FL Studio: you actually will probably like it: a synopsis



Start at the Basics

I’d like to start off by reviewing the items I’ve accrued over the past six years, the first of which being my ever trusty digital audio workstation.  Although it’s received flak for its apparent novice userbase, FL Studio remains something I’ll probably love, even after the inevitable heat-death of the universe.  Image-Line, the maker of the software, is currently on the eleventh version of the DAW as of writing this article.  While you might imagine it to be aimed at lower-level users and hobbyists, you’d be pretty wrong.  As usual.



FL Studio is extremely capable of translating any musical idea from the mind into existence, provided that you know your way around music production.  Luckily, if you don’t, FL Studio makes it impossibly easy to get a foothold in the wonderful world of creating digital music.  Although more advanced features of the program can sometimes prove counter-intuitive and mildly frustrating, beginners can rejoice in the fact that they’ll need not look in a manual every other minute for a simple function.  FL comes with a handful of useful demo projects that new users can easily learn from, as well as an array of pre-assembled loops and other goodies for choosing.  Upon reading that sentence, you may have been taken aback in horror, “No!” you say, hands pressed anxiously upon your forehead, “Loops are for uncreative losers!  I make all of my everything from scratch!”  And hey, I’ve got the same philosophy.  That’s why you’ll just love FL’s keyboard and piano roll.

FL has a lovely and streamlined piano roll editor which allows for quick sketches to be laid out without frustration.  Although I’m bias since I use it often, I find FL’s piano roll to be much quicker and hassle-free opposed to Ableton’s own note editor.  FL’s piano roll allows for quick editing, insertion, and repetition of notes.  I find this especially helpful, since music resides in your mind before it is captured in software.  When software can’t keep up with your pathetic memory, it can be eternally frustrating.

FL's piano roll

FL’s extremely flexible and fun to use piano roll.


FL also provides the key DAW features, such as MIDI, VST support, Live Performance Mode, and a host of versatile plugins from Image-Line provided with the purchase of the software.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a mainstream DAW – and that’s an important fact to stress, given that FL lives in ignominy due to it’s false status as a beginner’s program.  It’s feature filled, and extremely capable.  If you say otherwise, you might not be all that capable yourself.  Or feature filled.



As aforementioned, FL comes bundled with a ton of plugins – mostly for the mixer.  Surprisingly, they’re quite useful.  FL’s EQ2 is the epitome of easy and visual audio editing.  We all readily interpret information with our eyes, as opposed to thinking in dB or Hz, so visual tools are especially powerful in a production pipeline.

Unfortunately, FL has some really bad synthesizer plugins, like FL Slayer.  I mean, just listen to it.  Nothing more needs to be said about that.  However, there are some exceptional synths, such as Harmor and Sytrus.  They’re rather fun to play with since they’re extremely creative and delightfully unconventional.  They can also produce some extremely unique sounds.  Kids will have youtube tutorials about you called “How to sound like DJCool”.

Harmor has an anime mascot.  Look it up.  Harmor-chan.

Harmor has an anime mascot. Harmor-chan. Look it up.



Image-Line is perhaps one of my most admired companies alongside Canonical, as they sell their products at an accessible prices.  FL is perhaps one of the cheapest DAWs on the market (bested only by LMMS, but that also functions as computer-simulated torture from what I hear).  It’s current prices vary; $200 buys you the program, and $300 buys the program along with many more Image-Line plugins, such as Sytrus.  In addition to their affordable prices, FL offers free updates for life.  That’s pretty great, as their updates are usually filled with a slew of new features.



Before I continue, it is important to stress that I am inherently a critical person (and arguably, so is all of humanity).  Negative issues are much easier to pinpoint than positive features.

My biggest complaint with FL is its failure to implement a usable macro control setup as in other programs like Ableton, Guitar Rig, or even Massive.  Macros allow for the modulation of several parameters at once through only one control.  Guitar Rig shows such a feature off quite nicely through the “container” tool.  It easily maps many parameters to a single control, and allows the user to select the amount of influence on each control with an array of sliders.

Guitar Rig has a nice thing.

Guitar Rig features suave knobs taken directly from a fancy limousine’s minifridge.


I hope you took AP Calculus.

Your teacher was right, you will use Calculus for something someday.

The problem with FL’s “macro” system is not that it cannot be done, but that it is very difficult to set up without some finagling.  It doesn’t provide nifty influence sliders as in Guitar Rig, so if you want to create a master control, you’re going to need to do some math – and for advanced parameters, that just isn’t a feasible solution.  In addition, FL’s control is rather difficult to grasp, featuring numbers instead of useful graphical representations for all of us who didn’t graduate with a major in statistics.


THE BAD: sometimes explodes

Stability with FL can be an issue sometimes, especially when dealing with 3rd party applications.  I mainly use Native Instruments’ Komplete VSTs, and although they usually play nice with FL, they can sometimes experience errors or quirks.  This can be especially prevalent with NI’s sampling software, Kontakt.  This usually isn’t a problem for dance producers like myself, but when I venture off into the realms of good ‘ol fashioned orchestral composition, FL and Kontakt can be a pain to work with.



One of these probably works correctly, maybe.

One of these probably works correctly, maybe.

FL also lacks an extremely important functionality: selecting multiple VST folders to load.  By default, FL will load all VSTs within its own filesystem. Unfortunately, users can only choose one additional path to search for VSTs.  For me, this means that I have both my 32bit and 64bit plugins in the same folder – unlabeled, mind you.


FL is a program I’ve probably spent a good portion of my life in, and I think it’s well deserved.  It’s certainly got some quirks and problems that should be fixed, but I’ve found that these problems don’t limit my creativity.  They’re mere annoying technical issues.  But do I recommend FL?  That really depends on who you are.  Although many DAWs are similar in nature, I’d suggest you take a demo of each major contender before shelling out any cash.  Make sure to research specific features prevalent in your workflow and read commentary from other users.  There is much more to FL than I could speak about in this article.



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