I Want It All
When I saw that Fruityloops Studio had been released for Android, I don’t mind admitting I was pretty excited. I love my phone and I love my tablet, but I often find myself wishing I could do something more productive with them. The tablet I use is the Acer Iconia A700 and, judging by the specs, this slate should be more than capable of empowering me to actually create some kind of content instead of simply facilitating content consumption. I’ve spent more than my fair share of hours working with Reason, Cubase, and Cakewalk on my PC, so the idea of high quality music production on a tablet was instantly attractive.
For those unfamiliar with Fruityloops, or digital audio creation at all, FL Studio is a Digital Audio Workstation which allows you to create music using a combination of different instruments and drum machines. You can ‘play’ directly onto a virtual piano keyboard or enter your composition step by step in a sequencer, where a colored bar of your chosen length will play a note depending on where you place it. You can alter the volume of each instrument and each note, and apply reverb, delay, EQ, overdrive and filter effects. The finished masterpiece can be exported as a wav or m4a file, or even a midi file, ready to be imported to your computer.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
FL Studio is beautifully presented. From the first time you fire it up, it’s obvious that the developers have spent a lot of time making sure that this app really looks the part. There’s a mild iOS flavor to the design, but to be honest I think this is largely to do with the fact that, like it or not, iOS development informs a lot of what we see on other platforms.
FL Studio uses a semi-real style where appropriate – the effects area is all modeled on real-world analogue counterparts – and a straightforward, icon-driven approach to the actual music creation areas. The layout is clean and the use of popup dialogs allows access to all the settings and options you could want without ever looking cluttered.
We Can Work It Out
I found the UI somewhat idiosyncratic to begin with, and I suspect that first time composers might need to set aside a good hour of use before becoming comfortable with it.
As an example, there is a ‘Swing’ control, which allows the budding musician to add a slight lilt to drum tracks. At one point, I changed this to see what effect it would have. I should have paid more attention to what I was doing, as it took me about ten minutes to find that control again – squirreled away on a screen which appears when you change the sound of one of the drum tracks. I had to edit a drum part, click on one of the instrument names and there it sat. Easy enough when you know where it’s hiding, but damned elusive while you’re looking on the main screen, the instruments screen, the effects panels and anywhere else it might logically be.
This was not the only time I found myself somewhat at odds with the workflow and certain parts really seemed counter-intuitive. Pressing the edit button in step sequencer mode will give you a new note to play with, but it doesn’t actually remain on your score until you hit the ‘Draw’ button which not only sticks that note but also provides you with a new one. If you hit ‘Done’ before ‘Draw’ your note is lost forever. However, having played with the sequencer for a weekend, I realized that I was very quickly doing exactly what I wanted, without having to think about it anymore. So, a learning curve is present, and you should expect it, but you should also trust that the developers have actually created a very useable canvas for music creation.
There is one specific choice that the devs made which I wish could be made mandatory in all similar cases. Many values can be adjusted using a button on either side of a counter, showing the number you are changing. If you keep the button pressed down, the value continues to change in that direction, ramping up in speed the longer you press it. We’ve all seen this behavior on our computer software, but for some reason it is often missing in the mobile world. I was genuinely delighted to see this touch included, and it shows that the Fruityloops programmers are in tune with their audience (pun intended!).
Bring Tha Noize
FL Studio presents the user with what seems like a great range of sounds to play with. There are eleven drum collections and six sound effects packs, which are designed to be used via the drum machine. A total of fifty synthesizer voices are at your disposal, separated into lead, bass, pad and keys categories. On top of that, you have twenty four instruments (orchestra, guitar, bass, percussion and keyboard) and a bevy of Reflex-like loops. The quality of each sound is just as you would wish – clean, well defined and totally free of digital ‘noise’.
The downside is that, as it stands, FL Studio will not let you tinker with the existing sounds nor import new ones. As a comparison, Caustic 2 not only allows you to tweak the synths to your hearts content, it will also support importing of new soundsets to its sampler. ‘So what?’ you may say, ‘FL Studio gives you plenty to play with.’ The problem is that no matter which kind of music you are interested in making, you will very quickly reach the limit of the included sounds. Ok, if you only want to create piano concertos, you’ll be fine. Beyond that, the limited palette is…..well, limiting. I ran into this problem extremely quickly.
Over the two days I spent with FL, I made two tracks – a version of the electro pop classic ‘Cars’ and a David Arnold-esque bit of loungey score.
