FL Studio 20 Review – A Very Happy Birthday Indeed

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FL Studio is 20 and it’s celebrating with version 20! Andy Jones gets fruity and examines a genius history that has given it a huge DAW user base…

FL Studio 20 Hero shot

Price €89 for Fruity | €189 for Producer
Contact Image-Line

FL Studio 20 key features:

  • Mac and PC DAW with super-slick interface for easy song creation
  • Multi-track audio recording, time-stretching, pitch shifting audio editing
  • 80 plug-ins (with Producer version)
  • Supports VST standards 1, 2 and 3 for more plug-ins
  • Can resize and rearrange the user interface
  • Multi-touch interface
  • Record and edit automation
  • 500 tracks for arrangements
  • Use FL Studio as a VST plug-in or with ReWire
  • Lifetime of free updates

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: there’s never been a better time to hop on board the music production wagon, especially in terms of the sheer number and variety of DAWs out there.

Most recently I’ve looked at the latest versions of Cubase and Reason – two very different beasts but the absolute pinnacles of their years of development – as well as newish kids on the block like Mixcraft and Tracktion (and very nice they are too).

FL Studio is a two-decade old piece of software that also seems to have won the hearts and minds of much of the music production community, especially Stateside.

As we’ll see later, FL Studio started almost as a game – many of its early adopters certainly produced on it rather like they were playing a video game. It’s always been ’the easy sequencer’ to make tunes on quickly – too quickly according to some of its early detractors.

However, like all DAWs, it has become something of a production powerhouse over the years, yet tried to keep that simplistic ethos that won it so many fans at the start. It’s a hard line to balance – how to add professional features without compromising ease of use – but with consistently good updates, its makers, Image-Line, seem to have walked that tightrope.

That’s possibly down to a vocal user community who will certainly shout if they don’t get what’s required and it’s a community that has also stood by the software, perhaps in gratitude at one of Image-Line’s policies which it is celebrating within this all-new release, FL Studio 20.

Let’s talk 20

Image-Line has jumped ahead a little with FL Studio 20 because the company’s last version was number 12, so what gives? Well, the company is celebrating 20 years of the software and that policy I mentioned is its lifetime of free updates, which means just what it says.

If you were one of those lucky punters who opted for version 1.0 of FruityLoops – as it was first called – back in 1997 (more accurately, the first release proper was v1.2.7 in March 1998), then you will have been receiving free updates to this day, so you will no doubt be the happiest person in music production, so radically and fast has the software moved on since those early days.

And as that free update offer continues, if you buy in with v20 today, you will probably receive free updates until the 22nd century when the software will be producing music based on what you’re thinking. It’s a policy well worth celebrating, then, and that’s why we have FL Studio 20. With the moniker focussing so much on the history, perhaps this is an appropriate point to look back at how the software has developed in those 20 years.


Do I really need this?

The chances are you already have a DAW or a hardware sequencer with which you make music. If not, then you definitely need a sequencer of this power, and even if you do own one, FL Studio is a great option to consider.

Like Reason, you can use the software as a kind of DAW within a DAW, and its fast beat and melody sequencing could tempt you to do just that so you could consider it almost as an instrument in its own right.

FL Studio 20 - main screenshot

However, it is now easily powerful enough to be considered as the one and only DAW of choice and many producers are using it as that. Indeed, the Grime and EDM scenes have a lot of producers who have adopted the software and it’s moved on from its hip hop roots.

That’s probably largely down to those beat creation features – always a stand-out plus-point of the software – so if beats are important, you could argue that there’s nothing quite so quick and easy to get rhythmic with, in which case, perhaps you really do need
FL Studio 12.


A fruity history

That first version was a simple four-track drum machine developed by Didier Dambrin for the Belgian company Image-Line (who had previously released an adult version of Tetris called Porntris, I might add).

Version 1 was a simple MIDI affair based around a TR-or Rebirth-style step programming interface, but it quickly developed to handle melodic sequencing and audio via a sample-based drum machine. Its simple interface brought it a huge number of fans, especially in the States where it was adopted by high-profile producers in the hip hop community thanks to its beat programming prowess.

The speed at which the software developed was something to behold, with VST and Direct X support added by the end of the 90s and then a suite of dedicated Fruity plug-ins and the BeatSlicer engine thrown in by the turn of the century. At version 4.0, the name changed from FruityLoops to FL Studio and by this time the software could also run as a plug-in within other DAWs, rather like Reason.

