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FL Vs. Ableton Live 6

Sunday, January 14th, 2007

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As an avid user of FL studio for round abouts 10 years, I’ve recently purchased Ableton Live 6 rather than stick with the FL franchise. I know allot of people use FL, and I’ve answered allot of FL related questions, so I’ve decided to document why I’ve decided to switch brands after 10 years in hopes that others will get some sort of insight into things.

** Disclaimer.. When it comes down to it, there’s no right or wrong answer here; just what works best for you and the way that you work. My answers aren’t going to be the same as yours or anyone else’s. I hope that by writing this stream of conciousness, you can have just one more point of view in helping you make your decisions.

Ok down to the good stuff. I used FL when it was called Fruity loops and was a drum machine only, way back around ‘94. Since then it’s grown into a complete VSTi hosting, multi channel sequencer, with built in effects and a virtual mixer. Since that time way back in ‘94 my technical skills have grown as well. In recent years, I’ve felt something was missing. I’ve mastered all the functions of FL, yet I felt like I couldn’t push the envelope and squeeze out that extra bit that pushed it to 11. To demonstrate why, let’s consider the FL main screen:

This should look pretty familiar if you’ve used FL. This is version 5, mind you, when I stopped using it. For those that don’t know, what you see in the upper left is the main step sequencer, the mixer on the right, several XY controllers, and several effects. The first thing I want to explain is the step sequencer. What you see are the various samples and VSTi running down the left hand side that make up the pattern, which is the collection of “dots” in the right hand column. What you’re looking at is a fairly typical 1 bar, 4 on the floor sort of setup. This is the advantage of FL, being able to quickly knock out patterns in seconds. But, let me ask you, if I wanted to bring in the hats first and the kicks second, how would I do that? The answer is I would have to create a new pattern, one for each separate part, along with one for each chord change or other variation. No tell me how I know which pattern I’m on? After buying Live, I went back and looked at allot of my old songs in FL. Funny thing was, almost all of my songs never made it past the screen you’re looking at. After creating a dense pattern, I loathed having to go back and chop it all into separate patterns to make a song out of it. FL does have a song mode, which is analogous to a song or chain mode on a groove box. Essentially, you’re able to create patterns by sequencing individual patterns together. You do get the nice advantage of being able to name each pattern in song mode, but again, how you do you know which is which? I found too often I’d have to bring the step sequencer up, scroll through each pattern until I could remember if that E minor progression was pattern 8 or 15. This was about 90% of my frustration. I found that not being able to keep my patterns in a workable order slowed me down.

The other 9% of my problems came down to the rest of the screen. Take another look, can you tell which XY controller goes with which VSTi? Or effect? No, and neither could I half the time, unless I only had one or two on the screen at a time. Imagine trying to record a manual filter sweep with the XY pad, having to stop the sequencer, minimizing the XY pad, flipping through the effects channel to find the second XY pad or effect, bringing that up then recording that down.. Ack! Total buzz kill… !! Watch those guys demo the Korg EMX1 on, nothing slows them down. They flip patterns, record sweeps and leads all without stopping. Wouldn’t it be great if FL worked that like? I thought so too…

So, maybe you’ve noticed I’ve discussed 99% of my problems so far. What about the other 1%? Well, in short, Fl doesn’t have a live performance mode; I want that. Fl has been slower than quik set concrete through a goose to implement features that have been standard on other sequencers for about 5 years; comprehensive MIDI control, supporting multiple controllers, sustain pedal and other features I can’t live without since I’m almost exclusively software. Yes, in ver. 6, they’ve changed all that. But it’s too little too late in my opinion. To give a counter point of view, I admit I’m not privy to Image Lines business model. They may have intended a low cost, easy to use, small learning curve product and in that regard, it’s been phenomenal. And one more tiny thing… In the step sequencer, I liked to arrange my drum kit first, in the upper left part of the screen. What would happen if I wanted to add an additional percussion part was that I would have to insert a new sample at the bottom, yes after all the other VSTis and all. Given FLs interface, I couldn’t move it back up with it’s other percussive brothers (and sisters). Yes, FL does have a sort of collapse or fold feature where you can group the instruments you want and their patterns together. But that’s one more thing to keep you several clicks away from the important stuff, thusly killing your workflow.

Now lets consider Live. Live puts the sequencer at a right angle to FL, eliminating my problems with FL.

What you’re seeing is each VSTi channel running across the top, from left to right. Each colored bar underneath each channel, is an individual pattern. Each pattern can be named, as well as given an individual color. On the bottom, each VSTi channel gets its own XY pad and each effect for that channel is listed in the order of the chain, from left to right. Each active channel (the one your are currently viewing) is shown by the title bar being highlighted and that can also be renamed as well.

Hopefully now the advantage of Live is becoming clear. Let me extend that by discussing how songs are written. Live can be played like an instrument, allowing you to play your patterns like a performance. Or for those that chose it, a more traditional sequencer. Each colored pattern can be assigned to just about anything; a number or letter from your computer’s keyboard or any key, pad or button from a keyboard controller or other form of interface. You can either choose to play each clip separately in a Dj style performance, or you can activate all the clips in the same row by clicking the arrow for that row under the Master column on the far right. You could then easily write an intro, verse, chorus and bridge and then trigger them as part of a live performance from a controller keyboard.

Clicking each pattern brings up the piano roll editor for that pattern in the window below. Double click the next pattern down for an empty one, or right click and select “duplicate” to have another copy to create a variation. It should be easy to visualize how fast it is to build songs out of patterns by this point.

What if you, like me, prefer FL’s XOX style sequencer? Not a problem.. Simple enter the notes you want to work with for that pattern, say CEG for a simple chord, then hit the fold button at the top of the piano roll.

There you go.. fast melodies and basslines. I should also note that at the bottom of each channel is the mixer controls for that channel as well.

Live started out as a Dj program, and you can still Dj by loading entire wav or MP3 files into patterns and then triggering them as part of a mix, or by recording and processing external audio.

Over all, Live is organized, fast and easy to use and it’s let me push it much further than 11!

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