by Anders Johanson January 15, 2021 9 min read
FL Studio is a software, also known as a digital audio workstation (DAW), that allows you to make music on your computer. It is a very powerful and flexible tool for music production that requires no external hardware other than a laptop, and quality studio monitors or headphones if you are half serious about your craft. With FL Studio you can compose, record, mix and master a complete track on a MacBook (or something less fancy) without leaving the comfort of your home or even the bedroom for that matter. This way of making music became extremely popular among the modern-day creators and gave rise to terms such as producing in a box or bedroom producers. The workflow inside FL Studio is very easy to grasp, which explains its popularity among beginners, but the software itself is far from basic and would require years to master. In this article we will delve into some of the primary features of this amazing product — and hopefully, by the end of it, your most burning questions will be answered.
When you open FL Studio for the very first time, the layout can look quite daunting. You have all these menus, options, buttons, and it is natural to feel overwhelmed. But do not despair! The 80-20 rule stating that 20 percent of your actions yield 80 percent of the results applies to FL Studio as well. Only a fraction of the available tools inside the software is really necessary for every single project, and once you have a few finished songs under your belt using those tools will become second nature to you. All the other functionalities are nice-to-have but are not critical to the production process. You will get familiar with them over time as you become a more advanced user.
The workflow inside FL Studio follows almost always the same pattern. First, you need to load a sample or select a virtual instrument to start working on your music. By pressing ALT + F8 you can toggle the browser/plugin picker on and off. This is the place from where all of your samples, instruments, and effects can be accessed. For example, if you want to load a kick for your project, you can open the Packs folder in the browser, then navigate to Drums > Kicks and audition different kicks that come pre-installed with FL Studio. To load one of those samples into your project, you can left-click and drag the kick onto the channel track. Alternatively, you can right-click on the sample and select Open in new channel.
Now that you have a sample to work with, you could come up with a kick pattern for your track. You can draw the pattern directly in the channel rack by left-clicking on the Step Sequencer buttons that look like miniature post boxes. If you prefer a little bit more control, you can right-click on the name of the sample in the channel rack and select Piano roll. This will open a menu that looks like a virtual piano where you can program your drum patterns, melodies, and chord progressions with a left-click and remove them with a right-click. The piano roll is one of the highlights of FL Studio. It is very intuitive to use, and in the initial stages of every project it will be the tool you will spend most of your time working with to write the actual notes of your music.
Once you are finished with programming the kick pattern, you can place it into the playlist. The playlist is the place where you arrange your music, and you can open it by pressing F5. On the left side of the playlist, there is a field with all the patterns you have created in your project. For now, there is only one pattern called Pattern 1. It is a good idea to always stay organized when working on a project. Naming patterns accordingly and coloring them can go a long way in creating a pleasant working environment that will speed up your workflow. To rename the pattern, left-click on it and press F2. If you want to change the color, you can either right-click on the color field on the right and click your way through different preset colors or left-click on the field and select a color from a richer palette. Once your pattern is named and colored, you can drag it onto the playlist and duplicate it as many times as you like by clicking anywhere in the playlist.
To hear how your pattern sounds in the playlist, find the play/pause button near the top-center of FL Studio, switch the mode from pat to song, and press play. You will often switch between these two modes throughout your project. Sometimes you will want to audition a melody or a chord progression without the interference of other sounds, and that’s when the pattern mode will come in handy. On a side note: Some producers compose entire sections of a track with multiple active instruments in one single pattern, so there are definitely different uses and preferences when it comes to workflows. Still, making a dedicated pattern for every single instrument is the most common approach.
Modern music production goes beyond drum programming and arrangement. To give a unique sound to your instruments, you will want to process them through different effects. This is done inside the mixer. You can always access the mixer with the F9 shortcut. To assign a sample or a virtual instrument to a free mixer channel, left-click on the instrument name in the channel rack and press Ctrl+L. In addition to sending the instrument to an empty mixer channel, this shortcut will also color and name it accordingly, depending on the color and name of the instrument in the channel rack. Inside the mixer, you have all the tools you need for a well-balanced mix. You can change the volume and panning of the channels, reroute channels (e.g. for sidechain compression purposes) and fill the empty effects slots with EQ, delay, reverb, or any other plugins that you deem fit.
