Image-Line FL Studio 5 XXL review

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FL Studio has come a long way since its early days as a drum sequencer going by the name of Fruityloops. It now offers everything you need to create release-quality recordings and, with its generous collection of software instruments, it has much in common with Propellerhead’s Reason. FL Studio offers two significant advantages over Reason, though: expandability via VST and DirectX plug-ins; and, in all but the entry-level version, recording of live instruments.

Image-Line FL Studio 5 XXL review

Three versions of FL Studio are available. Fruityloops Edition (£75 inc VAT) includes the bulk of the features described here. Producer Edition (£136 inc VAT) adds live recording, stereo wave editing, a more flexible mix architecture and dedicated EQ for each mixer channel. Finally, the XXL Edition (£220 inc VAT) adds video playback for writing music to picture, five extra synth modules and 2.4GB of samples, in addition to the 225MB included in all three versions. Downloads are also available at $99, $149 and $299 respectively, which is particularly good value, as they come with the promise of free updates for life. You can add the same to boxed versions for just $29.

Parts of FL Studio’s interface still feel more like a drum machine than a fully fledged production environment. Instruments are picked from a list and then appear as a row on a step sequencer reminiscent of Roland’s classic TR808. This suits drum programming well, and the ability to drag and drop individual sounds from the Browser to automatically create a new sampler instrument makes FL Studio extremely user-friendly. Each sampler module comes with a reasonable set of synthesis controls, although cryptic abbreviations will make them difficult for inexperienced users to get to grips with.

However, the sampler is only one of 26 instruments in the XXL version – together these provide a massive palette of sounds with which to work. The one notable absence is a bread-and-butter General MIDI synth, although the SoundFont Player included in XXL would suffice, with the help of a suitable library. Instead, FL Studio specialises in analog-style synths and drum machines, piano, bass and guitar simulators, plus a range of abstract sound generators. Highlights include Wave Traveller, which creates vinyl scratch effects from curves drawn over a waveform, and BeepMap, which turns bitmaps into unearthly but surprisingly usable sounds. Slicer chops up sample loops into individual rhythmic elements in the same manner as Steinberg’s ReCycle 2 (see issue 84, p169). This allows extensive customisation of loops and live performances with the chopped-up sections, although changing the slice points is fiddly if the automatic settings aren’t quite right.

FPC is the only new synth module common to all three versions. Its interface mimics hardware drum samplers, such as Akai’s MPC range, and provides an easy way to record a full kit of drum samples as a performance with a MIDI keyboard. It can also layer and velocity-split up to four samples per voice, but otherwise its editing capabilities are limited.

The extra modules included in the XXL bundle are more rewarding. DX-10 uses FM synthesis to produce some delightfully unpleasant digital noises. DrumSynth Live is a virtual analog drum machine, producing TR909-style sounds from scratch and thus affording complete control over their tone. SimSynth is a virtual analog synth that’s surprisingly versatile considering its simple set of controls, although, once again, abbreviations will confuse inexperienced synth programmers. Lastly, Sytrus combines a variety of synthesis techniques and offers a baffling array of controls, but it sounds fantastic.

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