Every digital audio sequencer has its own vibe. For all its power, few of us would describe the monolithic gray Pro Tools interface as fun.
FL Studio is fun. It's an amazingly powerful program, fully capable of professional-sounding results, and it's a kick to use.
I reviewed FL Studio 5 in the June 2005 issue of EM. Version 6 adds numerous forward-looking features, from a redesigned mixer and some new effects plug-ins to a couple of inspiring software synths, one of which specializes in 3-D animated video. This review will concentrate on the new features of FL 6. (For a more comprehensive look at FL Studio, read my earlier EM review, which is also available online at www.emusician.com — features covered in that review, such as the speech synthesizer, won't be discussed here.)
FL Studio is a pattern-based sequencer that has a built-in suite of sound makers (Generators, in FL-speak), along with some unusually powerful automation utilities. Audio tracks, beat-slicing, and compatibility with VST, DXi, and ReWire are also part of the package.
FL Studio is available in several configurations. The Express edition costs only $49. But even if you're on a tight budget, the $99 Fruityloops edition is a better buy, because it adds automation and a piano-roll editor and can function as a VSTi or ReWire client. This review covers the XXL version, which includes most of the available Generators and other advanced features.
FL Studio has a mixer with 64 main channels and 4 aux- send channels (see Fig. 1). Each channel can hold as many as eight insert effects and a 3-band EQ. Plug-in delay compensation has been added to the mixer in FL 6.
FIG. 1: The new mixer in FL Studio 6 includes an assignable output routing for each channel (lower right).
The new mixer is resizable, allowing you to view more than 16 main channels at a time. Each channel now has its own record-to-disk button, which is handy when you need to freeze a track as audio, and its own output selector, which makes surround mixing easier. Cute little icons can be added to the channel-strip name area, making it faster and easier to find channels in a complex mix.
Any channel can now be used as an auxiliary channel, which makes it easy to create mix subgroups. The master output is treated as just another send, so you can have a channel fader up (so as to give the channel plenty of signal in a subgroup) and still turn its output to the master channel all the way down, so that the subgroup fader ultimately governs how much of the channel's signal is heard in the master output. Prefader sends are available, as in earlier versions of the program, by means of the Fruity Send plug-in. You can insert this plug-in in any of a channel's eight effects slots, but a Fruity Send can send to only one of the four dedicated aux channels (the name Fruity comes from FL Studio's old and now deprecated name, FruityLoops).
FIG. 2: EQUO is a morphing graphic -equalizer. The input spectrum is displayed as solid bars, the selected preset as bright lines, and the currently active curve as faint lines.
EQUO, a 31-band graphic equalizer that has several standout features, is my favorite of the new plug-ins (see Fig. 2). Eight different EQ curves can be stored in EQUO's memory, and you can glide from one to another by automating the Morph knob (see Web Clip 1). The Shift knob (also automatable) slides the curve up or down through the frequency spectrum. Individual bands can be given their own panning and send-output levels for unusual spatialization and exotic processing effects (see Web Clip 2). Equalization has never been this sexy.
The Fruity Delay Bank (see Fig. 3) has eight delay lines that can be arranged in series or in parallel, or in any combination of the two. Each has its own input and feedback-loop resonant multimode filters, with a choice of three filter slopes. (The input filters can be switched to the output.) A couple of granular parameters can BREAK up the delayed signal in colorful ways. Global wet-level and dry-level knobs round out the feature set.
FIG. 3: The Fruity Delay Bank has eight stereo delay lines, each with its own filters.
FL 6 also has a new 3-band compressor. A high-quality reverb is another welcome addition.
The DirectWave Sampler
I was able to set up a keyboard multisample layout in FL 5 by using the Layer Generator and a bunch of Sampler Generators, but doing so was cumbersome, and Velocity cross-switching was not possible. The percussion-oriented FPC Generator allows Velocity switching and layering, but it has no filters and is limited to 32 drum pads. The new DirectWave Generator (see Fig. 4) provides a much more convenient environment in which to set up complex multisamples. DirectWave is included in XXL, and is available for $79 to other FL Studio owners.
FIG. 4: The DirectWave sample player provides a graphical interface for key zones (top) and -separate panels for sample editing, key zone, and program parameters (bottom).
Each key and Velocity zone in DirectWave has its own envelopes, filters, LFOs, and modulation routings, as well as some quick effects (ring modulator, decimator, quantizer, and phaser). DirectWave has global delay, chorus, and reverb, with separate controls for effects-send level in each zone. Sample-start, loop-start, and loop-end times are among the parameters that can be modulated from Velocity or key position.
Rather than bundle sounds and presets in the DirectWave download, which would be a huge file, Image-Line has developed a unique Direct Download system for downloading the presets you need from a pop-up menu within DirectWave. Guitars, orchestral instruments, ethnic percussion, and acoustic and electric piano are provided, along with hundreds more presets. The quality varies somewhat, but with the library included at no additional cost, DirectWave is an unbeatable deal.
