There are quite a few soft synths out there which aim to emulate (or improve upon) classic keyboard sounds of the past. But what about new sounds? What about a soft synth that is built from the ground up to be its own instrument, with its own unique sounds and features? Two of Native Instruments' recently-upgraded synths, FM8 and Absynth 4, are software instruments that offer up refreshingly new sonic hues. They both interface as standalone apps or as AU, RTAS, VST, DXi, etc. under Mac OS X 10.4 or WinXP. MacIntel users note that they are coded as Universal Binary, and the performance is exceptional. The boxed versions come with clearly written manuals, and the NI website offers a number of video tutorials. FM8 is based on FM (frequency modulation) synthesis and seems to favor a friskier, colder, "classic-digital" sound (think DX7 on acid). Looking to rock Book of Love or late-80's Depeche Mode-ish sounds? Look no further. The cleanly designed interface is quite easy to use and tweak, with a graphic X/Y pad that enables "morphable" sounds and effects, plus an easy edit page for quick edits to timbres, LFOs and effects. More detailed edits can be done on an expert page if you want to get into the more complex parameters. An easy-to-use arpeggiator is included, with almost every parameter "randomizable" for quick inspiration. The new version of Absynth adds a bevy of crazy new features including waveform morphing, new waveforms, and freely-assignable macro controls for sound manipulation. Absynth is synthesizer that can utilize samples for source and is known for its alien, unorthodox free subscriptions online! sounds ranging from evolving pads to spooky detuned organic leads. Like FM8, Absynth endeavors to generate sounds unheard of elsewhere. Absynth is a little more complex than FM8, but equally rewarding. Advanced features like surround sound programming, audio input modulation, and step sequencers might not be for everyone right out of the box, but it comes loaded with 1200 presets; plus, there's an active user base that posts new sound banks online continually. I dropped some cash on a KORE host system recently and was pleased to find all of the macro controls of both of these synths are mapped automatically and thoroughly. FM8 and Absynth both sound really cool, quite unlike analog synth emulators-so much so, in fact, that I was kinda turned off by some of the first few sounds I pulled up. But after spending some time with them, it quickly became clear that these are very multifaceted synths, each with a unique "color"-which, to me, is welcome in the increasingly sound-alike world of software instruments. ($339 MSRP each;

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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