Bitwig Studio reviewed

July 23, 2014
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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?


Overview

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 strong suits.


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 same time.

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 Multisample” features.

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.


Taking Control

Bitwig Studio also offers some promising functionality for creating custom control mappings. Using JavaScript, any controller can 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.


Conclusions

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 fluid.

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 controller support. 

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

 

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