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Image Line FL Studio 20.8

Digital Audio Workstation By John Walden
Published March 2021

Image Line FL Studio

Famed for its speed of use, the latest version of FL Studio is a highly sophisticated music production environment.

The modern DAW is a remarkable beast. First, it has, to a very large extent, placed itself at the very heart of (almost) everyone’s recording process. Second, by emulating the complete studio experience in modestly priced software, it has played a very significant part in democratising the music recording and production process. And, while you could have a very entertaining Friday night pub‑style philosophical conversation about the relationship between the rise of the DAW/sequencer and the quality of the music we now experience, the impact is undeniable.

However, not all DAW/sequencers are created equal and one of the key reasons the market is so diverse is that many of today’s (seemingly generic) DAW/sequencers started life as somewhat more specialist tools. That’s undoubtedly true of FL Studio, which launched as Fruity Loops in 1998. By this date, the likes of Cubase and Logic offered a combination of both MIDI sequencing and hard‑disk‑based audio recording (albeit still in its infancy). Fruity Loops’ MIDI‑only step sequencer simplicity and modest cost gave it an obvious appeal to the electronic music maker on a budget; a DIY EDM tool for the masses.

The subsequent 20‑plus years have obviously seen some considerable changes. So, with the recent arrival of FL Studio 20.8, is this now a DAW/sequencer that has moved beyond its electronic music roots?

History Toys

Given that the last full SOS review of FL Studio was quite some time ago (v9 back in the March 2010 issue), it’s worth providing a bit of background here and considering the over‑arching features FL Studio provides before going on to dig into what’s new within the latest release. Helpfully in that regard, Image Line’s website has a fascinating ‘history’ timeline page charting the FL Studio development. Rather wonderfully, there is also a pretty comprehensive archive of version downloads spanning all the main versions. For those unfamiliar with the software, providing you have access to a suitable Windows 32‑bit host, running an early version in trial mode would soon make FL Studio’s roots very obvious.

The same core principles still remain at the heart of the software in the latest release. Essentially, a collection of sound sources (Generators in FL‑speak — samples or virtual instruments) can be used to build individual patterns within a simple step‑based grid or a MIDI sequence (within a piano‑roll editing environment). Once a number of patterns had been created, these can be arranged (sequenced) and layered along a timeline of a multi‑lane Playlist window to construct a song‑based musical arrangement. The output of each Generator can be routed to a Mixer ‘Insert’ track (think mixer channel in more conventional DAW/sequencer mixing nomenclature) where you can process the sounds further using an array of the usual effects or EQ options, as well as making the standard level and pan adjustments to create your overall mix.

While there was undoubtedly something of an unconventional nature about the workflow (and terminology) compared to some more mainstream DAW/sequencers, as a means of creating instrumental music from sample and virtual instrument sources, FL Studio has always been streamlined and efficient. From its first release, it quickly gained something of a cult following.

By v4 (reviewed in the November 2003 issue), basic audio recording was introduced and each subsequent release continued to refine the feature set, adding things such as new MIDI editing options, new Generators, support for third‑party plug‑ins, new effects options, beat‑slicing, improved audio recording and automation. By the time of that 2010 SOS review, v9 introduced support for multicore CPUs, v10 then added a modular system for chaining together instruments and effects called Patcher, v11 brought further new plug‑ins, v12 (2015) revamped the UI (including the mixer) and, under the hood, improved 32‑bit and 64‑bit plug‑in support.

In 2018, Image Line then missed out numbers 13 to 19 and launched v20 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the initial release. This provided support for multiple time signatures, MIDI conversion to audio, improved plug‑in delay compensation, track freezing and, significantly, support for Mac OS. However, FL Studio 20’s origins as a pattern‑based music creation platform were still very much in evidence, but the software had for some time firmly qualified as a full‑blown DAW/sequencer.

