Image-Line FL Studio 9 Creative Jump-Starter Like No Other

April 1, 2010
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It’s a strange thing that the word “toy” has come to have negative connotations in music tech. Apparently, we want our music tools to be big and powerful, like a chainsaw, ideally emitting manly gasoline fumes. But when we talk about music, we use the word “play.”

FL Studio is nothing if not a toybox. But it’s a toybox in the best sense. It’s a sometimes- unrelated collection of instruments and effects, ranging from basic elements of synthesis to instruments you could lose yourself in for hours, equipped with an array of arrangement, mixing, and creation facilities. Its interface is strange and unmistakable, and sometimes baffling to newcomers, but it’s also a program that’s on a mission: It seems dead-set on keeping you plugged into the program until you’ve cracked a smile and made something, even if it’s something you didn’t expect. FL Studio 9 isn’t a radical upgrade, but its attention to detail and computer-friendly controls continues a long tradition of the program known popularly as Fruity Loops.

RUT-BUSTING WORKFLOW

FL Studio’s main screen, as in past versions, focuses on an unorthodox overview of tracks that encapsulates a push-button step sequencer, piano-roll pattern editor, and parameter pattern editor into a single view, along with basic volume and pan settings. [See our Feb. ’10 issue for a tutorial on FL’s piano roll editor. —Ed.] One of FL Studio’s strengths is that it lets you use a single view like this as a sketchpad, a jumping-off point for more detailed work in other views. If you’ve ever suffered from blank-page syndrome, where the sheer number of options and emptiness of a default project file make you wonder how to get your creative juices flowing, FL Studio is worth a look.

If you’re still stumped, FL Studio 9 introduces a new tool called the Riff Machine that self-generates melodies using a randomlyselected instrument (see Figure 1 on page 56). You can choose to just throw the dice and create a randomized lead, but if you look inside its more advanced parameters, you’ll find analog-style controls for manipulating all of the specifics of the rules it uses to come up with riffs. You can choose from pre-selected patterns, or use Fruity Loops Score files of your own — meaning the Riff Machine can be a great way to turn a sketchbook of melodic ideas into actual tracks. Arpeggiators, melodic inversion and retrograde, humanization, and groove parameters, along with tools for fitting chordal sequences and harmonic parameters, let you shape the melody the way you want. It’s all great fun, and once you get deeper into it, can be adjusted to your own musical tastes.

What FL Studio doesn’t do is provide the sort of track overview to which users of more conventional DAWs are accustomed. In its place, the FL Studio Playlist can become a powerful means of assembling arrangements from patterns, not only for the beat-inclined, but for anyone who likes toying around with compositional schemes. For big-picture arrangement, you can assemble patterns into groups, copying, pasting, and modifying patterns into variations. That feature feels more mature than ever in FL Studio 9. Track muting and renaming and icon tools finally make the Playlist easy to organize. Using the new grouping switch, you can make big changes to an arrangement more easily.

When you’re ready to work at the note level, FL Studio switches to a more familiar Piano Roll view. If you’re willing to invest the time learning its shortcuts, FL’s editing tools can become quite fast, with the ability to snap and edit on various grids, and group even specific notes. FL Studio throughout makes extensive use of the mouse wheel (so get a mouse that has one), and with the new note grouping switch, that makes rapid editing incredibly easy. The new note and Playlist grouping add to already-useful grouping features in the Step Sequencer. It will take practice to make this second nature, despite FL Studio’s claims of beginner-friendly simplicity, but the results can be rewarding.

riffgenENDLESS SOUNDS

Whether FL’s editing style wins you over or not, there aren’t many bundles out there with this big a variety of sound toys. If you haven’t seen the FL suite before, it’s hard to know where to start. Want a wave editor/slicer that acts like an instrument?

Want to control FL with your joystick, or those otherwise-useless multimedia keys on your PC keyboard? Want one of the best hybrid soft synths on the planet, with six semi-modular operators? Want an instrument that turns image files into sounds? Want a view of everything in FL in a Mac Dashboard-style overlay of icons? Want a small animated character to appear on your screen and start dancing (really)? It’s in there. In most applications, big suites of plug-ins mean picking out the few you’ll actually use. In FL Studio, it’s actually worth going through each one by one — even some of the simplest offerings can be gems. FL has support for third-party VST and DirectX plug-ins, but you’ll be knee deep into the included options before then.

In fact, it’s because so many of these tools are so much fun that it’s easy for “serious” musicians to be put off. So, don’t argue — encourage them. In fact, invite your friends over, get the animated character dancing around the screen, and let them decide FL Studio is for kids — then save these sound tools for yourself!

Edison and Slicex, a wave editor and slice-player respectively, now have an export-to-sampler feature. You can also drag and drop audio into the program. These tools had already given FL an exceptional workflow for audio editing, but with the ability to move directly into the sampler, working with audio samples is finally complete.

