Ableton vs FL Studio? How to Pick the Right DAW for You (and Love It)


In 2009, I downloaded FL Studio as my first DAW. I got it because everyone else was using it.

In 2014, I slowly transitioned to Ableton Live, much preferring the workflow. For me personally, I wish I had started on Live.

If you’re involved with electronic music production, you’ve probably heard of a lot of software names thrown around. So many damn terms. But two keep popping up:

Ableton Live and FL Studio.

If you’re new, these two pieces of software are Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) – the beating heart of the producer’s studio. They are arguably the two most popular DAWs in electronic music (ignoring the fact that Pro Tools is the ‘industry standard’, but who cares about that, right?)

If you’ve been around that little bit longer, you’re probably well-acquainted with these names, having discovered the ongoing rivalry between the two fanbases as to which is the superior option.

Now full disclosure, as I said before, I am an Ableton Live user as both Sam and Connor are. I love Ableton, for my uses. If you’ve taken EDM Foundations, you’ll know we use Ableton to demonstrate all production concepts.

That being said, this is going to be an unbiased comparison. We are going to compare the main elements of both DAWs to see which is the best fit for you. Remember, there is no universal best DAW, only the one that’s right for you.

For clarity, we’ve broken this article down into five parts.

  1. Compatibility
  2. Features
  3. Workflow
  4. Support and Resources
  5. Price

So, let’s break them down.

Ableton vs FL Studio: Compatibility

There’s no point in using a piece of software if it doesn’t work on your setup. So to avoid you getting excited about the wrong DAW, we’ve put this section first.

FL Studio’s Mac Woes

Version Compatible?
macOS (64bit) YES
macOS (32bit) NO
Windows (32bit) YES
Windows (64bit) YES
Linux NO

Note: This is for the most recent version, FL Studio 20. Check here for full compatibility info.

Mac has worked on Windows very well for a long time. It had a very fluid interface with very nice graphics (and still does, even more so).

Historically, FL Studio was pretty adamant that there wouldn’t be a Mac version of FL Studio, mostly due to the coding language’s incompatibility. Well, they’ve done a 360 and now they have one. It works. Kinda.

As the Mac version has grown from a sloppy, Windows-crossover edition into a fully-fledged piece of standalone software, there have definitely been undeniable growing pains. But they’ve come a long way.

Most features have been ported over (with some glitches included), but there is no 32bit version of FL Studio for Mac, and your 32bit Audio Units won’t work, even if your 32bit VSTs do. Let’s be honest though, you probably should be using a 64bit system, if you can.

If you’re on a Mac though, there’s always 32 Lives.

And as with most software, no native compatability on Linux, but you can use an emulator if you want.

Lastly, FL has gotten better on the CPU over the years. The vector interface is super nice and isn’t too much of a burden on the graphics card. But the fancy GUIs can eat up system resources pretty fast, but that can happen anywhere if you are using third-party plugins.

Ableton: Great Compatibility, Infrequent Updates

Version Compatible?
macOS (64bit) YES
macOS (32bit) NO
Windows (32bit) NO
Windows (64bit) YES
Linux NO

Note: This is for the most recent version, Ableton Live 10. Check here for full compatibility info.

Up until Live 10, Ableton supported 32bit systems. Now they have canned it, which makes sense, but still might cause issues for some people. If that’s you, make sure to grab a copy of Live 9 instead.

Although they seemed to have ramped up the updates in the last year, any long-term Ableton user will tell you it isn’t unheard of to not get a major update for 5 years. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is relative, but it does leave more room for software errors. That being said, most of the time their minor updates will do the trick.

Also, all of your Audio Units and VSTs will work with Live just fine. They actually divide them into really nice folders so it’s pretty simple to find what you’re looking for, especially for Audio Units. You do need to go into the preferences and enable Audio Units though. VST3 for Live is currently in the Beta only.

Ableton is pretty good on CPU and system resources, as it is designed for live performance because you don’t want to be getting dropouts in that setting. Like any DAW, it can be heavy on the CPU if you are using third-party plugins, but the native ones are very well-optimised.

The Winner?

In this section, it seems to be a tie. Although FL Studio includes a 32bit version for Windows and supports both 32bit and 64bit VST on Windows, it’s still not quite there with reliability on Mac, which means they miss out on a large portion of their potential audience. It is getting better though, which means that long term, FL Studio may be the better option.

In terms of plugin compatibility, FL wins that little bit more, because they’ve support VST3 a lot longer than Ableton has, and they now support Audio Units and VST, which they previously didn’t. FL is taking big strides.

Ableton vs FL Studio: Features

Ahh, every music producer’s favourite part. The features. The part that makes music production fun and enjoyable for most people.

This is very important to consider if you are looking at committing to a DAW, because depending on your goals and workflow, different feature sets can make a big difference.

FL Studio: Feature Packed

Version Good For
Fruity Edition Writing Loops and Melodies
Producer Edition Fully-fledged software with full export capability
Signature Edition Full software plus extra plugins
All Plugins Bundle All plugins included made by Image-Line

If you like options and don’t get overwhelmed by confusing interfaces, FL Studio is the clear winner here.

