FL Studio vs Ableton: Which DAW is right for you?

by Anders Johanson January 02, 2021 10 min read

FL Studio vs Ableton

What is FL Studio?

If you're new here not to worry, we all started somewhere. And that somewhere is outlining two of the most popular music production software in the market, FL Studio vs. Ableton. So let's start by outlining the basics. Since the early days of electronic music, there has always been a tool for the musician to create his music on. More often than not, musicians were forced to use basic home computers to do this. This was the case with Fast Tracker II, one of the best and most popular trackers of the early 1990s. However, this all changed with the invention of Fruity Loops, or FL Studio, as it is now known. It was specifically designed for producing electronic music within a graphical environment, where the user could drag and drop pre-set sounds into an arrangement area and manipulate them using a special interface. FL Studio, as it is now known, has been the leading software of its kind for over a decade. It's popularity is not only due to its ease-of-use, but also because it's run by one of the most generous companies in the industry: Image-Line. The FL Studio website provides not only free downloads of the program, but also tutorials, plugins and an active forum where thousands of music producers around the world share their work, techniques and support. With software and equipment becoming more affordable, high quality music training sites on the internet and a free program like FL Studio giving people all the tools they need to start making great tunes, there's no limit to what you can achieve.

What is Ableton?

The topic of conversation now is Ableton Live. The software got its name from its ability to 'live'and record audio in real-time. Ableton was initially available only for Apple's Mac operating system, but during the six years that followed, it became available for PC as well. In Dec 2015, Ableton released a "suite" of their program, called "Ableton Live 9". While the previous version was able to work with a large number of audio and MIDI inputs and outputs, this new edition allows for even more. A unique feature of this software is that it allows the user to create a 'clip' of any instrument sound and repeat it during playback without losing quality; this has been especially helpful in the field of music production. Ableton Live, with its millions of users the world over and its capability to let you try before you buy has won the hearts of many. Its intuitive design and easy-to-use interface has helped people create some fantastic music. The forum on their website is a great place to get tips and help on Ableton Live as well as a place to find musicians for collaboration.


Why Is Ableton So Popular

Aspiring music producers tend to gravitate towards tools that are used by the big names in the industry. The fact that Skrillex uses Ableton Live as his main digital audio workstation (DAW) probably inspired tens of thousands of beginner dubstep producers to make Ableton their DAW of choice as well. In general, you might've wondered why Ableton is so popular among many well-known EDM artists and DJs. The answer is pretty straightforward ⁠— Ableton is a unique software that not only allows you to make music on your computer but is also strongly geared towards live performance. If you're an EDM producer who dreams about performing at clubs and festivals someday, it would be smart to choose a DAW that allows you to switch between production and live modes easily. Ableton offers precisely that option.

Those looking to use Ableton as a traditional DAW will spend most of their time in the arrangement view. This view is perfect if you are in a recording setting or producing a track in your home studio. The linear workflow will be familiar to you if you’ve worked with other DAWs like Pro Tools or Logic Pro. In a nutshell, the arrangement view is where you can see all of the stems of your song. Those stems can include audio from recorded instruments and samples as well as midi notes played by VST plugins.

Now let's assume your track is composed, arranged, and mixed. If you wanted to include it in a live set, you'd typically need to export and open it in a different software made for DJing. Not so in Ableton. By pressing the Tab key, you can quickly switch to Ableton's session view. If you've set up your track correctly in the arrangement view (i.e., chopped it up into different sections like intro, verse, chorus, and bridge), every part of the track will be assigned to a so-called scene in the session view. From this view, you can jump back and forth between different song sections on the fly. And if you want to change effects during your live session, e.g., filter the sound, map the desired effect to a midi controller, and you're good to go. It should be evident by now that the session view is super handy for those who play tracks in a live setting.

