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Review: Image Line FL Studio XXL (Win)

September 1, 2008
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Image Line's FL Studio (formerly known as Fruityloops) has seen a constant evolution from a shareware pattern-based sequencer to a full-fledged environment for audio production. The program's ten-year evolution continues, with version 8 adding even more goodies.

FL Studio 8 is available in four different configurations, each with different feature sets and prices (three of these are available in either boxed or download form). Unlike with many competing programs, you're entitled to free updates for life when you purchase a license. I downloaded and installed the XXL version, which is the top of the line. After a quick online registration process, the software was activated and ready to go.

We've covered FL Studio several times before (most recently in the April 2006 issue, available at emusician.com), so I'll just review the basics and discuss the newest features. FL Studio combines pattern-based sequencing with audio recording, mixing, and a ton of great sound generators and effects. The term pattern-based sequencing probably doesn't do the program justice, however, because it's relatively easy to overlay linear tracks on top of the assembled patterns. The program supports ReWire, VSTi, and DXi instruments and DX and VST effects, and it can even provide multiple outputs to other host programs using ReWire, DXi, or VSTi.

Integration Station

FIG. 1: FL Studio''s Playlist view allows patterns, Audio Clips, and automation to appear in the same view. Note that the traditional block style for patterns is still available.

FIG. 1: FL Studio''s Playlist view allows patterns, Audio Clips, and automation to appear in the same view. Note that the traditional block style for patterns is still available.

One complaint about earlier versions of FL Studio was that the audio-recording features seemed tacked on to the original pattern-based environment, and I'm happy to report that Image Line is making strides to improve this. The Playlist view (see Fig. 1) now allows Clips containing audio, pattern, and automation events to appear side by side, with a common set of tools to manipulate all three (including slip edit capabilities, which are new to this version).

The familiar block-style representation of patterns, which lets you build a matrix of patterns as rows and bars with beats as columns, is still available and appears below the Clips pane. While I appreciate the flexibility, I found the two independent representations to be confusing in practice — adding a Pattern Clip in the Clips pane doesn't add the same pattern at the same point in time in the Blocks pane. Only Pattern Clips have the ability to be resized and slip edited, so unless you're working with a file from an earlier version, I recommend simply ignoring the Blocks pane. There's an option to easily convert the old format to Pattern Clips if needed.

FIG. 2: The Edison audio editor is packaged as an effects plug-in, which lets you record and process audio anywhere you can place an effect.

FIG. 2: The Edison audio editor is packaged as an effects plug-in, which lets you record and process audio anywhere you can place an effect.

You get multiple ways to record audio as well. The original method (creating Clips directly in the Playlist view) is still there, but now FL Studio offers the Edison audio editor plug-in (see Fig. 2). Edison is a rather ingenious concept — think of it as a stereo audio editor embedded in an effects plug-in. The ingenious part is that this “effect” can actually record audio just like a standalone program. Simply insert Edison into an effects slot in FL Studio's mixer and connect that mixer channel to your audio source.

There are four modes of recording in Edison. It has its own set of transport controls, so the first mode is simply to press the record button and go. Two modes are input triggered and start recording when audio is detected (one of these stops the transport when the audio falls below a threshold level; the other doesn't). You can also instruct Edison to start and stop in sync with the main FL Studio transport.

Once you've recorded your audio, you can make any desired edits and send the edited work to the Playlist as an Audio Clip. And you don't necessarily have to record audio in order to use Edison. The plug-in also supports loading samples from disk.

As an audio editor, Edison covers the basics pretty well. You can do the slicing and dicing you'd expect, and there are provisions for fades, normalization, and loop tuning. It also offers convolution reverb, noise reduction, and a pitch-to-MIDI function that works pretty well on monophonic passages. You can see your audio in the spectral domain, but you can't directly manipulate the individual frequencies by mousing around in the spectrum. You can perform EQ operations on a time selection, however, which is a roughly comparable operation.

Slice the Beat

FIG. 3: The Slicex plug-in provides powerful beat-slicing capabilities. You can cycle between two different waveforms and modulate each slice with different parameters.