Fruity Flavours

For maximum accessibility, the current FL Studio line‑up includes four different feature set/price combinations; Fruity Edition, Producer Edition, Signature Bundle and the Signature+All Plugins Bundle. The Fruity Edition is a MIDI‑only entry‑level introduction and could perhaps be seen as a highly evolved version (it still manages to offer some 80+ instruments and effects) of the original Fruity Loops concept. The Producer Edition adds audio recording/sequencing, some useful additional instruments (eg. Sytrus and Slicex) and a number of additional effects (eg. Vocodex and the impressive Maximus multiband maximiser). The Signature Bundle adds further features, instruments and effects including the Harmless synth, the Hardcore guitar effects and expanded options for video playback.

For the purposes of this review, I had access to the Signature+All Plugins Bundle and this includes a number of additional instrument and effects plug‑ins within the Image Line catalogue that can otherwise be purchased separately from FL Studio. These include the impressive Sawer, Poizone, Morphine and Transistor Bass that, individually, are in the £50‑£70$69‑$99 price range.

Upgrade routes are available between the various editions, but the most notable marketing element is the Lifetime Free Updates (LFU) policy. This applies within any specific edition so, for example, if you happen to have purchased the FL Studio Producer Edition back at v9, you will have been able to download all the subsequent versions of the same edition (including the current 20.8 version) without further charge. Of course, Image Line hope you will be purchasing either upgrades to a higher edition, or additional individual instruments, effects or sample packs from their catalogue to keep their income stream healthy. LFU might also be susceptible to long‑term changes in the consistency of the range of editions offered but, even so, once you have bought into the FL Studio line, it’s a good deal for loyal users.

Core Concepts For U & I

So how are those underlying core concepts described above delivered in the current iteration of the FL Studio UI? Thankfully, for long‑standing users, there is lots that will be familiar, although the somewhat unconventional overall workflow — derived from FL Studio’s historical roots — might induce a little head‑scratching in new users coming from more conventional workflows found in DAWs such as Cubase or Logic.

The main components of the UI are the top‑most Toolbar (with access to the main menu options, transport controls and the key editing tools), plus individual windows containing the Browser, Channel Rack, Playlist and Mixer. There is also a very well‑featured Piano Roll editor window. The user gets plenty of control over how these various windows are arranged to best suit their personal workflow preferences.

The Channel Rack is where you assemble your collection of sound sources for the project and edit any step‑sequencer patterns you wish to create.The Channel Rack is where you assemble your collection of sound sources for the project and edit any step‑sequencer patterns you wish to create.The Browser can be considered as a one‑stop‑shop for access to all your FL Studio projects, samples, instrument and effects plug‑ins (whether from Image Line or other third‑party developers), various forms of presets plus a number of other categories of media items. Things can get quite busy as you browse for what you want (for example, if you have a lot of individual plug‑ins installed on the host system), but it is also convenient to know that all these resources can be accessed from a single location.

The Channel Rack is perhaps the element of the FL Studio workflow that feels unusual to users of more conventional DAW/sequencers, although the concept is simple enough in practice. Essentially, this is where you assemble a list of the sound sources that you wish to use in the current project. These can be dragged and dropped from the Browser or, for virtual instruments, accessed via the ‘+’ button at the base of the Channel Rack window. By default, each Generator (sound source/channel) within the Channel Rack also offers a default 16‑step sequencer (adjustable from one through to 512, and you can simply increase the width of the Channel Rack window to see more steps). For simple drum sounds, this can then be instantly used to create a drum pattern. Patterns can be added within the Playlist window (where a list of the patterns created is shown down the left side) and whichever pattern is selected within the Playlist window becomes the active pattern for editing in the Channel Rack display.

Via a pop‑up menu, you can switch a Generator to use the Piano Roll editor within the currently selected pattern rather than the step sequencer. Then, as soon as any notes are created within the Piano Roll window (manually or by recording from a MIDI keyboard), the Channel Rack mirrors the note sequence in a mini display. This note sequence becomes part of the current pattern and a single pattern can contain sounds from multiple Generators, some using the step‑based sequencer and others using the Piano Roll. There are obvious workflow choices here that will be a matter of personal preference; either combine your step‑based and piano roll sequences within single patterns or keep any piano roll‑based sequences for individual Generators in their own patterns. As described below, the Playlist window is flexible enough to accommodate both.

