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electronic MUSICIAN

IMAGE-LINE FL Studio 5 (Win)

By Jim Aikin | June 1, 2005

With each new release, the program now known as FL Studio has become incrementally more powerful. It started life as a modest pattern sequencer with a couple of built-in soft synths, suitable for producing beat-oriented music. With the addition of stereo audio tracks and a video window, version 5 leapfrogs past other virtual workstations, and seems poised to take on the major sequencers as a tool for serious music production.

FL Studio 5 has a lot more to offer than just audio tracks and a video window. Audio time stretching is supported, as are clip-based envelopes for audio-level and pan automation. Beats can be automatically split apart (in the same fashion as with Propellerhead's ReCycle) for tempo changes, and a simple wave editor is provided, as well as several new synthesizers. Some of the new synthesizers are available in the XXL version; they are available only as optional add-ons, however, for the less expensive versions (see the sidebar “With Six You Get Elderberry”). Other features include highly configurable wave scratching, a built-in speech synthesizer that can read ordinary English spelling, pattern triggering in live performance, 64 mixer channels, the ability to read MP3 files, a non-real-time arpeggio creator in the piano-roll window, and a huge library of sampled percussion.

FL Studio, version 3.5, was reviewed in the November 2002 issue of EM (at that time, FL Studio was known as FruityLoops). In this review, I'll focus on the new features in version 5; for the benefit of those who aren't familiar with the program, however, here's a brief recap.

Apples and Oranges

The core of FL Studio is a pattern sequencer. Individual patterns can contain notes played by many different Generators. For instance, one pattern may contain notes for six or eight drum samples playing a 2-bar loop; another may contain an 8-bar bass line and chord comp; and so forth. Patterns are arranged into a song in the Playlist window.

The graphical user interface (GUI) for creating patterns and a Playlist is so friendly that one is tempted to call it cute. You can make a drumbeat, for instance, by clicking on buttons in a 16th-note grid, and the beat can then be customized by giving each note its own Velocity, filter cutoff, and so on. On the whole, though, FL Studio is rather window intensive, as shown in Fig. 1.

For standard musical chores, FL Studio's Generators include sample playback, analog-style synthesis, two simple plucked-sound synths, and a MIDI output device for driving external hardware. Resonant multimode filters, envelopes, and LFOs are offered in many of the Generators, as are arpeggiators and other handy widgets. There is also an additive synthesizer that derives timbre information from graphics files, a granular synth, and a speech synth. New and noteworthy are Wave Traveller, Sytrus, and Fruity Pad Controller.

FL Studio hosts third-party DX and VST soft synths and effects. Going in the other direction, you can use FL Studio as a VST or DXi plug-in in another program. FL Studio can also work as a ReWire slave or ReWire host. The FL Studio mixer has a good suite of effects, including all of the expected types.

Automation of just about every parameter is supported. After recording automation in real time by using the mouse to move a knob, you can edit the data graphically. Complex mathematical processes can be used to massage the controller data. While there's no event list, double-clicking on any note in the piano-roll editor opens a pop-up box in which you can change the note's start and end times, Velocity, filter cutoff, and so on.

Overall, FL Studio's GUI is well designed and packed with amenities. Among the new features are nameable time markers for the Playlist window. Double-click on a marker, and the region between it and the next marker is selected for loop playback. Version 5.0.2 adds multiple context-sensitive settings for the Snap grid, a welcome new feature.

You can solo one or more Generator channels, which is useful when you're developing a mix. Unsoloing, however, unmutes all audio and MIDI Generators, not just those that were unmuted before you soloed one of them. With songs that contain more than a few channels, that can be annoying.

Hark! The Lark!

FL Studio 5's implementation of audio tracks is musically usable — I didn't have any problems overdubbing external instrument tracks. Recording without monitoring through FL Studio requires a little subterfuge, but it can be done. Each audio clip has its own pop-up menu, with which you can split the clip into beats, add various kinds of rhythmic stuttering effects, or create a volume or panning envelope. The curves of the envelope segments can be concave, convex, or S-shaped.

Unfortunately, the GUI for audio suffers from the fact that the audio tracks have been grafted onto a pattern-oriented sequencer. All of the sounds in FL Studio, including the sounds in audio tracks, come from Generators, and Generator channels are objects that live in the Step Sequencer window, not in the Playlist window. Yet the audio waveform data is displayed in the Playlist, which corresponds more or less to the Track window in a linear sequencer. As a result, audio tracks have no names in the Playlist window, nor can they be muted and unmuted there, because the mute and solo buttons are in the Step Sequencer window. To make matters worse, you can't mute or unmute an audio track during playback; you can do it only when the transport is stopped.

