FL Studio: A Remixer's Guide
I remember well the days when I didn't know how to use FL Studio--in fact, I'm really still in them! Half of the things you can do with that software remain a mystery to me. Why, then, should you read this hub? If you have just loaded up FL Studio and are confused by the myriad pages and tabs of knobs and controls and don't have the slightest clue how to use any of it, to put it bluntly, I can help. I don't know what half of it does, but I can help you with the other half! I doubt there is a single person alive who knows what every knob or control is for. But with a step-by-step guide like this one, you'll be making decent-sounding mixes in no time.
Basics of the Interface
First, you need to learn the basic controls of the interface. There are quite a few, and they are all important, so this section is quite long. Pay attention, however, and you'll be able to navigate through the software and its various windows like the pilot of a 747 maneuvering through the clouds with ease.
Common Window Controls
Since most windows have some controls in common, I'll go over them now so you'll know what I mean when I say "window menu" or things like that later that are common to every window. The window menu is a little arrow pointing down that can be seen in the top-left corner of almost every window. If you click on this arrow you'll be given an entire menu of options, which is where most of the options, controls and settings for the current window can be found. In the top-right corner is usually a button with an X in it, which, you guessed it, closes the window. Some windows have a stretch control or two, which are right below the close button. It might not look like a control at first, but it's a little black box that is inside another bigger box. If you left-click on this black box (hold the mouse button) and drag the mouse up or down, it will stretch or skew the window in some way. Usually, moving the mouse down stretches the window out so you can see things more zoomed-in and elongated, and moving the mouse up zooms out and skews the window so that you can see more but it is all very thin. To maximize any window, double-click the title bar.
The playback interface is probably the set of controls you will use the most. This is the box that contains the play, stop, and record buttons (which is probably the first place your eyes went when you opened the software!) It also contains the tempo controller and the pattern selector, as well as the playback mode option. The two small lights to the side of the play button determine whether the program plays the current pattern (more on patterns later) or plays the entire song. When the light is by the "PAT" option (the top one) it is in pattern mode. "SONG" mode below it is obviously song mode. The tempo controller sets how fast the song is played in beats per minute. This can be changed, like the pattern selector, by dragging up or down with the mouse pointer over the control. To play the pattern or song just click play (or hit the space bar on your keyboard) and to stop click stop or hit space again. To switch between pattern and song mode, click the box on the one you want, or alternately, press SHIFT + L.
The Five Main Windows
In the middle of the top of the screen you should see a sort of toolbar with five bluish buttons on it. Each of these buttons opens up one of the five main windows in the program--the buttons are, in order: the playlist, the step sequencer, the piano roll, the browser, and the mixer. I'll examine each of these in detail below and explain each and what it is for, how to use the various controls in it, etc. Clicking on the corresponding toolbar button opens up the window, or closes it if it is already open.
The Playlist Window
This is where your song is. Everything in the playlist window is the final arrangement of your mix or song, from first to last, exactly and absolutely the way you want it played. In this window you'll "paint" the soundscape that makes up your tune by arranging sections of your song, called "patterns," into whatever overall song you want. The patterns themselves are made using the step sequencer, and are like mini-portions of your song.
There are two panes in the playlist window--one on top and one on the bottom. The one on top by default is the clip window, which is where audio clips and automation clips will appear. You can paste patterns into this window and you'll see them as glassy boxes with colored dots and lines inside them that look something like the piano roll for that pattern. You can also paste patterns into the bottom pane, the block window. It makes no difference which pane you use; they just look different. The bottom pane shows all the different patterns and displays them as colored blocks instead of glass boxes, so it's more compact, but you can't see the individual notes or the pattern name. Also, all that appears in the bottom pane are patterns; nothing else can be added to that pane. To add audio and automation clips you must use the top pane.
