For years running, Ableton and FL Studio have been ‘specialized’ DAWs. They cater mostly to the electronic music production crowd, with workflow, virtual instruments, and effects streamlined for that purpose. Arguing Ableton vs FL Studio is tough, because each has clear strengths. We’ll shed some more light on the topic to help pick the best DAW for you.
Ableton vs FL Studio: Songwriting & Arrangement
Ableton and FL Studio are production tools. They’re made to chop up loops, sequence drums, and create electronic productions quickly—so you can stay in the zone without fighting your software too much. That said, each accomplishes this in a slightly different way.
Ableton makes it easy to audition various arrangements in the session view. This is helpful for figuring out complete song structures where you can experiment with ease. Another major workflow enhancer are FX Chains, savable Racks, and being able to manipulate audio intuitively.
Ableton is arguably a very fast DAW for setting up complex effects chains and drum sample racks, and subsequently recording and arranging those sounds to build a song.
FL Studio is a pretty flexible DAW; that also means that there’s generally a dozen ways to do one thing. This can be daunting for beginners, and with everything that FL does so, so well, there are a handful of things that are clunky. Let’s talk about the positives first, like the built-in step sequencer. You can literally build a great sounding drum loop in seconds by just punching in steps on the sequencer.
FL Studio also has a fantastic piano roll—arguably the best of any DAW ever. It’s definitely more appealing and intuitive than Ableton’s, and is largely considered one of FL Studio’s greatest strengths. In terms of workflow, however, FL Studio is clunkier than Ableton. It feels as if it’s geared more towards jotting down short loops as opposed to fleshing out whole songs.
Ableton vs FL Studio: Plugins & Virtual Instruments
As production tools both Ableton and FL Studio come with plenty of effects and virtual instruments. Let’s see how they compare.
Ableton sells in three versions: Intro, Standard, and Suite. They range from around 33 stock instruments and effects at the bottom, all the way to 91 total instruments and effects at the top. Ableton also comes with a pretty massive library of sounds and samples to play with, starting with 1500 (5GB) for Intro and a ridiculous 5000+ (70GB) for the top-of-the-line Suite version.
For most users, the Standard edition with 50+ effects and 10+GB of samples is more than enough to get started. Ableton’s instruments and effects are known to be high-quality and intuitive.
Image-Line sells four different editions of FL Studio: Fruity, Producer, Signature, and All Plugins. Right away, you’ll see that even the slimmest edition of FL comes with 82 instruments and effects. That’s nearly as many as the highest end version of Ableton that costs $400 more. The All Plugins Edition of FL Studio—comparable to Ableton Live Suite—packs 102 instruments and effects into the software for a plethora of sonic colors.
The thing about Ableton vs FL Studio seems to be quality vs quantity. Ableton has fewer synths and effects, but they’re generally more user friendly. FL Studio throws everything at you, but has fewer standout plugins than Ableton.
Recording: Audio & MIDI
Let’s get one thing straight: neither DAW is ideal for recording audio. These are MIDI-heavy programs designed for working extensively with virtual instruments. And in that endeavor, they excel. We talked earlier about FL Studio’s piano roll, and it beats Ableton’s. The latter’s tends to feel a bit squished and hard to navigate compared to FL Studio. Still, you can accomplish roughly the same thing in either DAW.
One other consideration for MIDI is that Ableton offers better plug-and-play support for MIDI controllers. FL Studio requires a bit of extra manual labor to sync your controller—it seems odd, since pretty much every other DAW automatically recognizes controllers these days.
Let’s talk about recording audio briefly. Ableton wins, hands down. And it’s really only because of a recent addition in Live 11 that added comping! Recording audio in FL Studio is a nightmare, plain and simple. It forces you to record through an instance of Edison—an audio editor—which is one of the clunkiest FL Studio plugins there is.
Editing & Sampling
Again, Ableton takes the cake when it comes to editing audio. Unfortunately FL Studio suffers from the same affliction when it comes to editing as it does when recording, forcing you to add audio into Edison to make any significant changes. Ableton works like any other DAW, where you can edit audio directly in the arrangement window.
Both DAWs provide extensive sampling capabilities. FL Studio’s SliceX lets you drop in a loop, chop it up, and play back the individual slices in any order. Ableton comes with similar plugins, so both DAWs are good for sampling in their own way.
When you load a sample into Ableton, it automatically adjusts to the session tempo. Boom, done. And it does so in a transparent enough way that it doesn’t sound completely warped. In FL Studio you normally have to stretch samples manually for the best result, and it can sometimes get frustrating and not sound nearly as clean as Ableton.
Ableton vs FL Studio: Mixing
It’s worth talking about, because people ask, but mixing in Ableton vs FL Studio is purely preference. One is not better than the other in terms of what you’re able to do; anyone can get a great mix out of either program. Ultimately, mixing in Ableton vs FL Studio depends on which DAW the person has already chosen based on allll of the other features!
Conclusion: Ableton vs FL Studio
Ableton is a more well rounded DAW, thanks to some very welcome new features in Live 11 that bring it up to speed with all-around programs like Logic, Studio One, Pro Tools, and others. Beginning users will find FL Studio’s attractive interface and brilliant step sequencer a fun and easy way to make some noise, while Ableton might take a little more time to get a feel for at first.
Both are powerful and flexible systems. It’s usually a good idea to give each a go on the free trial and make a decision from there!