FIG. 1: Image Line FL Studio in action: the browser (left), step sequencer (inner left), mixer (upper right), playlist tracks (center right) and multiband compressor (center foreground). A portion of the panel of the optional Poizone 2 synth is visible at lower right.
Saying Image Line FL Studio has a rich feature set is like saying a Christmas tree has some pretty things hanging on it. It's accurate, but it doesn't even begin to describe what you'll see. This DAW is packed, and it's also somewhat quirky — definitely not a “me too” multitrack sequencer. If you're migrating from another program, you may need a few days to get used to the FL way. (The excellent video tutorials on Image Line's Website will help get you up to speed.)
Version 9 adds some important new features, but it's not a major overhaul. Image Line reports that FL Studio will run on Intel Macs using Boot Camp with either Windows XP or Vista; PC users can use Windows 7, Vista, XP or 2000. I reviewed it on my trusty MusicXPC laptop, powered by Windows XP. FL Studio has always been rock-solid for me, and V. 9 was no exception. I encountered only one minor glitch, which has already been fixed for the next release.
The program is available in four versions; I reviewed the high-end Signature Bundle. The Image Line Website has a large chart with details on how the versions differ.
Time in the Studio
If you've never seen or worked with FL Studio, here are some things you'll want to know. It comes with a large and varied set of software instruments and effects. The included instrument set features FM synthesis, virtual analog, sample playback, speech synthesis, a plucked-string model and a full-bore modular D.I.Y. synthesizer builder called SynthMaker. (For a closer look at a few of the instruments, see the sidebar on page 54, “A Big Box of Toys.”) Also included is a massive sound library. Portions of the library are not installed, but you can download them from within the program.
FL Studio has all the DAW features you'd expect — audio and MIDI tracks, VST and ReWire hosting, MP3 export, automation — and some you wouldn't expect. The automation includes some intelligent features such as control-signal mixing and real-time mathematical processing not found in any other DAW. FL Studio can also run as a DXi or VST instrument in another host, or as a ReWire client. Purchasers get lifetime free updates.
FIG. 2: FL''s built-in Slicex instrument can slice loops, crossfade between two loops, send slices to separate mixer channels and process individual slices using as many as eight independent Articulators. Each Articulator has its own filter, LFO, envelopes and so on.
The user interface is quite window-intensive (see Fig. 1). FL Studio lacks a system for saving and restoring screen layouts, but you can open and close windows with the computer's Function keys. Creating beats using sampled drum sounds is extremely quick and intuitive, thanks to the integrated step sequencer. Thinking of songs as collections of repeating patterns is encouraged in FL Studio, but you can record in a linear way if you want. Slicing up sampled beats is built in, and beat-slicing has lots of cool, unexpected features, thanks to the ridiculously powerful Slicex instrument (see Fig. 2).
New UI Features
The Playlist window in FL Studio, equivalent to other DAWs' Track window, has long been a work in progress. In V. 9, you can finally name your tracks and mute them, just as you can in most DAWs. (You can still mute sound sources the old way, too, in the list of Generators.) This new approach to muting audio clips is a tremendous improvement.
The names of patterns are now displayed in the bar at the top of the Step Sequencer window, and you can select a pattern from a drop-down in the same location. This simple feature means a big improvement in workflow.
Not a UI feature, but definitely worth noting: FL's multithreading has been beefed up. If you have a CPU with multiple cores, this will increase the number of effects and virtual instruments you can run simultaneously.
The original FL vocoder was strictly mono; it uses the left-channel input as the carrier and the right-channel as the modulator. It's still included in the program for compatibility with existing songs, but the Vocodex plug-in is entirely new. Vocodex uses a mono modulator signal, but the carrier can be stereo due to the mixer's new sidechain capability (more about that soon).
For previewing and live performance, Vocodex has its own basic sound source. You can choose from about 25 sounds, such as Elderly and Tube, which are optimized for vocoding. When Vocodex is the front window, the sound source responds to a MIDI keyboard so you can play chords on the keyboard, speak into a microphone and vocode onstage.
Vocodex uses the standard FL multi-segment envelope window (also used in mixer automation, the Sytrus FM synth and so on) for contouring more than a dozen parameters across the frequency spectrum. Using the envelope contours, you can adjust band gain, width and distribution; modulator gain; envelope attack, hold and release; and so on. I'm not aware of any other vocoder that gives you so much control (see Web Clip 1).
Mixing and Recording
The FL Studio mixer has been expanded from 64 channels to 99. More significant, you can now send any channel's output either to aux buses (in any combination) as before or to the new sidechain buses (in any combination). So far, only a few of the FL effects take advantage of this feature. In addition to Vocodex, the Fruity Limiter accepts a sidechain input in Compressor mode, and the Fruity Stereo Shaper can send its in/out difference signal to a sidechain. A new plug-in Options window lets you route MIDI and sidechain audio into third-party plug-in effects.
When audio recording was first added to FL Studio, the Edison audio editor was inserted as an effect and you recorded into Edison. The audio in Edison was then dragged into a track and saved to a disk file. You can still work this way in FL 9, but now you can record straight to the track, the way it's done in other DAWs.
In Loop-Record mode, FL mutes the previous audio takes as the new loop starts. I had no trouble using this feature to comp a vocal track, though I had to discover by trial and error how to mute individual audio clips after slicing a take apart. Alt-clicking on a clip mutes it, but even after I figured this out, I couldn't find it mentioned in the manual. I'm sure it's in there somewhere, though: The manual (a large Windows Help file) has been beefed up considerably for this release. It's full of cross-links, but because FL Studio is a complex program, you may need to poke around to find the details you need.
