Computer musicians have an incredibly wide range of software from which to choose, from consumer-oriented loop arrangement tools up to the same professional products that the top producers use. FL Studio has found itself an appealing niche between these two extremes.
There are actually four versions of FL Studio: Express, FruityLoops Edition, Producer Edition and XXL. The Producer Edition contains all of the main application features, while the XXL edition - which we’re reviewing here - also has several extra plug-ins (which are available separately, too). FL Studio can be bought in a box or as a download. The size of the download has increased from 46 to 75MB with this release, which might sound pretty drastic, but will only be an issue if you’re still on dial-up.
The installation process remains straightforward, and FL Studio veterans will note that a few new options are presented. You can now choose to install the Collab online collaboration tool, ASIO4ALL (a utility for squeezing low-latency audio operation out of a wide range of budget soundcards) and a demo of Deckadance (Image-Line’s forthcoming DJ software).
FL Studio supports a pattern-based workflow. Patterns are programmed or recorded using the step sequencer or piano roll, then arranged and layered in the Playlist to create a complete song. This approach to composition is extremely flexible, enabling you to create something that arrangements through processes of trial-and-error and experimentation. It might sound a little cumbersome to ‘traditional’ musicians, but if you rely on your ear and enjoy noodling around, it’s great.
The FL Studio workflow also takes any sense of pressure off, as coming up with a riff by experimentation is far less intimidating than trying to pick something out at the keyboard and capture the idea before it’s forgotten. Audio recording support is comprehensive and VST plug-ins are supported. In fact, you can even load FL Studio as a plug-in in other hosts.
As you’d expect, version 7 of the software comes with a sizeable list of new features. However, when compared with previous releases, surprisingly few of these could be described as ‘major’. There are the obligatory GUI tweaks, but more significantly, pattern clips can now be arranged alongside audio clips and automation clips in the lower half of the Playlist. This makes FL Studio feel much more like a conventional track-based sequencer than it did before.
The software can now take advantage of the extra processing power offered by dual-core systems, while the built-in sample editor has been replaced with a completely new and integrated application called Edison. This represents a huge improvement over the old wave editor. You’ll also find two new effects plug-ins. The Parametric EQ 2 features seven EQ bands and spectral analysis, while the curiously-named Love Philter is a unique and flexible multistage filter. It should also be noted that several of the bundled Generator plug-ins have been improved, and you’re provided with demo versions of Toxic III, PoiZone and Morphine (all new synths).
FL Studio remains an ideal choice both for those taking their first steps in computer-based music production and for more advanced users who require a powerful scratchpad. Sadly, though, there’s still a lot of work involved if you want to export a project to one of the mainstream DAW packages (Sonar, Cubase or Logic Pro). Support for the OMF Interchange format would be most welcome. FL Studio is still a PC-only product, though it does run well under Windows on the new Intel-based Apple systems (either inside Parallels Desktop or via Boot Camp). A native port to OS X would still please a lot of Mac users, however.
The version 7 update certainly keeps FL Studio moving forward, and thanks to Image-Line’s free update policy, existing users will lap it up (if you’re a new user, we’d recommend the Producer Edition as the best value for money option). That said, although additional plug-ins are always welcome, we’d like to have seen a few more improvements to the core application itself. We were really hoping to see a revamp of FL Studio’s control surface support, for example, which now looks almost embarrassing in comparison to what’s offered in Propellerhead’s Reason.
If you’re happy using just a mouse and a computer keyboard, however, FL Studio remains one of the few music applications you can just fire up and be productive with straight away. The impressive level of flexibility on offer means that users are unlikely to outgrow the program in a hurry, and it certainly gives you one of the least intimidating ‘blank canvases’ you’ll find anywhere on the software market. Most of all, making music with FL Studio 7 is downright fun, which is exactly as it should be.