For years, producers had grown accustomed to digital audio
workstations being variations on a theme. For all the significant
differences, these tools could be expected to work in the same basic
ways. Then came Ableton Live. While adopting some of those conventions,
it flouted others, with a non-linear clip-based structure as the
centerpiece. Now, Bitwig Studio is the first real challenger in the same
mold as Ableton, and for a 1.0 outing, it’s surprisingly complete. Do
the sum of its parts add up to a worthy alternative to other DAWs?
Bitwig makes many design decisions that are similar to
Live. It combines non-linear clips and scenes with linear arrangement,
adds a mixer that routes instruments and effects, lets you navigate
sounds and devices from a Browser, and so on. Menus and editing panes
are so much alike that experienced Ableton users will often find they
don’t have to crack the manual. That has earned Bitwig some criticism,
not in the least because four Bitwig founders came from Ableton.
In fact, though, Bitwig Studio looks like what Ableton
Live might look like if given a second blank slate. And Bitwig offers
some twists, including more of the editing and arrangement conventions
of traditional DAWs, a powerful modulation system, and lots of original
instruments and effects.
Launch Bitwig, and the software steps you through
configuring audio interfaces, controllers, and sound packs. Then, the
program brings up what looks like a typical multitrack DAW editing
window (see Figure 1 at left).
Along the bottom of the screen, choose Arrange, Mix, or
Edit, and you can focus on one task: linear arrangement (like most
DAWs), clip launching and mixing (like Ableton’s Session view), and
focused, full-screen editing (much like Cubase, but absent in Live). You
can also choose from some useful view profiles, including the ability
to use a second display monitor.
The ability to use these views seamlessly in concert makes
arranging tunes in Bitwig a joy. From the Arrangement view, you can
quickly pull up your grid full of clips without switching views, and see
your mixer, clips, and arrangement side by side. Clips also display
contents clearly, with MIDI patterns previewed inside. Cakewalk Sonar
did something similar, but the relationship of clips to arrangement
could be confusing. Here, it’s more fluid than in Live, even: You can
toggle between triggering clips directly and playing back a defined
arrangement per track. It’s easier to see and control. The upshot: you
can play with your music using a combination of jamming with clips and
constructing horizontal arrangements, rather than having to focus mainly
on one approach or the other.
Routing is accomplished largely as in Live—a bay of
devices runs horizontally, corresponding to each track. But whereas
Ableton shows devices only when selected, Bitwig tucks a preview into
the channel strip so you always have an overview of what you’re doing
(see Figure 2 below left). You can also open multiple files at once, though you
must manually toggle the audio engine for each tab. That allows you to
drag and drop content between projects, but limits the use of multiple
file support for live performance.
The display in Bitwig is always tidy. Unfortunately, it’s
also somewhat rigid. Most of the time, the scale of UI elements is
fixed. The military-gray color scheme is mandatory, too. Icons can often
be unclear, and there’s not in-line tutorial content as in Live and
some other DAWs, so you’ll find yourself referring back to the manual
when drilling down to individual Devices. That said, once you adapt to
the different views, you’ll likely find working can be very fast. You
can fly between views and editing—and editing is one of Bitwig Studio’s
Editing and Modulation
For mouse-based editing, it’s tough to beat Bitwig Studio.
Everything that works with clips and clip automation in Ableton Live,
more or less, works here. But to that, Bitwig adds features seen in DAWs
like Cubase. There’s an ever-present Inspector tab for quick, one-click
access to lots of editing and properties. And once you get into either
note or audio data, you’re given a fantastic amount of control.
With audio, you’re free not only to split by transients
and the like, but also slice up sounds within clips—finally. That lets
you easily transform clips and divide and combine them. In addition to
the usual envelope options, you can edit per-note expression and
micro-tune pitches one note at a time. Using layer editing, you can edit
multiple clips at once, not to mention audio and MIDI together at the
I think my favorite editing feature, though, is one that’s
gotten the least attention: bouncing in place (or to a new track) is
extremely quick. Sure, you don’t get any clever audio-to-MIDI
conversion. But the ability to bounce out audio is often more useful,
especially when combined with the “Slice to Drum Machine” and “Slice to
As to modulation, Bitwig Studio is in a class of its own,
rivaled only by the likes of Reaper or Propellerhead Reason. So long as
you use Bitwig’s built-in devices, you can route all sorts of modulation
from anywhere to anywhere. That includes various parameters in the
synths and effects as well as dedicated LFOs. The implementation is
pleasingly simple: just point at the modulation you want to use, and
where you want it to go, and you’re done. It’s possible to hack some of
this functionality with Max for Live in Ableton, but it’s a far cry from
having modulation everywhere, natively.
Unfortunately, Bitwig Studio feels a little weaker when it
comes to other kinds of routing. Side-chaining is present only in the
Dynamics device. There are basic sends and receives, but little more,
and while Bitwig provides devices for simplifying access to external
gear as Ableton does, there are more restricted choices for routing
MIDI. Bitwig Studio can perform most of the macro parameter assignment
tricks that Ableton Live can, but Live’s Device Racks have additional
options for intuitively combining different devices. Also, Reaper,
Cubase, and others have superior routing options.