The Step Sequencer
This window is arguably the most important and is where the "magic" happens. Here you can create patterns and then paste those patterns over and over into the playlist. A pattern is basically a mini-portion of your song. Patterns can be made with multiple instruments or just a single instrument's part. This allows great versatility because you can create an awesome-sounding mix from only seven or eight patterns, although very complex mixes can use upwards of fifty unique patterns, and FL Studio supports up to 999 patterns per song. To create a pattern you can use either the step sequencer or the piano roll. To open the piano roll for a given channel, right-click the channel box (the colored thing with the name in it) and click "piano roll." I'll talk more about channels later, but think of them as the various instruments in your song. The step sequencer is very useful for creating drum beats--the beat boxes (no pun intended) are the maroon and gray colored things to the right of the channel names. To create a drum beat simply click on the beat boxes to turn them on and right-click to turn them off. For non-percussion instruments, the piano roll is usually easier to make patterns with.
The Piano Roll
This is where you'll create most tunes, melodies, harmonies, chords, and the like. Notes are displayed as colored bars, whose length and position can be easily adjusted in a variety of ways. There is a keyboard shown on the left side which tells you what note a particular row in the grid represents. Each column represents a place for a note to "snap" to the nearest beat, which by default is turned on so that notes snap to the grid automatically when they are placed. Each new note you place will be the same size as the last note you placed or resized. Note that there is no "time signature control" and to make more complex signatures like 6/8 or 3/4 you will have to determine the proper lengths of notes yourself, depending on the tempo you have the song set at, and depending on the piano rolls of the other channels.
The Browser Window
This window contains EVERYTHING. It has samples, templates, sounds, tutorials, presets, directories, files, and lets you browse them all with ease. All of the samples and presets are arranged into folders for your convenience, so you can open up the folders in the tree view of the browser, then right-click on any particular item and click open to load and view it. This should be the easiest window to figure out how to use, so I won't explain it in detail. Many other applications have browser windows similar to this, and if you haven't seen one before, then don't worry about it too much because it isn't really necessary, it just helps you to find things quicker. Personally, I don't use it a lot.
The Mixer Window
This window can be used to add effects to your channels, and also to master them, channel them into each other, and in general, mix everything. You can add effects here, as well as edit EQ settings, master volume and panning, and settings for each individual channel and effects that you have set up for your channels. I'm not going to talk about how to use this window at all--mainly because it's so huge and is probably where most of the cool things about FL Studio are done. I will probably write a whole other hub on this window alone, but for now, there is surely a better source to turn to if you really are interested in using the mixer. I almost don't know enough about it myself to guide anyone on how to use it, but I'm sure if I were to write a hub on it in the future, it might be of use to someone.
Channels: Your Virtual Instruments
Time to talk about channels--the various instruments that make up your song and that your computer uses to play notes. Channels can be anything from an audio clip of an instrument played over and over and varied in pitch, to a long section of vocals that has been sliced up and repeated to sound cool, to a synthesizer plugin, to a drum kit, to a layer channel (which is a neat tool I'll explain below). Channels can also be automation clips, which control knobs and settings like volume, panning, pitch, filters, EQ, and modulation settings. An automation clip is like a sort of graph that controls the knob or setting in whatever manner you choose, all the way throughout your song. You can create flanging effects by making a very short automation clip and repeating it over and over during a long note. Channels are very easy to edit and work with--to add a new channel (or do basically anything with a channel) just right-click on it. You can replace an existing channel with a new one or delete a channel (but beware, deleting a channel also deletes all notes in that channel's piano roll). To add a new channel from scratch, go to the program's main menu at the very top of the screen, click "channels" and then select the channel you want from the "add one-->" sub menu.
Channel Settings Windows
If you click the solid bar that has the channel's name on it you will see one or two windows pop up. These are the setting windows for that channel. Depending on what type of channel you have, different windows may appear. Synth plugins usually have their own really huge window in addition to the smaller, default one that FL Studio provides. If you accidentally close the larger window click the "plugin" tab on the smaller window to see it again. The really neat thing about FL Studio is that ALL of the controls you see for any channel can be automated. That's right, any knob or setting, any slider or control can be linked to a controller or an automation clip. To do this just right-click on the control, slider, or knob and click "link to controller" or "create automation clip." I'll talk about each of those two things below which are both very, very useful.
For most synth plugins and a few other channel types, you should see two small arrows right beside the X button in the top-right corner of the settings window. These buttons let you browse presets for the selected channel (you can also browse presets using the browser window which is easier or you can use the setting window's menu). A preset is a built-in configuration for the channel that someone else made to sound neat and is ready to use in a song, so you don't have to know a whole lot about LFO's, EQ, or sound envelopes to find a neat-sounding instrument--just browse the presets until you find one you like.
