Electronic-music makers seem to fall into one of two groups: the unfortunate souls who have never heard of Fruityloops and passionate Fruityloops enthusiasts. At first glance, the software seems like a kitschy drum-loop maker with cool, editable sounds and a fancy interface. But Fruityloops is much more than that. The software features parameter automation; multitrack effects (16 effects tracks with two effects sends that can handle four filters each); an integrated sampler; a bass line synth (TS404); and VST, VST2, DirectX, and DXi plug-in synth and effects compatibility. Look beyond the surface and you'll discover that Fruityloops packs more surprises and goodies than a case of kids' cereal.
WHO YOU CALLIN' FRUITCAKE?
Setting up the Fruityloops environment is a snap: Simply select the sound card, and, while a loop is playing, slide the buffer-length handle toward zero until you hear a lovely sound resembling nails in a blender. Then, slowly back it off and start making music. Because various sound-card models have different levels of MIDI response, audio integrity, and routing, you will want to invest in a low-latency sound card and a decent set of monitors if you plan on supporting a family with your crazy dope rhythms.
Making music with Fruityloops is almost too easy. All note programming is done using the now-common 16-note step sequencer. Love it or hate it, programs such as Reason, ReBirth, and Vaz+ are based upon the 16-note format. In fact, if you dig Propellerhead's ReBirth, you're in the right place, because Fruityloops can import and edit ReBirth songs (RBS files). Actually, the 16-note step sequencer is just a starting point in Fruityloops, as you can change the bar length from 4 notes to 64 notes or any size in between.
Step-sequencer novices and beat beginners should first walk through the Fruity tutorial (a manual only), but pros can step right up and point, click, and create. The default Fruityloops kit launches nothing more than a kick, snare, hi-hat, synth, and dance clap — no frills, no ills, just simple beat-making stuff. However, you can alter each sound's panning, volume, cutoff, resonance, and pitch envelopes with a graphic editor that has automatable settings, which gives you plenty of sound-tweaking options. If that doesn't get your creative juices flowing, try applying some VST, DirectX, or Fruityloops effects to the sounds. You can export loops in Acid format for further tweaking and tone twisting using Cakewalk's Sonar or Sonic Foundry's Acid software.
To the left of the step sequencer is a sample-loop-patch browser packed to the rack with ready-made MIDI loops in styles such as breakbeat, drum 'n' bass, and techno (in the boxed version only — those loops are not included with the online versions). Because the loops are not WAV files but MIDI programs (using WAV-sampled one-shots), you can take the pro-sounding beat templates to new heights by altering, effecting, and otherwise sonically wrecking them to your satisfaction.
FRESH AND FRUITY
If you are among the Fruityloops version 2.x faithful, 3.1's new interface may throw you for a loop. If so, start poking around each knob and window while keeping your eye on the main panel's hint field. The addition of a Piano Roll sequencer is a great help for writing polyphonic melodies and arpeggios or even repitching drums. To access that function, right-click on Sample Track and select Piano Roll (at the top of the menu). Left-click to place notes, and right-click to delete. Melodies played on a keyboard MIDI controller show up here as well.
Another shocker for 2.x hounds is the addition of soft-synth plug-in support. Take any of your favorite VST or DXi synths and fire them up in a Fruityloops insert channel. The software stores note events as patterns rather than tracks, making it easy to copy melodies or pattern-effect settings in the Fruityloops Playlist window.
Audio effects are also handled more professionally in version 3.1. Fruityloops users can send an unlimited number of audio tracks to any of 16 effects channels, which are capable of handling four effects per channel and offer two bonus sends per effects channel. Fruityloops includes a large batch of the more common EQ, filtering, delay, and reverb effects as well as goodies like the Notebook plug-in, useful for jotting down session notes.
Unfortunately, instead of the global song automation of version 2.x, automation in Fruityloops 3.1 is linked to patterns. That distinction is important because many musicians typically automate knob movements over several patterns or one pattern repeated several times. Now, if you want to render a pattern as an audio WAV file, you will be able to render only the pattern length. Future versions will likely support global automation, but for now, Fruityloops creator Dambrin Didier has a suggestion: “To render it all (the full automation), first switch to song mode. In the Playlist, add a pattern dot at the top left to play your first pattern, and add a second ‘dummy’ one (above and to its right) that will mark the end of the Playlist.”
FRUIT OF THE LOOP
If you like soft synths, you've come to the right place. Fruityloops ships with several cool plug-in synthesizers and tone generators, including 3xOsc, Plucked, BeepMap, and DreamStation DXi. Also, Fruityloops comes with demo versions of Wasp ($29), SimSynth Live ($35), and Beatslicer ($35). You can purchase full versions of those plug-ins from www.fruityloops.com. Here's the breakdown of what the plug-ins do.
3xOsc. This plug-in allows you to modify samples using three oscillators that link with the sampler's set of filters, envelopes, and LFOs, making it easy for Fruityloops users to program such sounds as organs, basses, and strings.
Wasp. A three-oscillator synth with two LFOs and ADSR envelopes, FM synthesis, insect-buzzing distortion, and more, Wasp may appear to be just another virtual synth, but it is highly versatile. In the full version, you can add preset-saving functionality, which is not included in the demo.
