I've been writing electronic music using Fl Studio for as long as I can remember and for the most part I'm self taught, so a lot of the functions and tools I use inside FL I've learnt by experimenting rather than researching. One of those tools is the MIDI sequence. Inside FL studio it's called "Piano Roll" and it basically allows you to write a sequence of notes on a grid which is broken into time segments along the X axis and notes on the Y axis.
(show picture of piano roll).
A similar kind of grid can also be found in other DAWs such as Ableton, Logic, and even the newer version of Pro Tools. Over my time with producing I've been tempted to switch to Ableton Live from FL as it's been suggested by nearly every producer I've spoken to, so I feel the need to compare the two in some way. In this blog I'll be comparing the MIDI Sequencing inside FL Studio with that of the sequencing tools offered by Ableton.
FL Studio is the DAW I'm most familiar with, FL Studio 10 to be exact. I've tried upgrading to the latest version but for some reason I find FL10 to be the easiest to work with in terms of workflow, for myself at least. This holds true for the sequencing tool within FL, Piano Roll. I'm picturing most sequencing tools to be as simple as FL in terms of placing and moving notes, as doing so just requires you to click and/or drag anywhere you want a note to be placed, it's also easy to resize the length of notes as you can just drag the edge of it to the length you want. Aside from being able to select a number of different "grid snap" options (meaning you can set the notes to snap to 8th, 16th notes, etc.) you can also hold the alt key and you're able to move the notes independent from the grid meaning you can place notes just slightly off beat and essentially anywhere you like. Being able to slice notes at any point in the sequence is also pretty handy for resizing a group of notes and making quick edits. Piano Roll also allows you to add slides in-between notes and portamento at the end of notes by selecting either of the options before you place a midi note, this is unfortunately only available with native FL Studio instruments and not third party VSTs which is pretty detrimental because I don't ever use any of FL's native instruments.
Really, the simplicity of Piano Roll is what makes it shine to me, there are however a bunch of tools that you can use within Piano Roll that make writing just a little easier. Some of which I would use like Quick Quantize, which quickly snaps notes to the nearest grid line. Quick Quantize is really handy after recording MIDI data from a MIDI device as it makes it easy to tidy up mistakes. Quick Quantize Start Time's does essentially the same thing but to the start time of the note, and Quantize opens up a menu where you can set specific parameters for quantization. Arpeggiate does just that; say for example you have a chord written in Piano Roll, Arpeggiate will turn it into an arpeggio. Claw Machine takes all of the MIDI notes you have written and slices, re-times and re-positions them, making it easy to switch up an arrangement if you're having a bit of writers block. The control I find most helpful in Piano Roll is Limit, which will transpose your written MIDI data to a user specified key and also limits the notes you can write to just that key. As someone that isn't strong in music theory this is great for learning keys and being able to write musically proficient melodies and chords while doing so. This is made even easier by the fact that you can select actual whole chords for FL to place into your score, meaning that if you're still picking up the basics of writing music, FL is there to help you steer.
Because I don't personally own Ableton I can't simply try it out and report my findings, so I'm going to look to others for some insight. The first piece of information I came across was a post in the Ableton forums asking about Ableton's functionality as a midi sequencer (pretty handy). The first response to this post simply states "it's waaay nicer than fl... try it!" which is pretty vague but I guess it's relevant as it at least compares Ableton to FL. Another reply states; "The way that Live handles notes that hang over the beginning and end of clips in the arrangement can be a pain sometimes (it doesn't play notes that start before the Start marker for the clip, and it cuts notes short that hang over the End marker)". I think this is in regards to recording played midi notes from say an external midi controller and basically means that anything notes recorded before the set amount of bars in the sequence aren't played when they're placed into your timeline and notes that are played after are cut short. This doesn't seem to be a problem in FL; when you start recording midi the first note you play is often placed at the start of the clip if you rush a bit and there isn't really a set amount of bars for a clip so if you continue to play it will just extend the clip by another bar and keep your data there. Seems like a point for FL to me.
Most other research I'm trying to do into how the step sequencer works keep referring me to using external controllers like launch pads and APC-Step Sequencers, so I think Ableton is trying to lean more towards performance or incorporating physical gear into the studio these days. After not being able to find any written examples of what options you have in Ableton's sequencer I took to YouTube for some tutorials. Ableton's official channel has some tutorials based around the sequencer and from what I can see in the first video it at least has all the same basic functions as FL Studio, including quantize, grid size options, note snap options and the general functions that allow you to drag and resize the notes. However it doesn't include all the little creative functions that FL Studio does like chop and limit, which to me at least puts FL ahead because it allows me to get creative when I might be experiencing some writers block. There's also similar options for the velocity of a note in both DAWs, which can be seen in the two pictures I've shown, below the midi data (it looks like stalks that you can move up and down to change the velocity). During the tutorials on Albeton's Youtube channel they keep referring to using this tool during a live set, so again, I think Ableton is pushing to be used as a live performance tool rather than an all in the box production tool.
When it comes to production I like having lots of options, and I like simplicity. FL Studio continues to offer that. Ableton seems a bit too simple with it's piano roll, not offering as many different creative tools as FL's piano roll, which to me is really important. This push for live performance in Ableton also seems to take away from it's ability in the studio; it feels as though it gives you basic options for writing the actual notes without any allowing creativity to flow. Even the actual layout of it looks clinical compared to FL to me for some reason. Ableton might offer other options in the rest of it's functionality that are amazing, and possibly out-way the need for it's sequencing to have as many options and tools as FL, but I personally like the creative freedom I have in FL. I'll continue to use FL Studio for it's Piano Roll because it offers a bunch of creative tools that help me almost every time I write music.