Want a mixer and step-sequencer on one monitor and arrangement on another? Easy. Want 20 different virtual instruments included? Done. Want FL Studio to make you breakfast? It’s most likely possible.

The main difference that sets FL Studio and Ableton Live apart is that not all sounds are bound to an individual mixer channel. It automatically assigns them in version 20, but you can still mix and match so that multiple sounds and instruments can be sent to the same mixer channel.

The same goes for the timeline. You can assign each sound to a track in the timeline, or you can put patterns wherever the heck you want.

One other major difference between the features of FL and Ableton is the plugins. Both include an array of instruments of effects, but FL definitely wins in the quantity game, especially with the ‘All Plugins Bundle’. Harmor, for example, is an insanely powerful synth that has got years of development behind it, and Ableton is only just starting to catch up.

There are also so many damn effects in FL Studio, and it breaks them down nicely into categories when you go to load them in. You’ve got like 5 different distortions, multiple EQs and other random FX. Go nuts.

With endless routing options, effects, and sounds, you might be thinking ‘I’ve made my decision now!’ But slow down. Sometimes, less is more.

You can tell from the default interface that FL Studio is designed to be customised infinitely.

Simple, Streamlined and Able(ton)

Version Good For
Intro Basic productions and looping
Standard Full production capability
Suite Full production capability with extra instruments and sounds

Excuse the awful pun, but Live is the winner if you get overwhelmed with options. Yes, there aren’t 100 ways to do the same thing, but what’s there is quality, not fussy with sugary interfaces and just works.

On the left, you’ll find the browser, like in FL. It’s resizable, but only to a certain degree, and it stays there. Everything is broken down into clear sections, unlike the FL Studio long-rainbow madness.

The detail view is where the plugins and effects, audio and MIDI editor can be switched between. Unfortunately, you can’t have multiple at the same time, but if you like focusing on one thing at a time, it’s great.

And if you need things bigger or smaller, there is always zoom in the Look/Feel preferences.

In the plugins/devices department, you get an array of very-capable synths like Operator, Analog and the newer Wavetable (a very legit Serum competitor). While they are confined to the native interface, Wavetable has quite a nice interface with expandable windows, and for some, the native interface makes the sound design process quite fluid.

Additionally, the Audio Effects in Ableton are really damn good, with some great analogue-inspired devices like Echo, Glue Compressor and Amp. Although FL wins at quantity, if you want more curated devices, Ableton takes the cake.

Look, I’m trying hard to being unbiased as an Ableton user, but damn that is a nice interface. Even though I look at it every day.

Ableton vs FL Studio: Workflow

Workflow is incredibly important for being able to use your software in a practical way that delivers results. There isn’t much point to using a DAW if you can’t output music with it. Workflow is what takes you from A to B.

FL Studio: 10 Ways To Do One Thing

Following on from the features, we can kinda assume that more features usually means a less clear workflow. That tends to hold true in FL Studio, especially for beginners.

To really grasp FL Studio, it requires a lot more time investment into understanding the software and how to make it work for you, which can be great. It’s the beauty of having flexibility – you can adapt it to your workflow.

Even though Ableton might be easier to understand from the get-go, FL may suit your needs better in the long-term, just with a little extra effort to figure things out. This is why FL Studio suits some people so well, because they can adapt it specifically to what they need, and this is even more true if you use mutiple monitors in your setup. Yes, Ableton has multi-monitor support, but with much less flexibility.

Left: Madeon‘s Beautiful Ordered Project, Right: Some Messy project from the FL Studio forums

Ableton Is Fast

If you want a fast, clear and creative workflow, Ableton wins. While the device view might annoy some people who like bigger interfaces, the ability to bounce audio within tracks (Edison is mostly a nightmare in FL), saving things to racks and clips and using the session view for jamming, makes it worthwhile.

As per the features, the streamlined options makes things a lot easier to find. Here are a few highlights:

  • FX Chains are visual and don’t require opening plugins
  • You can create collections of your favourite samples/racks/whatever without copying the original file
  • Racks are very intuitive and can be saved for ease
  • Duplicating is easy and you don’t have to switch tools
  • Freezing and flattening audio is easy
  • Resampling can be done by setting input to Resampling, rather than exporting the whole track

That’s just a few things, but check it out for yourself. Coming from FL Studio, this was a game changer for me.

Adding an Instrument Rack is pretty easy in Ableton. Boom, all your sounds FX are loaded up at once.

The Winner

For workflow speed, Ableton definitely wins this round. While workflow is subjective and changes between producers, Ableton’s clear interface and intuitive tools definitely make it a breeze, especially working with audio. If you like workflow options, FL might be the better option.

You can get the same results with both DAWs, but how you get there also matters.

Ableton vs FL Studio: Resources and Support

Learning a DAW is a massive effort, and it’s not easy. In fact, music production, in general, isn’t easy. But having resources helps.

