Image-Line’s FL Studio, known affectionately by long-term fans as FruityLoops, has matured into a powerful digital audio workstation (DAW). While it’s still clearly geared for electronic music production “in the box,” as opposed to recording live musicians playing acoustic instruments, you can record or create just about any kind of audio project with it. And now, for the first time, Mac users can also join in on the fun. If your memory of FL Studio is closer to its roots—when the Belgian company’s audio editing app looked more like a 1980s Amiga tracker than a proper DAW—prepare to be amazed at how far the program has come.
FL Studio’s vector-based is sharp and easy to read despite its complexity, especially on Retina-class monitors. The UI is fully scalable, even across multiple displays. It also supports multitouch; with an appropriate touch-screen monitor on a PC, you can use it like a live physical mixing board and move multiple faders simultaneously.
Starting from the left side, the Browser contains all of your presets, instruments, audio clips, project files, and other assorted material to work with. The Channel Rack contains whatever sound generators are in use in the current project. The Pattern list shows all of the clips in use. The Playlist serves as the main arranging window, and looks a lot like the view in other DAWs. You can also bring up the piano roll and step sequencer, both of which let you edit more closely. The mixing console and meter bridge view can be set to multiple sizes. You can adjust the borders of or hide any of these windows as you see fit. If you’re used to a much earlier version of FL Studio, prepare to get reoriented; a number of main pieces like the Channel Rack and Pattern Menus have been moved around.
For the first time, FL Studio supports time signatures—you’re not just constrained to 4/4 anymore. You can set time signatures for both patterns and the playlist, and you can play multiple time signatures on top of each other.
You can create new tracks from a number of basic templates; the Channel Rack, in some of the default templates, auto-populates with a basic 909-style kick, snare, claps, and hi-hats. The program also makes a point of automatically strapping a limiter across the master bus in some cases to get your mix levels pumping (but not clipping) immediately, at the risk of causing fainting spells in some professional mastering studios.
There are plenty of nice touches in the interface. The song position marker glows, as if it was backlit, when it moves. Open up the 3x OSC (three oscillator) synth and you’ll see its knobs all move to reset itself automatically. The meter bridge responds to incoming audio with analog-like precision. It all looks quite sharp.
The way each project works is as a collection of patterns—beginning with Pattern 1, which you can find underneath the transport. You can start a song just by clicking on the 16th-note step sequencer buttons to lay down notes, or by right-clicking the channel and choosing Fill in Steps to speed up the process. To add a new sound, select Plugin Preset > Generator, and drag the one you want into the Channel Rack, either over an existing channel or after adding a new one first.
To record from a MIDI keyboard instead, click the Record button, and then choose Everything at the bottom of the dialog box asking what you want to record. When you’re done, CTRL-Q quantizes the notes you recorded in that pattern. As you create new patterns, you drop them into the Playlist, where you can then duplicate them, or zap them with the right button if you change your mind. It’s easy to cut and paste notes, drag them around, adjust their size, and so on; the pattern automatically lengthens and snaps to make building longer ones a quick process. As you work, you can alternate between Song mode, to hear everything, or Pattern mode, to focus on and develop individual patterns.
Most of this is easy enough to grasp, but there are a few odd interface conventions. For example, don’t be fooled by the single Undo and Redo options in the Edit menu drop down; the real undo history is hidden in the Browser, or you can bring it up by hitting CTRL-ALT-Z. And while the interface contains a lot of small, obscure icons, no tool tips seem to appear when you hover over them. Instead, look up and to the top left, where a small window displays the purpose of each element of the interface as you pass the cursor over it. There’s no score editor, so you’ll need something else if you prefer working with music notation.
Once you get acclimated, it’s very easy to get things going by creating patterns and painting them on the screen, laying down new material with the left mouse button and removing it with the right button. You’ll need that right mouse button for other common tasks as well, like opening projects from the Browser, which is an unusual quirk (double-clicking the project name does nothing). If you’re coming from a more normal DAW like Pro Tools, FL Studio will take some getting used to. But if you’re new to digital audio workstations, you just might intuit how to use FL Studio more quickly than other apps.
Where the program still falls down, though, is in straight audio recording. You record audio from a microphone or instrument input in either of two ways—into the Edison recorder, which lets you manipulate samples, but isn’t ideal for acoustic instrument or long vocal takes; or into an audio clip, which is easier to place on the timeline, but still Playlist-based and also not automatically routed to a mixer track (more on this below). Both ways are convoluted and geared more toward the 1990s sampler mentality of vocal snippets for EDM than for, say, recording a live band. Again, if you live and breathe FL Studio, you can probably work around these limitations. But if you’re coming from another DAW, don’t expect to record a lot of live audio tracks easily; a program like Cockos Reaper or Pro Tools is much more suited for the task.
On the plus side, there are now many options for freezing tracks, including bouncing pattern clips to audio, consolidating playlist clips, and rendering takes into a single audio clip—both for reducing CPU load and also just committing to some decisions and opening up your project for further experimentation. One other long-awaited feature is revamped plug-in delay compensation. Now, you can have both auto and manual delay compensation, and you can even set wet/dry mixer effects compensation and metronome compensation. If you’ve ever struggled with timing issues in FL Studio when recording, this should solve them.