In the step sequencer window you have several useful displays and channel controls at your disposal. The four tiny vertical bars next to each channel button are the output visuals for that channel and show you when you should be hearing sound from that channel, if it's not a controller or automation channel. To the right of the button and output bars is the channel selection button, which looks like a green, oval LED. Click it to select the channel and right-click to deselect. The small circular LED's to the left of the channel buttons are the on/off buttons for the channels. Turning one off means you cannot hear that channel playing even if it has notes in its piano roll. This allows you to selectively hear parts of the song to better create harmonies, chords, and chorus parts, then add the other parts back in to hear it all together. If you right-click any of the on/off LED's you'll see a "solo" option--this turns off all the other channels so you can hear a channel play all by itself. To the very right is either a collapsed view of a piano roll (if you have placed notes in the roll for the selected pattern) or the beat boxes.
Creating and Editing Patterns
Patterns are really what make your music happen. Instead of writing a bassline that is as long as the entire piece, write sections of it that repeat over and over and then paste them into the playlist multiple times. Rather than programming an entire unique drum part for the whole song, write a catchy beat in the step sequencer and then reuse that beat later. Not that drum programming is bad, in fact it can add variety and quality to your tune. However, my point is don't do more work than you have to--let the software do what it was made to do, and then you can do the rest.
To make a pattern, simply open the step sequencer and add notes to the piano roll or turn on beat boxes beside percussion channels. Keep in mind that if you want your instruments in separate patterns, just edit the patterns one at a time. To go to a new pattern drag up or down on the pattern selector (next to the tempo control in the middle of the controls at the top of the screen). This is all there is to editing patterns. Then once you have made two or three patterns, open the playlist and select the pattern you want using the drop-down arrow in the title bar. It will say something like "Pattern 1 - Instrument name" and click in the pane wherever you want the pattern and it will appear there. You can use a pattern as many times as you want in the playlist. An easy way to copy patterns is to hold shift, then click and drag a pattern to the left or right. This will create a new copy of the pattern which you will be dragging to its new spot.
You can rename patterns whatever you want, as well as channels and mixer tracks. However, something that isn't inherently obvious is that when you rename an input stream (either a channel, a pattern, or a mixer track) you can also select which color you want it to be. There is a tiny box to the right of the text that, when clicked, opens a color selector. Again, this works for channels, patterns, or mixer tracks. To rename a channel or mixer you can use the window menu or right-click the channel or mixer box/track (it's easier just to select it and press F2), and to rename a pattern you can use the playlist window menu or you can click on the arrow above a pattern that has been pasted into the clip pane of the playlist window.
Making FX With Automation Clips
Perhaps the coolest thing about FL Studio is automation and linking. Like I said earlier, every single button, knob, tuner, slider, and control you can see (and believe me, there's plenty of them) can be linked to a controller or automated using a graph-like clip. And I mean EVERY control. You can do this for volume, panning, modulation (x or y), filter cutoff, and tons more. The main ones you'll want to automate or link are the ones in the huge plugin windows for synthesizers because that's where most of the cool effects happen. The mixer window has lots of effects too but as I said I'm not going to go over the mixer window, at least not in this hub.
An automation clip is a sort of graph that acts like a timeline for a knob, slider, or control throughout your song. Normally you'll want it to be as long a clip as your song, that way you can custom edit each part. However, if you have a section or two where you want flanging effects and you don't need the clip otherwise, you can shorten it and create a dip or spike graph, then paste it multiple times under a long note or section where you want the flanging to occur. This graph you create actually automatically controls the knob by turning it to the positions on the graph at the time when the song reaches that spot on the graph. It's easier to picture when you see it in action, but an example of this would be at the end of a song, to create a fade-out effect, you could create an automation clip for the master volume control (which can be found in the mixer window under the master track) and at the end of the song, edit the graph so that the volume gradually lowers until the song finally cuts off.
Automation clips are really very powerful. They can be used for just about anything, such as flanging effects, fade-outs, selective distortion and reverberation, and lots more. They're good for anything you can think up, really. Trying to think of a way to explain how to use them is like trying to explain how to use mathematics. The applications are so diverse that if you don't know, there's really no way it can be explained to you. You kind of have to figure it out yourself. In a later hub, I might explore this topic more thoroughly and give some examples of where automation clips really come in handy.
