I <3 Fruity Loops / Re-Thinking FL with Oblique Strategies

For the first day of Code of Music, we paired up, found online sequencers, tinkered with them, and then reimagined them after drawing two oblique strategy cards.

I was delighted to see Billy playing with this Fruity Loops emulator.


Like so many others around the world, I acquired a copy of Fruity Loops as a teenager, and it transformed the way I approach music.

I’d previously messed around with Audio Mulch, which I found to be very confusing. I made some music with it, but it wasn’t clear to me where the sound was coming from or what I was doing to shape the sound.

Fruity Loops was the exact opposite. You open it up, hit play, start filling in a grid, and that grid becomes a musical building block.

I came to FL with a bit of a musical background. I took a few piano lessons when I was younger (what I really wanted to do was play the drums, but somebody told my mom that piano is a percussion instrument, too). I also had about a year’s worth of guitar lessons. I had a vague understanding of musical notation, but couldn’t quite sight read on either instrument. I had come up with a few musical ideas, but never thought to transcribe them—musical notation seemed very detached from the music itself.

Fruity Loops taught me to approach music in terms of Pattern Mode and Song Mode. FL always starts with Pattern mode. In Pattern mode, you have rows representing individual drum hits, each with 32 columns to fill. The columns are slightly tinted, and as you start to fill them in, you realize, intuitively, that four columns is equal to one quarter note. In other words, you start with two bars of music. FL could be thought of as a sort of musical notation. But I never really considered any of that. I just wanted to play with patterns.


I think every FL user spends a lot of time in Pattern Mode before they advance to Song Mode. Song Mode is similar to Pattern Mode, but on a larger scale. Your blocks are no longer individual drum hits, but entire 8-bar patterns. In Fruity Loops, a Song is simply a bunch of organized Patterns.


I started to use Fruity Loops with friends. We experimented with different ways to shape the sounds. We imported our own samples recorded with a PC microphone. My friend Justin had more traditional music training than I did, and he inspired me to start using the Piano Roll to experiment with melody and harmony. Together, we tried to recreate pop songs like Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” and I think we came pretty close. As I became more serious about music in general, I kept coming back to Fruity Loops as a reference point. For example, I took a Ghanaian drumming class in college, which sent polyrhythms floating around my head, and I tried to transcribe these ideas in Fruity Loops. Interlocking rhythms challenged the Fruity Loops view of music as starting on the one, but I figured out ways to make it work.

Though I haven’t made any music with Fruity Loops in nearly a decade, it’s been very influential on my conception of music, both as a listener and as a composer. It helped me break musical structure and rhythm into bite sized blocks. And Fruity Loops’ views (pattern mode, song mode, and piano roll) correlate with other DAWs.

Fruity Loops Re-Imagined

Billy and I drew two oblique strategies:

  • overtly/openly resist change
  • once the search has begun, something will be found

We attempted to apply these to the online FL emulator. Billy had never used FL before, and the online FL emulator actually falls short of recreating some of the most intuitive pieces of Fruity Loops. For one thing, it doesn’t load with any sounds- you have to drag them in.

Our sequencer would have preset sounds, openly resisting change so that if users want to bring new sounds in, they can search for sounds easily, and “once the search has begun, something (good) will be found.”

Some features didn’t seem very necessary, like one of the first parameters Billy started tweaking was the panning knob. To me, Fruity Loops is all about creating rhythms, and the mix (volume / panning etc) comes, so maybe that should not be a feature that can be changed as immediately, resisting change until you have a reason to change it.

One of the things I love about FL is the way beats are divided up so you can sense where the beats are without knowing anything about music theory, time signatures or the definition of a “quarter note.” It might be interesting if our sequencer had a metronome to help guide the beat to fall in the right place to start. I think this could be a nice constraint especially for new users, to have some pattern pre-loaded.

With melody, FL has a piano roll which can be intimidating. I would like to treat melodic voices more freely, without needing to set every note (and figure out some music theory in the process). I’m inspired by the app Figure which lets you set the number of notes in a scale and some aspects about it, and I think having a preset scale of notes available at first might be a fun way to guide users.

My design approach definitely leans towards helping people make music whether or not they consider themselves “musicians,” and I think that these types of constraints can also be inspiring for anyone, regardless of their musical background. To me, the oblique strategy of resisting change means limiting options at first, but it is still open to change down the line. Most importantly, once the search has begun—i.e. once the user has an idea of something they want to do, whether it’s a more complex melody or a panning/mixing idea—that option needs to be easily findable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *