Mensla’s MS-2 is a great-sounding FM synth with the safety protocols switched off

Over 60 years after its invention, FM synthesis is still full of surprises. And that’s what makes the free MS-2 synth plug-in fun.

This thing sounds fantastic – and if you take the developer up on the donationware model you can get the preset banks.

Free synths are great for more than just the fact that they’re, erm, free. You get unique interfaces that probably wouldn’t fly in a commercial plug-in. And you get to experience sound creation with the safety protocols disabled – to borrow some Star Trek holodeck parlance.

MS-2 is a free (as in beer), deliciously esoteric FM synth that’s packed with features. The FM side of this is a 2-op synth, but it’s the extras (and that weird, tiny interface) that make it special. It’s the creation of Mensla and artist Ange Fazari.

The operator section has switchable waveforms, including pink and white noise and independent pulse width, left and right harmonic controls for spectral and spatial shaping with ratios, independent L/R tuning, ADSR envelope with tension, and more.

The filter is multimode lowpass / highpass /bandpass/band reject with its own envelope.

And then you get into modulation:

LFO also has switchable wave shapes and is routable to the filter, octave, amplitude, pitch for each operator, pulse width, and panning, plus it’s syncable with clock divisions. And then you get into the utterly massive modulation section – amplitude modulation, phase modulation, pan, filter, and additional FM. Those in turn also have their own sync and – crucially, feedback.

So it starts as a 2-op FM synth, but winds up somewhere far different. And sure, you could do this sort of thing with some flagship FM soft synth, but not in a one-screen interface.

There’s not a manual as such, but you do get a guide to the UI. (If you can’t see it – and yes, the readme acknowledges that the UI is basically too tiny to read – I recommend enabling zooming on macOS or using Windows’ Magnifier tool, both free.)

MS 2 Manual FM 2

While it’s free, this instrument is capable of some utterly gorgeous, organic sounds. Or you can do what I did and crank it up into the “ludicrous/dangerous” area, which I did while running with scissors around my studio, naked.

Admit it. Reading the following words is better than any marketing copy anyone could dream up.

WARNING! This synths volume can get loud fast and unexpected. Be careful when modulating with feedback (ex. AM/PM/FM from 1-2 + AM/PM/FM 2-1). Consider using a limiter. Protect yo neck !!!

Beta 1.3 – this synth will have bugs and glitches.

Hell, yeah! Uh… sure. I’ll be… careful.

So you’ve heard the sound samples above. I went a slightly different direction. (This is all directly from the synth; no additional processing, and feeding it really simple monophonic patterns.)

As I was finishing this up, the 1.3 beta dropped with a ton of nice features and bug fixes (including MIDI learn):

  • Glide automation
  • Filter gate (with attack control)
  • Reverb delay
  • LFO destination controls and labels

It’s still in beta, so you’ll see some issues here and there. I got it running without incident, but I never did get the visualization working on the macOS Apple Silicon side (Intel Mac & Windows are fine). No worries – the videos above I made with the wonderful Detroit Underground DU-VFX.

Speaking of safety protocols, you’ll need to override macOS’ own security issues. The key is to instantiate the plug-in after each install, look for a dialog in your DAW, then cancel out of it and head to System Settings > Privacy & Security. On Ventura, that looks like this:

ms 2 security

Fazari is making some nicely produced music, too (not angry and distorted like some of mine):

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