Review: Image Line FL Studio XXL Version 8PC-BASED SEQUENCER WITH A FRESH SPIN 10/01/2008 8:00 AM Eastern
In fast-paced music production environments, workflow is everything. Most pop music comprises repeating multitrack patterns, so a DAW that's optimized to assemble complete arrangements quickly by inserting patterns with a pencil tool is worth a serious look. Among its other claims to fame, FL Studio Version 8 is a pattern monster. Patterns aren't the whole story, though. FL Studio also has built-in effects and synths, smooth automation and powerful editing. In a number of areas, it offers design innovations found in no other software. The lifetime free upgrade policy is another enticement.
FL Studio comes in several versions. The XXL Edition, reviewed here, has a jaw-dropping array of features and amenities, including a massive sample library and a fully functional version of the modular SynthMaker virtual instrument. This PC-based app can operate as either a ReWire host or client, and as a VSTi host or plug-in.
Although FL Studio uses many Windows conventions, its look and feel are not Windows-standard. The interface is window-intensive and often becomes rather cluttered. There are no memory buffers for saving various window layouts, but the five most often-used windows open and close via Function keys.
Users who are accustomed to working in a standard DAW, where each track in a song arrangement has a name and mute/solo buttons, may find FL Studio's Playlist odd. Its lanes have no names or controls, and different kinds of clips can be parked on the same lane. Muting and soloing are handled in the Step Sequencer window, where each Generator (sound source) has its own slot. Soloing an instrument is not handled well: When Solo is switched off, all Generators are unmuted, even ones that were muted before Solo was switched on.
My first-call synth in FL Studio is Sytrus, a six-operator FM module with three multimode filters, an additive waveform designer, onboard effects, and more LFOs and multisegment envelopes than you'll ever need. Sytrus' arpeggiator is built into the envelopes, so tasty one-finger grooves are also on tap.
Firing off one-shot samples is handled by FL's Sampler plug-in. Each sampler has its own filter and envelopes, and can do some interesting waveform distortion, including granular time-stretching. For multisampling, the tool of choice is DirectWave. Its ADSR envelopes are simpler than those in Sampler, and it has fewer filter modes, but complex keymaps can be set up and edited graphically. DirectWave's large library is downloadable on an as-needed basis.
New in FL 8 is the Slicex plug-in for loops. Slicex can load raw audio or REX files, and export MIDI note triggers to a piano-roll window. An 8-channel Articulator within Slicex lets you set up envelopes and filters on a per-slice basis. Slicex can even load two loops at once into separate “decks” and crossfade between them.
Another big addition is a bundled version of OutSim SynthMaker. This is a fully modular synthesizer programming environment (not unlike Native Instruments' Reaktor). Connecting your own oscillators and filters and processing data with math modules will require some diving into the manual, but a number of SynthMaker instruments are available for download, both from the FL Studio Download Manager and from the OutSim Wiki.
Older sound sources worth knowing about include BeepMap, which loads graphics files and uses them for additive synthesis. BeepMap is a poor-man's version of the technology in U&I Metasynth (a Mac-only program), and I've found it useful for pads and washes. Slayer is a physical modeled electric guitar with a movable pickup, amp simulators and strumming options. (Check out the Online Extra audio clip at www.mixonline.com to hear both BeepMap and Slayer.) Wave Traveller is a sample player that lets you design your own scratches using envelopes for triggering from MIDI keys.
FL Studio lets you choose whether to record audio to RAM or a hard drive. The distinction may be largely academic. When recording to RAM, you arm an instance of the built-in Edison audio editor, and after recording you can send the audio to the playlist with a single menu command. If you're running low on CPU, you can pop Edison into a mixer channel and resample everything passing through that channel instantly.
You can record as many simultaneous tracks as you have hardware inputs, but FL Studio can only access one audio interface at a time. Loop recording of regions with auto-muting of previous loops is supported, but tape-style punch-ins are not.
FL Studio's 64-channel mixer can route any channel to any physical audio output — or to another channel for subgrouping/aux processing. Each channel has 3-band EQ, plug-in delay compensation and slots for eight inserts.
The effects rack has all of the usual suspects, including a vocoder (plus full VST and DX compatibility). For creative use of EQ, you won't find a more exotic plug-in than EQUO. This 31-band graphic EQ holds eight curves at a time, and you can morph smoothly among them. Each band also has its own pan and send sliders. The latter were ideal for dub-style band-limited echoes, and the ability to morph between bands opens up lots of possibilities.
The comp/limiter has single-band compression and limiting in series, plus a saturator, look-ahead and more. Also included is a 3-band compressor with basic band frequency controls and a half-dozen parameters per band. For more exotic effects, the Fruity Love Philter has eight series/parallel multimode filters, each with envelopes and LFOs.
Almost anything in FL Studio — including the knobs in third-party plug-ins — can be automated. I recorded automation into a graphic contour window not unlike the controller strip beneath the piano-roll editor; you can also create a multisegment automation envelope in the Playlist window. Linking controls to external MIDI CC data is just as easy.
FL's automation data processing is more powerful than in any other DAW. Algebraic formulas can be used to massage up to three data inputs at a time. I've used this feature to invert and attenuate a modulation envelope when applying it to a second destination to create complex responses for hardware sliders and so on. An envelope follower plug-in can be inserted in any mixer channel and then used as a mod source, and a nonreal-time “LFO” lets you generate curves in the graphic controller window. Controller data can be embedded in individual patterns or run for the entire length of the song.
FL Studio will appeal to musicians who work in heavily electronic styles. It wouldn't be my first choice for live tracking, but it's capable of handling vocals, guitars or acoustic drums. The new features in V. 8 are stellar. Download the demo and take it out for a spin.
Adam Kinsey is a writer/composer/technologist.