FL Studio Basics

In this FL Studio basics tutorial, we’ll cover what FL Studio is, how it works, which parts do what, and how they all interact to help us make great music. But first, a few words…

Getting Started: The Journey

If you’re just starting your music production journey, it can be an extremely overwhelming experience. The amount of technical know-how that goes on behind the scenes is a real eye opener for many, and deters thousands of would-be musicians from chasing their dreams, forcing them to settle for the average life that so many people have already lived.

fl studio basics information overload

It’s complicated…

If this describes you, don’t let the 1000’s of technical words, knobs, buttons, and sliders scare you. Instead, I invite you to establish an undying curiosity for each button, each confusing word, each setting, and each plugin that you don’t understand.

Rather than turning away from the things that confuse you, become curious. How can this help me become a better musician? How can I use this to up my game, to be unique, and to improve? Can this knowledge be an asset to me? With this mindset, you’ll be unstoppable. And because of the internet, you now have access to limitless knowledge. Don’t pass up on this amazing opportunity!

What is FL Studio?

Your new best friend!

FL Studio is a DAW (digital audio workstation) developed by a company in Belgium called Image-Line. A DAW is a special software package that musicians and producers use to create, edit, record, arrange, mix and sample audio.

Within the DAW, there are other 3rd party pieces of software called VST plugins. These can be things like reverb modules, compressors, samplers, synthesizers, equalizers (like Fruity Parametric EQ 2), and the list goes on and on into infinity… VST plugins in FL Studio fall under two categories:

  1. Generators – they generate an audio signal and are hosted in the Channel rack
  2. Effects – they change the audio signal in some way, and are hosted in the Mixer FX panel slots

Let’s take a look at some of the basics of FL Studio.

Top Toolbar

The top toolbar has a lot of buttons and indicators. Some are pretty self explanatory. Some are more complex. Don’t worry if you don’t understand some of the terms yet. Check it out:

top toolbar 1

  • Playback mode – control whether or not to play the entire song in the Playlist, or just the current Pattern
  • Tempo – how fast do you want to go? It’s in beats per minute, BPM
  • Metronome – this thing keeps time, useful when recording live instruments

top toolbar 2

  • Global grid snap – allows snapping to specified grid snap interval in the Playlist and Piano roll
  • Current Pattern – click or scroll to change
  • Current song position – in minutes, seconds, and centiseconds by default. Click to change.
  • Master monitor – an oscilloscope showing the Master bus waveform. Click to change to spectrum view.

top toolbar 3

  • Master levels – left and right channel levels coming from the master bus in the Mixer
  • Computational data – RAM, CPU usage and number of voices being used
  • The other buttons open up the other basic components of FL Studio

The Browser/Plugin Picker (Alt+F8)

The Browser/Plugin picker is a directory that links files on your computer to FL Studio. From here, we can import audio samples into FL Studio and choose the plugins and presets we want to use (which are all just files on your computer, too). It’s important to know where we should drag each type of item in the Browser/Plugin picker:

    • Plugins – there are 3 types of plugins under Plugin database. They are Effects, Generators, and Installed (VST).
      • drag Effects plugins to the Mixer FX panel slots
      • drag Generators to the Channel rack
      • Installed VSTs are 3rd-party (non-native) plugins and can fall under either category
  • Presets – there are 3 types of presets. They are Plugin presets, Channel presets, and Mixer presets.
    • drag Mixer presets to individual Mixer tracks in the Mixer (which we’ll cover later)
    • drag Channel presets to individual channels in the Channel rack (which we’ll also cover later)
    • plugin presets go to their associated plugins in the Mixer FX slots (effects plugins) or in the Channel rack (generator plugins)
  • Scores – these are MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) files that belong in the Piano roll. Don’t worry, we’ll cover the Piano roll in more detail later on, too.
  • Packs – this is the folder where your audio sample files live. Drag these into the Channel rack/Step sequencer or into the Playlist.

browser plugin picker

The Step Sequencer/Channel Rack (F6)

The Step sequencer/Channel rack is the place where audio signals originate from within FL Studio. Each channel can hold either a sampled audio file, a generator plugin, or an automation.

fl studio channel rack

The Channel rack can only hold generator VST plugins – they generate an audio signal. Some examples of generator plugins are Sytrus, Harmor, Harmless, Spire, Massive, and Serum. These are all synthesis plugins.