As the software developed through the noughties, it was all about integration with the outside world – with hardware controllers, audio formats and the like – and more plug-ins by both Image-Line and third parties.

FL Studio was becoming the serious DAW that we know today with the addition of features like Elastique time-stretching, pitch-shifting in audio tracks and Pitcher correction and harmonization that came at the end of the decade.

In June 2011 FL Studio Mobile was announced and within a couple of years had become hugely popular across iOS and (2013) Android devices. The more recent versions up to v12 added multi-touch and 64-bit plug-in support among many other advancements, and that pretty much brings us to the present day with two editions available: Fruity and Producer (plus two more titles, Signature and All Plug-ins, which are Producer with added content and plug-ins). The question is…

What’s new in FL Studio 20?

The big news is that FL Studio 20 brings with it a native 64-bit Mac version of the software. You can swap files between the Mac and PC versions and one license will unlock both. So excited are we that this is the case that we’re testing the software on a Mac. It installed with ease and so far has been a dream to use – no crashes, hangs or anything; it seems to be as slick and solid as the PC version and loaded our existing Mac plug-ins without any issues.

Among the other new features, FL Studio 20 now supports multiple time signatures so you can set different ones within arrangements (on what FL calls the Playlist), or sequences within the FL Channel Rack that is used to produce Clips that make up the song.

There are now three ways to consolidate audio, that is render MIDI tracks to audio to save CPU. You can do this per track; choose a selection of clips within a song, or render and then replace Patterns within a track. FL Studio 20 has some great ways to manage Arrangements, that is the song in a Playlist, so you can easily create multiple versions for remixing, for example.

The Playlist area also has more features including hiding groups of tracks to help keep it all a bit tidier. This is especially useful as that track count has been increased from 199 to a whopping 500. (Those of you with unlimited tracks might see this as tight, but it really isn’t because FL Studio does ’tracks’ differently, as we’ll see.)


Three updates to effect plug-ins in FLS 20


FL Studio 20 - Fruity Reverb 2

1. Fruity Reverb 2

This was already a pretty classy reverb but now includes a modulation section to add some of that classic metallic ring modulation to your sound.

FL Studio 20 - Slicex

2. Slicex

FL Studio’s very own sample chopper and beat arranger Slicex has also been updated with new slicing and send options.

fl studio 20 - vfx level scaler

3. VXF Level Scaler

Finally, there’s a brand new plug-in that makes managing your levels – including velocity, pitch and pan – a graphical breeze.


Because the track count has been upped so significantly, the new version also includes a Mini View of the song which you can set at single or double height to get an easier overview. New recording features include live previews, grouped takes for comping and the ability to set recording start/stop points.

Another feature is the return of the Step Sequencer Graph which lets you draw in certain parameters (like velocity and pan) on a graphical screen within a Channel Rack sequence making edits very easy. Another that was dropped and makes a return, by popular demand, is the Precomputed effect.

These are a group of effects within the sampler channel which allow you to add ring modulation, EQ and distortion effects to your samples directly within the sequencer, giving you greater real-time control at the time when you need it.

There are plenty of updates to FL Studio’s plug-ins too and we’ve included some of those on the previous page. Finally the mixer gets a few updates, – the plug-in delay compensation works better with effects – and the Toolbar now has greater customisation.


Image-Line FL Studio 20 overview


FL Studio 20 overview

1. Browser

One of FL Studio’s standard areas, completely selectable and you can customise it for a better workflow and add locations and project folders.

2. Channel racks

The standout FL Studio sequencing area where loops and ideas come together before assembling into songs.

3. Select buttons

The main feature windows of FL Studio can be clicked on or off here including Channel Racks, the Playlist, Piano Edit, Mixer and main Browser.

4. Playlist

The area where you assemble your song arrangement using Patterns created in the Channel Racks and then pasted here. Automation can then be added later.

5. Mixer

The mixer in FL Studio is another highlight and completely customisable in terms of its size, channel width and number of controls on display.

6. Plug-ins

FL Studio 20 Producer comes with some 80 plug-ins which can be added to Channel Racks by hitting the + button and then selecting from a drop down menu.

