Sampler And The Power of FM

Of all the devices I love in Ableton Live, Samplers is my absolute favorite.  Sampler is well known as an exceptional multisampling instrument that allows the easy handling of multi-gigabyte instrument libraries but many experienced Ableton live users overlook many of Sampler's most unique functions. The focus of this article will be to introduce Sampler as an irreplaceable sound design tool built into Ableton Live.  Hidden in Sampler’s tab windows is a dedicated modulation oscillator that can perform frequency or amplitude modulation (FM or AM).  The oscillator allows the user to select 21 unique waveforms plus a loopable amplitude envelope for dynamic waveshaping.

Before we get into how the FM oscillator in Sampler can be used to rough up drums, destroy bass lines or make an electric piano from foley recordings let’s discuss what FM is and how it has been used.  FM synthesis was the basis of the now classic DX7 synthesizer first brought to market by Yamaha in the mid 80s.  Phil Colins famously used the Yamaha DX7 in the introduction of “One More Night” (1985) and the DX7 also provides the punchy bass line in Micheal Jackson’s “Another Part Of Me” (1987).  More contemporary examples of FM synthesizers are the Live’s Operator and Native Instrument’s FM8.  Skrillex used FM8 for the majority of his bass sounds on this 2012 release “Bangarang.”


FM is a form of synthesis where the timbre of basic waveform (sine, square, triangle etc) is altered by modulating its frequency with a modulator frequency that is in the audible range.  The resulting waveform becomes increasing complex and audibly different from the initial waveform as the amplitude of the modulating signal is increased.  The sonic result is harmonically rich and can often be described as metallic or distorted.  FM synthesis opens up an array of sonic possibilities that are difficult to achieve with subtractive synthesis.


Start by loading up an initialized Sampler instrument and select a sound you would like to destroy.  I would recommend resampling another bass you’ve made previously in another soft synth but you can just as easily use any sound source.  Drag and drop your sound of choice into sampler.  Make sure you press snap or ensure that your start marker is a point in the wave where the wave crosses the origin.


Next go to the Pitch/Osc tab in sampler.  Click on the Osc button to activate the frequency modulation.  For the time being make sure the FM option is selected and turn up the sustain volume on the Osc envelope.  The Osc envelope controls the amplitude of the FM in time.  Now begin increasing the Volume box found on the right side of sampler while triggering the synth.  You will notice the timbre of the sound change.  This is FM synthesis in action.  

The type dropdown menu allows you to select the wave shape used for the frequency modulation.  The coarse box allows you to control the octave of the wave used to modulate the frequency of the original sound.  The fine control makes more subtle changes the pitch of the wave used for FM.  The Vol<Vel control allows you to control the volume of the FM with the velocity input from your MIDI device and is a great way to add some variation to your track.


Try grouping your Sampler into an Instrument Rack.  Next map the FM Wave Type dropdown menu to a macro on the Instrument Rack and the Volume to another macro.  This will allow you to quickly assess some of the different sounds that you can make using this technique.  As you adjust the wave type and the FM volume try playing the sound in different octaves.  The results may surprise you (especially when the FM Volume is high). 

Once you settled on a wave type and FM Volume try tweaking the Osc envelope to add more motion to your sound.  Moving forward continue shaping your sound using the other envelopes, filters and LFOs built into sampler.  Happy tweaking.