DAW goes drumless

FL Studio has joined the stem-separation drive, including this functionality in its latest update, FL Studio 21.2.

This version extracts vocals, drums, bass, and instruments from complete tracks – all within the DAW.

digitalDrummer tried this offering to see how it compares to other stem separation tools which are gaining popularity among drummers keen to produce their own drumless tracks.

What’s in the box

Unlike some of the online separation tools based on Spleeter, a technology developed by music platform Deezer in 2019, this stem splitter resides in the latest version of FL Studios’ DAW.

To access it, you will need the Producer Edition which sells for around $150 (often less with discounts).

How it works

I have to admit that I’ve owned FL Studio for many years and never quite taken to it because it is quite challenging, with lots of icons in the place of the commands commonly used by its rivals.

I find the layout cluttered and intimidating.

But the new AI-powered Stem Separation is fairly easy to use, when you find it. After loading an audio track, you have to left-click on the file name above the track to access a drop-down menu. And you have to left-click in a very specific place – get it wrong and you delete the track.

One of the options in the menu is “Extract stems from sample”. A simple three-minute song took under two minutes to split into vocals, drums, bass and instruments.

The stems were clean and mostly uncontaminated by other sounds.

I loaded the songs which I have tested in previous splitter apps, and was not disappointed with the output, especially with the drum separation.

On Toto’s Africa, the drums and percussion were removed cleanly – and, when soloed, seemed to have come through the processing unscathed. I should point out that drums and percussion were captured in a single track and it was not possible to separate them further.

The Shadows’ Apache is a difficult song to unscramble because of the delicate snare playing which is so tightly synchronised with the rhythm guitar. The distinctive tom intro was interpreted as bass guitar notes, so it wasn’t included in the drum track and therefore couldn’t be muted. And the snare was somewhat distorted because some of the frequencies were included in the guitar track.

Another track where drums are closely synched is Elle King’s Exes and Ohs, where the bass guitar and floor toms are almost fused. While FL Studios did a great job of isolating the vocals, it was almost impossible to solo the bass and the rhythm guitar was also poorly captured, with many of the frequencies appearing instead in the drum track.

Santana’s Smooth is a busy song with plenty of percussion in a solid rhythm section. FL Studio successfully separated the drums and percussion into a single track, leaving a largely intact bass guitar stem and a comprehensive instruments track with little sonic damage. And again, the vocals were clear and prominent on another track.

One of the best examples of FL Studio’s stem-splitting capability was The Beatles’ When I’m 64, with a distinct drum track, solid bass guitar and instruments tracks and beautifully separated vocals. This track was perhaps one of the better songs for splitting, with decent results obtained using almost any splitter app, including the free online version of Moises.

While there are now many solutions that can split a track and generate separate stems, FL Studio has the added advantage of being a full-blown DAW. Hence, users can access a comprehensive range of sound-shaping tools that can be applied to the whole song or to individual tracks. So, for example, if you want to add a flanger effect to the bass, you can do that without impacting on the rest of the mix. But, as mentioned, the FL interface is not the easiest and some of the enhanced features are a bit puzzling to use.

Bottom line

While FL Studio may not be the easiest, most intuitive audio workstation, the addition of a Stem Separation tool does add to its appeal.

The tool is effective and easy to use (once you find the correct menu). It does an excellent job of isolating drums and vocals, but bass guitar and other instruments are sometimes impacted by the separation, losing some detail and frequencies.

If you’re looking to extract the drums so that you can learn a part, this tool gets a big thumbs up. If you’re trying to create a drumless track, you can get excellent results with some songs, but others may not work quite as well. As usual, the original mix and the complexity play a significant part in determining the final separation.

It’s also worth noting that unlike many other stem creators that require online access, FL Studio can work totally offline, making you less dependent on an internet connection.

The bottom line is that if you need to do a bunch of separations on an ongoing basis, then this may be a cost-effective way to go, especially if you can take advantage of FL Studio’s frequent discounts and promotions.

See FL Studio in action in this digitalDrummer video.