The Big Picture
I've been a fan of FL Studio for a long time, but thanks to the improvements in V. 9, I can finally stop adding “…although the audio track handling is a little weird” whenever I talk about it. Audio recording and audio track mute buttons now work the way musicians expect. The new Vocodex vocoder and improved multithreading are just the icing on a rich and tasty cake. Yes, I still have a few little items on my wish list. But if you're a Windows user who's looking for a full-featured DAW, there's no excuse for not downloading the demo and checking out FL Studio.
Jim Aikin writes about music technology and teaches classical cello. His story “Leaving the Station” appeared in the December '09 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.
GUIDE TO EM METERS
5 Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 Clearly above average; very desirable
3 Good; meets expectations
2 Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 Unacceptably flawed
A Big Box of Toys
When I need to sit a vocal track better in a mix, I often employ a technique called serial compression. It involves using multiple compressors — mostly with very low ratios and high thresholds — placed on the same source. I will usually set up the first compressor to hit the vocal mildly at, say, a 3:1 ratio with a slow-to-medium attack and a moderately fast release. Then I will insert a really short delay immediately after the compressor and set it up so that the signal is about 30-percent wet on the output. For the delay, I typically use something like a Roland RE-201 Space Echo, or even the UAD RE-201 plug-in (see Fig. 3).
After I set up the delay, I will insert an EQ if needed, but otherwise will go straight to inserting a limiter or a compressor with a very high ratio (20:1 or higher). I'll usually set the limiter to grab very aggressively and release very quickly so I can introduce a bit of distortion, as well as the breathing and pumping of the limiter while it exaggerates the delay on the vocal without sounding like a simple slapback. It will sometimes sound like a small room rather than a delay because the second limiter doesn't release until after the delay begins to taper off, creating a sense of excitement and space on the vocal itself. You can also do this with reverbs instead of delays.
Image Line FL Studio includes a large group of built-in instruments and effects, far too many to discuss them all in detail here. Some of the instruments, such as the new Sakura (Mac/Win, $99) physical-modeled plucked-string and Toxic Biohazard (Mac/Win, $99) FM synth, are optional add-ons. They come installed with FL Studio so you can try them out, but they won't be loaded with songs you save until you purchase them.
Others, such as the Sytrus (Win, $179) FM synth and DirectWave (Win, $99) multisampler, are included in the high-end FL Studio Signature Bundle but are available as optional add-ons in less-expensive versions of FL Studio. (They're also available as VST plug-ins that should work with any Windows DAW.) Still other instruments are fully functional even in the less-expensive versions; for details, consult the features chart on the Image Line Website (flstudio.image-line.com/documents/features.html).
To give you an idea of what FL Studio can do, let's look at the new Gross Beat effects plug-in (Win, $99) and a small selection of the older instruments (all included in the program).
FIG. A: Gross Beat gives you instant access to 36 delay contours and 36 amplitude contours. The big graphic editing area shows the contour that''s active for editing in green, and the other contour that''s currently playing is in brown.
Gross Beat: Gross Beat is a very fun and intuitive rhythm-oriented effects plug-in. It produces gated rhythms, stuttering delays and scratch-type sounds (see Web Clip A). It's based on a delay-line section and an amplitude-control section, each of which is edited graphically (see Fig. A). Each section has a number of editable presets, and you can switch presets while the music plays either using mouse-clicks or by tapping keys on a MIDI keyboard. Preset switching can occur instantly, on the next beat or on the next bar line. At the moment, Gross Beat is limited to one bar of 4/4 time, but that's not going to be a problem for most of the music styles that you'll use this type of effect in.
By dragging points around in the graphic envelope window, you can edit either the amplitude or the delay of the incoming signal, again without interrupting the flow of the music. The window has a snap grid, naturally. Attack and Release knobs can smooth out the sharp transitions in amplitude gating, which otherwise may click audibly, and both sections have wet/dry knobs.
Wasp and Wasp XT: Vintage analog synth lovers will gravitate toward the Wasp and Wasp XT synths. They have a similar three-oscillator design with dual LFOs, but the XT version adds a filter keyboard tracking knob, a mod envelope and a couple of other features.
FIG. B: The Drive, Feedback and Presence knobs ensure that Slayer will cut through a mix like a dentist''s drill—that part is no joke.
Speech Synthesizer: For robot voices, nothing beats a cheesy speech synthesizer, and FL has one. Type whatever phrase you like in ordinary English (no arcane code to learn), choose a voice from among 20 options such as Old Woman and Tipsy, and click the Accept button. The phrase will be saved as a collection of samples and loaded into a Slicer instrument, and a piano-roll note clip will be created to play the Slicer. You can then add repetitions, make the voice sing and so on.
Slayer: Want to play guitar rock but you don't have a guitar player? Not to worry; just load FL Slayer (see Fig. B). This modeled instrument has a movable pickup, string damping, amp and speaker models, and two pitch-bend inputs — one of which can be stepped by semitones to simulate slides up or down a fretboard.
Autogun: New in FL 9, Autogun is a presets-only, noneditable synth based on Image Line's additive Ogun synth engine. The panel leads you to believe there are more than 4 billion presets. When you find one you like (and most of them sound great, by the way), you can scribble the number down somewhere. But because all of the presets I tried had names, one-sentence descriptions and a credit for the name of the programmer, and there were apparently only seven or eight programmers in all, I assume that there must be some repetition in the preset bank. No matter. The idea is to find a sound that inspires you and make some music.