The Playlist window lets you organise your patterns and build the arrangement for your project.The Playlist window lets you organise your patterns and build the arrangement for your project.

Aside from holding the list of patterns, the Playlist window is also where you arrange those patterns (and audio, but I’ll come back to that in a minute) across the horizontal timeline to structure your song. Patterns can be placed on any of the vertical list of tracks. You can layer patterns (so more than one pattern is in playback at the same time) and the same pattern can be placed upon any of the tracks (there is no fixed relationship between a Playlist track and a channel in the Channel Rack or pattern in the Playlist itself). The Toolbar’s transport section allows you to toggle playback between pattern and song modes making it easy to build a single pattern or to audition the overall composition.

FL Studio’s Mixer also brings its own take (and terminology) to the virtual mixer concept. By default, the audio output from all Generator’s in the Channel Rack are sent to the Mixer’s stereo master output. However, if you need to do more than just volume and pan adjustment (which can be done within the Channel Rack) then you can route the audio output to a specific Insert (mixer channel) within the Mixer. The routing options are actually very flexible, and you have access to a pretty comprehensive array of mixer controls as well as being able to configure group busses, insert and send‑style effects, and options for mix automation.

FL Studio’s Mixer has some slightly unconventional aspects but offers a good array of features and very flexible audio routing.FL Studio’s Mixer has some slightly unconventional aspects but offers a good array of features and very flexible audio routing.

Recording audio does require a certain amount of pre‑configuration compared to some other DAW/sequencers (although there is a ‘one‑click audio recording’ option within the Tools menu that can speed things up) but it’s also fairly flexible. You can record either an audio clip to the currently selected pattern (in Pattern mode) or to a Playlist track (in Song mode). The latter would obviously make the most sense for extended audio parts such as lead vocals or acoustic instruments where their performance may span the entire timeline. Once recorded, you have access to a good range of standard audio editing options. If I needed to record a full band or a many‑mic orchestral session, I’m not sure FL Studio would be my first choice of platform but, for tasks such as adding vocal parts or an acoustic instrument or three, it is more than capable of getting the job done.

While this operation overview gives an insight into the slightly unconventional workflow, it doesn’t give an impression of just how deep FL Studio has now become. It would be impossible to cover all the detailed functionality in a review of this length but, for me, two impressive aspects are worth highlighting. First, the overall combination of MIDI editing options and the pattern‑based sequencing combine to make a composition process that is both very efficient and very creative. Second, even in the modestly priced Fruity Edition, the combination of supplied virtual instruments delivers a massive array of very usable sounds. If EDM (in its broadest sense) is your field, you could make a considerable amount of music without needing to go beyond the bundled instrument plug‑ins.

Fresh Fruit

It is perhaps easier give a hint of FL Studio’s depth by exploring some of the new and improved features of this latest 20.8 release. For example, 20.8 includes two new ‘utility’‑style plug‑ins; Tuner and Frequency Splitter. The first of these is simply an instrument tuner and, on a Mixer Insert (channel) that has a suitable audio input specified, the rather nice UI does a very good job with guitars or other strung instruments.

Perhaps more interesting — and certainly something that has plenty of power‑user applications — is Frequency Splitter. Space precludes a comprehensive description of all the features but, essentially, when placed as an effect on a particular Mixer insert channel, any audio routed to that channel can be split into either two or three frequency bands. The Send outputs (on the right‑bottom of the UI) can then be set to route audio from each band to a further Mixer insert channel where, of course, each band can be subjected to its own chain of further processing. You have control over the frequency splits between the bands, the filter slope and the gain applied to each band. You can also opt for a linear phase mode and various precision levels (each with different quality and latency outcomes) while the visual display has a new histogram display and heatmap option to show where the energy is focused across the frequency spectrum.

Frequency Splitter is a powerful new utility within the 20.8 update.Frequency Splitter is a powerful new utility within the 20.8 update.

