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Introduction to FL Studio's Piano Roll

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Last time we talked about how to get started with FL Studio's mixer and routing all of your audio. While this is always good and helpful, at some point you will need to actually make music to go through the mixer! In this tutorial we will cover FL Studio's piano roll and all of its useful tools for creating your music. While every DAW has a MIDI sequencer built in, most can't even come close to FL Studios piano roll and its ease of use and built in functions. So if you want to streamline your music making process then roll on over!


The Piano Roll Window

Before we can begin to look at the different aspects of the piano roll we first need a good understanding of the piano rolls layout and what the different sections do functionally. However it will not do you much good to hear me talk about the piano roll if you do not know where to find it! Here are two simple ways to access the piano roll inside FL Studio...

  • The easiest way to access the piano roll is by pressing the shortcut F7. This will hide and show the piano roll from its last location on the screen.
  • If you are more of a button person, simply click the piano roll icon on the tool bar at the top of the screen...

Now that we have the piano roll window up and running, lets take a look at the different major sections on this window and get an idea of what they are all about...

  1. This is the piano rolls toolbar and is your sequencing toolbox. Everything from chord generators to quantization can be found here.
  2. This particular area is the heart and soul of the piano roll window. Whenever you want to add or change a note it is done here. It is because of this section we get the name piano roll in the first place.
  3. As we move on to the next section we find that this area is somewhat of an auxiliary section to your MIDI notes. While the previous section dealt primarly with pitch, this section will let change a notes pan, velocity, automation data, etc.

Now that we have a bigger overview of the this window, lets delve deeper the working of the piano roll...


The Piano Roll

Since the piano roll itself (section 2) is the most important aspect of the piano roll window we will start our closer examination there. Let's first break this area down into smaller sub sections for closer analysis.

  1. These area is simply a representation of a piano that allows you find the appropriate pitch for your notes; the range of pitches available go from C0 all the way to B10. Keep in mind that the note you send to your synthesizer from the piano roll never changes, however your synthesizer may be up to an octave or two lower or higher in what pitch it sounds. This sounding pitch vs. written pitch problem is usually not too important for most situations however if you plan on exporting your MIDI sequence to a MIDI file later for a notation program like Finale or Sibelius you need to keep this problem in mind so your musicians can read it in the correct octave!
  2. Here is we actually place our notes into our patterns. When you look at his area as a graph (which is shaped after) we have pitch on the Y-axis and time (or rhythm) on the X-axis. It is important to remember that we can place more than just notes this part of the piano roll. We can place also pitch bend information, reference waveforms, and even ghost notes from other patterns as well.
  3. Finally we have some tools geared towards the piano roll in the form of groupings, color, and the actual portamento and slide functions for pitch bend. In addition the ABC tool changes the notes between either showing every pitch name or just a plain keyboard with the C octaves marked. These tools get their own special place in the piano roll do to the fact they are probably the most commonly used. One last tool can actually be found opposite of the portamento and that is the little square between the sliders in the top right hand corner. This tool allows you to change the zoom of the piano roll between a tight close up and a far away perspective on the Y-axis.

Now that we have a more focused view of the main piano roll let's take a closer look at the auxiliary area to the piano roll that houses our velocity and other MIDI information...

When it comes to this section the most important thing to keep in mind is to make sure you know what information you are looking at. If you right click the left hand side you will be given a variety of options to choose from. By default it should resort to velocity so the green vertical lines represent MIDI volume but you could choose pan, note release, etc.

When writing in patterns for different synthesizers you may receive different options as well depending on the synth. In addition, if you right click to bring up the menu you may see an option called Channel Controls, these options let you draw in automation data to the pattern for that particular control; this data is known as event data in FL Studio.

The advantage to this over automation clips is that you are guaranteeing the automation data will always stay with the pattern and not in a separate clip. This can often be the source of many automation conflicts if your automation clips are fighting the pattern automation.

Finally we come back to the piano roll's toolbar where all of the goodies like to hide. I will approach this section from left to right and explain what each button or drop down does in regards to functionality. Hold on to your hats this is going to be a long one!

First we have the main pull down tab for the piano roll that contains basic menus such as File, Edit, etc. It these two menus we can import MIDI files, FL Studio scores (essentially FL's version of a MIDI file), transpose notes by octaves and a few other goodies. Moving down the main tab you find a menu called Tools which contains a lot of fun little tools that are well beyond the scope of this tutorial but which I highly recommend to look at a little closer.

Moving down the main drop down you will find View and Helper menus which have good visualization options to help you better see what you are doing. The Snap menu is essentially your grid quantization for notes you are editing or adding in; it does not quantize something you already played in!

The Select, Zoom, and Group menus are self explanatory which finally brings us to the Chord menu. The Chord dropdown is very useful for building chords off of a root note. This is especially good if you are unsure what notes go into a chord when trying to read a chord chart.

After the main pull down you will see a wrench and a magnet icon. Notice that these two menus are pressed up against the main drop down and away from the rest of the tools in the toolbar. The reason is that these two pull down menus are just the Tools and Snap menus put in a more convenient location so you do not have to go into the main dropdown.

Next we have our basic editing tools for sequencing which are squished together separately from the previous three since they do not have dropdown menus. First up is the Pencil tool which allows for basic drawing of notes into the piano roll. After that comes the Paintbrush which functions almost the same as the Pencil except when you click and hold you can continue to add notes instead of dragging the note like with the pencil.

Up next are the Delete and Mute tools which do exactly like you think, delete and mute. After that comes the knife tool which can split your MIDI notes wherever you drag your mouse.

We now come across the selection tool which is used to select multiple notes at a time and we then are followed up by the Zoom and Playback tools. The Zoom tool will zoom in wherever you highlight an area in the piano roll and the Playback tool acts like an old fashioned playback head and tape where you can manually play different notes by adjusting how quick you mouse over the notes.

Phew! That is a lot to take in I know but FL Studio's piano roll is very feature heavy. Now that we have the basics down let's quickly look at some ways we can streamline our sequencing.


Streamlined Sequencing

Say you were trying to add your own drum sounds to a prerecorded loop to thicken the sound but obviously the loop isn't landing completely square on the beat. Furthermore there is a bass line you already sequenced that you need to keep in mind so that your kick doesn't drown it out. You could do it all by ear which is always good practice but under the gun of time just isn't practical. Here are a few small tricks to speed up the sequencing process...

  • Open up your audio clip, click and drag the waveform, and drop it onto the sequencer; you should now see the waveform in the background of your piano roll. This will make lining up those drum hits a lot easier! To get rid of it hit Alt+N or go to the Helpers menu under the main drop down of the piano roll.
  • To see the rest of your current pattern as ghost notes for reference simply hit Alt+V! This will make seeing that bass line much easier. To turn it off hit Alt+V again or go to the same dropdown menu like before.

  • Do you prefer to use knobs to adjust velocity and pan instead of the auxiliary window below? Simply double click a note to bring up a Note Properties window which shows all the information about that note as a series of knobs.

  • What would you do if you needed to edit a whole bunch of notes rhythmically by the tiniest amount? You could your Snap to the lowest possible setting but then you have to change it back. Furthermore what if you want the notes to stretch as a whole and not individually? Simple! Just highlight your notes with the Select tool and grab the tiny little gray circle that appears. This will allow fluid group stretching of your MIDI notes.


Conclusion

So what have we learned? FL Studio's Piano Roll is by far one of its strongest assets. It has a handy set of tools that are available for just about every occasion and is full of useful extras to make life easier.

Again I hope you can now easily navigate FL Studio's Piano Roll and will never have to worry about those things again. Thanks for reading!

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