Once your track is composed, arranged, and mixed, you can export it to different file formats. The shortcut for the export to MP3 is Ctrl+Shift+R. Alternatively, you can check out all available file formats by going to File > Export in the top-left corner of FL Studio. After choosing the location to save the file on your hard drive, you will be confronted with a window, showing you a wide range of rendering settings. Some of them are self-explanatory, like the MP3 bitrate, others are more complicated and only relevant if you are a professional. If this is your first time exporting a project, you can safely use the default settings. However, as you finish more and more projects, it is advisable to explore the rendering options more in-depth to ensure maximum sound quality.
With the plethora of DAWs available on the market, it is hard to decide which one to go for. Perhaps you’ve downloaded the trial version of FL Studio and now asking yourself whether upgrading it to the full version is worth it. The short answer is — yes, it is absolutely worth it. One of the biggest advantages of having FL Studio compared to other DAWs are the lifetime free updates. This means that whenever small updates or new version releases happen, you’ll get them for free, forever. Image-line, the company behind FL Studio, is working hard on improving their product. It is amazing what they’ve done with the software if you compare the current version to the Fruity Loops days of the past. And one thing is certain, with the competition on the DAW market being as fierce as it is, there’s no doubt that Image-Line will continue focusing their efforts on bringing out the best updates for their flagship software.
FL Studio comes with four editions to select from. The light-weight Fruity Edition is not recommended because it is too limited in its features. Most beginner producers will decide between the Producer Edition and the Signature Bundle. You can start with the cheaper one and upgrade later. The beauty of an upgrade is that you won’t have to rebuy the whole package but only pay the difference in price between the two editions. Also, don’t hesitate to go for the Signature Bundle if you have the budget for it. It has a very good collection of additional plugins, like Gross Beat, Harmless, or Newton, and it will set you up with everything you need to make a professional sounding track. In its factory state, FL Studio comes with a huge library of samples, virtual instruments, and effects plugins. Some of these plugins, like the Fruity Parametric EQ 2 or the aforementioned Gross Beat are so good that even seasoned industry producers prefer them, despite having access to more advanced third-party tools.
Speaking of industry producers — long gone are the days when working in FL Studio was seen as a sign of inexperience. It is true that in its early days FL Studio a.k.a. Fruity Loops was very limited in features, provided no VST support, and looked more like a toy than a serious piece of software. Veteran producers who continue looking down upon FL Studio are most likely still influenced by their first impression when they came in touch with the product 20 years ago. However, things have changed dramatically since then. Nowadays, both professionals and amateurs alike use FL Studio. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that 80 percent of professional hip-hop and trap producers prefer FL Studio to any other DAW. Names like Metro Boomin, Mike WiLL Made-It, and Boi-1da have all made their hits inside the program. The new generation of producers represented by Nick Mira, Murda Beatz, and Co. is following in their footsteps.
If you need the ultimate proof that FL Studio has an authoritative presence in the hip-hop industry, all it takes is a visit to the Genius YouTube channel and their Deconstructed series. The videos feature modern-day rap hit songs and focus on the creative process of the producers behind the beats. While the content is light on in-depth music production techniques, you will quickly notice that almost every beat was created inside FL Studio. You will hear instrumentals that were made for Kendrick Lamar, DaBaby, Roddy Ricch, and other well known rap artists whose songs charted all around the globe. In short, professional producers are using FL Studio religiously and this trend will only continue as more and more beginner producers get inspired by the results of the pros and start breaking into the industry themselves.
Adding plugins to FL Studio is pretty straightforward. Let’s walk through the process step by step.
And that’s it. If your plugin is a virtual instrument, you can load it by pressing the plus button at the bottom of the channel rack. If it’s an effects plugin, you can load it inside any mixer channel by clicking on the arrow near an empty slot and navigating to Select.
FL Studio has a very powerful sampling tool called Edison, which is included in every bundle starting from the Producer edition. Here’s a quick guide on how to create a sample from any recording.
Congratulations, you just made your own sample! If you want to tinker some more with it, assign it to an empty mixer channel with Ctrl+L and add any effects you like (e.g. Gross Beat’s half-speed preset is worth checking out).
Writer and musician based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Hannah. Extensive career as both a writer and a musician previously working with brands such as Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated. As a musician, Anders has played in several bands throughout the last decade, and has experience in touring, booking, band management, engineering, producing, mixing, and composing. Anders has recently composed music for short films and media presentations in universities, and has launched a podcast focusing on giving musicians and artists a place to talk about their work and the process behind their creation.