FL Studio Unleashed Master Class

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FIG. 1: The main window in Image Line FL Studio often gets crowded with devices and editing windows. Seen here are (clockwise from upper left) the step sequencer, the mixer, the Playlist, the Limiter, a Reeverb 2 effect and the Wasp XT synth.

Sometimes you have a clear musical idea and you just want your DAW software to sit there quietly and function as a glorified tape recorder. Other times, you may crave software that will jump-start your creativity by offering options that you wouldn''t have thought of.

Image Line FL Studio (Win) is adept in both roles. Tucked away in its menus are some of the deepest and most imaginative tools found in any DAW. In this article, I''ll show you a few ways to improve your workflow while using FL Studio both as a traditional recorder and as an expressive musical instrument (see Fig. 1).

Managing the Playlist
When you stop playback in Song Mode, FL Studio will return to bar 1, beat 1, or to the beginning of the currently selected time region. As you''re developing a song, you''ll seldom want to start playback at bar 1, so keeping a region selected is a useful idea. You select a region to work on by double-clicking and dragging in the Playlist''s time ruler.

But what happens when you need to change the region''s start point? You can define an entirely new region, but if you''ve zoomed in to make detailed edits, this can be awkward. Instead, Shift-click within an existing region in the time ruler and drag left or right to move the region. To move the start or end of the region, thereby changing its length, choose the Select tool (the dotted outline) and then right-click in the time ruler. This command seems to be undocumented, and it''s useful.

Another quick way to move the start time is with the numeric keypad / and * keys. If you''ve defined some markers in the Playlist, Alt-* and Alt-/ will step the transport instantly from one marker to the next, letting you start playback wherever you need to.

Often while developing a project, I need to mute and unmute various musical parts. FL Studio offers four ways to do this: in the step sequencer, in the mixer, in the track column at the left side of the Playlist, or by muting individual clips within the Playlist. Instead of switching to the Mute tool to mute clips, mute and unmute them by Alt-clicking. This command doesn''t work when the Select tool is active, which is potentially confusing. And it works (at least in Windows XP) only with the right Alt key, not with the left one.

Using Multichannel Plug-In Synths
If you load a multichannel VST instrument, such as Spectrasonics Omnisphere, into FL Studio, you''ll find that the MIDI input from your keyboard to the VSTi''s Generator always reaches the synth on channel 1. You can use the Color Group selector in the piano-roll window to assign existing notes to other channels or to enter new notes with the Pencil tool, but if you want to play those other channels from your keyboard while recording (or live), you''ll need to do it a different way.

First, click on the Wrapping Settings button (it looks like a portion of a gear) at the top left corner of the Fruity Wrapper for the VSTi. In the Settings panel, choose a MIDI input port. Next, go to the main Channels menu and add a MIDI Out Generator. In the Plug-In editing area in the Generator box, enter a matching port number and then select a MIDI channel. When you click on the MIDI Out object in the Step Sequencer window to make it active for MIDI input, your keyboard will play whatever sound has been assigned to that channel in the plug-in synth, and a recorded track will play back with the right sound.

Assuming your multichannel synth has multiple outputs, you can map each output to its own FL Studio mixer channel in the Processing panel of the Wrapping Settings window. This gives you complete control over level automation using the standard FL Studio automation controls, which is handy because the volume and pan knobs on MIDI Out Generators do nothing.

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FIG. 2: FL Studio''s Event Edit window has a non-real-time LFO, which you can use to produce controller sweeps. The LFO''s start and end values can be different.

Handling Automation
FL Studio gives you several ways to work with the automation of parameters. As a result, there''s room for confusion. So get in the habit of being systematic about your choices.

You can record automation data in real time. First, right-click the main Record button to make sure Automation is checked. Then click the Record button, click the Play button, and use the mouse to wiggle knobs and faders as needed. When you do this, you''ll be recording into the current pattern. This is true even if you''re in Song mode. So if the wrong pattern is selected in the step sequencer, or if you start recording at a different point in the song from where that pattern starts, the data will be recorded into the wrong spot in the song.

The Main Automation pattern is designed to record data for the entire length of the song. If you''re planning to record a nonrepeating bit of automation, such as a fade-out of several tracks at the end of the song, select the Main Automation pattern before you start recording. If you''re recording an automation move that you want to repeat each time a pattern plays, recording it into the same pattern with the Generator''s notes would be a better idea. Likewise, if you think you may want to move the automation data around in the song after recording it, putting it in Main Automation will make your life difficult. Instead, you may want to record it to an empty pattern.

What you don''t want to do is automate the same parameter in two places. If Main Automation is trying to move a knob at the same time that another pattern is trying to move the same knob, the results are unpredictable.

