FL Studio 6, Worth Every Penny

Made w/FL 6

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Musicians invest a lot in their music host software. Hours, dollars, patience and emotions all get stretched to their limits. Learning the software, using the software, cursing the software. The solitude leads to back aches, blurry eyes, divorce and a visit from Child Services. After a while the musician will get dependent on and defensive about the host they use, sometimes to point of fanaticism. The name for this is “software Stockholm syndrome.”

An “upgrade” is typically where the musician gets to pay for the privilege of having bugs fixed in the last version at same time as paying for the introduction of a few features they were hoping for, several they can’t fathom and of course, all new bugs in the latest version of the software that, without fail, forces a hardware upgrade simply to open the default demo project.

FL Studio, with it’s upgrade to version 6, remains the bargain of the century, remains one the best sounding hosts out there, remains stable as ever and it remains one of the hardest and most obtuse applications to learn and master.

But as always, the new features are very cool. The best way to describe the latest upgrade to FL Studio is “two steps forward, a bunch of steps of not taken.”

FL can be infuriating to use, to the point where it hurts your production flow. Consider that the application didn’t have multiple levels of Undo until version 4 (!), a feature you can’t imagine living without in any other world. The ‘why-did-that-take-a-decade’ feature in version 6 is the ability to slice a MIDI clip. Previously if you wanted to chop an eight-bar MIDI clip into two four-bar clips, you had to copy the entire clip, and cut and copy notes around the piano roll in both clips. I know, I know, users of every other MIDI sequencing application ever will scratch their heads but I’m just happy to have it. Finally. While version 5 gave us the ability to merge multiple patterns, it took until 6 to be able to split patterns apart. And you have to love a mixing program that takes six versions to add a ‘mute’ button to the mixer. Again, we’re grateful for every morsel when it comes to this stuff.

Am I complaining? Does it sound like that? Not me. It’s a free upgrade. In fact they’re all free upgrades. I have not paid for FL since I bought version 2 around the time Hoover was president. Imagine-Line promised a billion years ago that FL Studio upgrades will be free forever. I’m guessing “forever” is defined as “until an outside investor will look at this scheme and force the developers to rename FL Studio to Never Again Studio and start charging for enabling features one menu item at a time” but hey, whatever.

Breathe man!

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FL is my second software purchase/upgrade in as many months that came with gigabytes of video instruction. In FL’s case it was just in time. Image-Line is infamous for dumping features into the application without exposing them in the menu or in documentation. In other words, only the developers know about them. (I wish I was kidding.) DVDs, broadband, huge fast hard disks, video iPods and video screen capture utilities are all commodity items so it makes sense to do business this way. Almost. There’s still a crunch for time and FL’s narrator doesn’t waste a millisecond. I’ve clipped a portion that talks about the delay bank effect. NOTE: I didn’t speed this up or chop it all, this is the actual clip at actual speed.

The big news about the host itself is the mixer re-write. The new mixer has routing features that crushes hosts like ACID and even leapfrogs Ableton Live’s latest wizzo bus routing that was supposed to be the routing scheme to end all routing scheme. The FL 6 mixer bus routing goes everywhere but my Mom’s house. Of course in FL-land no two windows work the same way, leave alone in a standard Windows way, so this version of the mixer introduces yet another randomly different way to horizontally scroll a window. But I’m not complaining!

Still “broken” is the inability to resize audio clips. Like in all other hosts, clips represent a time slice of a larger sound file. In other hosts you can arbitrarily (to the sample) resize what portion of the file a clip “exposes.” In FL you can cut a clip and slice it into two different clips through visuals, not at the sample level. But once you do this you’re choices are 1) to keep cutting or 2) expose the entire file or 3) expose a pre-defined region. The default action when you try to resize the clip with the mouse is to stretch the audio to fit the new time length (!), which affects every clip associated with that file (!!). This is a painful, modal offline process that stops everything else your doing.

The real way Image-Line makes money is by introducing irresistible plugins that work both deeply integrated into FL as well as standalone VSTi. This year’s model is a bundle of Arguru’s DirectWave sampler that rivals anything in the Reason rack knob-for-knob, perhaps deeper in some ways. Direct Wave costs $68 once you purchase FL and like everything else, includes lifetime free upgrades. It is, by far, the easiest way to create keyboard mapped sample arrays I’ve seen — and I’ve tried just about everything. If you understand how tonal and velocity regions (aka zones) work theoretically, the interface will be very intuitive: drag and drop wavs onto the work area, stretch the box to fit the region, lengthwise for pitch, hieght for velocity. The options are very, very deep and it’s clear that short of a fully immersed experience like you find in Native Instruments’ synths (for a fraction of the cost) it’s an awesome balance between cost, usability and functionality.

The killer feature of DirectWave is the ability to “capture” the output of any VSTi and render it into static wav-based sound bank. You simply point to a softsynth VSTi and tell it to “process.” DirectWave will “play” the notes it needs to make up sound bank and save the results in short wav files and map them to the proper keys. Dumping sounds wavs into the soundcard “as is” is infinitely less CPU work then generating the sound in the softsynth. This is a very clever cake-and-it-too solution.

As with previous version of FL, once you purchase you are given access to 2GBs of samples from SampleFusion. These are some excellent samples that aren’t quite as instantly cool as eLabs, but then eLabs have become stock sounds so it’s cool to run into another couple of gigabytes of stuff. However if you plan to purchase DirectWave I highly recommend you don’t download directly from the SampleFusion and use the plugin’s download instead. It’s the same bits but organized in a way the plugin seems to like a whole lot better. At that point you can go to the web site and download everything DirectWave didn’t get.

There are several new plugins. I haven’t been able to use the new multi-band compressor to good effect yet, that might be because I’m used to the Waves plugins which are some of the best in the world. The same goes for the new multi-bank delay; it just sounds “amateur” to me. (I wouldn’t be so quick to say these things but when the factory presets don’t blow me away I question how good they can sound.) There’s a hot morphing EQ plugin that lets you set up eight different complex shapes for EQ, pan and send and then gives you a knob that allows to you morph between the eight shapes. It’s very cool but when I tried to use it, my CPU got clobbered which surprised me because the default plugins have always been very CPU efficient.

The new reverb is fun to play with since they added cool mouse dragging to shape the room:

Finally, I’m told the new envelope controller is creamier than ice cream but I’m not a envelope controller kind of guy. If I was, I’d certainly appreciate that Sytrus (Image-Line’s outstanding softsynth) is being cannibalized for it’s better user interface elements and showing up all over FL Studio.

So should you upgrade to 6? Why, of course! It’s worth every penny.