How To Use FL Studio - A Beginner's Tutorial
Your ultimate guide to using FL Studio. Learn how to compose, record, mix and master your music using this powerful digital audio workstation.
FL Studio stands as one of the most comprehensive and industry-leading Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) available today. Formerly known as Fruity Loops, this software encompasses all the necessary components for composing, mixing and mastering professional studio tracks. It's even favoured by renowned producers such as Tyler The Creator, Jlin and Kaytranada (to name a few).
If you're a beginner who is thinking of making your own beats and melodies, FL Studio is a fantastic starting point for any aspiring producer. In this tutorial, we’re going to take a look at its main features, evaluate how it stacks up against other potential options and weigh up whether it might be the right beat-making software to help you find your signature sound.
- Introduction to FL Studio (previously Fruity Loops)
- How much does FL Studio cost?
- Get started: system requirements, interface and workflow
- Initial setup: basic features, shortcuts and capabilities
- FL Studio automations
- Virtual instruments and synthesisers
- Recording and editing audio
- Recording MIDI
- Mixing and mastering in FL Studio
- Collaborating with other musicians in FL Studio
- Finalising and exporting your project
- Can you use FL for live performances?
- Troubleshooting and additional resources
- How does FL Studio compare to other DAWs?
Intro to FL Studio (Fruity Loops)
What is FL Studio?
FL Studio is one of the best DAWs for music production. FL Studio offers a selection of instruments, effects and plugins to allow you to help bring your musical ideas into fruition. These can be applied to numerous channels, which could also play home to audio tracks within a timeline. Here, you can write, edit, compose and mix each individual component, crafting each element into a complete song. Think of a blank project file as your playground.
Why is FL Studio so popular?
FL Studio is a real gateway into the world of music production. Its popularity is owed to its intuitive, user-friendly interface. One of its standout attributes is its customizability, which is far superior to lots of other DAWs. Unlike its main competitors Ableton and Logic, you can freely arrange windows to suit your preferences, allowing you to adapt the workstation to suit your needs.
Who is FL Studio best for?
FL Studio is particularly useful for producers working in the electronic, hip-hop, pop or experimental music genres. Those who tend to work with a lot of live recordings are likely to opt for Logic or Ableton instead. That's not to say that FL Studio is incapable of accommodating such needs — this diverse tool can be adapted to various musical contexts.
How to learn FL Studio?
You do not need to pay for a course or audio engineering degree to learn how to use FL Studio. Many of the most successful artists and producers are self-taught, learning through trial and error, online tutorials, seeking advice from fellow musicians and participating in online communities.
Above all, sheer determination is what will carry you far. At the end of the day, there is no definitive right or wrong way to navigate a DAW. Developing your own unique workflow is the key to finding your sound, a process that only deepens with time spent in front of FL Studio.
How much does FL Studio cost?
- Fruity (£85.00): The most basic option. FL Studio Fruity Edition contains 84 instruments and effects, plus some loops and samples to get started. No audio recording capability.
- Producer (£164): Full song creation. FL Studio Producer Edition adds recording and another 7 instruments/effects to what's offered with Fruity.
- Signature Bundle (£255): The FL Studio Signature Bundle offers advanced plugins such as Pitcher and vintage Chorus/Phaser.
- All Plugins (£409): The full Fruity Loops package includes all of their plugins and instruments.
Getting started with FL Studio
If you have a decent computer, you should be able to run FL Studio — though it's worth checking you meet the system requirements before committing. Moreover, you’ll probably also want to make a bit of an investment in an audio interface and some studio monitors if you plan on taking music production seriously. Finally, whilst you may meet the minimum requirements, you may find your computer struggles a bit when processing a lot of audio, particularly with further applications open — so generally it's advised you have at least 8GB RAM.
- Windows 8.1, 10, 11 or later
- 4GB free disk space
- 4GB of RAM
- The more powerful your CPU, the more instruments and effects you can run
- Compatible with Intel and AMD CPUs. ARM not supported
- macOS: 10.13.6 (High Sierra) or later
- 4GB free disk space
- 4GB of RAM
- The more powerful your CPU, the more instruments and effects you can run. Compatible with Intel or Apple Silicon CPUs
Download and install
Once you’ve purchased your selected version, downloading and installing should be pretty straightforward if you meet the requirements. If for whatever reason you have an issue, try the FL Studio troubleshooting page.
User interface and main components
Once you’ve downloaded the software, open up it and get used to its UI and main components. At the top of your screen you should have the Toolbar and Menus, which plays home to all the essential functions of your project from its BPM, to recording and editing tools, as well as saving and exporting. The Pattern, Playlist, Sequencing and Piano Roll windows are where you’ll do the bulk of your composing. The Channel Rack will show you what each channel contains, such as MIDI instruments, drum sequences or audio. The Mixer below (visually akin to a genuine mixing desk with its volume sliders) also relates to each channel in the channel rack, allowing you to finesse the levels and panning of each, as well as apply effects on each one. The Browser drops down to display a selection of instruments, samples, presets, and plugins you might want to use or apply to your channels. We’ll go into these in a bit more detail later on.