Again, we can drag audio samples and generator plugins from the Browser/Plugin picker to the Channel rack. This will create its own channel which can then be routed to the Mixer.

We can also change overall swing settings (knob at top right), mute and unmute individual channels (green button), route channels to Mixer tracks (numbers next to channels) and change individual channel panning and volume (knobs next to channels).

Step Sequencer Patterns

You may be wondering what all of the red and gray buttons are. Those are steps and they make up the Step Sequencer. The Step Sequencer is a virtual drum machine and one of two ways we can make Patterns in FL Studio, the other being with the Piano roll.

When a step is lit up, that means the sample in that channel will be triggered during that part of the Pattern. The Step Sequencer is great for programming drum loops.

The Mixer (F9)

The Mixer is a virtual mixing console where all of the signals from your audio samples and generators in the Channel rack meet up. This is also where all of the routing and signal processing like compression, EQ, and sidechaining takes place. The samples and generators are considered internally generated signals because they originate from within FL Studio.

The Mixer also has the ability to bring in externally generated signals. These are audio signals coming from an input on your audio interface and can be generated by things like a guitar or a condenser microphone.

channel rack to mixer routing

Routing to the Mixer

Here we can see the two audio sample channels and the two generator channels in the Channel rack have been routed into tracks #1 – #4 in the Mixer using the number slot (target Mixer track) next to each channel. FL Studio generated these signals internally.

Mixer track #5 is the mic input from my MXL 990 going into my audio interface. Use the drop down menu at the top of the FX slot panel to link externally generated signals to the selected Mixer track.

The Mixer FX panel slots are where we drag Effects plugins to. Effects plugins can be reverb, delay, compressors, EQ, and other things that alter the signal previously sent there by samples or Generator plugins in the Channel rack or by an external device like a microphone.

Above, we can see Fruity Reeverb 2 in Slot 1 of Mixer track 5. This is adding reverb to my mic input signal in real time. Take a look at the full-blown FL Studio Mixer tutorial for a deeper understanding of how the Mixer works.

The Playlist (F5)

The Playlist is where we arrange all of the pieces of our track. These pieces can be:

  • patterns created in the Step Sequencer or the Piano roll
  • audio samples dragged directly into the Playlist from the Browser/Plugin picker
  • automation clips and events – learn more about automation here.

fl studio basics playlist

FL Studio plays the clips, patterns, and audio in the Playlist from left to right as the time sweeper moves over everything. Remember that button in the top toolbar that toggles between Song and Pattern playback? Well, Song mode plays everything that’s staged here in the Playlist.

The Piano Roll (F7)

The Piano roll is where we input MIDI data in the form of notes to be played by the associated generator plugin. Each channel in the Channel rack has its own Piano roll and its own set of steps in the Step Sequencer from which we can make Patterns to put in the Playlist.

Piano Roll Patterns

To open the Piano roll, press F7. Then, select the target channel from the drop down menu, and click to start adding notes. Be mindful of what Pattern you are working in! I covered the inner workings of the Piano roll in this tutorial. Check it out if you want a deeper understanding of how the Piano roll works.

fl studio basics piano roll

FL Studio Basics – The Big Picture

OK, if you just read 4 times over that and you’re still confused as all hell, I have a secret weapon for you. Take a look at this diagram. It shows how most of the basic FL Studio components come into play and interact with each other in the DAW. Click on it to zoom in.

fl studio basics the big picture

FL Studio Basics Summary

Even though this is just a basic FL Studio tutorial, it’s a lot of information to digest at once. It’ll probably take more than one read to really grasp what’s going on here. If you haven’t been, I suggest going through the tutorial with FL Studio open and running. Click around and experiment while you read and learn. For now, let’s recap what’s been said:

  • The Playlist is where we arrange all of the pieces of our song – audio samples, Patterns, and automation
  • The Patterns in the Playlist are made in the Piano roll or the Step Sequencer – they tell the Channel rack generators what to do
  • The Channel rack receives instructions from the Step sequencer, Piano roll, audio and automation data in the Playlist and generates audio signals accordingly
  • The Mixer receives the internally-generated signals from the Channel rack and externally-generated signals from your audio interface, and then applies effects to each signal and routes them to the Master bus
  • The Master bus gets sent to your audio interface and out to your monitor speakers or headphones

That about covers the basics of FL Studio. I hope you learned something here, or are at least less confused and a little more confident in that it’s not as hard as it looks. Thanks for reading!

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