For level automation, you have at least two choices: You can automate faders in the mixer or automate the Generators'' volume knobs in the Step Sequencer window. If you''re running each Generator into its own mixer channel, there isn''t much functional difference between the two, unless you''re using an amplitude-dependent effect such as the Fruity Blood Overdrive. In the latter case, you''ll find that the mixer''s fader is post-effect, whereas the Generator''s volume knob is pre-effect, which will make a big difference in the amount of overdrive applied to the tone. If you''re not using an amplitude-dependent effect, choose one of the level controls for automation and stick with it rather than mixing them up.

If several Generators are routed to the same mixer channel, your choices will usually be more obvious. When adding new Generators, however, you should get in the habit of assigning each one to a new mixer channel in the Generator''s Channel Settings box. Then give the mixer channel a corresponding name or icon.

When you right-click on a knob or slider, you''ll see the command Create Automation Clip in the popup menu. This is another way to add automation—and again, it''s a good idea not to try to automate a single parameter both with an automation clip and with real-time-recorded data.

Automation clips are created in the Playlist window. A new clip will run for the entire length of the song unless you''ve selected a time region in the Playlist, in which case the new clip will be the length of the region. The automation in these clips is edited using FL Studio''s standard multisegment breakpoint envelopes.

Editing an envelope is often easier than editing data that you''ve recorded with the mouse because you only need to drag a few breakpoints or segment curvature handles. If the automation data is in the form of events, edit it by right-clicking the automated knob or slider and choosing Edit Events or Edit Events In Piano Roll. The event edit window contains a couple of neat tools, such as the LFO (see Fig. 2). This is not a real-time LFO. Instead, it''s a way of generating curves.

But wait, there''s more! With FL Studio''s Link to Controller box, you can do complex mixing moves from any hardware MIDI slider. The next section will get you started with this feature.

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FIG. 3: In the Remote Control Settings box for a knob or fader, you can select a MIDI Control change input, write a formula to map the input values (range 0-1) to output (also 0-1), and more. A given knob or fader can respond to several different MIDI messages—just select New Link in the dropdown menu at the top.

Link to Controller
After right-clicking on almost any knob or slider in FL Studio, you can choose Link To Controller… from the popup menu. This opens up the Remote Control Settings box, letting you associate the parameter with a MIDI input (see Fig. 3). Linking to controllers is a quick way to do multichannel mixing if you have a panel of hardware faders, but it opens up many other possibilities.

When this box is open, assign any MIDI control-change number on any channel using the number boxes. Or, if the Auto-Detect checkbox is lit, just wiggle the hardware controller to assign it. If the Remove Conflicts checkbox is also lit, FL Studio will check to see if you''ve already assigned that control change message to a different knob; if so, it will remove the previous assignment.

For musical expression, you might want to turn off Remove Conflicts and assign a single controller (such as a mod wheel) to several knobs at once. If you do this, you''ll almost certainly want to use the Mapping Formula field so as to give each knob its own customized response to the controller.

Here''s an example: I loaded a Wasp XT synth and chose its Phased Saw preset. Not a bad preset, but it has no mod-wheel response. So I linked the Filter Cutoff, Filter Resonance, and FM knobs to my mod wheel. For the cutoff, I used the formula 0.75-(Input * 0.3). For resonance, I used 0.3+(Input * 0.2), and for FM, I used Input * 0.5. To hear the result, check out Web Clip 1.

If you''re not familiar with computer programming, you may need to know that the asterisk (*) is the symbol for multiplication. The word Input refers to the incoming MIDI modulation signal. The key to understanding the formulas is that FL Studio remaps MIDI control change data (which in its raw state runs from 0 to 127) to the range between 0 and 1. Likewise, the output of a formula will be between 0 and 1, where 0 is the lowest possible position of a knob and 1 the highest. To tell FL Studio to compute your formula, hit Return. When you''ve done this, the tiny graphical square will show the results of your formula.

A typical formula starts with an offset value, which is the position the knob will have when the controller input is at 0. In the formula shown above for the filter cutoff, the offset is 0.75. This is the setting of the knob when the mod wheel is all the way down. When the Input value rises to 1 (as the mod wheel is pushed forward), the formula will subtract 0.3 from the offset, so the knob will drop to 0.45. Because each knob has its own formula, the wheel can add resonance while also lowering the cutoff.

FL Studio doesn''t record your mod-wheel moves as mod-wheel data. Instead, it records the automation of each knob individually. If you later want to edit just one of the control contours, this feature is great—but if you want to edit them all because you didn''t record the mod-wheel move quite the way you intended to, you''ll either need to erase the data and re-record it or edit the three (or more) curves individually.

Be Fruitful
In this article we''ve touched on less than 1 percent of the useful features of FL Studio 9. To learn more about the Slicex and Sampler Generators, see the sidebar “Get Creative With Sampler and Slicex.”

There''s a lot to learn in this program, and some of the features are tucked away in unlikely places or work in unexpected ways. But if you spend some time poking around in the menus, reading the manual, and asking questions on Image Line''s user forum, I''m confident you''ll find the musical results inspiring.

