Ableton vs. FL Studio – Which is Right for You?
Electronic music has seen quite a rise in recent years. Partly due to more producers moving towards the genre, and partly due to the availability of inexpensive software. Two such pieces are Ableton and FL Studio, DAWs that have firmly cemented themselves as the top choices for electronic producers.
We took each of the DAWs for a test run to see which is the better choice. Of course, some amount of circumstance plays into the best choice for you. While on the surface these pieces of software seem quite similar, the purposes each serve it quite differently.
We’ll run down a bit of the backstory and basic features of both FL Studio and Ableton, as well as the pros and cons of each. Both serve their purpose well, but knowing which is right for you comes down with to what you intend to do.
Abletone, or Ableton Live as it’s officially known, is a performance-based DAW that allows complex sequencing and sampling in real time. The important thing to know is that it’s a performance-based software, meaning it shines the most when put into a live situation.
Initially, it was a simple loop arrangement tool, meant to combine elements and create loops from them. However, it quickly evolved into a complete audio workstation, fit with MIDI sequencing and VST hosting.
Live first arrived in 2001, the first product from the Belgian developer, Ableton. It came on the scene much later than the most popular DAWs today but rose to popularity due to a unique approach. It was a studio tool, sure, but it was the first DAW to take the power from the studio and apply it in a live setting.
Mainly, this came in the form of two main views the DAW could take on. The first is Session view, the main portion of the live setting. You have a mixer and a grid-based representation of all clips, quickly being able to switch between different samples and loops. The Arrange view holds a much more traditional horizontal timeline, allowing you to put together arrangements from all the clips.
Needless to say, the design caught on quickly in the electronic world. It was a hands-on approach that immediately won over producers who needed a DAW to perform live. You could quickly switch the software around completely both in the studio and on stage.
However, some updates were needed as Live 1 only focused on audio sequencing. MIDI didn’t come with the software at the time and, while it was a VST host, VST instruments did absolutely nothing.
The software became more well-rounded as the new editions released. Live 4 finally introduced MIDI sequencing, three years after the initial release, and built-in instruments brought a few ways to create music with the software alone.
As years have progressed, Ableton has continued to grow as a DAW, adding more features to help it work fluidly live and have more options in the studio. Even with the new additions, it’s quite clear, however, that Live should be used as a performance tool first and an arrangement tool second.
What Ableton is Good at
Which brings us to what Ableton excels at. In performance, there is little to no software that can rival Live. Its capabilities in this setting are simply unmatched, bringing and intuitive workflow that still performs, even in the heat of a live setting.
For example, the DAW has one of the best real-time time manipulation algorithms in the industry. There is little to no artifacting and you can que it up in the middle of a performance. It’s just one of many features that make Ableton stand out.
Additionally, it integrates well with just about any piece of hardware on the market. You can use any controller with the DAW and most will map immediately to fit the software. In fact, Ableton is so popular in this configuration that many hardware manufacturers, such as Novation and Akai, have developed their controllers to mimic the Ableton Session view.
It works quite well outside a live setting as well. Many take advantage of the ReWire protocol to integrate Ableton with another DAW. In most cases, it’s used as a tool to create MIDI sequences, piece together arrangements, and just compose in general. Once the creating is done, another DAW can be used for some heavy lifting.
Overall, Ableton shines in its two different arrangements. It’s great for performing and great for writing, with both the Session and Arrange views tweaked to fit these purposes. It’s a tuned software that works extremely well, so long as you work with the parameters it sets in place.
What Ableton is Bad at
That leads nicely into what Ableton is bad at, though. It’s such a tuned piece of software that tries to work outside its parameters. Writing and performing are both fantastic, but doing just about anything else feels clunky at best.
Take, for example, the ReWire situation. Many producers use it not to integrate different pieces of software, but because Ableton does such a poor job at performing basic DAW functions like recording and mixing. It’s simply not usable, forcing many to switch back and forth to accomplish tasks.
You can record audio in Ableton Live, but it’s not ideal. Any sort of multi-track project is clunky to work with, on the recording, editing and mixing end. The start of a piece of music is good, and the end is good too, but everything in between is mediocre at best.
Additionally, Ableton is meant as an arrangement tool, creating beats and then importing those beats as separate clips into the editor. Compared to FL Studio, the process is a little clunky. However, it’s a small gripe, if it can even be called one.
No, Ableton isn’t a horrible piece of software. In fact, it’s really quite good. It has some flaws in the middle of the process, between recording and mixing. While it has all the tools to accomplish such a task, it certainly shouldn’t be your first choice. It revolutionized DAW design but also left behind an interface that so many are familiar with.
