Image Line's popular sequencing package has evolved from a specialist tool into a DAW application with universal appeal.
In just over a decade, Image Line's FL Studio has evolved from the simple Fruity Loops drum‑loop creation tool into a full‑blown DAW, gaining many new features along the way. For anyone who hasn't followed its growth, there are reviews of editions dating back to version 4 on the SOS web site, as well as a wealth of information on the official FL Studio web page. In brief, it's a DAW that focuses on pattern‑based composition and mixing. The main view includes a step sequencer that acts as a sampler. Once dropped into the step sequencer, each sample, audio clip or virtual instrument clip has its own Channel Settings box, where settings for the sound source can be altered, and a mixer channel assigned.
Each sound source can be sequenced in a piano‑roll editor or in step mode, which is ideal for beat creation. The step sequencer displays one pattern at a time, and these patterns can be compiled into song structures in the Playlist window. This window is split into two across the horizontal axis, with the bottom half displaying each pattern as a block, and the top displaying the waveform or MIDI data contained by any placed clips and patterns. Sequencing can be carried out in both views simultaneously, to the user's taste. Although each track in the top view is numbered and can be muted (a feature new to version 9), it does not correspond directly to a mixer track: mixer tracks are assigned to clips individually without any correspondence to the arrangement view, which allows free dropping of samples and is used exclusively for arranging the song.
There are four versions of FL Studio available: Express, Fruity Edition, Producer Edition and Signature Bundle. The Signature Bundle is the top‑of‑the‑range offering, with all features of the Producer Edition plus a selection of extra Image Line plug‑ins. Both Fruity Edition and Express are cut‑down versions that remove functionality in exchange for a lower price point. Neither of these versions includes the Edison wave editor or the ability to host full audio tracks, nor do they allow ASIO‑input recording. The Express edition is particularly limited, losing the piano‑roll sequencer. A full feature comparison of the different versions can be found on the FL Studio web site.
For version 9, the mixer channel count has been upped to 99 from the previous 64, and each track is now able to send audio to a side‑chain input of any other track. Side‑chain routing can be assigned to third‑party plug‑ins via the new Wrapper Settings button, located in the top left of Fruity Wrapper. Fruity Wrapper automatically handles VST and DX plug‑ins, allowing multiple inputs and outputs to be assigned and advanced compatibility and performance options to be configured. Most significantly, the new Wrapper Settings function allows multi‑output plug‑ins such as Kontakt 4 to actually make use of more than two output channels, a feature that wasn't present in previous editions of FL Studio.
The piano‑roll editor also benefits from some useful additions. Based around a simple left‑click in, right‑click to delete system, it was already one of the most intuitive piano rolls around, and has now gained a note‑grouping feature and an automatic composer called Riff Machine. Note Grouping allows the user to highlight a selection of notes and group them together for easy editing. This is great for piano parts, for example, where the left‑hand part may cross the right, making repeatable selection of all left‑hand parts more difficult.
The Riff Machine sequence‑generating tool is accessible via the tools menu in the piano roll or by pressing Alt-E, and breaks down the process of composition into eight automated steps. Progression creates a basic sequence of notes, and Chord Progression shapes the sequence with common chord patterns, which are then livened up with automated Arpeggiation. Flips & Mirrors allows tailored mirroring of piano‑roll events, Levels humanises note levels, Art adds randomised and preset‑based note timing and level expression, Groove imposes a particular rhythm on the expression, and Fit allows you to restrict the note range of the riff. Although the wisdom of leaving the composition of your hook to the computer is questionable, the Levels, Art and Groove sections are particularly useful for jazzing up a sequenced riff, and specifically for these three functions the Riff Machine is a nice feature.
Other tweaks to the interface include small play buttons on the Playlist, Step Sequencer and Piano Roll, and dragging and dropping of instrument and effects presets from the Browser pane. The Playlist benefits from the new individually colourable and mute‑able horizontal channels, but is still a little inconvenient for audio tracking. Recording a take involves assigning an input to a channel on the mixer, pressing a small 'save' button on channel, naming the take, pressing the record button and picking audio recording (either into Edison, the built‑in wave editor, or the Playlist). For the next take, the 'save' button must be pressed again and the take saved before recording can begin. Though a small niggle, this makes quick retakes frustrating, and a simple latch button that automatically incremented take names would be easer to use.