In short, Ableton can accommodate the needs of both producers and DJs, which makes the software a sort of jack of all trades. This versatility is the main reason why Ableton is so popular.

ableton session view

Is Ableton Hard to Learn

Learning to use a DAW like Ableton Live can seem hard if you've never produced music on a computer before, but the truth of the matter is — Ableton is one of the most accessible DAWs for beginners. There are some DAWs out there that even professional audio engineers struggle with, but Ableton isn't one of them. It's realistic to learn the basics of Ableton Live in a day. More experienced producers who've worked in other DAWs will get up to speed in an even shorter amount of time.

Ableton has a clean and straightforward design and gets a lot of credit for its intuitive workflow. A lot of things inside the software can be accomplished by dragging and dropping without getting lost in multiple menus. Because there's so little clutter in the interface, you'll get used to it quickly and will be able to focus on producing.

Of course, there's a big difference between knowing the basics of a DAW and being proficient in it. Ableton Live has a long list of features and certainly falls into the "easy to learn, hard to master" category. However, there's absolutely no need to learn all of Ableton's nuances to start creating. You can gradually add more and more production tricks and techniques to your arsenal by simply using the software and referencing tutorials whenever you need some help. Ableton's official website has a lot of tips on how to get the most out of the program.  YouTube is another excellent resource if you're looking for a more interactive way to learn from Ableton's massive community.

The most important thing to do to break out of the "hard to learn" mindset is to start making music in Ableton as soon as possible. Take advantage of Ableton's free 90-day trial and use that timeframe to produce as many tracks as you can. By the end of it, you'll likely feel at home working in Ableton and will smile at the memory that just a few months ago, you thought it was hard to learn. Most producers who start learning Ableton end up sticking with it and don't switch to other DAWs later. Once the workflow clicks for you, there won't be a need to look for an alternative music software.

And one last thing, don't get discouraged if you find yourself struggling with recreating what you hear in your head in Ableton because that's a challenge all producers face regardless of the DAW they use. It's best to curb your expectations about the quality of your music and focus on the process of creating instead of the results. If you're a complete beginner, it'll take many months if not years before you start producing music that sounds half decent. That's the reality of being a producer in general and has little do with how easy or hard your DAW is.

Is Ableton Better Than FL Studio

arrangement view ableton

Ableton Live and FL Studio are two of the most popular DAWs on the market, and a comparison between these two programs will almost always be subjective. Usually, a producer will prefer the software that he first started with and spent years learning. There's no one single feature in Ableton that would make an FL Studio power user switch DAWs. Moreover, both Ableton and FL Studio are frequently updated and catch up with each other, so the functionality gap becomes smaller with every passing year. For example, a few years ago, FL Studio didn't have an easy way to consolidate MIDI to audio, and Ableton was superior in that regard. However, with FL Studio 20, that feature is now available.

Despite the similarities in functionality, it'd be wrong to say that the two DAWs are the same. Ableton has a unique look about it and implements certain features differently. Its workflow is a lot more streamlined. For example, if you create a new track, it will be automatically routed to a mixer channel, which will save you a couple of extra clicks. Is this crucial for your success as a producer? Probably not, but some Ableton users will swear by it because it's more time-efficient.

The same goes for automation and instruments. In FL Studio, you'd do well to color every channel and automation clip because otherwise, you'll get lost looking for that one synth that isn't quite right or a filter automation that needs some adjustment. In Ableton, you can automate different parameters for each track through a drop-down menu without having a bunch of clips scattered all over your playlist, and finding a synth is just a matter of clicking on the right track.

There are many other quality of life features in Ableton that could make it appear better than FL Studio. You'll never run out of mixer channels in Ableton because the amount is unlimited. In FL Studio, you are restricted to 100 mixer inserts per project. Also, Ableton is a lot more forgiving when you accidentally delete something because you can undo almost any action. That's not the case in FL Studio because once you delete a channel or remove an effect from a mixer insert, you won't be able to undo it through the Edit menu. FL Studio does show a warning whenever something can't be undone, but those warnings appear quite often, and the whole restriction seems a little bit archaic.

