Quickie Tutorial: Create 1990s FM bass sounds

December 20, 2013

Well, now that the early ’90s sound is back and in full effect, it’s time to familiarize yourself with the synth patches of that era. While analog tones are a huge part of that period of music production, it’s important to remember that it was also the peak of the digital age, with synths like the Korg M1 and Roland D-50 dominating house and techno music.

In addition to these early sample-based synths, FM synthesis was still firmly entrenched in dance music production. Notably, Yamaha's affordable TX-81Z, which featured one of the most popular bass patches of the day, “Lately Bass,” which was featured prominently in Orbital’s legendary “Halcyon and On.” 

This month, we’ll delve into the essentials of creating FM bass patches using Ableton’s Operator—so you can stay ahead of the curve, while the rest of the kids are still are still getting the hang of analog!

Step 1


Starting with Operator’s default patch, extend the release time of oscillator 1 to 80 milliseconds to eliminate any clicking. Then, keeping the 1:1 coarse tuning ratio, increase the level of FM from oscillator 2 to about 60 to 70 percent. 

Step 2


Next, to get that classic FM attack, adjust oscillator 2’s modulator envelope so that it has an immediate attack, short decay, zero sustain, and short release.

Step 3


Fine-tune the sound by tinkering with oscillator 2’s level and its envelope decay time. From there, try using different coarse tunings for oscillator 2, since alternate ratios can dramatically affect the overall character of this patch.

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