FL StudioFL Studio, or FruityLoops, came a few years before the first release of Live. The first-edition of FruityLoops released back in December 1997, developed by Didier Dambrin, for the Belgian company Image-Line.
At the time, it was a simply a four-channel MIDI drum machine. Dambrin was promoted to Chief Software Architect for the program, and it quickly evolved into something far greater. These additions took the simple design from just that into a full audio workstation.
In most cases, the releases have tacked on new features to expand the platform from its humble roots. Since its inception, FL Studio has undergone 12 major updates, morphing into a DAW that’s a strong sequencing and recording tool.
Image-Line offers four different versions of the software. The first is simply known at Fruity, a $100 version of the DAW focused on beat creation. All audio recording, editing, and manipulation features are stripped away. This version is simply built to sequence using the built-in instruments inside FL Studio.
Producer comes at twice the cost, but brings with it all the audio capacity to boot. You have full control over recording and dragging and dropping clips directly onto the Playlist. You’re missing out on a handful of mixing plugins and included instruments, but still have most the functionality of the full DAW.
Signature is only $100 more and comes with just about everything. You get full control over the software, with the entire list of plugins included. You’re missing out on a few of the niche instruments that Image-Line offers, but the list is still far larger than what Producer offers.
The All Plugins Bundle includes absolutely everything. All the plugins and instruments are included with the download, giving you complete freedom over the software and how you create music. However, at $900, the price is quite high, so it doesn’t make sense for most people.
All versions of FL Studio, however, come with lifetime updates, free of charge. This includes not only small hotfixes, but also the full, new releases. You simply have to buy the software once and you own it for life.
What FL Studio is Good at
Depending on what version of FL Studio you buy, the DAW can fit a lot of different purposes. For instance, the Fruity edition is horrible for anything doing with audio because, well, it simply doesn’t support. However, from Producer and above, FL Studio proves itself as a highly versatile DAW that can adapt to many different situations.
However, it’s core is built around beat creation and sequencing. The drum machine roots of the DAW clearly show through here. It’s incredibly simple to use the built-in sequencer to craft beats, with a large library of included samples to choose from. In minutes, iconic backbones of some of the most famous beats can be thrown together.
Additionally, the library of included instruments is quite large, even on the inexpensive editions of the DAW. You can full take control of these instruments, using automation and all the extra features to create new sounds.
In fact, the included instruments are so good that many use FL Studio strictly for them. Using the ReWire protocol, many producers use another DAW, but wire in FL Studio to take control of the virtual instruments offered.
Those are the strong suits of FL Studio, but it can perform basic recording functions as well. Recording, editing, and mixing are all fair game in the software. As opposed to having a less traditional view, the interface is familiar enough to make all these processes possible without an insane learning curve.
What FL Studio is Bad at
However, while the software can perform these functions, it certainly isn’t ideal. The interface feels clunky when compared to DAWs better suited for recording, such as Cubase, Pro Tools, or Reaper. Even so, when put up against Ableton, FL Studio is far better suited.
Don’t expect, however, to gain the advanced editing and recording controls that are found with Cubase and Pro Tools. There are certainly time and pitch manipulation tools included with FL Studio, but these are meant more as effects. In a normal DAW, the algorithms are written to be transparent, but, in FL Studio, the tools are meant to be heard.
In the majority of cases, I could see FL Studio being used as a recording tool, but simply to manipulate the tracks recorded. Multi-track drum recording, for example, is a cumbersome process with a lack of routing options and control for truly setting up a great recording.
Compared directly to Ableton, FL Studio is unusable live. It’s a bit difficult to list that as a con as most DAWs aren’t intended for this purpose. Even so, when pitted against Ableton, FL Studio falls extremely short in this category.
Overall, FL Studio actually works in a variety of situations. There are very few cases where the software is unusable, making any caveats about it minor ones at best. It’s not an ideal recording software, but it can be used for this purpose.
Both Ableton and FL Studio are similar pieces of software, yes, but serve different purposes in the same realm. Ableton is far better suited for a live setting, with the Session view offering a look at the DAW that no other piece of software matches. However, FL Studio includes far more in the initial package for writing, and at a lower price point.
Overall, it’s really a question of your budget and purpose with the software. Those looking to save some money and make music from their desktop will probably be better suited with FL Studio. However, those that want to go out and perform with the music they’ve created will probably fall more in line with Ableton.
At the end of the day, that choice is yours, so which software are you going with? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.