Can you download FL for free?
Not without downloading an illegal version. These can often be buggy or contain malware, so best avoided, even if you aren’t worried about the feds rocking up!
Setting up optimal workflows
This may not be something you do straight away, but rather something that develops over time. Once you have a basic idea of what function each window and component of the software performs, you can start to arrange it in a way that you think would most suit your workflow and adapt as you go along.
Optimising your system for smooth performance
The most important thing to do in order to optimise your system is ensure you free up as much RAM and CPU power for FL Studio. To do so, firstly make sure any resource-intensive applications are closed while you’re using FL Studio. Next, within your project, group tracks and deactivating plugins that aren't essential for your current project. Moreover, it's a good idea to regularly perform a Disk Cleanup to clear caches and free up hard drive space — this latter aspect is not supposed to have an effect on performance according to my techy friends, but in my experience, this is not a reality!
FL the basics
When you launch a new project, you’ll be able to choose between a desired template or starting from scratch. For anyone starting out, using their templates could be a great way to get to grips with the structure of a project and start generating ideas quickly — you can choose from multiple genres, including the likes of D&B, Trap and Electro, which will give you placeholder channels, pre-set mixer routes and helpful channel colour coding.
If you're starting from scratch, you’re going to have to think about what tempo (BPM) and time signature do I want to work in, which you can establish in the top toolbar. Next, you’ll have to select any instruments and add any channels you want to use for sampling and recording, being sure to set up the correct input and outputs for each. When in recording mode you’ll have the choice between Pattern and Song modes, which we’ll look at in a little more depth below.
Key commands and shortcuts
Familiarising yourself with keyboard shortcuts for tasks like playback, zooming, navigation and editing are essential for optimising your workflow efficiency.
Basic shortcuts like CTRL+Z for undo and CTRL+SHFT+Z for redo are a couple that you're probably already familiar with. But there are more that are specific to the software, such as when you’re working in Piano Roll, hit Ctrl+Alt+L to legato-ize. Or, in Automation, hit Ctrl+Shift+L to link parameters to clips. These shortcuts will take a bit of practice to get used to. MakeUseOf has an extensive and helpful list, plus a downloadable cheat sheet.
Via the browser panel you can access the Plugin Database, which allows you to drag and drop FL Studio’s own, and any third party plugins you’ve downloaded into your project. The software also enables you to categorise and organise these as you wish, so be sure to arrange them in such a way that you have your favourites and frequently used plugins easily accessible.
Plugins include VSTi virtual instruments (synthesisers, samplers and drum machines) as well as VST/VST3 effects like reverb and distortion you can apply to channels. These can be used either for writing or mixing your track — you may want to use a sidechain compressor to create that pumping effect for example, ducking a track in response to a kickdrum. Many plugins come with inbuilt presets, offering an instant desired sound at your beck and call. Have a play with these parameters and tweak them to create your own personal variations and develop a unique twist to the stock sounds.
Channel racks provide a home to instruments, audio and automation channels. If it's an instrument or drum machine, these will often contain MIDI information — notes, velocities and expressions to operate the virtual instruments. Each channel is routed to the mixer unless you configure them otherwise, and you can apply effects to specific channels.
Opening the Step Sequencer in the channel rack will enable you to input unique rhythms and musical patterns, allowing you to create your own drum patterns and melodies. The sequencer triggers specific samples or sounds that you’ve dragged into each slot. Once you start experimenting with patterns, you can activate and deactivate them, adjust each step length, apply velocity and grooves, before looping these to start creating your track.
Think of these patterns as the building blocks to your song and try duplicating and varying them slightly to provide more musical interest as the track develops, pattern switching to build more complex arrangements. Finally, think about the kind of automation and modulation you want to apply, such as filter sweeps and reverb tails, which can be applied below the sequence grid. You can also export these MIDI patterns if you want to operate outboard hardware.
The Piano Roll is your primary tool for crafting melodies and harmonies. In contrast to the sequencer, it offers a keyboard-like grid allowing you to input rhythms, notes and chords — this information is then sent to a plugin instrument or controls external hardware. In addition to velocities, you can also programme in slides, portamentos and ghost notes to create a more elaborate, human feel to the music. It sounds fiddly but worth doing to set yourself apart from a rigid, computer-generated sound.
