo changes within Cubasis in the expected fashion.

There is not much by way of other settings and, as far as I can see, no options to tweak the MIDI support or a MIDI Learn system.

The bottom line here is that there are plenty of programming options across these various controls but, as with NS1, I think Niko has struck a great balance between editing options and easy of use. I do like the occasional dip into the land of the mega-synth especially when I’m in the mood to just experiment with sound and see what might happen but, when I just want to turn an idea in my head into music, I find a simpler synth engine a much quicker way to get that idea captured. NFM’s design ethic would fit into that kind of role for me pretty well.

In use

The app can operate as a standalone application and – in my own testing anyway – happily received MIDI note and pitch bend data from an external keyboard, although I don’t think there is much you can do by way of configuring the MIDI side of the app through the app itself and nor is there any sign of a MIDI learn system (although feel free to correct me if I’ve missed something here). There is, however, a preset system (located at the top of the screen in the stand-alone mode) and a simple virtual piano keyboard with pitch bend, key size and velocity slider controls. Again, this is all ‘low fuss’.

NFM ships with a decent selection of presets sounds to get you started.

As far as I can see, currently at least – and like NS1 – there is no Audiobus or IAA support included. Of course, Audiobus 3 has AU hosting so there is no real issue there other than it means NFM doesn’t offer support for the MIDI routing options within Audiobus 3. Anyway, the app worked very well as an AU plugin within Audiobus 3, Cubasis and AUM. The AU support seemed very solid so I’d be surprised if other AU hosts proved to be a problem.

NFM behaved very well as an AU plugin… as shown here within Cubasis.

Used within Cubasis and AUM (although it Audiobus), I had easy access to the app’s presets. My only other comment on this front was that it would be really nice if the AU window actually showed the name of the currently selected preset. This is shown on the stand-alone version….  and it is always a useful reminder of the patch you have loaded. This would be particularly helpful in an AU context where you might have several instances of the app and the preset names would be a help when navigating between them. I’m sure this would be a relatively simple addition….  so maybe something Niko might include in an update at some stage.

Multiple AU instances worked a treat… as shown here within AUM.

Technical operation aside, the other obvious area of interest is actually the sound. FM synthesis has, in some quarters, received a bit of a bad rap. That’s perhaps understandable given that some of the early hardware designs (and, indeed, some software designs that then tried to accurately recreate them) could sound a little sterile/digital. However, more sophisticated and enlightened versions of FM have long-since moved passed that. FM is now perfectly capable of ‘warm’ but it can also do aggressive and ‘in your face’ if that’s what you want.

I have to say that working through NFM preset collection left me with the impression that Niko has an engine design here that is capable of much (very much) more than 1980s FM; there is a very diverse sound set included here and it demonstrates how versatile NFM can be once you start to dig into the programming options. There are some great bass patches (try Bounce and Dirty Engine through some decent speakers) while Random (under the Keys section) is a really nice warm lead tone. There are also some excellent pads available including the aptly named Ambience patch; just hold two keys and you get an instant soundscape with plenty of creepy sci-fi vibe.

NFM’s preset system worked well within AUM and Cubasis…. but it would be nice to see the currently selected preset name shown within the AU window.

However, what perhaps surprised me the most were the unexpected ‘Effects’ and Drums sections. There are some very cool sounds amongst this lot and, with enough instances, you could build a very useable electronic drum track using the synth-based drum sounds offered here. Hopefully, Niko will had to the included preset collection over time….  or maybe find a way to get users involved in adding to what’s already here?

NNFM (Not Not For Me)

Obviously, given the description of the app’s key features above, like NS1, NFM is perhaps not a match for some of the iOS mega-synths we now have available. This is, however, a versatile FM synth engine with a modest – but well thought out – control set. It is capable of some very solid sounds and I suspect that’s where the majority of use will lie…  but it is also capable of the occasional ‘notice me!’ sound if you want something to catch your listener’s ear.

The various effects, including the delay, all work very well…..

So, do you need it? Well, if you have done your time of hoovering up every iOS synth app that ever appeared, you can be forgiven for (a) feeling jaded, (b) being broke and (c) suggesting that NFM is ‘not for me’.  In fact, I think this would be a bit of a shame because I’m really impressed with what NFM can do and the overall design. And, of course, the fact that it is delivered with AU support – even so long after the plugin format was first introduced by Apple – is still a significant selling point for the app; we have a plethora of iOS synths but not so many that are currently AU based. The number is growing but, even for those that own way too many synth, AU is likely to be an attractive feature in NFM.

Of course, once you get above the UK£10/US$10 price point (I’m sure there is a psychological barrier around here), iOS music app collectors perhaps think in terms of ‘investment’ rather than ‘casual experiment’. At UK£14.99/US$14.99, perhaps some potential purchasers will be a little less likely to take a speculative punt? All I can add here is that, as someone who would happily go entirely AU as soon as I can plug (doh!) a couple of missing app categories, I think NFM is a great addition to my AU synth app collection.

The legato/glide combination makes for a very nice playing experience :-)

In summary

NFM is a solid, easy-to-use virtual FM synth. Like NS1, it perhaps won’t win any prizes for ‘most powerful synth engine’ anytime soon, but it is a capable instrument with a neat visual design and a control set that is easy to explore and experiment with. AU support is still, I think, a key selling point under iOS and this may be enough to draw some potential users in simply to support this technology and help push it forwards.

Niko has provided some SoundCloud audio demos you can listen to to hear the app in action and I’ve also embedded Doug’s (from TheSoundTestRoom) video demo of the app. Beyond that, you can get more details by clicking the App Store download button…  and, while you are there, also check out Niko’s excellent NS1 analog synth.

NFM

Download from iTunes App Store


NS1

Download from iTunes App Store


MIDI Sketch

Download from iTunes App Store


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    Comments

    1. This looks like the first (AFAIK) iOS FM synth that lets you experiment freely with the operators, like in NIs software synth FM8. I love both DXi and TF7 for FM synthesis but this might take the price, I’m now heading to the App Store!

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