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Image Line FL Studio

Loop-based Sequencer For Windows
By John Walden

Image Line FL Studio

Fruity Loops has built itself quite a cult following in dance music circles. The latest version comes with a new name — FL Studio — as well as some interesting new virtual instruments and proper audio recording features.

Along with general-purpose MIDI + Audio sequencers such as Cubase and Sonar, more specialised applications such as Reason and Acid Pro have also become very popular, and in dance music circles a firm favourite with many is Fruity Loops. SOS reviewed version 3 back in the August 2002 issue, but Image Line are now back with a new release, plenty of new features and a new name for the software: Fruity Loops Studio, or FL Studio. In order to maintain consistency, FL Studio has started at version 4.

The basic functionality of FL Studio remains the same as before: Generators (software instruments) are used within a pattern-based sequencing environment to create complete arrangements. As the previous review is available on-line (www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug02/articles/fruityloops.asp), I'll only give a brief recap of these features before looking in more detail at what has been added.

Familiar Fruit

FL Studio is available in Express, Fruity Loops and Producer editions, respectively offering more features at a greater price. During the review, version 4.1.2 of the Producer Edition became available via the web site, and I subsequently used this for the majority of the testing. As FL Studio is designed with pattern and step entry for MIDI parts very much in mind, the real-time audio latency is not perhaps as significant as when using a full-blown MIDI + Audio sequencer. Accordingly, a fairly modest PC can be used, although low-latency audio response would be a distinct advantage if a MIDI keyboard or controller is used for real-time input.

Arranging Patterns within the Playlist Window. Arranging Patterns within the Playlist Window.

Installation and registration of the software is identical to version 3, and despite the name change, existing Fruity Loops users will find FL Studio a familiar working environment. The main window follows the same layout and appearance, with menus, transport and pattern selection tools along the top, the Browser down the left and the bulk of the display used to hold, for example, the various Generator, Pattern, Playlist, Piano Roll or Mixer windows. All these can be arranged as required by the user. As with previous versions of Fruity Loops, the FL Studio user interface is both dark and compact — a decent monitor and 20:20 vision are distinct advantages!

All the familiar Generators are present and correct, along with some interesting newcomers, of which more shortly. The TS404 mono bass synth, 3xOSC sampler with three oscillators, Plucked plucked-string instrument and Sampler (which can, with some patience, be used with the Layer Generator to build up more complex sample-based programmes) are all pretty much as before. Demo versions of some more complex instruments such as Wasp, Fruity DX10 and Sim Synth are also provided. These can be purchased separately, although there is also a 'bundle', FL Studio XXL, that contains a number of these extra Generators at a discounted package price.

When a new Generator is added to a project, it appears in the Channel Window list, although when a lot of Generators are being used the list can be customised to show just bass or drum Channels, for example. The Channel Window offers basic pattern-based step sequencing, with the current pattern being selected via the virtual LCD positioned top-centre of the menu/toolbar area. This is great for building up drum patterns. For melodic instruments, a very usable piano-roll editor is provided. Real-time MIDI input is also available and works very well, with the usual proviso that a soundcard with low-latency drivers is required.

Once a number of patterns have been created, they can be arranged within the Playlist Window to create a song structure. Patterns can be named for ease of identification and different lengths of pattern can be mixed and matched. As pattern-based sequencing goes, Fruity Loops has always struck an excellent balance between functionality and ease of use and FL Studio is no different in that regard.

Generation Game

While the basic operation of FL Studio will be familiar to existing Fruity Loops users, there are, of course, a number of new features. Top of the list is new Generators, including FL Slayer, FL Keys, Boo Bass and Wave Traveller.

The new FL Slayer Generator — rock on!The new FL Slayer Generator — rock on!Users of Steinberg's Virtual Guitarist might be intrigued by FL Slayer. As the graphics suggest, this is an electric guitar simulation. A number of different string (guitar) types are available, and pickup position and type can be selected. The Mode dialogue allows you to choose between playing styles such as strumming, soloing and power chords. Basic amp and cabinet modelling is included, along with various guitar-style effects. While the guitar parts that can be created are perhaps not as polished as Steinberg's offering, FL Slayer is a lot of fun and, with heavily processed sounds, it offers some great creative options — Fruity does nu metal, anyone?

FL Keys provides a choice of Piano, Rhodes and Roto Organ simulation. The Piano might not be up to the standard of some of the better multisampled instruments available for Gigastudio, Halion or ESX24, but the controls here are deceptively simple and, in all three modes, this Generator is capable of some excellent sounds. These can be further enhanced with the addition of some of FL Studio's very useable effects.

Adding to Fruity's bass options is the Boo Bass Generator, a fairly simple monophonic bass instrument suitable for creating electric bass guitar sounds. Scooping out some of the Mid control creates a really nice, tight bass sound. Further controls are available under the Misc and Func tabs, and these include portamento slides.

The Wave Traveller Generator provides instant scratching effects; if you use these in your music but can't do a genuine turn on the turntable, you will have some fun here. With a single WAV file loaded, each MIDI note can be associated with a different 'scratch' effect. Curves can be drawn in the right-hand portion of the window (the Path Definition panel) and these define how the audio is played forward and backwards when that MIDI note is used within a sequence. As shown in the screen shot, sections of the audio phrase can also be muted. The playback speed, attack and release times can also be set. In use, it does take a little experimentation before you can create some really convincing phrases, but the end result can be worth the effort. Brilliant!