FIG. 3: The Slicex plug-in provides powerful beat-slicing capabilities. You can cycle between two different waveforms and modulate each slice with different parameters.

FL Studio already had a basic beat slicer, but the new Slicex generator puts the original one to shame (see Fig. 3). Slicex holds different waveforms in its two Decks and provides the requisite tools to divide the waves into regions either manually or automatically according to time, pitch, or transients. Once the regions are in place, you can sync them to tempo and assign them to individual MIDI notes. All of the waveform editing from Edison exists here as well.

That's just the start of the fun, however, because Slicex also includes tools to mix and mangle the regions in every way imaginable. Each region (in both Decks) can be given its own mixer channel, and each can be assigned to articulators controlling amplitude, a filter, playback speed, and sample start. There are eight articulators in all, so you're likely to reuse them across regions.

Each articulator provides settings for its filter (filter type, slope, and so on) and a set of modulators. These modulators can control panning, level, cutoff frequency, resonance, playback speed, and the sample start position, and the source of this modulation can come from ADSR envelope generators, LFOs, the axes of an x-y controller, keyboard Velocity, or a random-number generator.

What's more, there are layering settings that control which Deck you're hearing. You can cycle between the Decks randomly or predictably, layer them both, or map them to one of the axes of the x-y controller. I loaded two complementary beats in the Decks, mapped the layer control and cutoff frequency to the x-y controller, and recorded to Edison as I tweaked the controls. You can hear the results in Web Clip 1.

Slicex is a lot of fun and should be just the ticket for creating constantly evolving dance grooves. For details on additional plug-ins and features new to this version of FL Studio, see the online bonus material at emusician.com.

The Big Picture

FL Studio certainly has plenty of functionality and flexibility, but there is a cost: at times I found the program to be confusing and nonintuitive. For example, its concept of channels is completely independent of what would typically be considered channels in the Mixer view (here they are called Inserts). By default, adding a new channel in your FL Studio project does nothing in the Mixer — you must explicitly assign a Mixer Insert; otherwise, the audio simply gets summed in the Master channel.

When recording audio, the online help cautions against recording in the Master channel, yet this is precisely what will happen if you simply press the main record button and choose the recommended option of recording audio into Edison (and this recorded audio isn't visible in the Playlist until you put it there). I certainly prefer a one-to-one-to-one relationship between channels of audio source material, channel strips in the mixer, and tracks in the playlist. The concept of recorded audio existing only in the Master channel makes no sense to me.

FL Studio has a reputation for extreme flexibility by not enforcing strict rules about what connects to what. While experienced FL Studio users will probably feel right at home, first-time users may find themselves frustrated or confused by a program that doesn't follow the same conventions as other DAWs and that doesn't always constrain the user to choices that will achieve a desirable outcome.

I've reviewed many sequencers and digital audio programs, and I found myself going to the online help more frequently with this application than any other. Fortunately, the program is well documented, and video tutorials are available online (although as of this writing, most of the new version 8 features have no video tutorials).

Nevertheless, all of FL Studio's functionality represents a compelling value, especially when you consider Image Line's policy of free updates for life. I had a blast playing with the dozens of different sound generators spanning a wide spectrum of synthesis techniques. And the program's pattern-based approach can be a great way to foster the creative process, especially if you're into dance or techno music. Download the FL Studio demo and try it for yourself.


Allan Metts is an Atlanta-based musician, software/systems designer, and consultant. Check him out at ametts.com.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

digital audio sequencer $299 (download) $399 (boxed)

PROS: Lots of included sound generators and effects. Pattern-based approach fosters experimentation and creativity. Flexible audio and controller routing. Capable beat slicing.

CONS: Application can be confusing and nonintuitive at times. Windows can obscure one another in interface.

FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5
EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5
DOCUMENTATION 1 2 3 4 5
VALUE 1 2 3 4 5
Image Line
image-line.com

In our reviews, prices are MAP or street unless otherwise noted.

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