On a Roll in FL Studio

Everybody who uses a sequencer has worked with a “piano roll” editor, but the first time you use Image Line FL Studio 9, you may be surprised. Like many other aspects of FL Studio, its piano roll editor is a
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Everybody who uses a sequencer has worked with a “piano roll” editor, but the first time you use Image-Line FL Studio 9, you may be surprised. Like many other aspects of FL Studio, its piano-roll editor is a little different.

Dragging notes, changing their duration, deleting or muting them, and editing velocities in the controller lane works in the normal way, with only one wrinkle: The Select tool is different from the Draw tool, so switching between these tools is often required. There’s a workaround for this: After selecting a group of notes with the Select tool, hitting Shift-G groups them. They will then stay invisibly grouped, letting the Draw tool work on all of them together, even after you’ve done other edits.

Several of the edits in this article use dialog boxes. Before using a command that opens a dialog box, you may want to select a time region (by double-clicking and dragging in the time ruler), then start playback. The region will loop, and playback will continue while the dialog box is open and doing things to the notes. You can’t click the Play button while a dialog box is open, so this is a good habit to get into.

FL Studio’s MIDI controller handling has a few quirks. For instance, you can record sustain pedal only while recording into the piano roll in real time. Your pedal moves will be converted into note length data, which is usually an okay way to handle it. But you can’t overdub pedal data after the notes are already laid down.

In the piano roll’s local menu under Tools, you’ll find more useful commands, some utilitarian and others exotic. So let’s get to know Fl Studio’s piano roll window. It’s sexier than it looks.

Click here for audio example: I used FL Studio’s Randomizer to generate two new patterns in the piano roll window. One of the random patterns plays a synth tone, the other a hi-hat sample. The hat moves up and down in pitch quite a bit, so it doesn’t sound much like a hi-hat. I added a simple kick pattern and a clap sound on beat 4 to anchor the groove.

Tip 1: Ways to quantize. Both Alt-Q and Ctrl-Q quantize MIDI notes. Ctrl-Q is quicker, but it always snaps both the starts and ends of notes to the grid, which can sound too rigid. For more control, use Alt-Q, which opens this box. To lock the start times of notes completely to the grid, turn the Start Time knob to the right. To leave notes that are close to the grid untouched, move the Sensitivity knob to the left. To find more exotic timing grids, open the Groove Template file dialog.

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Tip 2: Check the controller lane. With FL’s built-in synths only (not third-party plug-ins), right-clicking at the left end of the controller lane lets you edit individual note offset values for panning, filter cutoff and resonance, and a few other parameters. This same menu is available as a drop-down at the top of the piano roll window. MIDI controller data (such as mod wheel) is not available for editing in the controller lane as such: It becomes available only when you’ve linked it to a knob in a plug-in synth and then recorded some controller moves, or when you right-click on a knob in a plug-in synth and choose “Edit events in piano roll” from the pop-up menu. In other words, you’re not editing MIDI data, exactly — you’re editing automation data. The exception is pitchbend data, which isn’t linked to any particular knob.

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Tip 3: Event editing. Double-clicking a note with the pencil tool brings up its Properties box. Here, you can adjust the same properties as in the controller lane, plus some others. The modX and modY knobs can do various types of modulation in more complex Image-Line synths such as Sytrus. In Wasp XT, they duplicate the filter cutoff and resonance controls. The unlabeled color box is not simply a random decoration: It opens a “color channel” selector. FL’s 16 MIDI channels are visible only as colors. With a bit of finagling, you can re-channelize MIDI data so as to play a multi-channel plug-in like Spectrasonics Stylus RMX from within a single FL Studio piano roll track.

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Tip 4: Polyphonic glide. One of FL’s neater tricks, which works only with the built-in synths, is polyphonic glide. First, double-click on a note with the pencil tool and choose one of the 16 glide channels by clicking in the unlabeled color channel box. To re-color a group of notes, use the Change Color command (Alt-C) in the piano-roll’s local Edit menu. Having re-colored one or more notes, choose the same color group near the upper left corner of the piano-roll, click on the slide switch (the tilted triangle) to activate it, and insert a glide destination note. The main note will glide up or down in pitch to the destination note. Important: The length of the destination note determines the amount of time the glide takes. This trick is good for steel guitar-style pitchbends and for sliding from one chord voicing to an entirely different one.

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Tip 5: Inserting and strumming chords. From the main menu in the piano-roll window (the vertical triangle), choose Chord and select a chord type. Clicking with the Draw tool (the pencil) will now enter a whole chord at once. Then hit Alt-S to open the Strumizer dialog box. Here you can offset the start times and velocities of chord notes.

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Tip 6: Arpeggiating as an edit. The piano roll arpeggiator splits notes apart and deletes a considerable number of them, so it works best with long sustained chords. The Pattern folder at the top opens up a file dialog box from which you can load a variety of patterns. After getting close to a pattern that you like, you can edit individual notes as needed. (Realtime, playback-type arpeggiators can’t do that.)

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Tip 7: Random inspiration. Ready for some random trance inspiration? Open a piano-roll with no notes in it, select four bars in the time ruler, start playback, and then open the Randomizer window. Choose a pleasing harmony in the drop-down menu, add more notes or remove some with the Population knob, randomize velocities and pan positions with the Levels knobs, then keep clicking the Seed buttons until you hear something you like. This works great both with synth tones and with Generators that are playing samples such as hi-hats. This audio example shows a simple clip I produced this way.

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