Although most of the additions are welcome, one change that I find particularly frustrating is the relocation of the Last Tweaked Parameter function (used to access the controls of Direct X effects, for automation purposes) from the individual plug‑in wrapper to the main Tools menu at the top. It just adds that bit of extra mouse work and felt much better where it was.
One gripe in previous incarnations of FL Studio has been the lack of decent multi‑core implementation, with the DAW choking on fewer plug‑in instances than most rival programs. A tick box for 'Multithreaded mixer processing' has been added to attempt to tackle this issue. One extreme test I carried out involved FL8, FL9 and Reaper on an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.39GHz MacBook Pro, running XP Pro SP3 via Boot Camp. Setting the ASIO4ALL universal ASIO driver buffer to 2048 samples, I was able to pass audio through 18 instances of Spectralive NXT3 (a relatively demanding plug in, in terms of processor demans) in Reaper before suffering buffer under‑runs. Both FL8 and 9 reached the same level of under‑runs at nine instances when set to the same buffer size, with neither of the DAWs running smart disable or any other optimisations. Though this isn't something you'd want to do regularly, it confirms what I've found throughout my testing: that although FL9 will (on most systems) give better performance than FL8, multi‑core support still appears less efficient than in some other DAWs. It's worth noting that some of the extra graphical tweaks to FL9 are processed by your machine's graphics card, freeing up some more CPU cycles for plug‑ins.
FL Studio users still benefit from Image Line's lifetime free updates policy, where buying a downloadable copy of the software entitles you to free lifetime updates for that version. This is, however, subject to the varying definitions of each version: so, for instance, existing owners of the XXL Edition will now get the Producer Edition, continuing to be able to use everything they received with XXL but not receiving the new extra plug‑ins. Though lifetime free updates is an amazing deal, it seems to have forced Image Line into searching for other sources of income, hence the separate cost for all of their latest synths and effects. This does pitch the Image Line effects against some pretty stiff third‑party competition, which they may not have had to fight if these plug‑ins had been bundled. That said, I'm sure plenty of users of other software packages out there would love to be able to get the latest version of their DAW at no extra cost!
Though the progress is slowing somewhat in terms of big new features, this could be seen as a positive sign: FL Studio is now a mature DAW. But at this stage in its life, FL Studio feels unnecessarily tied to its roots. For FL veterans like myself (I've used the software on and off since version 3), the horizontally divided Playlist is familiar, but newcomers may find it confusing, and its bottom half is a legacy feature that is largely redundant in light of recent additions.
Since v8, FL Studio has been moving towards an open palette, and this I welcome. It's very freeing to be able to place clips without regard for horizontal track position. However, it seems to me that it's about time for Image Line to choose one direction or the other. Simply giving the option of a solid box around pattern clips in the top view would serve much the same visual purpose, and streamline the Playlist screen into one large window. As it is, you can elect to hide the old boxes, but they are still the easiest way to quickly select from your pattern. Attaching a pattern‑ and audio‑clip list to the right or left of the Playlist panel would be a small addition but would remove the need for the block view entirely.
FL9 is clearly FL Studio in a transitional stage, and yet remains incredibly easy to use — there's no quicker way to get ideas down than to lay them out in FL Studio. But an odd implementation of audio recording means that FL9 can't really handle tracking with the same kind of intuitive ease as other sequencers. Lack of solid multi‑core support is also slightly worrying, and despite the option to enable multi‑core for all effects, the performance increase seems negligible when compared with some other DAWs. With all useful processors now being at least dual‑core, getting the most out of every CPU is something of an essential feature for a modern DAW, and one that needs improving for FL Studio 10.
One thing that initially attracted me to FL3 many years ago was how easy it was to get going, and this remains the case. FL Studio is still my 'turn-to' sequencer for anything needing sampling, MIDI sequencing or virtual instruments, and it's much quicker for turning an idea to reality than any other environment. However, FL Studio's idiosyncrasies when handling audio recording have lead me to use Cockos Reaper 3 for audio tracking duties. As much as I'd like to turn back to FL Studio for all my projects, Reaper currently offers a more intuitive environment for audio tracking and editing, and I often use FL Studio as a 16‑out ReWire VSTi for sequenced parts, thus making up for Reaper's current MIDI shortcomings.
