Version 12 ushers in a totally reworked interface and improved features, but does FL Studio 12 deliver enough in an era of increasing competition?
Over the course of its 11 previous versions, Image-Line's individualistic FL Studio DAW has grown from a simple drum sequencer to, without doubt, one of the most popular music applications in the world.
Its workflow has evolved beyond the original core concept of loop sequencing, and it's now more than up to the jobs of recording and editing audio and MIDI, hosting VST plugins (as well as its own sizeable range of effects and synths), mixing and mastering, arrangement editing, live performance, and anything else you'd expect from a modern, feature-rich production system.
Version 12 of FL Studio, we're pleased to report, represents one of the most significant overhauls to the program in years.
Inspect a vector
The most literally in-your-face change in FL Studio 12 is the transition of the entire GUI - including selected instruments and effects - to vector graphics. Unlike bitmaps, vectors can scale infinitely, maintaining pin-sharp imaging at any resolution and display size.
The look has been completely redesigned, too - gone are the days when a long FL session could feel like a stay in a Soviet car park. It's still based on that familiar grey colour palette, but the modern, vivid revamp works wonders, bringing FL firmly into line with the competition, aesthetically.
New visual options include a range of mixer layouts (Compact, Wide, Extra Large, etc), control over which elements are shown in the mixer, virtual cables showing routings between channels, and the ability to resize many things that previously couldn't be, like the mixer and Channel Rack. Multitouch display users will also be overjoyed to learn that FL's mixer now fully supports that technology.
Rack 'em up
The Channel Rack is simply the new name for the previously untitled window housing the overview of Instruments, Samplers and Internal Generator channels used in a project, which can now be manually switched between Piano Roll preview and Step Sequencer views, depending on the preferences of the user.
Notes programmed into the Step Sequencer are automatically updated in the Piano Roll of that channel, allowing for deeper editing in the latter without having to copy and paste patterns from one to the other.
The ability to apply swing per channel rather than just globally is a welcome improvement, as is the big '+' button at the bottom of the Channel Rack, which brings up the Insert menu for the quick addition of channels.
The Piano Roll itself has gained the option to deactivate auto zoom, and now enables editing of Ghost Notes - that is, other channels' notes shown in the background of the piano roll of the clip you're editing. Tweaking harmonies has never been so easy.
On the plugins front, some - including the Edison audio recorder and 3xOsc synth - have been made over to bring them in line with the new FL Studio look; and when loading plugins, rather than the old workspace-cluttering second window appearing alongside the instrument or effect's GUI, channel settings and the like are now rolled into a tab at the top of it.
We're disappointed to find that you can't add Automation Clips to the Channel Rack from the Insert menu any more. It can still be done by right-clicking a parameter and selecting Create Automation Clip, or applying automation to the 'last tweaked parameter' from the Add menu, but we don't see the point of this removal.
Every edition of FL Studio has seen a feature upgrade for v12. The cheapest, Fruity Edition, now benefits from Automation clips; the Maximus and Sytrus plugins have been added to the Producer Edition; and the separately available Harmless, Newtone and Pitcher plugins are now included with the top tier Signature Bundle, reviewed here.
You'll still want to opt for Producer or Signature if you're serious about your music production, but the addition of Automation clips does make the Fruity edition significantly more capable than before.
In the development of FL Studio 12, it's clear that Image-Line has spent plenty of time soul searching, seeking ways to genuinely improve, adapt and streamline the day-to-day usability of their DAW, and the result is, by and large, a dream come true for existing users.
Is this a good point for the newcomer to jump onboard? Absolutely. FL Studio still lends itself more readily to in-the-box composition and mixing, rather than as the centre of a more traditional recording setup, but there's little it can't do in regard to the former. And with its 'lifetime free updates' policy, the knowledge that you'll never have to pay an upgrade fee after that initial outlay is certainly reassuring.
Thanks to that same policy, FL Studio 12 is a no-brainer for paid-up owners, who may well find themselves falling in love with their DAW of choice all over again because of it.