There are all sorts of interesting applications for this frequency split audio. For example, you could choose to apply reverb (or a modulation effect) to the mid and high bands of a sound but not the low band. This could let you get a bit more dramatic with the effect on the mids/highs but leaving the low‑end untouched and a more solid foundation. Equally, you could target a specific band with a side‑chained compressor (for example, a compressor on the mid‑band of an instrument bus could receive a side‑chain input from the lead vocal to duck a dB or three from just the mid‑range when the vocal is present) or use a specific band as a side‑chain input to duck another sound (the low end of a frequency‑split drum loop could be set to duck the bass bus). Anyway, this is a powerful utility, and it is included with all editions of FL Studio.

Plug‑in Polish

Alongside the new plug‑ins, some existing ones have received enhancements. Most notable amongst these is Parametric EQ 2. This powerful seven‑band EQ plug‑in now also has a linear phase mode and optimisations to ensure efficient CPU usage. Bands can also now be solo’ed or muted to make targeting your EQ moves easier. While it can obviously be used for surgical‑level EQ tasks, given the smoothness with which it operates, a little bit of automation means it can also be used for some creative filter‑sweep effects. And, as with Frequency Splitter, the visualisation options have been expanded with a histogram mode that can be used independently or with the heatmap display.

The Maximus maximiser plug‑in has also benefited from the new linear phase mode and visualisation options. This is a powerful, three‑band, compressor/limiter with an additional master band, and has plenty of options including saturation and parallel processing to shape a sound. Whether applied to a critical individual mix element, a drum buss, or the master bus output, it can span the styles from subtle control through to full‑bore pumping loudness.

Instrumental Changes

When you drop a single sample into the Channel Rack, this is actually placed within an instance of the Channel Sampler. This was already a powerful tool for turning a single sample into a full‑blown playable instrument including envelopes, modulation options, a nice filter and a compact arpeggiator. In this release, new copy and paste options between instances of Channel Sampler have been added for improved workflow and to make it easier to drop a replacement sample into an existing instance. By the way, one of FL Studio’s other sampler instruments — DirectWave — does an equally good job supporting multisample instruments.

Amongst the many virtual instruments included in FL Studio, Flex is a personal favourite, and this has also received some further refinements in this release. There is a much‑improved browser, a random preset selection button, and an option to disable the arpeggiator within presets if desired. In addition, Transistor Bass, Image Line’s nod to the original Roland TB303, has also been improved with some tweaks to the underlying sound engine. The aim was to get it even closer in sonic terms to the original. I can’t remember the last time I used an actual TB303 (it was a long time ago!), but whether 100‑percent accurate or not, Transistor Bass sounds fabulous and can do the super‑squelchy thing very effectively.

All versions of FL Studio ship with a great collection of virtual instruments, including the impressive Flex.All versions of FL Studio ship with a great collection of virtual instruments, including the impressive Flex.

Go With The Flow

FL Studio 20.8 also brings a host of more modest workflow refinements. There are lots of these but a few are worthy of a specific mention. For example, within the automation system, there are now options to both merge and clone automation clips, and these include some flexible assignment options. Another addition that is useful for mix automation is available on the menu that pops open when you right‑click on an automatable control (in an instrument, effect or the mixer, for example). Added to this menu is the ‘Init song with this position’ option that then inserts the control’s currently displayed value at the start of the project. While in previous versions of FL Studio, loading a new plug‑in into a project during playback could result in a noticeable audio glitch, in 20.8, this process is now glitch‑free; it’s a small detail but nice to see.

FL Studio includes a Control Surface plug‑in, allowing you to build virtual control surfaces for specific tasks. This now has new options for copying existing controls, making the whole process much more efficient. In terms of cosmetics, you can now also change the 3D styling of the buttons on the Toolbar to a more modern flat appearance. And, if you need to keep an eye on the size of your FL Studio projects, you can now set a maximum file size that will trigger a warning if a project file reaches that threshold. Finally, language support has been expanded, with Chinese now added and, apparently, others to follow shortly.

As a first‑stop, all‑in‑one, option for EDM production, FL Studio 20.8 is mightily impressive.

Eat More Fruit?

