Music Tech Magazine


Subtractive synthesis, which we looked at in detail in our last instalment (to read it, see has a long and illustrious history. For many years, it was the only show in town when it came to programmable sound synthesis. But by the early 80s, the market was becoming rather stale: good synths were expensive, affordable synths often had many limitations – and all were confined to producing only a certain range of sounds.

Other sound-synthesis techniques existed, but those that had made it as far as commercial release were exorbitantly expensive. One alternative, yet to escape the lab, had been developed during the late 60s by Dr John Chowning at Stanford University and was dubbed ‘frequency modulation’ (or FM synthesis). Radically different to subtractive in both method and results, FM synthesis combined simple waveforms in order to create a more complex result.

Stanford patented its FM technology and hoped to license it to an American instrument manufacturer. But their attempts at gaining the interest of the likes of Hammond and Wurlitzer failed.

There was one company which did understand Chowning’s ideas, though and that company was Yamaha. It didn’t have a big presence in the US market, but the company was the world’s largest manufacturer of musical instruments; Stanford duly granted Yamaha a one-year licence to research the commercial viability of FM.


Following the successful prototyping of a monophonic FM synth, in 1975, Yamaha acquired exclusive rights to Stanford’s technology and by 1980, had released the world’s first commercial FM synthesiser,

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