How to record vocals in FL studio
In order to record vocals, you’re going to need to invest in a microphone and audio interface — two items you should have already if you have a basic home studio. To get set up, generate a blank audio channel and configure the mixer to take the microphone as an input. Next, hit monitor so you can hear yourself when you're recording. Be sure to set the gain to an appropriate level so you aren’t clipping before arming the channel and hitting record.
Another thing to note is the difference between recording in the two modes available — Pattern mode records directly into the Step Sequencer (adapts the input into a MIDI sequence), while Song mode records into the Playlist to create a straight up audio recording (this is the mode you’re after if recording vocals). Once you have a take you’re happy with, you can edit the audio and chop it up in Playlist, before adding processing and mixing it with the rest of your track. Always remember to backup and save your recordings as well as your project files, preferably on an external drive!
How to sample
Sampling is one of the core techniques producers use to create new music, as it can be applied in a myriad of ways. Select the audio source you’d like to use and import it into Playlist or an empty Channel Rack to use as a sampler. If you’re working with a large audio file like a song, you may want to splice it into something smaller before importing it again to make it more manageable.
FL Studio allows you to time-stretch and pitch-shift, chop and screw, reverse and sequence samples, taking you into new sonic territory.
Getting good at manipulating samples and creating loops or new sounds from the source material is one of the joys of electronic music production, so have fun experimenting! Be sure to abide by copyright laws if you haven’t warped your sample into something unrecognisable from the original.
FL Studio looping
Once you have constructed some musical ideas with Channel Rack, Piano Roll and sections of sampled or recorded audio, you’ll need to start structuring your track with loops. FL Studio allows you to create repeated elements and build grooves by setting loop points, which you can trigger to playback, fine-tune and make variations of. Once you have a number of patterns you like, you can begin to build these in Playlist and start arranging your track by sections such as verse/chorus/break and so on. Add texture to your track by layering different ideas to create a fuller landscape.
EQ is one of a producer’s essential tools, one that allows you to neutralising clashing frequencies and sculpt elements into the best they can possibly sound. The Fruity Parametric EQ 2 has a fantastic user interface, though you may want to watch a few tutorials to get used to using it.
Automation is the process of modulating various parameters of a plugin — an essential tool in creating a dynamic, lively piece of music. It can apply to volume, panning, effects and a multitude of instrument settings such as a filter or LFO on a synth.
To create automation, right click a knob or parameter you want to modulate and select ‘Create Automation Clip’. This will then present a new window in Playlist for you to adjust curve points. Many plugins come with built-in modulation envelopes and you can also record automation in real-time with an outboard controller in Automation Record Mode if you’re going for a ‘live’ feel. Experiment with unconventional and extreme patterns to create out-there sound design and cool effects. It won't always work like you intend, but you may strike gold!
Virtual instruments and synthesisers
Virtual instruments and synthesisers are one of the backbones of a producer's arsenal — getting to grips with them will allow you to create an array of melodies, rhythms, sounds and textures for your tracks. Explore different types in the plugins browser and experiment with ones to best fit the track you’re working on. Over time, you’ll develop an affinity for the sound of certain instruments and drum machines, which you should save to speed up your workflow. Some of FL Studio’s standout stock synths include Sytrus (workhorse synth, 200+ presets) and GMS (Groove Machine Synth, 50+ presets). If you want to look at some externally-developed synths, consider trying out Serum and Massive X.
Recording and editing audio
Recording and editing audio is essentially the same process as the recording vocals section in Song mode. If you want to add some live instrumentation to your track, you’ll need to make sure you have a good microphone setup and sound insulation in your room. You can similarly trim, quantise, time-stretch, pitch correct and make other edits to the audio, applying effects on the channel after you’re happy with your recording.
FL Studio allows you to record MIDI in via external hardware to create melodies, chords and intricate arrangements. In Channel Rack, right click to create a new MIDI channel and choose your desired virtual instrument. Next, make sure your MIDI settings are correctly configured to take MIDI from an external device, such as a keyboard or controller. Arm the channel and you’re ready to record. If you’re recording in Pattern Mode, you’ll get a pattern you can then edit afterwards, whereas Song Mode will give you a real-time audio bounce in Playlist from the instrument you’re triggering.
Mixing and mastering in FL Studio
Whilst FL Studio is not normally the DAW favoured by mixing and mastering engineers, it is perfectly capable of doing both. These are processes that take a bit of practice and involve balancing the elements and frequencies in a track to achieve a polished overall sound.
Mixing is the first step, where you treat each musical element individually. Here, you’ll be balancing volumes, panning different parts, applying EQ, compression and reverb, as well as adding any further effects. Sometimes you will do this processing in groups.
Mastering treats the track as a whole, and is often left to a specialist engineer. However, you might want to learn how to master a song roughly yourself, before you send a ‘rough/home master’ to a label or before you test a track on a professional sound system.
