The Unlikely Rise of FL Studio, The Internet’s Favorite Production Software

Porter Robinson, Madeon, and Soulja Boy explain how one shockingly simple program gave 2010s hip-hop and EDM their respective sounds.

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Oct 12 2016, 10:00pm

DeAndre Way, the 26-year-old rapper and producer known best to the world as Soulja Boy, was first given a FruityLoops demo at age 12 from his uncle Justin. "We're really the same age—he's more like my cousin but I call him my uncle," he jokes on a recent phone call. Four years later, Way's 2007 debut single, "Crank That (Soulja Boy)," reached the top of Billboard's Hot 100 for several weeks. The song's skeletal, tropical, loop-based instrumental was constructed entirely from the program's stock sounds.

"I was on a wave when I made that," Soulja Boy says of the song's easy construction, speaking over the phone. "I was doing, like, 10-20 beats a week. Every day when I'd get home from school, I'd make a beat."

"Crank That" was one of Soulja Boy's first attempts at making a song; he hadn't even fully unpacked the software when he made it. "It wasn't even a full, registered purchased program," he says. "So I only had a few days to use it. I made the beat first, then I wrote it, then we made the dance. It gave access to create... I could make any type of beat that I wanted, pretty fast."

The beat-making program once known as FruityLoops has spent the past several years winning a tortoise-and-hare race like no other. In 1998, its inaugural release was a drop in the moat surrounding Massachusetts-based tech company Avid's Pro Tools empire, then the industry standard for digital audio workstations (DAWs), which at the time consisted mainly of loop-making software you could record with. Other DAWs like Sonar and Cubase—made by Cakewalk and Steinberg, respectively—were Pro Tools' chief competitors, and Sony's Acid was the premier software for creating loops, so a goofily named program from Belgium's then-fledgling Image-Line was kind of a non-starter.

For one thing, FruityLoops was only available on Microsoft Windows, which over the next decade would be successfully obliterated by Apple as the operating system at the crossroads of art and technology. Worse yet, illegal downloads of the program became widespread long before the company started turning a profit, threatening to thwart the project in its infancy.

"If it was our only product then, we would've been dead just from pirating," says Jean-Marie Cannie, the 49-year-old founder of FL Studio's parent company Image-Line, via a Skype call from Belgium. "Thousands of people used it, but not a single soul was paying for it. We had [also developed] financial software, web development software... we had to do it to keep FruityLoops alive, because there was virtually no income."

It took almost five years for the program to start making any money from users buying legitimate licenses. But in that time, FruityLoops developed a reputation for being remarkably easy-to-use, something that would reveal itself to be the program's major advantage over the industry standards. Someone new to music production—a child, even—could play around with the colorful interface and walk away with something that resembled an actual song. Today, the demo gets 30,000 downloads a day (still, mostly users with cracked versions of the software), and FL Studio is Image-Line's only offering. "It would be almost lethal to put efforts into other products," Cannie says.

When "Crank That" came out in 2007, it exemplified not only FL's functionality, but the ear-catching quality of its default presets. "That was definitely the most famous usage of stock FL Studio samples," 24-year-old post-EDM experimenter Porter Robinson tells THUMP over the phone. "The steel drum, the snap—every single sound in that song is a default FL sound."

Where FruityLoops stood apart from its peers was that its demo was a fully functional version of the software—with the catch that you couldn't save the project file—which made it particularly appealing to would-be producers whose income came from, say, an allowance. "If I recall correctly," Robinson says, "[Soulja Boy] told an interviewer that he made that song in the trial version, so he didn't even have the project file anymore. [In the demo], you could export the WAVs but you couldn't save [the project itself]. You get the cake but you don't get the cake recipe for later."

Like Soulja Boy, Robinson—who is on tour with fellow dance-pop upstart Madeon when we speak—swears by FL Studio, and says he doesn't use anything else to write. Indeed, you can hear the program's extensive aural palette at work in Robinson's own tunes like 2014's "Fresh Static Snow," which shuffles through an entire rainbow of synth sounds before the vocals even come in.

And like most of the artists who cut their teeth on FL Studio and ended up using it for life, Robinson started with it young. "FL Studio basically made music production available to pretty much underage gamers," the producer says bluntly. "I know that's probably not the reputational thing Image-Line wants to hear. But nerdy kids who were most interested in playing games had PCs. They decided to download some music production software because they were bored and wanted to try a new hobby. That describes me and a lot of people I know of."

