The latest version of Image Line's affordable FL Studio music software adds a powerful resampling editor and processor, plus some neat plug-ins.
Every year Image Line release a new version of FL Studio, adding features, improving old ones, and generally tweaking the interface in various ways to make the whole package that little bit better. To ensure that the software's advancements are relatively easy to follow, in the last few years version numbers have been aligned to match release years, and so we are now looking at version 7 in 2007, although the busy company put out numerous intermediate updates and bug fixes along the way. FL Studio was last featured in these pages in March 2005, so this review also notes the main changes introduced at version 6.
For those unfamiliar with the name FL Studio, FL is short for Fruity Loops, hence the jolly logo depicting an anonymous bit of fruit enclosed in a circle. The software started life as a traditional pattern-based sequencer environment in which arrangements could be created by chaining various patterns and triggering samples. That methodology still lies at the core of the program today, but the flagship FL Studio XXL and Studio Producer editions take things a lot further, and Image Line's web site boldly claims that version 7 is "the most complete virtual studio currently available". Whether Image Line's claims stand up depend largely on what measure is used to define 'a complete studio', but they may have a point, given the range of sound generators, effects, processors and audio editing tools that form part of the package.
At present, FL is capable of recording up to 64 audio tracks simultaneously (should anyone be lucky enough to have the means to do so) and the ever-developing Playlist window where audio, automation and pattern clips are arranged and edited — can contain an unlimited number of tracks. The mixer channels number 64, not including the four send buses, and each one has its own three-band EQ, channel delay, pre/post setting, stereo separation, vertical flip and channel-swap buttons. To add to that, every mixer channel is blessed with eight effects (FX) slots, into which just about any native or third-party effect or processor can be inserted. And, if that still doesn't deliver enough options, as of version 6, channel routing changes enable the output of any mixer channel to be sent to any other channel for further processing. This system is particularly useful for bussing several instruments to one other track, which can then be used as a control for the entire group. When used with multiple-output soundcards, the routing arrangement can be set up to serve as a surround sound mixer.
Image Line describe FL as having an 'open architecture', which basically means that not much is hard-wired, so the user has a lot of control over the way he or she chooses to work. The open concept is similar to that of Propellerhead's Reason software, but FL Studio stops short of animating patch leads and making virtual hardware racks, opting for a more standard MIDI + Audio sequencer look, albeit a very dark one!
As standard, the latest version contains an impressive collection of sound editing and manipulation tools, instruments (referred to as Generators), free samples (2GB) and effect processors. I counted 29 'Fruity' generators and 44 effects in my XXL list of options, and on top of that there is the chance to use third-party VST, DX and Buzz effects and instruments within the host environment. Of course, FL Studio itself works as a VSTi, Rewire and DXi client/instrument within Cubase, Sonar and the like. There are also some interesting live modes available for triggering loops and sections of loops on the fly, which will interest performers and DJs.
The full account of new features and tweaks made since the last SOS review forms an imposing list that is far too lengthy to reproduce here, but it is published for all to see at www.fruityloops.com/documents/history.html. For our purposes, we'll be focusing on the main new features.
Most of the notable engine updates improve the program's interfacing and audio handling abilities. For example, the resampling engine can now deal with 32-bit WAV files, and the Direct Sound out adds a 32-bit floating-point stream option. The program's Fruity Granuliser synthesis and Slicer editor Generators also now support 32-bit samples, the latter enjoying a new time-stretching algorithm too. Apparently FL Studio 's record-to-disk engine has also been re-engineered, to eliminate unwelcome cracking that could occur when high numbers of tracks were being recorded.
Version 7's most publicised new feature is an integrated audio editor and recorder called Edison (left), which can be chosen from the effects list and inserted into mixer channels, or called to service by selecting Edit when right-clicking on any sample. For straightforward recording FL Studio already works well, so Edison is intended as a supplementary audio tool with some unique sampling, processing and effects functions, the most notable of these being a convolution reverb effect. Previous FL versions provided a WAV editor for such tasks, but Edison replaces this completely. There are no limits to the number of Edison windows that can be opened for use at any one time, and it's even possible to have it running more than once on a single mixer channel, so that sampling can take place at different points in the effects chain. However, it operates exclusively using RAM, so it's best used when recording and processing shortish samples.
Like a traditional sampler, a threshold level can be set to trigger it into action, with a pre-record buffer designed to catch sub-threshold transients. Once a sample is loaded, it appears in Edison's lower window and is ready for editing. Sample regions can be auto-sliced and normalised, and loops may be tuned. It's possible to add and remove noise in various ways, and to de-click the audio. As you'd expect, there are time-stretching, pitch-shifting and reverse options too, but the ability to apply a convolution reverb effect, to 'Blur' the file (giving it a hazy quality), and to draw in an EQ curve of choice are more of a surprise.