Collaborating with other musicians in FL Studio
Collaborating in FL Studio is a great way to explore your creativity — trying to bring something different to the table and learning how you bounce off other artists. If you’re working with other musicians who use FL Studio, you can easily use ‘Collect All and Save’ to bounce successive versions of a project and share these via Dropbox or another cloud storage service. One problem you might encounter however, is when using custom plug-ins. These channels will need to be bounced as audio stems — something you’ll have to do if collaborating with musicians who are using other DAWs too. As ever, be sure to establish a method of working that suits both of you. Communicate well and save backups to ensure things don’t get lost!
Finalising and exporting your project
Once you’re happy with your mixdown and are ready to send your project of for mastering, be sure to select the optimum file format for this:
- 44.1/48 kHz
- No dither
After this is done, take one final critical listen away from the project file. When you’re happy and sure there are no export issues with the track, you’re ready to send it off. However, if you’ve used FL to edit a mix for example, you may want to bounce your track as an MP3 instead to save room on the file size.
Can you use FL for live performances?
While it’s not the most common DAW for live performances, there’s no reason you couldn’t set up FL Studio in such a way to suit a live performance with some well arranged tracks and segments in a large project file.
When you’re in Performance mode, you’ll be able to trigger clips and patterns in real time, assigning these to a MIDI controller and mapping specific parameters, such as filters and delays, to knobs and sliders on your controller. This way, you could devise a method whereby you have large portions of a track playing, with room for improvisation using smaller loops and motifs from the track within that overall framework. Above all, live sets take a lot of practice and rehearsal to get right, so take your time and get creative with it — there’s a solution for every performance problem you encounter.
Troubleshooting and additional resources
Below are the three most common issues users have with FL Studio, and how to fix them:
- Glitches and latency in FL? Adjust your audio buffer size in the audio settings to achieve smoother performance — lower buffer sizes = less latency.
- Plugin compatibility with FL? Be sure your plugins are up to date, legit and compatible with your FL Studio version, as outdated or incompatible plugins can cause crashes.
- Project crashes in FL? You never know when this is going to happen, or find an answer to why it does it. So be sure to save frequently and make backups externally.
Below are even more troubleshooting resources for when you run into trouble:
- FL Studio Learning: a helpful page with basic tutorials, online manuals and common troubleshooting Q&As on FL Studio’s own site.
- YouTube: a real goldmine for anyone getting started in music production. Try channels like Slime Green Beats, Born To Produce and You Suck at Producing.
- Reddit: r/FL_Studio is home to Reddit’s FL Studio-specific communities and wider production subreddits like r/WeAreTheMusicMakers r/musicproduction are great for troubleshooting and creative advice.
How does FL Studio compare to other DAWs?
Ableton vs FL Studio
The key difference between Ableton and FL Studio is Ableton’s live capabilities. Designed with performance in mind, its Session View enables flexible arrangement and real-time manipulation, and is hence favoured by many musicians who play live. Though as discussed above, FL Studio’s Performance Mode offers similar capabilities, so at the end of the day, it comes down to a personal preference regarding your favoured workflow and arrangement between the two DAWs.
Logic Pro X vs FL Studio
Logic Pro is often favoured for mixing and mastering given its UI layout and its wide-spread use among industry professionals. However, in terms of their songwriter and plug-in capabilities, they are very comparable, so again it's a matter of personal preference. One thing to note is if you’re working on a Windows computer, Logic is out of the question for you.
Pro Tools vs FL Studio
Similarly to Logic, Pro Tools is widely used in professional studios for its industry-standard audio editing and mixing capabilities — it is particularly prevalent amongst audio engineers working with video. However, for writing electronic music, FL Studio is a far more intuitive software to work in, as it is designed with beat-making in mind.
Reaper vs FL Studio
Both of these DAWs have similarly customisable user interfaces and offer affordable pricing models and trial periods, so trying both out wouldn’t hurt. Overall though, FL Studio’s extensive collection of instruments and plugins cater to wider production styles and its pattern-based workflow generally appeals more to producers with a strong visual approach.
Garageband vs FL Studio
While GarageBand is a great starting point, FL Studio provides more advanced features for producers aiming for a higher level of production quality. So whilst Garageband can be a good set of training wheels as it's easy to use, you’ll want to graduate onto something more serious quite soon.
There you have it, a little rundown of the joys of working in Fruity Loops. Reading about it is one thing, but the only way to learn and decide if it's the DAW for you is to start using it. Remember, there’s a steep learning curve with any new production software, so don’t give up at the first hurdle. Undoubtedly one of the best DAWs for music production, FL Studio stands out amongst its competitors given its pattern-based workflow and comprehensive set of plugins, making it an ideal playground for you to try out musical ideas and grow as a producer.