Turntablism made easy: the Wave Traveller Generator.Turntablism made easy: the Wave Traveller Generator.

Living In A Box

Fruity Loops was originally available only as a downloadable product, but FL Studio is also available from shops in a boxed version. Buying the boxed version gives you a printed 78-page Getting Started manual, the bonus Dreamstation DX Instrument, and a CD-ROM sample library containing over 3000 royalty-free samples and 300-plus loops. Most of the features described in the review are present in both Fruity Loops Edition and Producer Edition, with the principal exception being the latter's audio recording facilities and wave editor.

Mixed Fruit

The new features are not, however, limited to the Generators and, while there are more than could be covered in a review of this length, a few key ones are worthy of mention. For example, the Mixer has undergone some changes, and now features 64 'Insert' tracks, four Send tracks (which, as the name suggests, are used for global send-return effects) and a Master track for the master output. The output from any of the audio instrument Generators can be routed to the Insert tracks, where up to eight effects can be applied, EQ adjusted and Send levels set. All these controls appear in the bottom half of the Mixer Window which displays settings for the currently selected Mixer channel. By default, all Insert tracks are routed to the Master output, but if you're using a multi-output ASIO audio device, tracks can be routed to different outputs if required. It is also possible to route Insert tracks to other Insert tracks, effectively creating group tracks, which can simplify making volume adjustments during a final mix. As with all Generator parameters, movement of the Mixer controls can be recorded for fully automated mixing.

However, perhaps the most significant development since I looked at Fruity Loops 3.4 back in August 2002 is in audio recording. While I'd hesitate to call FL Studio a full-blown audio sequencer, this version is perfectly capable if you need to add a few audio tracks, such as vocals or some live instruments. If an unused track is selected in the Mixer and an ASIO input selected, the Rec button at the bottom-right of the Mixer will open a dialogue for choosing where the resulting WAV file is to be placed. Activate Play and Record in the transport section and off you go. When recording is complete, a new Audio Clip Generator is automatically added to the Channel List. It is then just a case of triggering that clip via that Channel's Piano Roll editor and the Playlist to position it within the sequence.

Audio clips can also be placed and arranged via the Audio Track section at the base of the Playlist Window. Using the low-latency ASIO drivers of the Echo Mia inside the test PC it was perfectly possible to record audio in time with the rest of the MIDI arrangement, just as you might in a mainstream MIDI + Audio sequencer. The only catch here is that audio recording is only available in the top-of-the-range Producer Edition of FL Studio, but frankly, if you use audio, paying the extra is a bit of a no-brainer. My only criticism would be that Image Line ought to blow their own trumpet about this capability in the FL Studio documentation, as it really is rather understated!

Plug-in, Plug-out

FL Studio can act as a host for other VST plug-ins, and can also be used as a VSTi or DXi plug-in within another sequencer. I tested the former using Steinberg's Halion 2 sampler and Plex soft synth, and in both cases I experienced no major problems. Both VSTi interfaces appeared and operated just as they would in any other host, played back their MIDI parts fine and responded well.

I also tested FL Studio as a VSTi from within Cubase SX. Any Generator that was added to the Channel List within FL Studio became available for selection within a Cubase MIDI channel and, usefully, FL Studio Channel names were available in the Cubase Inspector when selecting. Again, I experienced no major problems in using FL Studio as a VSTi. If you prefer (or are already familiar with) a MIDI sequencing environment such as SX, it is therefore still possible to get easy access to the very respectable and creative options provided by some of the FL Studio Generators.

Conclusions

The Producer Edition of FL Studio is an impressive upgrade to the version of Fruity Loops I looked at just over a year ago and I'm sure existing users will be keen to upgrade. For potential new users, FL Studio is up against the likes of Orion, Making Waves and Reason. In my own view, and at this price, it stands up well against all of these. For example, while the various Generators may not be as sophisticated as the modules in Reason, I actually prefer the simple pattern-based sequencing in FL Studio — and, of course, the audio support gives it a distinct edge. On the other hand, many users will find the user interface of Reason more palatable than the rather dark environment offered by FL Studio.

While I experienced a couple of occasions when the application hung on me during testing, I am thoroughly impressed by FL Studio. For anyone interested in buying into a soft synth-based music application, the downloadable (save-disabled) demo version is certainly worth a serious look. The pattern-based sequencing is easy to use, the supplied Generators and effects are very capable, and the audio support is the icing on the cake. Just make sure you book an occasional appointment with your optician if you put in long hours of use!

Pros

  • Some excellent new Generators.
  • Easy to use.
  • Now comes with audio recording!

Cons

  • The rather dark and compact user-interface might not appeal to some.

Summary

FL Studio is a significant upgrade to the Fruity Loops line. Some very useful new Generators and functional audio recording make this an excellent all-round music production package at a very competitive price.

information

Boxed versions: Producer Edition £139; Fruity Loops Edition £99. Prices include VAT.

£ Downloadable versions: Producer Edition $149; Fruity Loops Edition $99; Express Edition $49.

Et Cetera +44 (0)1706 228039.

info@flstudio.com

info@etcetera.co.uk

www.flstudio.com

www.etcetera.co.uk

Published November 2003