The new Love Philter (see the top screen overleaf), which has so many variables that it could take an article in itself to cover thoroughly, is largely based on the Fruity Delay Bank released with version 6 of FL Studio, and comprises eight identically featured filter units chained together so that the output of one can either be fed to the next or routed directly back into the channel. Each filter can be solo'd to see what it's up to, and has its own volume and on/off switch. As many as 12 different filter types are provided, each having 12, 24 and 36 dB/octave slope options. From then on, there are the usual filter envelope, cutoff and resonance controls, as well as drive and gain controls for the low and high bands. Distortion can be added using the Waveshaper section, and, again, there are numerous options to choose from, including polar modes and preamp settings. If needed, a little more character can be injected into proceedings using Love Philter 's system of modulators and articulators, in which a modulator such as volume or pan can be 'articulated' by any one of several variables, including an Input Envelope Follower and LFO. Hands-on control is provided via a large graph in the lower left corner of the window, where the lines on the display can be moved, either by grabbing them and dragging them with a mouse, or by tweaking a control knob at the foot of the display. There is also an X-Y control window, to the right, into which two parameters can be mapped, and, as with most of the controls, it's possible to record movements as automation.
Another new plug-in, Fruity Parametric EQ2 (below), has seven individually coloured bands which are completely moveable and changeable so that they can be set to be notch, peaking, band-pass and high/low-pass filters, or switched off completely. As far as I could tell, the old Fruity Parametric EQ actually offers the same basic features, but the new design makes it far easier to operate with a mouse, by replacing unwieldy knobs with large, moveable click-and-drag blobs, which literally throb when a pointer passes over them. The view screen is also far larger, and the effects of any EQ changes are illustrated extremely well by the fluid plot lines that appear when a band is about to be moved.
The Playlist window has benefited a little from version 7, as now pattern data can be represented as sliceable 'clips', rather than just blocks. Similarly, Event pattern block automation (created using the Event Editor) can also be turned into Automation clips.
As well as adding new plug-ins each year, Image Line also like to improve the old ones, and several have undergone makeovers. The FPC multi-layer/velocity drum machine — originally an Akai MPC clone — has been given a new look and revised layout, plus a number of functionality improvements which are only really of interest to those who know the generator already. Design changes to FPC have, however, had such an effect that it no longer resembles the version shown in the March 2005 SOS. The 16 drum pads remain, but to the right there are now a bunch of sliders for controlling sample layer velocities, an adjustable envelope graph, and a sample preview window with reverse switch and alternative sample file loader. FPC can now load AIFF, MP3 and REX files and export SFZ format.
Other plug-ins have undergone less eye-catching revisions, such as the Direct Wave VSTi sampler (see 'Six & Up' box), which can now load AIFF samples, and the Sytrus multi-synthesis plug-in, which has had improvements to its voice and envelope processing. Version 7 also makes it easier to assign notes to slices in Fruity Slicer and provides it with a new spectral view and sample stretching options, while Beepmap and Dashboard are improved too.
Originally, Image Line made their products available only as downloads from their web site, and it seems that the company actively encourage customers to make the site their primary resource for information, help and updates. One of Image Line's best deals is the offer of 'free for life' software updates to all who purchase directly from the web site. Many of the company's innovative plug-in developments come as part of the FL Studio package, so the offer seems almost too good to be sensible.
In total there are four different FL Studio packages: XXL is the most comprehensive option, followed by the Producer Edition. Fruityloops Edition is more basic still, but the download-only entry-level Express provides the cheapest introduction, at $49.
Anyone who is familiar with the basics of step and pattern sequencing is likely to recognise many of the FL Studio tools and concepts, and should be able to get a groove assembled fairly quickly using the step sequencer, preset samples and default mixer routing. Understanding the way the program integrates audio and uses the mixer channels is less obvious, probably due to the way things have evolved in recent years, so here's a quick overview.
From the left-hand browser menu, samples and beat slices can be grabbed and pasted into the step sequencer window and processed using a variety of channel settings, the availability of which depends on the nature of the source material. Their audio outputs default to the Master mixer channel, but each sample or sound generator can be allocated its own mixer channel, processed using up to eight insert effects and channel EQ. Mixer channels are patched by default to the Master output, but can easily be re-routed to further mixer channels which can be loaded with their own banks of effects, should yet more be required.
Instances of each pattern are arranged in the Playlist page, where they are represented as either blocks or waveforms. The Playlist page is also a place where samples can be sliced to length without calling on Edison or Beat Slicer, and then duplicated as required.
Hopefully that all sounds quite straightforward, but the 'open' system has so much flexibility that it's not immediately clear how things connect up. Of course, familiarity comes with use, but that doesn't quite tally with the easy-to-use image presented by Image Line.
The tone set by the Getting Started Guide supplied with the boxed version is friendly and obviously designed to connect with young buyers, but for the XXL and Producer versions a more complete document would be welcome. At present the guide relies on help files, on-line video tutorials, forums and the $39 Studio Bible user guide to plug the gaps, but I found that the video tutorials are not always available, and obviously it's not possible to look at either a video or help file while viewing the program on a single screen. Some obvious functions are explained in unnecessary detail, while other more critical pieces of information prove extremely elusive. For example, details on the basic interface buttons are often not needed, as the Hint Bar window displays all there is to know when the mouse hovers over them, but a general discussion on the way audio is, and can be, routed would be very useful.