BeepMap. The unusual BeepMap derives bass-heavy, padlike sounds from images by altering one of several tones in correspondence to any virtual bitmap image. You can load a digital picture of someone and see what BeepMap says they sound like!
DreamStation DXi and SimSynth Live. These are both great-sounding analog-simulation synths. What's more, DreamStation DXi can be used in any DXi-compatible program (like Cakewalk's Sonar), providing vast possibilities for original sound design. SimSynth Live is the Fruityloops generator version of the full-blown SimSynth synthesizer.
Plucked. With only two virtual knobs for color and decay, the Plucked string-sound generator feels a bit like a toy at first, but when coupled with effects, it offers some useful sound-creation possibilities.
Beatslicer. Also lurking in the plug-in fruit basket is Beatslicer. It looks suspiciously like Propellerhead's ReCycle, but it is built especially for the Fruityloops environment, allowing you to slice up a WAV file loop residing on your computer and assign it across the Fruityloops step sequencer. The demo version can export only lo-fi mono loops, but the full version features stereo loops, higher sound quality, and — when running Beatslicer in standalone mode — the ability to manipulate slice-point placement.
The full, boxed version of Fruityloops is distributed by Cakewalk in the United States, and you can usually purchase it anywhere Cakewalk products are sold. You can also download Fruityloops from www.fruityloops.com. The site offers three package options, and although the pricing, limitations, and upgrade paths of each version have been carefully thought out, I advise any serious Fruitylooper to spend the extra money for the full, boxed version reviewed here to get all the benefits and capabilities.
Fruityloops Pro is like a kiddie version. For $49 you get 16-bit, 44.1 kHz sound quality along with several of the important external generators, such as TS-404, 3xOsc, the Fruityloops sampler, and more. Other now-standard version 3.1 features include an unlimited number of channels, external MIDI control, 4- to 64-note patterns, and VST/DirectX support.
For $99 you get the full online version, which offers “lifetime free updates.” Every time Fruityloops developer Didier diddles with the code, makes a new plug-in, or creates a Fruityloops sample, it's yours. Bam! Download it to your computer that day. Also, the extra bucks add the Fruity Scratcher (a turntable-emulation plug-in), automation, and Piano Roll features, along with several other goodies like additional compressors and EQs. This version and its aforementioned plug-ins must be downloaded from the Web site, which upon payment confirmation will e-mail you a registration code to unlock the software.
Those who download Fruityloops will want to save that registration number in a safe place. Even after you've installed the program successfully, you may want to rebuild your computer's desktop or reinstall Fruityloops after a hard drive crash. The number constitutes the software's copy-protection scheme.
The full, boxed version of Fruityloops is $139 and comes with a short quick-start-style manual, the DreamStation DXi polyphonic analog synth (a $35 value), and 3,300 rights-free samples (including hundreds of drum 'n' bass, techno, big beat, and other dance music — style loops). Although the boxed version does not include lifetime free updates, you can still join the club for an additional $29. Also, like most software manufacturers, Image-Line Media offers less-expensive upgrade pricing from its Web site to previous 2.x and 1.x owners.
Still not convinced? Check out the Fruityloops 3.1 demo, available at the Web site. The demo doesn't let you save your work, of course, but it allows you to try out all of Fruityloops' features and even comes with a batch of samples, loops, and demo versions of SimSynth Live, Wasp, and 13 fruity effects plug-ins.
Could Didier add anything in versions 4.x, 5.x, or the year 3000 millennium edition? Well, easier MIDI note quantization would be slick. Another nice tool would be the individual rendering of channels in one fell swoop, to allow you to import individual channels of music made in Fruityloops into Sonar, Logic Audio, or Pro Tools. Also, 3.1's undo feature is limited to one instance — and sometimes (gasp) none! I doubt I'm the only one who tweaks, twists, and turns only to decide that the track sounded better three minutes before.
Further, although much of Fruityloops is intuitive, the 60-page manual is a bit skimpy, revolving primarily around a simple tutorial for music software beginners. The online support and included virtual help files are well organized but can lead you in circles when you're looking for specific information. Also, Fruityloops can crash or hang if you're overloading the CPU, so save often and always check out the CPU meter at the top of the screen. Lucky for us, Didier is a motivated guy, claiming his Web suggestion box has yielded enough future fruity ideas to keep him busy until the year 2010. So, he says, no more — please!
The results are in: beat makers are freaking out over the latest installment of Fruityloops, version 3.1, and its enhanced program interface, Piano Roll, 16 effects tracks, versatile plug-in support, and keypad MIDI triggering. Load this software into your PC immediately if you want to have a fruitful music-making experience.
$139 (boxed); $99 (full online);
$49 (Fruityloops Pro)
PROS: VST/DirectX compatibility. MIDI automation. Includes numerous sounds, loops, and soft synths. Highly intuitive interface. Affordable.
CONS: Loops may be rendered only as a whole, not as separate tracks. Only one level of undo. No Mac or Linux version.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4.5
MINIMUM SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS
Pentium II/200; 32 MB RAM; Windows 95/98/ME/2000; CD-ROM drive; Windows-compatible sound card; 800×600 video display.