FL Studio tutorial explaining the Step Sequencer, Playlist and Piano Roll
Before diving deep into the FL Studio UI with its zillion buttons, knobs and menus (don’t get scared), I would like to explain you a bit about three central views in FL Studio. Once you grasp those, you already understand much about how to arrange a song. Sure, it may be more fun to start with producing sounds, but trust me; if you do not know how to arrange your sounds and create compositions, FL Studio will merely turn into a funny sound generator for you.
Some friends of mine started playing with FL Studio after they had heard some of my work – very energetically i should add. Unfortunately, after a while they gave up because they did not get beyond the initial stage, which was to just click around and generate sounds. Familiarizing yourself with some basic concepts before actually starting to compose will add to the fun, I assure you.
Anyway, back to the three views – Step Sequencer, Playlist and Piano Roll.
The Step Sequencer (or Channel) view (press F6 to open it) is the view in which you place your instruments, one below the other. These are also referred to as the channels. One instrument = one channel. Have a look at the screenshot below:
This is the Step Sequencer/Channel view. It has six channels/instruments. Why? Because I added them. Some channels for the beat (DNC_Kick, DNC_Snare, DNC_Hat), one for the bass line (Pure bass 3), for the strings (Smooth str…ings) and a channel for the lead melody (Trance Lead). So what more do we have on this dialog? Let’s have a closer look.
The channel panning and volume knobs allow you to control the panning and volume. In short, the channel panning controls the spread of the sound across your left and right loudspeakers. If you turn it all the way to the left, the sound will only come from your left loudspeaker. Turn it to the right and only your right loudspeaker has the honour. By default, the panning knob is centered and so will the sound for the channel be (not coming from one particular loudspeaker). I did not bother with this too much until later when I discovered you can articulate a sound and create a sense of movement in compositions by automating the panning (don’t worry about this last sentence as I will dedicate some other article to ‘automating’ controls in FL Studio).
The channel buttons give access to a number of items. First of all, if you left-click it the Channel Settings dialog will show. This is an important dialog inwhich you can tweek the sound for each channel. See below:
This article will not further discuss the Channel Settings dialog. For now, just remember that this is the place where you control the actual sound of the channel in question. How the sound will reach your ears will also be dependent on whether or not you apply any effects, but more about that later as well.
Good, back to the Step Sequencer view. If you right-click a channel button, it gives you a range of options.
We will familiarize ourselves with those in some other articles, but one option that we will use much is the first one, Piano roll. More about the Piano roll later in this article.
The pattern grid is the area on the Step Sequencer view that allows us to create drum loops and simple melodies. Have a look at the screenshot below:
Nice, some kind of pattern. Now, how did I do that - and more importantly - what does it mean? Simple, just left-click (or right-click) on the steps (small buttons) in the grid to activate (or deactivate) them. What I am doing here is indicating when a channel should play the sound. Each step represents a 16th note and by default the length for each channel is 16 steps – four bars with 4 steps each. The above means that my DNC_Kick will play on the first step of every bar, my DNC_Snare on the first step of the second and fourth bar and my DNC_Hat every second step, starting with the first.
I really use this a lot to arrange my drum loops and sometimes for my bass, but not for (more complex) melodies and chords. Drums are usually non-pitched and can be used with any harmony or key so just telling FL Studio when to play a percussion channel is all there is to it.
We could spend more time on discussing the Step Sequencer view, but we will let it rest for now and return back to the remaining features in some other article.
I mentioned the Piano Roll view briefly and we have seen how we can open it via right-clicking a channel button (another way is to press F7). Have a look at the screenshot below:
This is the place where you create your note arrangements (score) for a single channel/instrument. It has a lot of features that allow you to create, edit and manage complex note arrangements, but we will start with some of the basics. See below:
Note events are placed in the upper part of the view, where their position on the vertical axis determines the pitch and the position on the horizontal axis the time of the note. The length of the note event controls the duration. You can place note events by left-clicking (right clicking on a note event will remove it). After you have placed a note event you can drag & drop it to some other place, increase or reduce its length, etc. In the screenshot above you see the piano roll for my ‘Pure bass 3’ channel. I have kept it really simple and placed only four note events. The third one has a lower pitch than the rest. All four note events, however, have the same duration.
The lower part of the Piano Roll view is the so-called Integrated Event Editor. It is the area in which you can control the panning, velocity, etc., of individual notes. We will talk more about that later. I typically use it to create more dynamic melodies.
In summary, the Piano Roll view is one of the most important views in which you will arrange your notes related to a single instrument.
Returning to the Step Sequencer view, this is what you get:
Do you see the relation between the two views? My arrangement in the Piano Roll view shows up in the Step Sequencer view. And, the arrangement for the Pure bass3 channel happens to have the same duration as the drum beats that I created in the Step Sequencer view directly. Cool coincidence. Well, not quite ;) Have a look at the two views again and discover the similarities.
Ok, so now we did the beats in the Step Sequencer view, the bass in the Piano Roll view. What’s next?
This article is not about how to compose a cool song, but rather about the three important views. I will therefore not do anything with the Smooth strings and Trance lead channels, but move on to view number three – the Playlist view.
You could say that the Playlist view (press F5) is where the overall composition is arranged. Have a look at the screenshot below:
The Playlist view has two main areas. The upper area is for pattern clips, the lower for pattern blocks. Hmmm, a bit more explanation is required I guess. Let’s begin with the lower area where we place pattern blocks.
One thing you should realize is that when you work in the Step Sequencer (and Piano Roll), you always work in the context of a specific Pattern track. Which one? Well, the one that is selected in the Playlist. See below:
What this means is that all step and note arrangements that I made sofar (in the Step Sequencer and Piano Roll) have been assigned to Pattern 1 in the Playlist. In other words, drum beats and bass are in Pattern 1.
What I can do now is sequence my arrangements by placing pattern blocks. See below:
The above means that I am actually looping my drum beat and bass arrangement eight times by placing eight pattern blocks after eachother. I do that by simply left-clicking with the mouse (right-clicking will remove a block). If I now would play the composition we would hear both drum beat and bass.
Now, most typically you would want to place your beats, bassline, lead, chords, etc., in separate pattern tracks. The reason is that you then can manipulate them independently. Hmmm, that’s a pity, I already placed everything in pattern track 1. Do I have to start all over to place my bass in another pattern track? Not quite. If you right click on the name of the pattern track (Pattern 1 in our screenshot), a menu will popup. See below:
By choosing Split by channel all my channels in the Step Sequencer will be spread out across multiple pattern tracks. See below for the result:
Wow, cool! Now I can sequence each channel independently.
Do you get the point? If I now play this song, first the drum beat will play. The song will progress with the Snare and Hat coming in after four bars. Finally, the bass will start playing.
A lot more can be said about the Playlist view, but I leave that for another article. For instance, what about the upper area which I mentioned earlier? I will dedicate an entire other article to that, don’t worry ;)
Hope this FL Studio tutorial was helpful. Feel free to leave any comments. Happy composing!