Despite the changes to package line‑ups, FL Studio remains a bargain, and by Rewiring it to Cockos Reaper ($60) one could have two powerful tools, one for sequencing and one for audio tracking and traditional mixing, which together rival the more expensive sequencers. Learning two production environments may be too much for someone who is new to DAWs, and in this case I'd say it was worth becoming familiar with the 'individual' sequencing methodology in FL Studio for the sheer speed and satisfaction available. Whether you're a professional or a hobbyist, music making should still be enjoyable, and despite the quirks it's fair to say that no DAW makes work quite so much fun as FL Studio. Even if you're used to a different way of working, it's worth a download of the demo as a break from the norm.
No DAW update would be complete without new plug‑ins, and there are some interesting new effects and instruments in FL Studio version 9. A new instrument called Autogun has been included in all versions, and is described as a 'sonic adventure', hosting over four billion presets. Both the patches and their descriptions are randomly created: the latter range from things you can genuinely imagine a very pretentious synth fan saying about a patch, to rib‑tickling nonsense. Autogun's sounds are produced by an additive engine adapted from Image Line's Ogun synthesizer (reviewed in SOS: /sos/sep09/articles/pif_0909.htm), which uses more than 32,000 harmonics to create metallic sounds. Autogun's controls consist of nothing more than a volume dial and left and right patch buttons, as well as the ability to type in a patch number to recall any favourites you may have stumbled across. It's not useful for every situation or genre, but Autogun does work well as a tool for inspiration, forcing you to focus on the sound itself rather than the process of synthesis. It's literally impossible to get caught up in tweaking parameters when there's nothing to tweak.
Another new plug‑in is the Stereo Shaper Mid/Sides processor, which allows the sum and difference elements of a stereo channel to be balanced using a simple matrix of four sliders. Delay and phase alteration can also be applied to the separated audio, and the 'difference' audio can be sent via the new side‑chain function to any compatible plug‑in. Complementing this new plug‑in is Fruity Reeverb 2 (sic), which has gained a Mid/Sides processing mode. The Producer Edition and Signature Bundle also include Vocodex, a new vocoding plug‑in. In the grand FL tradition, Vocodex makes the task at hand enjoyable, allowing you to get stuck in straight away with built‑in carrier waves. The option is still there to use your own carrier, but setting up routing for a vocoder can be laborious, so this is a welcome feature. Though presented in a friendly manner, the plug‑in includes enough features for a seperate review, with graphically adjustable modulation, native unison, male and female vocal‑biased pitch adjustment of the modulator signal, and many more aesthetically useful and easy‑to‑adjust functions.
Image Line include four older plug‑ins with the Signature Bundle: Hardcore, the company's own pedalboard and amp simulator; Maximus (see SOS October 2008), a mastering limiter; Sytrus, an FM synth (see SOS March 2008), and the DirectWave sampler. Hardcore can't compete with the likes of NI's Guitar Rig in terms of realism, but it's a nice effect, both for edgy guitar sounds and loop processing. I found Maximus to be the most powerful tool, allowing good masters to be created quickly with little effort. It splits the programme material into three definable frequency bands, allowing compression/limiting, stereo width processing and saturation to be applied to each individually. A master section allows the same effects to be applied after multi‑banding, for volume matching and the like. Maximus is a useful tool, and suffers from only from heavy‑handed presets that go a little too far for most mastering situations, and will likely encourage overcooking when used by inexperienced engineers.
The legacy plug‑ins SimSynth Live, DrumSynth Live, DX10, Wasp and Wasp XT are now free in Fruity Edition upwards, whereas before they were bundled only with the XXL edition. The Fruity Limiter has also been upgraded to enable handling of the new side‑chaining on its front panel, and the Wavecandy visualiser has gained some new options and display modes. Image Line have gradually been releasing plug‑in instruments and effects that are purchased separately from FL Studio, and FL Studio 9 includes demos of Deckadance, Poizone, Toxic‑Biohazard, Morphine, Gross Beat, Ogun and Sawer, all of which cost between $79 and $159.