According to the manual, DirectWave can load WAV and Ogg Vorbis samples, and preset files in various formats, including SoundFont 2.0 (though without the voicing parameters), Akai S5000 and 6000, and REX. Compatibility with Native Instruments Battery 2 presets is planned for a future update. The first RX2 file I tried crashed FL Studio, but after I restarted the computer, the same file loaded and played, as did the others I tried. (DirectWave provides no way to extract MIDI data from the REX files, so it isn't a full-featured REX player.)
The Fruity Envelope Controller is a handy addition to the Generators list. It makes no sound itself, but provides four multisegment envelopes and four LFOs. Those can be used as modulation sources by any knob in any part of the program. Triggering the Envelope Controller on certain steps of certain patterns is a quick way to add rhythmic modulation to parameters in Fruity synths that lack that capability. The Envelope Controller can also modulate external hardware synths using FL's Dashboard, a Generator that transmits MIDI, as well as the parameters of most third-party plug-ins.
The Sytrus FM synth has been updated to include an arpeggiator (see Web Clip 3). That is implemented in an odd way, using markers on envelope segments to step through the notes in a held chord. You can set up polyrhythmic arpeggiations within a single preset by creating looping envelopes of different lengths, but programming arpeggios is more difficult. Sytrus remains one of my favorite synthesizers, and it's now available as a separate VSTi and DXi plug-in.
No other sequencer has a Generator like Chrome. To get a more powerful video synthesis system for your live shows, you'd need to work with something like Cycling '74 Max/MSP/Jitter. Chrome has several algorithms for generating images, including lightning bolts and fireworks. In addition, 3-D extruded text and modeled objects can be animated in front of that background. And naturally, the size, rotation, and transparency of the animations can be automated. Chrome can operate in full-screen mode, but its performance will be system dependent. On my 3 GHz Pentium, full-screen animation of one object on whose surface a JPEG image was projected was slow and jerky, and the CPU was working so hard I was in danger of thermal overload.
By the Slice
At $35, BeatSlicer is an affordable and handy addition to FL Studio. The included Fruity Slicer Generator can perform the same basic functions at no additional cost, but BeatSlicer gives you a big waveform display, which makes it easier to find good slice points and to add new ones.
In the past, I haven't paid attention to the Fruity Notebook and the Fruity HTML Notebook. Both are ways of displaying text onscreen, which might be useful for making notes to yourself or collaborators during song development, displaying lyrics at a gig, or running animated GIFs on a second monitor. The Notebook can hold 100 pages of formatted text, which you can copy from any word processor, but it can't hold pictures. Page turns can be automated during song playback. The HTML Notebook displays standard Web pages, including graphics and active links. HTML page selection can't be automated, and there is no browser bar for entering URLs directly, but you can get to any site on the Web through FL Studio if you create a local page that has a link and then click on the link.
I also omitted FL Slayer, a guitar Generator that uses a plucked-string model (see Web Clip 1), from last year's review. Slayer has a movable pickup, its own amp and cabinet simulators, overdrive, damping, and several strum modes, among other features. Because its tone is not based on samples, small variations are often audible when a loop is repeated, adding to the realism of the guitar model.
The piano-roll editor has some unique utilities. You can strum chords, pitch-bend single notes within a chord up or down to new pitches (that works only with built-in FL synths), chop notes apart rhythmically, generate random patterns that are constrained to your preferred harmony, stretch phrases with a single mouse move, and more. Very flexible groove quantizing is also provided.
Sweet and Sour
All versions of FL 6 (except the least expensive) come with 2 GB of useful samples, which can be downloaded from SampleFusion's Web site. Having a big library of percussion hits is a necessity for most FL users, so this content is a welcome addition to the program. Online purchasers of FL get lifetime free updates.
Strangely, the deficiencies in audio track handling that were noted in last year's review still haven't been addressed: you can't mute or unmute audio tracks during playback; overdubs and punch-ins can't lie end to end on the same track; and audio tracks have no names. Audio recording and playback work well enough for basic tasks such as adding vocals, and the audio track automation is excellent, but if your music requires lots of audio tracks and only a few MIDI overdubs, FL Studio may not be the right choice for you.
The Whole Orchard
For musicians who enjoy step sequencing and pattern-based song construction, FL Studio may be the best digital audio sequencer on the market. Once you get used to its unusual user interface, you'll be able to create complex and great-sounding musical arrangements quickly.
The program isn't just for pattern-based techno, however. Recording linear arrangements into piano-roll tracks is just as easy, and you don't have to quantize anything unless you want to. Most FL users combine the two methods — sketching out drum patterns quickly, and then adding linear tracks as needed.
The audio tracks are not well integrated into the program; they still feel somewhat tacked on. But if your music is mainly about sampled and synthesized sound, and if you have a reasonably powerful Windows computer, FL Studio 6 will give you the right ingredients to knock your listeners out.
Jim Aikin is the author of Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming (Backbeat Books, 2004) and writes regularly for EM. Though he loves synthesizers, his favorite instrument is his Jensen 5-string electric cello.
IMAGE-LINE FL Studio XXL 6.0.4
digital audio sequencer
PROS: Excellent suite of sound generators and effects. Versatile automation. Many user-interface amenities. VST, ReWire, and MIDI output support.
CONS: Audio track handling is weak.
EASE OF USE
QUALITY OF SOUNDS