FruityLoops was first developed in 1997 by Didier "Gol" Dambrin, a 19-year-old one-time programming contest winner from Belgium who started out making video games for Image-Line. Eventually, he'd present Image-Line with his own efforts improve on the basic drum sequencing software of the late 90s, such as Hammerhead Rhythm Station and Propellerhead's Rebirth RB-338. He named the program FruityLoops, though Cannie explains that neither the connotations of the word "fruity" nor the implication that a musician is just using "pre-canned loops" did the product any favors during its pre-profitable years.

Over the next half-decade, the DAW became a cult hit, inspiring 500-1000 posts a day on Image-Line's forums from converts were either shocked by the unlimited possibilities of the demo or who had procured a cracked download of the full software illegally. After Image-Line settled a trademark dispute with the Kellogg cereal company, it was time to simplify the name to "FL Studio," though many users still affectionately call it FruityLoops to this day. Though the company's attempted to distance itself from that nickname, its goofiness still feels appropriate in some way, especially given the program's reputation as a coming-of-age experience for young producers.

"We tricked people into thinking they have musical skills," explains Cannie slyly, crediting FL's early success to the fact that anyone could try their hand at making beats with it without investing too much money or effort.

That simplicity became the workstation's calling card, with FruityLoops quickly gaining a reputation as an entry-level program that won the pros over anyway. "I was thrown into this music venture without any background, and I started downloading the competition: Cubase, et cetera," says the Image-Line CTO, whose staff has grown from one person to 15 over the years. "They looked like a spreadsheet. Of course, now I understand how it all works, how someone from a more classical mixing studio environment immediately recognizes, 'This is a MIDI lane, this is an audio track.' But someone completely new [to music production] would stare at Cubase and wonder what he has to do. With our stuff, he's up and running in seconds."

Whether you're a trained musician or not, FL Studio is a lot of fun. Without much fanfare, you can open the program and set a tempo; you can left-click to insert a kick drum or piano plunk into the onscreen pattern,or right-click to take it away. The bank of "patches"—your samples and instruments of choice—consists of an infinitely scrollable menu along the left border of the screen, and you can drag and drop them into play. To compose, hop into the piano roll and you can adjust the notes to your liking, quantize them (sticking them to the beat), or arpeggiate them from a selection of every scale and mode possible.

And that's not counting all the various toys and plug-ins there are to choose from: synths designed to mimic both analogs of the past and digitals of the future, simulators of electric guitar and Rhodes organ. If your imagination outruns existing musical forms, there are even make-your-own-sound generators like the DX10, which allow you to shape waveforms from scratch as if they were on a pottery wheel.

The workstation is advertised as "the fastest way from your brain to your speakers," a claim FL Studio enthusiasts echo fervently. "It's almost impossible to click something together that doesn't sound musical," Cannie says. His own children—ages 18, 12, and 6—toy with it on a daily basis, he says.

But as Robinson sees it, the software has evolved over time from the perfect starter kit to the perfect DAW, period. "I guess it started off a few steps behind the others, but in many ways has surpassed a lot of its competitors," he says. "I'm pretty sure it's the most popular sequencer on the planet." Though previously many popular external plugins were only compatible with Reason, Logic, and Pro Tools, Robinson says the tide is starting to shift. "FL Studio support is more or less expected."

The producer fervently denies that the program's current incarnation is any kind of stepping stone for something more classically industry-oriented like Pro Tools: "FL Studio feels really young and sleek and new, he says. "The only thing that I think is possibly more popular on the dance floor, for artists, is Ableton."

Hip-hop producers were among the first to embrace FL Studio, but it didn't receive much publicity in the early 00s beyond the occasional praise from a well-known producer like North Carolina-based beatsmith 9th Wonder, who broke through in that era producing for Jay Z ("Threat") and Destiny's Child ("Girl"). "Crank That" was just one of many infectious beats Soulja Boy created in a matter of minutes, unwittingly ushering in the era of "ringtone rap," which was widely derided at the time but now rightfully considered the foundation for such current names as fellow FL Studio user Metro Boomin. "It ushered in the stay-at-home trap producer," says Robinson.