If you've recorded six or eight vocal takes and you want to create a composite track containing the best phrases from each, you may be dismayed to learn that each take is being played by a different Generator. After you've clipped apart the phrases, the only way to create a single linear audio track containing the final vocal is to bounce it to disk.

To select and move several audio clips at once, you have to change mouse tools three times, because you can't select clips when the pencil tool is active, and you can't move clips when the selection tool is active. Once you've moved them, an extra step is required to deselect them, because you can't do that simply by clicking on one of them with the pencil tool, the way you would in some other audio multitrack programs.

Care is advised when dragging chunks of audio. If you click on a point that is too close to the right end of an audio clip, dragging it will lengthen the clip rather than move it. That time-stretch operation affects all of the clips derived from the same file, and the undo command can't be applied to it. It is an easy way to make a mess of a carefully crafted audio track.

Although audio tracks are displayed in the Playlist window as monaural waveforms, all audio recordings made in FL Studio 5 are stereo. Mono recording isn't supported, but mono files recorded in other programs can be used, and a stereo recording can be collapsed to mono in the WaveEditor.

The WaveEditor window has a few basic utilities, such as cut, copy, paste, normalize, reverse, fade in, and fade out. You can also adjust the start and end points of a looped sample. At present, though, the manufacturers of stand-alone wave editors have no reason to fear losing customers to FL Studio. You can't reduce the level of a region, draw out a pop with a pencil tool, or even zoom in vertically to examine a low-level waveform. If the past history of FL Studio is a reliable guide, however, WaveEditor will probably turn into a great feature in the next version.

Fruit of the Loop

The Sytrus FM synth (see Fig. 2) is a major addition to FL Studio. It provides access to a vast range of timbres that the analog-style Generators can't produce. Sytrus is a hybrid subtractive and 6-operator FM synthesizer with a mouth-watering array of features: three resonant filters with wave shapers; ring modulation; plucked-string synthesis; customizable waveforms; chorus, delay, and reverb effects; more than 50 syncable multisegment envelopes; more than 50 syncable LFOs; and an assortment of modulation mapping curves for things such as keyboard and Velocity tracking.

Sytrus comes with approximately 250 factory presets. It will also load DX7 patches in SysEx format. Such files are readily available on the Internet, which greatly expands the universe of Sytrus sounds. (I grabbed a bunch from Dave Benson's DX7 Page, www.math.uga.edu/~djb/html/dx7.html.) Image-Line Software doesn't claim that the imported patches will be completely accurate, but algorithm and operator tuning information and envelope shapes are handled well. One difference, for example, is that Sytrus doesn't produce nearly as much aliasing in the upper octaves as a real DX.

As I worked with Sytrus, I spotted some frustrating omissions from its feature set. First, it doesn't respond to MIDI sustain pedal messages. (Slayer is the only FL Studio synth that does.) Second, key Velocity can't be used to control envelope attack or decay times. Third, operator amplitude is always controlled by Velocity, even when you don't want it to be. That is especially irksome, because there are certain types of growly synth basses that you'd like to keep at a uniform volume while controlling filter cutoff from Velocity. Despite its flaws, I love Sytrus!

Beat and Scratch

The Fruity Pad Controller (see Fig. 3) is a sample playback Generator designed to play drum kits. FL Studio has been able to trigger percussion samples using its Sampler Generator for a long time, so what's special about the Fruity Pad Controller? First, it lets you load 16 different drum sounds into one Generator slot, which can eliminate some of the clutter in the Pattern grid. Second, each of its sounds can be Velocity multi-sampled, using any combination of Velocity splits and layers per pad. Two acoustic kits are supplied. The Fruity Pad Controller also supports hi-hat mute groups, and a selection of 39 one-measure drum patterns (or the MIDI file of your choice) can be loaded from the Fruity Pad Controller panel. Those features help make up for the fact that, unlike some older Generators, the Fruity Pad Controller has no filter, envelopes, or LFOs.

Say you have an audio file that contains some rap music, and you'd like to add a few scratches — or maybe a lot of scratches. No need to press vinyl, simply create a Wave Traveller (see Fig. 4) and load the file into it. Every key on a MIDI keyboard can scratch the file using a different curve, and you can define each curve by creating as many envelope points as you need. A volume envelope for each key can be created the same way. For each envelope segment, you can choose from among several curve types (one of which is Bezier curves). It's not real-time scratching (you can't do it from a mod wheel, for example), but once you've set up the scratches in a programming session, you can trigger them onstage to create stuttering effects and so forth (see Web Clip 1).