Ironically, part of my job is finding keywords that people like you are searching for, so we can create helpful articles around those topics. Here’s what happens when I type in FL Studio and Ableton into Google Trends.

FL Studio is quite a bit more ‘popular’ than Ableton.

Quantity of Resources: FL Studio

If you want lots of videos, articles and support, FL Studio is your best option. Simply due to the popularity of the DAW within the electronic music world, it’s got the history and support of a lot of users. It’s also been out longer than Ableton Live.

Most tutorials on YouTube for electronic music and hip-hop are done in FL Studio. So searching how to do something will usually give you a tutorial in FL Studio, like how to recreate a certain sound, or make a certain genre.

The customer support that Image-Line provides is nice, although there is no direct number, unfortunately.

Apart from learning, there aren’t as many native resources for actual production (like presets and sounds) available in comparison to Ableton, mostly due to Ableton’s superior rack format of grouping instruments and FX together. But you can save effect chains and instruments as presets, so there is still definitely stuff out there.

Most audio formats are compatible with FL, and soundfonts can be loaded into the Fruity Soundfont Player, if you’re still into those.

Quality of Resources: Ableton Live

Ableton might have fewer resources, but what it does have is high-quality resources. The Ableton team have a great YouTube channel with examples and guides to help you. They also have a great, comprehensive yet simple manual available for free. In fact, it’s probably one of the best manuals available for any product or service I’ve seen, period.

Ableton customer support is also pretty nice, although I haven’t needed to use it much, to be honest. Once again, there is no direct phone line, unfortunately.

In addition to educational resources, Ableton has great racks, clips and project files available for purchase or download across the web. The instrument, audio effect and MIDI racks make sound design a lot easier to learn and sounds a lot simpler to replicate.

Of course, samples aren’t DAW-specific, but Ableton supports most file formats and even non-native formats like soundfonts and EXS24 for Logic Pro.

The Winner

FL Studio wins this one for resources, just due to the popularity and age of the DAW. But it’s close, and you can’t really go wrong with either. In reality, both have enough resources for you to learn the DAW from a beginner level all the way to the advanced level.

Ableton vs FL Studio: Price

You might be asking, why did you leave price to last?

Before looking at price, know that the DAW you choose is a long-term investment. You might be tempted to make the decision on price alone, but consider what suits your workflow style.

Originally I tried out FL Studio because it was cheaper.

Ableton: Expensive and Worth Every Penny

Version Price (USD)
Intro $99
Standard $499
Suite $799

While the opening price of Ableton is comparable to Ableton, the ‘main’ version (Ableton Standard) is a lot more expensive. Over double, in fact. Now if you’re on a budget, Ableton Standard might be out of the question for you, solely based on that. But make sure to try the demo first, you might be inclined to start on Intro and work your way up from there.

The Suite version is cheaper for the full-featured version with all devices (in comparison to the FL Studio All Plugins Bundle), but one thing you don’t get is free lifetime updates. Of course, minor updates you will get, but for major version updates, you’ll be forking out

FL Studio: Cheaper, Great Value and Feature-Packed

Version Price (USD)
Fruity Edition $99
Producer Edition $199
Signature Bundle $299
All Plugins Bundle $899

It doesn’t make sense, but FL Studio is insanely good value for money, especially for the Producer Edition. $199 for a pro-level piece of software is a bargain. Although the All Plugins Bundle is just that bit more in comparison to Ableton Live Suite, in all other areas FL wins on price. But that’s not even the best part.

Free lifetime updates. Yep, that’s right. Forever. Ableton can’t even compare to that. Plus, FL seems to have slightly more consistent updates.

Remember though, price isn’t everything.

The Winner

The obvious winner in this section is FL Studio by a country mile. $199 USD for a full version (Producer Edition) is pretty much nothing compared to $499 USD for Ableton Standard.

That being said, if you are the kind of producer who wants to splash on the extra plugins/devices, then Suite is $100 less than the top-tier version of FL Studio.

The Verdict?

So who wins overall?

Trick question.

At the start, I said that there is no ‘best DAW’ and that still holds true. Both have pros and cons, and require you to make the final decision.

That being said, if I had to choose one for each kind of producer, I would choose FL Studio for the producer who likes to customise everything, and I’d choose Ableton Live for the producer who likes a fast workflow.

The next thing you should do is download a demo of one, or both. That way you can test these things for yourself and make a final decision. The last thing you want to do is commit without experience.

Remember, there are other DAWs you might want to consider too.

What Now?

Well, if you are inspired to grab a demo or go off testing these bad boys, before you go make sure to grab our free DAW checklist below. That way you can keep these things in mind (+ more) to find your perfect DAW.

Choosing a DAW is probably one of the most important decisions you will make in your production journey, so choose carefully. Switching later down the track is possible, but it’s more difficult. If you need more info on other DAWs, check out this article from our friend Rob at Musician on a Mission.

Lastly, what did we miss about Ableton or FL Studio? Let us know in the comments or by dropping me a line at [email protected].

Note: All information is current as at March, 2019.



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