Tweaks to the look of the user interface have been ongoing throughout the software's development, but some of the buttons and text are small and dark, particularly on my screen, which is set to a high pixel resolution because that ratio is best for the dimensions of my monitor. Even a lo-res setting wouldn't change the fact that some dark text, in the Channel Settings window, is placed on a dark background, which had me leaning right up to the screen to see what I was looking at.
Edison is undeniably powerful, and, through its carefully chosen set of effects, processors and editing tools, makes it possible to precisely edit a sample and then modify it dramatically in just a matter of seconds. FL Studio already has the fully-featured Direct Wave sampler (at least in the XXL version) and Fruity Slicer plug-ins, plus a useful slice tool amongst the Playlist window's option, but I found Edison still filled a gap. Unfortunately, although its effects/processors — the Convolution reverb, Blur tool and EQ — are very good, they do not work in real time, so it's not possible, for instance, to have a WAV looping and hear the results of changes to the reverb parameters as you make them. Instead, the user must 'apply' the effect and undo it if it is not right. This also means you can't use the RAM-saving 'Disable undo for large samples' option. The limitations that this imposes are obvious.
Love Philter is impressive — and an incredible FX-slot saver when you consider that it is effectively eight processors in one — but it will take time to master due to the sheer number of variables. EQ2 is another innovative processor, which is both easy to use and extremely pliable.
Overall, the audio manipulation options seem endless, so compulsive sound manglers will find that entering the FL Studio world is like being handed the key to a large sweet-shop.
In general use, I found that FL locked up quite often, particularly when RAM-hungry processors like Edison were being applied liberally. I also experienced a variety of bugs that halted progress and required the program to be closed and re-opened to resume normal operation. During one session, for instance, I found that assigning any sample or Generator to a spare mixer channel could not be done. It should simply have been a matter of selecting the relevant option in the menu of the Channel Settings window, or using the Ctrl+L key combination. The problem was only overcome by closing the program completely and trying the process again during a new session. On another occasion I experienced unprogrammed sample triggering during song play, the source of which I could not locate. Again, this was overcome by restarting. Other anomalies were encountered from time to time, generally falling into the categories of either a function not doing what it should or the unwelcome and unaccountable appearance of audio. Admittedly, some of my troubles might simply be down to a lack of RAM, my ageing P4 processor, and a tendency to click out of menus impatiently, but not all, and, until I twigged that bugs were preventing my actions from having an effect, I often found myself wondering what I was doing wrong. I soon learned to recognise when it was time to quit and reload.
The latest FL Studio is not a radical reworking of the program, but it does consolidate the good work Image Line have done in version 6 and in the past. It's obvious to me that the new plug-ins offer many exciting possibilities, even after using them for just a short time. Some of the other changes are less easily quantifiable and will be most appreciated by long-term users, but they too add towards making this a more satisfying package.
As it stands, FL Studio is impressive and powerful, if a little bit unusual. Despite its good recording facilities, a group wanting to record their music in a fairly straightforward way would probably still be better served by a more standard set of song-based record and navigation tools, but for anyone whose compositions are predominantly based around loops, sequences and samples, FL is a brilliant buy. Even the XXL version is very affordable relative to something like Cubase SX or Logic, making the program a must-have for any serious producer working on a variety of projects, particularly as it can perform within other programs as a VST client/instrument.
On the down side, the usability could be improved with some more considerate design and better documentation, and there are some bugs that need squashing. Judging by the number of bug fixes listed in the intermediate download versions, Image Line seem to be a company who like to get a product out early and then perfect it over time. Some will see that as a positive thing, but buyers of the boxed edition may not, as they aren't entitled to the lifetime of free updates (see the 'Options' box). Surely they still should be entitled to a more bug-free product?
There are several sample-based songs that I've been meaning to produce for a few years now, but have been working on other things while I decided what would be the best all-round software to use. I think I've found it here, and hopefully FL Studio and I will enjoy a long and fruitful relationship together.
Version six of FL Studio was not reviewed in SOS, but introduced numerous improvements, some of which should be mentioned here. The main activity seems to have been directed towards improving the piano roll page, MIDI interfacing and, most significantly, in enhancing the flexibility of the mixer, which now enables free track routing and positioning, amongst other things. Anyone using more than one external controller can now run multiple MIDI input devices. Multimedia keyboards are supported and there are enhancements for tablet PCs. MTC and MIDI clock can be sent for output synchronisation, and MIDI clock to multiple MIDI devices.
Version 6 introduced a number of significant new plug-ins, the most impressive of them probably being the Direct Wave 16-part, 128 voice, 32-bit VSTi sampler. The Sytrus FM synth enjoyed some improvements, too, while FPC (Fruity Pad Controller) was given the ability to obtain sounds directly from the Internet using the Download Manager.
The all-new plug-ins were as follows:
- Direct Wave VSTi sampler (right).
- Fruity Envelope controller automation.
- Wasp XT (updated Wasp synth with new interface and additional modulation).
- Fruity Delay Bank delay/filter.
* Fruity Multiband three-band compressor.
- Fruity Reverb 2 reverb.
* Fruity Squeeze distortion/bit-reduction.
- Chrome video synthesizer.