"["Donk"] went viral twice," Soulja Boy remembers, referring to the horny 2008 single that granted his career a star-studded second wind. "First it was me talking about girls shaking their ass. Then [two years later], Nicki Minaj rapped on it, and that became 'Itty Bitty Piggy,' one of her biggest songs before she blew mainstream. From the underground she was killing it with that song; everywhere she would go and do a show, she'd perform that song, and everyone knew the words. People asked, 'Who made that beat? Soulja Boy?'"

By the 2010s you could hear the program's influence all over the rap landscape. "Anytime I'm listening to a [DJ] Mustard record on the radio, I see all the patterns in my head for every song," corroborates Soulja Boy. Mustard's sparse, uncomplicated beats indeed visualize into neat sets of two and four when programmed into a sequencer, especially one as legible as FruityLoops.

FL Studio's appeal is universal, but actual awareness of it has proven somewhat of a generational matter, even though the software has been building steam for almost 20 years. Way says that even Kanye West, 13 years his senior, has unknowingly praised the program.

"Kanye called me when I was working on our 'Robocop' remix, which was never released," Soulja Boy says. "And he was like, 'Yo, how do you get your 808s to sound like this?' I said, 'FruityLoops!" and he was like 'What?'"

FL Studio, photo courtesy of Image-Line.

In some ways, FL Studio's rise to prominence runs parallel with the breakout success of EDM in the 2010s. During our conversation, Robinson passes the phone to his 22-year-old tourmate Madeon, born Hugo Leclercq. Madeon considers the DAW to be something "very emotional and life-defining"—a generational signature we'll look back on in 20 years with the reverence baby boomers have for Fender guitars.

"I've spent more time looking at FL Studio's interface than anything else in the world," he tells me. "I'm sure graphic professionals feel this way about Photoshop, but there's something a little more underdog and lovable about FL Studio.

The first time Madeon opened up FruityLoops at age 11, it included an introductory demo called "Cool Stuff," which contained the stems for a song called "Hanging On" by Blake Reary. "I remember thinking, 'This sounds like music I would be proud to have made,'" he says. "And I had all the parts in front of me, so I studied that song and how it was made; I could look at what every instrument was doing. It was overwhelming to see all those things onscreen, but it gave me a goal. When I opened it, instead of a blank page, I had a destination."

The French producer's fondness for the software swelled after he won an Image-Line remixing contest years ago, and got to meet the development team as one of the prizes. Today, when you open FL Studio for the first time, the default music that plays is a song the company commissioned from Madeon himself.

"I think it's still suffering from some kind of stigma from its early days," Madeon says. "This new generation of producers coming in, they do not have that stigma, because they started using it when other artists were already using it, so it already had this legitimacy. But when I started using it, it was not seen as professional-grade or something you could make a career out of. And now many, many hits and many careers have been made using it."

He has a point: Daft Punk allegedly used its "Gross Beat" time-stretching effect recognizably on the soundtrack for Tron. Scene stage-setter Deadmau5 was an early adopter, and major players Avicii and Martin Garrix have made YouTube tutorials showing how they made their hits in the DAW.

Of course, the stigma in question stems in part from the fact that FL Studio is a Windows program—the long-in-the-making Apple version won't launch until around Christmas 2017. In fact, Soulja Boy, Porter Robinson, and Madeon each tell me they only keep Windows PCs around for the sole purpose of using FL Studio.

"It was very hard for us to get reviewed and accepted because most publications don't even have one PC [in the office]," Cannie says of music tech review sites. "Even now, some publications don't write about FL—not because of bad faith, but because they can't even test it."

Because of its longtime adherence to Windows, "It's seen as more with the gamer crowd than the visual artist and graphic designer crowd," says Madeon, who's been testing an Alpha version for Macs for a couple years. But Windows is ultimately the reason it went viral: "It was people's first choice because it was what they could get."

Madeon argues that the word-of-mouth acclaim generated from pirating actually seems to have brought back financial returns for once, making the more economically inaccessible Pro Tools less of a necessity. With FL Studio, things "suddenly became about creativity and ideas instead of financial access to the tools," he says. "Everyone could contribute. Combined with the ability to very easily share music online, the only way to cut through the noise now is to have new ideas."

This article was originally published on THUMP.