There are two types of controllers--software and hardware. A software controller is a kind of program that uses some function to cause variation systematically to a knob or setting. A hardware controller is a MIDI device or some kind of instrument that you have hooked up to your computer, and by physically turning the knobs or switches on it, you can edit the effects yourself in real time as the song plays, and the program will automatically generate an automation clip for the actions you performed on the controller. I've never used a hardware controller myself, but from what I can tell they are simple to set up and use, especially in FL Studio.
Software controllers are just as easy. There are only four that I have messed around with--the formula, peak, envelope, and wave controllers.
A formula controller takes a math function or a formula and uses it in whatever fashion you desire to control a knob or setting. There are also three automatable knobs (a, b, and c) that you can use as variables in your formula. You can also include the songtime() function which returns the current beat of the song. If you multiply or compose this function with a math function like sine or cosine, you can use the controller to turn a knob back and forth as the song plays. It's pretty neat stuff, really. Ever wondered how remixers do that cool back-and-forth effect? That's just a sine formula controller controlling a panning knob!
The second one I've used, the peak controller, is a little more complicated. It takes the output value of one instrument and uses it as an input to another instrument, or to control another knob or setting. It's hard to picture, but if you've ever heard the term "sidechaining" then this is what that term is referring to, although it's a bad term to use because there are no chains in FL Studio so it really means nothing. I've heard that it was coined by rock bands' guitar players, because they had the output of one device (an amp or guitar) going into the input of another device (a distortion pedal or another amp) and the wires hanging over the sides of all these amps and devices looked like a chain, thus the term "sidechain" came about. The chains in FL Studio are all virtual, so if anything it should be more appropriately called "virtual sidechaining" although I don't like the term at all. Whew! There's a small history lesson for you.
These are a bit more complicated than peak controllers. At this point it would be ideal to have a long discussion of what exactly an "envelope" is (no, I'm not referring to a rectangular paper package used for mailing letters in). However, a good discussion on envelopes could well take up an entire hub before they could be explained properly (and I might indeed devote a later hub to these as well). In short, an envelope is like a small automation clip--it's a graph that controls something over time, but it's usually on a much, much smaller scale than an automation clip. Most envelopes operate in the millisecond range as opposed to an entire song, like an automation clip. An envelope controller, then, is an envelope used to control any knob, setting, or slider you can see in an instrument window or the mixer window. You might wonder, why not just use an automation clip? Well, envelope controllers are much more powerful than automation clips and have a much wider variety of uses. They are more complex and difficult to use as a result, but the effects can be astounding if you know what you're doing. I'm not going to do them justice here--again, look for more on these in a later hub.
A third step up from the automation clip is the wave controller. This is more like a formula controller in that it happens over and over with time, and doesn't work quite the same way as an envelope controller. It's kind of like isolating the LFO from an envelope controller and making it more customizable and easier to edit. Again, more powerful and harder to use, but it has a different slew of uses than the previous ones I mentioned. I haven't used them much, so I'm not going to cover these at all. I just thought I'd let you know basically what they do. If you're not good at using LFO's then this is a controller you might want to look into using instead.
Stay Tuned For The Next Guide
While I'm not currently working on any, I do plan to write more hubs on FL Studio in the future. If you found this hub informative and want more, feel free to email me here:
cybermouse8 [AT] gmail [DOT] com
with specific requests. If I get a lot of responses I will be encouraged and will probably be quicker about getting more hubs written. The next hub I write on FL Studio will likely cover the mixer window, as well as some other topics I just scratched the surface of in this hub. I'll go into more detail on how to use the software to do what you want, rather than trying to make it do something it can't or wasn't designed to do. Something to remember is that if you are really struggling at working with something, it probably means that there is an easier way to do it, you just haven't seen or heard of it yet. If you want to hear examples of stuff I've done, go here:
Most of the songs I've uploaded there were made in FL Studio. It is a fairly even mixture of remixes (my renditions of tunes I didn't write) and originals by me. Regardless, I wish you good luck in your own FL Studio remixing! This is Cybermouse signing off.
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