Aside from additions to the product bundles, this release focuses on signal processing. In FL9, you get a new vocoder, mixer-wide sidechaining, mid/side stereo processing, and mid/side reverb. You can also use more of these toys at once than ever, thanks to improved multi-threading and disabling of inactive plug-ins. I had no problem whatsoever adding all the goodies I wanted, even on my humble, last-generation- chip Core Duo PC laptop.

MORE POWERFUL ROUTING

That’s the good news. The bad news is that routing and MIDI control can still be confusing if you’re new to FL Studio. It sticks to its strange effects routing scheme, which requires that each channel be bussed to a numbered set of inserts and/or sends. Once you get used to it, the scheme works, but it takes some getting used to.

FL also has an approach to MIDI that differs somewhat from what you may expect coming from other software. To assign MIDI controls to VST plug-ins, for instance, you actually browse through parameters on that plug-in. As in previous versions, you can remote-control MIDI parameters using the Link to Controller option. New in FL9, you can create “generic links” that shift based on which window has focus, similar to remote control functions provided for supported controllers in recent releases of Reason and Ableton Live. FL9 also offers expanded automatic support for common controllers. You can set up powerful control options, including use of unusual inputs like joysticks.

The upside of this is powerful control, but it does take more effort. In general, those accustomed to other DAWs will spend more time setting up plug-ins and routing to fit their liking, at least at the beginning. Things you expect will be challenging in FL Studio prove to be stunningly easy, but things you’re used to suddenly require hitting the online help, and there’s still no soup-to-nuts tutorial for the absolute beginner.

If you like the sonic tools and taking a new approach to music writing and arrangement, it’s all worth the effort. Just don’t let anyone tell you FL Studio is a program “only for beginners.” Aside from some of the best software instruments ever conceived, FL Studio bundles a special edition of Synth- Maker, letting you build musical instruments and signal processors from scratch. You combine pre-built, reusable objects using a modular patching environment, not unlike Native Instruments Reaktor. Using Synth- Maker, you can export your own FL Studio plug-ins as effects or synths, and control and respond to basic FL song events. Cycling ’74’s Max for Live is deeper, but SynthMaker is more comfortable to use when actually building synths and effects — and it’s included in the package.

CONCLUSIONS

FL Studio remains a piece of software that looks, works, and sounds like no other. Its unique personality can be divisive, sending one person running for cover while hooking someone else for life. But it’s worth a fair look. Here’s one key difference between FL and other tools on the market: Current users probably aren’t reading this story, because owners get lifetime free upgrades. Sure, there are a number of optional and more powerful instruments that ship with the program as demo versions, but there’s still so much in FL — even before you get to the endless possibilities of SynthMaker — that you’re unlikely to complain.

FL Studio will require some changes of attitudes to take advantage of its arrangement and signal-routing tools. But if you need some change to spice up your production life, it could be just what the doctor ordered. And once it begins to give up some of its sonic secrets, FL makes music production feel like “play” once again.

PROS Quick, powerful editing is further refined. Fun new Riff Machine serves up new melodic ideas when you’re stumped. Delicious vocoder with “special sauce.” Mixer side-chaining and new mid/side tools. Insanely deep collection of sound tools, plus an integrated environment to make your own.

CONS Unusual interface. Mixing and routing still takes some adjustment.

INFO Signature Bundle: $299 download/$399 boxed; Other bundles: $49–$269, flstudio.image-line.com

    NEED TO KNOW

    Is FL Studio best suited to a certain musical style? You can make some really awful trance music embarrassingly easily, if you like. Seriously, though, FL Studio works nicely for anyone who likes an unusual, creativityspurring workflow and a little mad science in their music. If those things appeal to you, it will fit your music, regardless of genre.

    Why would you choose FL Studio over traditional DAWs or other allin- one workstations like Reason and Live? Since it supports ReWire, you really don’t have to make using FL Studio an either/or choice. Comparatively, FL Studio has two major advantages: its array of instruments, like Sytrus, and audio editing tools like Edison and Slicex. Then there are the arranging tools, with easy access to step sequencing, arpeggiation, and slice-and-dice pattern editing and arrangement. On the surface, those are all tools you get in other software, but FL Studio’s presentation can get you into composing ideas unusually quickly. Ableton Live excels at realtime, non-linear clip triggering, and traditional DAWs at “tape machine” style linear arranging. FL Studio sits somewhere in between, with uncommonly quick access to pattern arrangement and editing at the level of a bar, pattern, or song, plus soundsculpting effects, envelopes, and other goodies tied to those same arrangement tools.

    Is it still Windows-only? Yes: Windows 7, Vista, XP, or 2000. But it runs fine on an Intel Mac that can boot into Windows XP or Vista using BootCamp.

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