Bitwig’s most revolutionary features are still on the
future roadmap. Bitwig says they’ve constructed all the built-in Devices
using their own modular environment—a bit like having Native
Instruments Reaktor inside your DAW, only very deeply integrated. For
now, that power is accessible only to the developers. When unleashed,
Bitwig Studio could really change the equation for people wanting
modular power right in their recording environment.
Instruments and Effects
Bitwig may not give you quite the arsenal of tools that a
Logic Pro X or Reason or Ableton Live Suite does, but there are some
real gems in here. For starters, there’s some great sample content.
While other tools try to cover the full spectrum of every sampled
instrument you might ever want, Bitwig Studio focuses mainly on vintage
drum machines, synths, acoustic percussion, and keyboards. There’s a
lovely Clavinet, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, and grand piano in the deal, plus
some well-curated retro selections. It feels a bit like you raided a
talented producer’s hard drive (see Figure 3 at left). The sample content is
fairly raw; it’s mostly mapped as multi-samples and will probably
require manually adding effects.
The deceptively simple synths cover similar ground. You
get a beautiful virtual analog drum kit: kick, snare, tom, hat, and
clap. There’s also a great multisampler, a poly synth, and the rich
FM-4. FM-4 isn’t quite as intuitive as Ableton’s Operator or as deep as
Native Instruments’ FM8, but combined with Bitwig’s modulation powers,
it may see a lot of action.
The synths and samples are nice, but the best bits are the
audio effects. Blur is a unique “filter diffuser” capable of some
gorgeous timbral effects. The Distortion sounds simply amazing, from
subtle warmth to all-out grime, and easily beats any bundled distortion
effect in any other major DAW at the moment. There are also some
spectacular filters. The rest is more bread-and-butter, but the audio
quality of these standouts is worth downloading the demo just to try.
There’s also full step sequencer and various other note effects, and everything integrates with modulation.
Bitwig Studio also offers some promising functionality for
have advanced bi-directional access to the software: that is, it can
both control any element in Bitwig as well as respond (with text and
lights) to events as they happen. Bitwig has included tools that make it
easy for hackers and vendors to create support.
That should mean that eventually you see lots of vendor-
and user-submitted scripts for controllers, whether you’re a coder
yourself or not. This feels like a 1.0 release, though, in that a lot of
third-party support simply isn’t there yet. There’s a decent bundle of
controller mappings for devices from Korg, Akai, Livid, and others, but a
lot of controllers are missing. I had the Nektar Panorama P4 to test;
support and documentation were still evolving, but eventually the
Panorama keyboard could be a killer combination with Bitwig Studio. You
can also right-click any parameter and manually assign it to a MIDI
controller, of course.
Performance and Comparison
For a version 1.0 release, Bitwig Studio has accomplished a
lot. I noticed some strange behavior in a couple of plug-in UIs, and
changing presets in internal devices yields some sound glitches. But the
software was stable and complete. It also feels remarkably fast and
responsive; whereas Live 9 often crawls along on my 2010 MacBook Pro
(with conventional hard drive), Bitwig Studio was always snappy. There’s
something to be said for new blood.
Still, Bitwig has to go toe-to-toe with some very mature
DAWs, and there’s a lot it can’t do yet. There’s no video import. Groove
options are restricted to percentages; there are no custom grooves.
ReWire isn’t supported, nor are Audio Units in the Mac version.
Also, while Bitwig Studio improves upon Live’s editing
functionality, it replicates even some of Live’s shortcomings: There’s
no surround audio support, nor any track comping facility. As in Live,
clips can still be a nice way of recording live instruments, but
managing and combining multiple takes is still a chore.
This isn’t an Ableton killer just yet, however. Compared
to Ableton Live Standard, Bitwig Studio’s offerings are fairly
comparable. But at that price, Ableton gives you 11GB of sound content,
more complete plug-in support, more extensive routing, more controller
compatibility, and video support. Maturity counts for a lot, too: Bitwig
is new enough that you should take the demo for a test drive with all
your critical plug-ins before investing.
There should be no doubt that Bitwig has built a
contender. As a DAW to fire up and begin producing music, it’s a lot of
fun. It has a welcome combination of detailed editing and modulation
with a nicely-curated set of effect and synth tools, and the merging of
arrangement and clip views makes the creative process feel a bit more
Early-adopter enthusiasts will likely be comfortable using
Bitwig as a change of pace alongside other tools. At version 1.0, it’s
still too new to recommend to a wider audience as a main DAW. It is,
however, one to watch. My hope, particularly with features like embedded
modular synthesis on the horizon, that Bitwig Studio strays further
from the molds of other DAWs, particularly Ableton Live. If they can
retain this degree of focus and quality, and add more differentiation,
we may have a truly new player.
PROS: Seamlessly blends clip-based improvisation with
traditional arrangement. Advanced, easy editing for audio and MIDI.
Modulation everywhere. Solid synths. Amazing effects. Fast and tidy.
CONS: Basic audio routing at this point. Little UI customization
or scaling. No AudioUnits support on Mac. Still early days for
Bottom Line: Bitwig Studio is impressively complete for a 1.0 outing.
It won’t make you abandon your current DAW, but enthusiasts ready for
something new will be rewarded.
$399 download | bitwig.com