Drum Synth is similar in some ways to Waldorf Attack, which was a great percussion VSTi that's no longer available. Like Attack, DrumSynth lets you program a different percussive tone for each MIDI key. (It has 120 programmable keys, as opposed to Attack's 24.) A few sampled waveforms of the TB-808 and TB-909 persuasion are offered, or you can go with straight analog-type oscillators or noise sources. DrumSynth's parameters are somewhat odd; clicking on the noise switch in one of the oscillators, for instance, provides a slider for moving from Sine through Band to White. The best way to program your own sounds may be to click on and drag things until you hear something that you like. Ring modulation, overdrive, hi-hat mute groups, and effects sends are provided, and morphing from one sound to another with the mod wheel is supported.

Squawk and Talk

For thick, meaty analog-type synth pads, the 3-oscillator SimSynth Generator is a cut above FL Studio's older 3xOSC Generator. The resonant filter can cross-fade between lowpass and bandpass or highpass outputs. Each SimSynth oscillator has a detune-double button (called Warm), and there's also a built-in chorus. While that makes fat sounds easy to produce, pointed one-oscillator sounds are not perfectly in tune, because alternate voices are always slightly higher or lower in pitch. That may be a feature or a bug. Because the tuning imperfections are not large, dance music producers may like them or never even notice.

FL Studio's speech synthesizer is a great tool for those robotic speech phrases beloved by techno music fans the world over. After typing a phrase, you can choose a personality (male, female, child, munchkin, martian, troll, nerd, fly, choirboy, and so on) and play with a few other parameters, such as pitch and speed. The results are usually quite understandable. When you like what you hear, FL Studio will render it as a sliced-up sample file, whose individual slices can be triggered in any rhythm you choose, live or sequenced (see Web Clip 2).

The Juice

Every time I use FL Studio, I'm amazed by its power and by how much fun it is. Unlike a standard sequencer, FL Studio is a production tool with an attitude. It definitely does things that no other software tool can do, and it usually takes only a few quick mouse-clicks. On the other hand, certain tasks, especially audio recording, are more difficult than they ought to be.

Although the release of version 5 brings FL Studio to a whole new level, making it more than competitive with loop-oriented applications such as Propellerhead Reason and Ableton Live, it's still not quite up to the standard of Steinberg Cubase and Cakewalk Sonar as a high-end production tool. The audio tracks are fully functional, but their user interface still needs work. If you're already using a sequencer that speaks VST or ReWire, you may prefer to use FL Studio as a plug-in sound source. Or you may prefer to sequence in FL Studio and use your other applications to handle the audio-recording chores. But if a novice in the world of music software asked me what single PC program he or she should buy to get started, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment: FL Studio is an unbeatable choice.


Jim Aikin writes about music technology, plays cello, and teaches in Northern California. He's also putting the finishing touches on a fantasy novel. For more on Jim's varied activities, you can visit him online at www.musicwords.net.

WITH SIX YOU GET ELDERBERRY

FL Studio is available in seven different versions. Full details can be found on the Image-Line Software Web site, but here is a quick overview. Most versions are available either boxed or by download, with slight differences in price. To make things more interesting, Image-Line Software gives more than one name to some of the packages. Lifetime free updates are offered with the download versions, but cost $29 if you buy the box. Purchasers of slimmed-down versions can upgrade by adding specific synths, whose cost varies from $19 for Fruity DX-10 (a simple FM synth) and $29 for Wasp (an analog-style synth) to a whopping $179 for Sytrus.

The XXL Edition ($299) comes with everything except for the Wasp and DreamStation synths.

The Producer Edition ($149) strips off SimSynth, DrumSynth, DX-10, VideoPlayer, Sytrus, and SoundFont Player.

The Fruity Edition ($99) eliminates audio tracks, WaveEditor, parametric channel EQ in the mixer, and some effects routing possibilities.

The Express Edition ($49), available only by download, is missing so many key features (including parameter automation, the piano-roll editor, and the bundled sound library), that I honestly can't recommend it.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

IMAGE-LINE SOFTWARE
FL Studio 5

pattern-oriented virtual workstation $299

OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 3.5

PROS: Great synths and effects. Audio automation and time stretching. Good starter sound library included. Supports VST, DX, and ReWire.

CONS: Audio tracks are not well integrated with pattern-oriented sequencing.

MANUFACTURER

Image-Line Software
www.flstudio.com

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