For ‘Cars’, FL provided most of what I wanted. Once the main parts were in place, however, I felt the need for a nice atmospheric pad or two, just to give a little background. Digging through the list of sounds, I could find nothing by way of usable, semi-ambient pads. The closest I could get were some electronic bloops of the kind found on the old DX7 – very 80’s (and not in a good way) and not at all what I was looking for.
The Oceans 11 pastiche was where FL really hit the rocks. Only two sounds form the horn section, neither of which were what I was aiming for, both of which standing out as ‘the wrong sound’. If only I were able to load up more sounds, I could easily forgive this in the hope that something will come along to fill the gap – or, even better, I could create my own instrument and share it with others. Currently though, this is not possible.
It’s also not possible to record audio as any part of your piece, or even to import pre-recorded tracks. You can paint with the colors that FL Studio provides, but nothing more.
Gettin’ Jiggy With It
Ok, so that’s a fairly serious limitation (and there’s another one, albeit less serious, to follow) but I would be remiss if I did not point out the areas where FL Studio excels – and these really do lift this app above the other options out there.
First of all: the lag and stutter which so many other DAW apps suffer from. There was almost none. Bear in mind, this is on an Acer A700 which, despite the quad core processor, can often falter with more heavyweight apps. FL was able to play the current song, switch between different screens, and even save the track without interrupting the playback. Very occasionally it would glitch, such as when loading a new sound into an existing sequencer track, but on the whole this app impressed me as capable and robust.
Similarly, when entering music via the keyboard interface, it proved very accurate and placed the notes pretty much exactly where I had intended them – without using the available quantize feature. Bear in mind that this can be a problem with a hardware keyboard and a midi-capable PC and you realize that the devs really have produced a very polished product. Suddenly, using a touch screen to create music is not just a fanciful idea – you can actually do it.
As stated before, the interface took a little getting used to but once I had become accustomed, editing tracks was an absolute breeze. Quickly shifting between moving notes, placing new ones, copying patterns and altering the length of the tones became second nature and I would have to admit that this may well be ‘the fastest way from your brain to the speakers’. Even the final mix is relatively easy, given that you can quickly access the volume and pan control of each instrument from the first of the whole-score views.
Working on the final mix is when you are likely to encounter the last shortcoming of FL Studio. While the effects themselves are actually well implemented, the scope with which you can apply them is not quite on the same level. Short version: you cannot apply a given effect to specific tracks in your piece. You can apply the effect to the whole mix, or apply it only to those tracks which have been flagged for processing. This means that if you want delay on the drums, but reverb on the piano, you are simply out of luck. You can have both effects on both tracks, or one effect on one of them. Again, for the first time user, this may not be such an issue but over a little time you will quickly come to wish for a greater flexibility.
Didn’t We Almost Have It All
I really wanted Fruityloops Studio to be amazing, and it’s so close, it’s almost painful. If you’re mainly interested in creating synth-based tracks on your slate, you’ll be playing with this app for a good while. If you tend towards more organic sounds, you may well find that FL Studio falls too far short. You can, however, rely on it for quickly putting down ideas as they come to you, and there is a lot to be said for that. A touch under twenty dollars is quite a considerable investment, but this is a high quality app in every respect, and if you are determined to use your device to make music, this is arguably your best option.
What it does, it does incredibly well, and it’s certainly the most professional DAW app available at the moment. It’s possible that future releases will allow you to import new sounds (even if you have to buy them) or even add some recorded audio, though I don’t know if this is actually planned. Sadly, I suspect that the effects utilization will remain as it is, which is a great shame. Although it may lack the high quality polish of FL Studio, Caustic 2 overcomes both of these shortcomings so it is clearly possible. If I had to choose between the two though, it would be a hard call to make. Despite my initial encounters, I think the ease of editing really sets Fruityloops apart and this would be the reason I’d stick with it.
FL Studio does have limitations but this is still a remarkably polished product and currently the smoothest method for creating music on Android. First time music makers will have a blast with it, while old hands will accept the drawbacks, and make the most of everything else. If you’re in the market for a digital musical notepad, FL Studio may be just what you’re looking for.
Tucked in down here are the two tracks I made over the weekend, to give you an idea of the sound quality available from FL Studio:
Very simple Oceans 11 style riff
Version of Cars by Gary Numan