Lastly, Ableton truly shines when it comes to audio manipulation. Its warp features, in particular the ability to add your own warp markers, make the process of syncing longer loops and recordings to tempo a much quicker and more pleasant endeavor. You can do similar things in FL Studio with Newtone, but the workflow is fiddly and less flexible.

Why Do Producers Use FL Studio

fl studio

One of the main reasons why so many producers use FL Studio is the price of the software. FL Studio is a lot cheaper compared to Ableton Live. FL Studio Producer Edition costs $199 and offers enough features for a beginner. Ableton Live's comparable Standard edition is priced at $449, which is a much more significant investment. On top of that, FL Studio comes with free lifetime updates, so you'll always have the newest version of the software. Ableton doesn't have the same policy, and you'll have to pay for version upgrades. The amount of money you'll save because of free updates will add up if you plan to produce music for many years and potentially allow you to spend more on third-party plugins and studio equipment.

Speaking of plugins, FL Studio comes with some versatile synths like Sytrus, Harmless, GMS, and, most recently, FLEX. In general, the instrument plugins category is where FL Studio has Ableton beat by a mile. The synths can look complicated to a newbie, but the sheer amount of presets you'll get with all those plugins will allow you to spice up your productions with unique sounds even if you don't know any sound design.

We spoke in-depth about the workflow advantages of Ableton Live, but FL Studio also has an ace up its sleeve ⁠— the piano roll. If you're on a budget and don't have any fancy MIDI instruments, you'll be composing most of your music in the piano roll with your computer mouse. Drawing notes and chords in the piano roll is a delight because the controls are super intuitive. On top of that, you also have the step sequencer. It's another tool that will speed things up and make it possible to program a drum loop in under a minute.

The price tag, the synths, and the compositional tools are the reasons why many producers use FL Studio. The software provides an easy entry to those who want to learn more about music production and is often the first DAW for many beginners. As those beginners turn into advanced users, they share their knowledge through tutorials, attracting more aspiring producers and creating a snowball effect. Today the FL community is huge with plenty of opportunities for collaborations, and even professional producers remain faithful to it. The DAW kick-started many successful careers and will likely continue to do so in the years to come.

What Producers Use FL Studio

Image-Line is the company behind FL Studio, and on its official website, there's a dedicated section listing many well-known producers who use the software as their primary DAW. Among the names, you will find EDM giants such as Martin Garrix, Afrojack, Deadmau5, and Oliver Heldens, as well as renowned beat producers like Boi-1da, Lex Luger, 9th Wonder, and Murda Beatz.

The short quotes next to the artists' photos reveal a common theme. Boi-1da praises FL Studio for being easy to use and understand. Other artists mention that they want to get down their ideas quickly, and FL Studio is conducive to that goal. Unsurprisingly the piano roll and the sequencer are also credited. Oliver Heldens goes so far as to say he prefers to draw his melodies in the piano roll despite having a MIDI keyboard. Lastly, every beginner producer should take Afrojack's words to heart, who uses a lot of FL Studio stock effects in his tracks. He says that you should ignore the noise about other programs being better and focus on practicing and gaining experience.

afrojack fl studio

Is FL Studio the Best Daw

It'd be very controversial to say that FL Studio is the best DAW overall, but it's undoubtedly one of the best music programs for beginners. Afrojack started using the software when he was just 11 years old because working in FL was easy and obvious to him. It says a lot about the accessibility of a program if a kid can have fun with it from the get-go. And the fact that a Grammy Award winner like Afrojack uses FL Studio to this day is another strong evidence that you can use this DAW at any stage of your career.

Quite a few professional producers and artists say that they stumbled upon FL Studio early in their career because of a friend's recommendation. The DAW has a free demo, which makes it possible to explore the program without committing to it straight away. For many, however, it was love at first sight because FL Studio has a way to inspire creativity in people. You can spend countless hours in it capturing musical ideas pouring out of your brain without ever realizing how fast the time is flying by. And a bonus is that over the years FL Studio became quite a stunner to look at, which is relevant when you're spending the whole day in front of a computer screen.

Anders Johanson
Anders Johanson

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