When your business model includes free lifetime updates, bug‑fix releases aside, it is perhaps less imperative that each update makes quite such a significant splash when it arrives. That said, Image Line have added enough here to keep their loyal user‑base happy that forward momentum is continuing at a healthy rate. The usual DAW/sequencer review question of ‘should you upgrade?’ is therefore redundant; existing users will upgrade free of charge and undoubtedly enjoy the new features.

Given the time, effort and investment involved to become familiar with any DAW/sequencer, there is a justifiable inertia when it comes to switching, so the more interesting (and difficult) question is whether FL Studio 20.8 is going to attract new users away from their existing DAW platform. Equally, for those looking to take their first steps into the wonderland that is the modern DAW, is FL Studio 20.8 a worthy contender for your cash?

In short, I think the origins of FL Studio outlined earlier are still very much at the heart of answering these questions. While the application contains all the major ingredients required of any modern DAW/sequencer, it remains an environment that is going to suit those working in electronic music styles more than, for example, classic rock, metal or orchestral music. This is not a criticism — quite the opposite — it is an acknowledgment of the considerable strengths the software has for EDM production. And, if push came to shove, you most certainly could record thrash metal or write an orchestral film score with FL Studio, but if that was your main gig, there are probably platforms better suited to the task. Moving from one of the more conventional DAW options such as Cubase or Logic might well require a period of adjustment — FL Studio does some things very much in its own way — but to a certain extent, that’s a statement that could be made when moving between any two platforms.

For budding EDM producers, though, FL Studio’s strengths are many. For me, there are two obvious highlights: a creative, pattern‑based, sequencing workflow and a very impressive array of core virtual instruments and effects (meaning considerably less need for additional third‑party options). The Producer Edition represents an interesting sweet‑spot in this regard with simple upgrade paths to the bigger bundles as and when required. With a free, unlimited‑time trial available to download, you don’t really need to take my word for it but, as a first‑stop, all‑in‑one, option for EDM production, FL Studio 20.8 is mightily impressive.

Smoother Mover

Image Line FL StudioWhile FL Studio is perhaps not best known as a platform for those writing music‑to‑picture, it does offer two plug‑ins with video support: FL Video Player 2 and the ZGE Visualizer. Both of these have been improved in this release with the option to pre‑load video into RAM for improved playback performance and reduced CPU loads. Video Player 2 — which is included from the Signature Bundle upwards — is a conventional video playback (no rendering is included) plug‑in. It does, however, support a range of common video formats and includes a SMPTE timecode display.

ZGE Visualizer allows you to create visualisation videos to complement your music projects and allows you to combine visualisation effects from a range of supplied options with both still images and video. You can now drag and drop content to this window, and this automatically creates a new layer to work with. The end results can be rendered and it’s a neat tool for producers/DJs looking to add visual content to their sets.

Alternatives

For those focussed on EDM production and looking to make their first serious investment in a DAW/sequencer platform, the obvious alternatives to FL Studio would be Reason and Ableton Live. Like FL Studio, both can absolutely do service as a general recording and sequencing platform but, equally, both have a toolset that offers something particularly suited to electronic styles. A slightly more left‑field choice — although most certainly very capable and employing a similar pattern‑based approach to song construction to FL Studio — would be Korg’s Gadget although, at present, this is OS X (and iOS) only.

Pros

  • Creative workflow designed with EDM in mind.
  • Impressive array of virtual instruments and samples included.
  • Free lifetime updates an obvious attraction for loyal users.

Cons

  • That creative workflow includes some unconventional aspects.
  • Perhaps not the most obvious choice for purely audio‑based recording projects.

Summary

FL Studio remains an impressive environment for the production of electronic music styles. The workflow remains very creative, if somewhat unconventional in places, while the included instrument and effects options are hugely impressive.

Test Spec

  • Apple iMac running MacOS 10.15.7, 3.5GHz Intel Core i7, 32GB RAM.
  • FL Studio 20.8

Information

Fruity £91.20, Producer £183.60, Signature £276, All Plugins Edition £441.44. Prices include VAT.

www.image-line.com

Fruity $99, Producer $199, Signature $299, All Plugins Edition $499.

www.image-line.com

Published March 2021

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