Get Creative With Sampler and Slicex
IIf you''re looking for a few startling digital effects to spice up a beat or a mix, load a Sampler Generator and take a look at the controls in the SMP tab of the Channel Settings box. (Note: FL Studio''s Sampler is not a multi-sampler; it''s a basic sample playback device that loads and plays one stereo or mono sample.)

Go to Options > General Settings and activate the checkbox for Show Legacy Precomputed Effects. This will add a section to the SMP tab. The edits I''ve found most useful for mangling sounds are in the Time Stretching and Legacy Effects areas. Start with FL Studio''s default clap or snare sound as a way to learn what''s possible. The knobs in the SMP tab can''t be automated because they recompute the waveform itself.

Turning up the Time knob even slightly will stretch the snare or clap sound beyond recognition. The Transient, Tonal, and Speech modes in the dropdown menu use different algorithms for time-stretching, so try them all out to find an algorithm that does something provocative with your source sample. In the Precomputed Effects section, the Pogo knob adds a pitch envelope. In the Legacy Effects section, the S.Del knob makes a mono sample sound bigger by delaying one side of the stereo signal slightly. The Sine FX knobs are a ring modulator, which is useful for making clangorous sounds.

After coming up with an interesting tone, you may want to rein it in slightly using the filter or envelopes in the INS tab. Check out Web Clip A for a mechano-style beat that I created using only FL Studio''s built-in samples and these tools.

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FIG. A: Slicex carves up sampled beats and lets you process each slice as needed. After adding or deleting slice markers, remember to click the Dump Score to Piano Roll button. You can control each of the six parameters listed above the envelope edit window (pan, volume, and so on) using any of the six functions in the second row (envelope, LFO, and so on).

Slicex Tricks
The Slicex plug-in gives you a broad palette with which to change both the sound and the groove of sampled beats (see Fig. A). There are two basic ways to do each of these things. But first, a word about loading loops.

When a sampled loop is considerably slower than the project''s tempo, I''ve found that FL Studio sometimes analyzes the loop incorrectly—as being three bars long rather than two, for instance. Fortunately, this is easy to fix. Above the left end of the Slicex waveform display, you''ll see what appears at first glance to be just an informational readout of the sample rate, bit depth, stereo or mono format, and analyzed tempo. Right-clicking on this data opens up the Sample Properties box. Type in a new value for the number of beats in the Length field, click Accept, then click on the Dump Score to Piano Roll button, and you''re ready to go.

To change the sound of individual slices, start by assigning their filter, amplitude, or speed (pitch) characteristics to any of the eight built-in Articulators. The Articulator section is potentially confusing. It''s important to understand that an Articulator is not a single signal path. If it were a signal path, any slice that was being processed by the filter of Articulator 2 would also be processed by the amplitude and speed controls of Articulator 2. But you don''t have to use the Articulators that way. An easier way to think about Slicex programming is to understand that each slice has its own filter, envelopes, LFOs, and so on, which function much like key zones in a multisampler. With the Articulators, you can set up eight different macro-level control templates in each area (filter, amplitude, speed, and start time). So a given slice can use the filter settings from Articulator 3 along with the amplitude settings from Articulator 4, for example.

If the articulators don''t give you the sonic options you need, the next step is to assign slices to various mixer channels using the Out field in the upper-left corner of the Articulator panel. Once you''ve done this, you can process each slice individually with reverb, delay, distortion, or whatever you like.

When a Slicex beat has been exported to the piano roll, you can use all of the piano roll''s editing tools on it, up to and including randomizing the play order of the slices. The piano roll''s Chop command is a quick way to produce fast rolls—just drag a note to lengthen it so that it''s several beats long, and then use Chop. Also, try using the Claw Machine on the chopped notes to produce accelerating rhythms.

Alternatively, use the slices as raw material for new beats that you program in FL Studio''s pattern grid. Right-click on a slice in the waveform display to select it, and then use the Drag/Copy Sample/Selection tool at the right end of Slicex''s toolbar to drag it into the empty area at the bottom of the step sequencer. It''s now assigned to a row of buttons.

If you want to play the slice at various pitches, you need to nudge FL Studio to change the data type of the audio. If you open up the Graph Editor for your new Sampler row and use the slider to select the Pitch graph, you''ll find that this graph does nothing, though the other graphs work as expected. Likewise, playing the Generator from a MIDI keyboard will produce the same pitch on every key. So take a quick trip over to the Channel Settings box for that Sampler, choose the SMP tab, and rotate the Time knob in the Time Stretching area. This will lower the pitch. Next, rotate the knob back to its starting point. Now the Sampler will let you change the tuning of the slice, either in the Graph Editor or from your MIDI keyboard.

Jim Aikin has just ordered a new PC. His friends said, “Buy a Mac,” but FL Studio doesn''t run on a Mac, which made the choice a little easier.