7. Piano roll editor

It’s not just conventional step sequencing that FL Studio excels at – there are plenty of melodic editing options within the Piano Roll editor.

8. Settings

All of your settings in one window – albeit with lots of tabs. You set up everything you need to for smooth operation here.


FL In use

The main crux of FL Studio is to compose short loops in the aforementioned Channel Racks and then arrange these on the Playlist to make a song. The beauty – and I mean sheer beauty because there is simply nothing like it – is that you can have anything in a Channel Rack: beats, synths, instruments and a mixture thereof, and you can line up enough instruments to make a complete song in one sequence if you want (although, practically, you’ll want to keep sounds separate to avoid confusion). Even better, when you come to arrange these sequences, you can throw them at whatever ’track’ in the Playlist you want.

So a song could be the same Channel Rack sequence on different tracks, or on the same tracks, or different Channel Racks on the same track. I’m making it sound more complicated than it is – basically you can have anything anywhere! It turns conventional sequencing on its head in that you don’t have all audio or all MIDI tracks going left to right, nor do you have to have the same sound on each track.

In practise it is a beautiful way of working, especially if you like that old school way of constructing sequences around 16 parts, although you aren’t limited to this. A piano roll editor allows you to record complete melodies with the many instruments in the software.

Thanks to their quality I don’t think I’ve ever produced a piece of music so quickly except maybe using Korg’s Gadget or Novation’s Circuit. The instruments and effects add up to over 80 instrument plug-ins in FL Studio 20 Producer and there are more than enough effects to carry out most tasks, although I was disappointed that great synths like Toxic Biohazard and Harmor open in demo mode as they only feature properly in the All Plug-ins version of the software.

Other stand-out features within the FL Studio world include the mixer which is very easy to combine with the Playlist and assign and reassign tracks to if necessary. It’s also packed with automation features and the ability to group tracks with a mouse drag. The Browser too is another FL favourite.

It’s easy to use this to aid your workflow by linking folders, and organising data within projects. And it’s this easy workflow that is – and has always been – the standout feature in FL Studio, and is maintained in v20. You are just one very shallow learning curve away from great sounding tunes and easy arrangements.


Three synths from FL Studio 20


FL Studio 20 - 3x osc

1. 3X Osc

A basic analogue synth capable of some pretty raw sounds and dance wobble if you put your mind to it and get programming.

FL Studio 20 - sytrus screenshot

2. Sytrus

One of the best FL synths, this is a hybrid FM and additive synth capable of a wide range of sounds including analogue, FM bells and ’real’ acoustic.

FL Studio 20 - dx10

3. Fruity DX10

Out and out FM/DX synth with eight voices of polyphony but can be stacked up as it’s pretty low in terms of CPU usage.

Conclusion

As with all DAW reviews it feels like I’ve only scratched the surface, but I wanted to get the history of this important DAW across and show how far it has come. v20 has a lot of good updates and as they are free to current PC owners, they will already have gone for it. The best bit though is that Mac owners can now taste the joys of FL Studio and I would urge you to give it a go.

It might not turn you completely away from Logic or whatever, but even considered as just a plug-in within whatever you use FL Studio 20 is a fantastic idea, and as a complete DAW, well, there’s yet another great contender on the market for both platforms. As I said at the start, there really is no better time to be making music


Alternatives



Propellerhead
Reason £299

People always compare Reason with FL Studio but actually they do have a slightly different feel overall. The end results are the same, though, with great big beats, lots of synths and music you can make very easily being the order of the day.

FL Studio 20 Alternative Korg Gadget

Korg
Gadget $40-$299

It’s not a direct alternative, but lots about FL Studio reminds me about Gadget – at least the ease and speed at which you can compose mostly dance music. Both have versions for Mac desktop and iOS too (and lots of synths).



9 MT Choice

+ Works on a Mac, and works well
+ Loads of features, loads of instruments, but still just as quick and easy to make music with
+ We just love the easy Channel Rack sequencing
+ Great for dance music (see below)
+ Workflow like no other
+ Despite age, it retains core values

– You’ll want to customise the look – it can feel regimented
– Still a little too dance orientated
– The Producer edition could do with more of the Signature edition synths

FL Studio 20 is a great celebration of not just a DAW’s birthday but an ideal that has given it a richly deserved audience of millions. A happy birthday indeed!

  • 9
  • User Ratings (23 Votes) 7.1
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